This past week, for the first time in fifteen months, I set foot inside a theater.
I wasn’t there to see a show; New York may be recovering from the pandemic but we’re not quite there yet. No, this was simply a visit, part of one of my first real nights out since the Quarantimes began. I was with a number of the actors from my Tuesday night cold reading series, enjoying some tasty beverages in the sidewalk stalls that have been set up outside the Lower East Side bar that adjoins the theater where we meet, or at least where we met back when we did things in person rather than zoom. (Expect these sidewalk stalls to be a permanent addition to the New York landscape, by the way; after the capital investment these businesses had to lay out in order to have some sort of income these past few months through outdoor seating, they’re lobbying the city to change the zoning laws so they can remain in place. But I digress.) As the evening wore on, the owners of the space came out to us, chatted, and invited us to come and see our old stomping grounds. And so, round about midnight, and suitably masked up, we went in to view the theatrical space we’d vacated a little over a year ago, waiting for us all this time.
Except, it hasn’t exactly been waiting.
We wound our way through stacked chairs and cleaning products to reach the theater – so far from some lost crypt, a silent monument to the theatrical lives we used to lead, the space was an active construction site. A common, almost mundane sight to see – just work going on in a theater, as if everything was normal.
Inside the theater itself, however, things were far from normal. The space in question had held about a hundred and fifty seats, in eight banked rows built on stacked platforms. Apart from the first and last rows, the seats had all been removed. The reason for this was to ultimately put in cabaret-style tables where the missing seats had been. The objective for this was two-fold. One was to make it possible for the venue to host a wider range of events, like cabaret. The other was to make it possible to hold events and adhere to social distancing rules – even as they’re beginning to be relaxed in New York, there’s unfortunately no guarantee that the trend will continue.
I mention all of this because my friends, like most of the theatre folks I know, were champing at the bit for things to get back to exactly the way they were before the ordeal of this pandemic began. And yet here we were, staring at concrete evidence that such a thing isn’t possible. It’s not because things aren’t getting better – slowly but surely, they are. But we’ve all had to adapt in a hundred different ways since we started this long journey towards “better,” and those adaptations aren’t going away. In this particular case, we’ll have to adapt to new capacity in the space and a new audience dynamic from the reconfigured space. In other cases, we’ll have to adapt to the new remote systems we’ve put in place, the new theatrical vocabulary we’ve evolved for remote theater, and the new stories that only exist because of the pandemic that we’re going to want to tell.
We’re moving forward, to be sure. But there is no going back.