Finding Hope in Theatre That Hasn’t Happened Yet: How to Survive a Global Pandemic

Every conversation about live performance’s future is now freighted with apprehension. Nevertheless, some emerging theatre artists at the University of Texas are still focused on making the world a better place


To be a university student right now is to occupy a space of uncertainty and blame. Will universities meet face to face this fall? The plans that have been announced range from fully in person like Purdue University to full online like the entire California State system. Young people have become the nation’s favorite guilty party as everyone from the governor of Texas to U.S. Vice President hold them responsible for explosion of coronavirus outbreaks. This is all while many of them struggle with their own and their families’ health, financial precarity, and their worries about the world they are expected to join upon graduation.

This is nowhere more true than for students artists who have always known that the professional world they want to join has a high degree in uncertainty. What is remarkable is that despite all this so many emerging artists are still focused on making the world a better place. They are doing it en masse through movements like Black Lives Matter, but they are also doing it individually through their art.

Every spring I have the privilege to teach the BA Honors Junior Seminar in the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance (T&D) in which students plan their senior year thesis project. Our transition from face-to-face to online in March was a necessary one, but it was also abrupt and unsettling. Worried as they were for themselves, loved ones, and communities, the honors students stayed focused. They knew what they were doing had not lost its significance.

Roberto Soto, whose thesis will focus on stage representations of Mexican-American motherhood, commented, if “I think [theatre] doesn’t matter then I am not thinking enough.” Roberto could have been speaking for us all. Our job in this terrible time is to think enough so that we can ensure that live performance survives and reinvents itself in the global pandemic.

Every conversation about live performance’s future is now freighted with apprehension. Broadway has announced it will suspend operations at least until 2021. The Guthrie Theatre’s announcement that they would remain closed until 2021 and then only offer a three show season sent a national collective shudder in arts communities. Positive and optimistic attitudes are difficult to maintain, and there is little good news to inspire such thinking. American Theatre magazine (which itself is moving online in a cost-cutting effort) reported that when polled nationally, theatre-goers are “especially wary of enclosed spaces that involve close or prolonged contact with other people, and this emphatically includes theatres, concert venues, and other live event sites. ”As the crisis caused by global pandemic wears on it is difficult to stay confident about the future of live performance.

Across centuries theatre has endured all kinds of challenges — including plagues, wars, and political repression — and survived. Where, then, do we look for evidence of how theatre will  persevere? Typically in a crisis, we turn to those with long-term experience. Senior members of a community or field are leaders precisely because they know how to guide people in times of need, and many of them are providing that kind of leadership both collectively and individually.

Yet emerging/student artists are also charting a way forward for themselves and their peers as among the first generation who will never know a professional life without COVID-19.

In the last three class sessions of the semester I asked each student to do a final oral presentation based on This I Believe: A Public Dialogue About Belief. “Write a paragraph on how this class has developed your thinking about your thesis. Focus specifically on why you believe in what you are doing for your thesis.” From that prompt the students created individual presentations that were inspiring about their commitments to social justice and creating through compassion. Most importantly, they expressed their unwavering belief that theatre remains essential and that they are up to the challenges the pandemic presents.

These students are a year from graduating into a disintegrating economy and a devastated arts scene, yet they are finding hope through the act of making art.

Natalia del Maar finds inspiration in her research on contemporary use of ancient myth. “I decided that if I wanted it to be done right, I would have to do it myself.” That so many artists have been stimulated by past stories reminds her that each of us has something to offer that is uniquely ours. Anapaula Guajardo knows, like Natalia, that what she is finding through her research creates new knowledge for her communities. Her thesis stems from her own experiences growing up bilingual Spanish/English in Texas, where native speakers of both languages jealously guard each language’s borders. She is using her lived knowledge to examine representations of Latinx people in mainstream media. For her the calculus is simple: “No one can do what we do. Our work is going to survive no matter what.” The entire class concurred.

COVID-19 has lent greater urgency to how the students think about themselves in the world. As she researched her thesis on the connections between the representation of animals and extinction, Skyler Taten saw it as the culmination of her four years of college. She credits her work in T&D with taking her out of her “bubble and waking me up to the real world.” That idea that the “real world” is already where they live is one that Catherine Palacios argued in her presentation. She is committed to her work on bodily awareness in performance because her time at UT has demonstrated that “I cannot go on like this. I cannot let my ideas and opinions be a doormat, or turn to a mirror in order to avoid being misunderstood…. I will give myself credit for taking a step in the right direction to this path of assertiveness and minimal stuttering in my words. I will be as open in my life and academics as I am in my acting.” As she concluded her presentation she exhorted her peers to stay “as assertive as you all have been in your theses passions.” Catherine’s emphasis on their bonds as students and artists and Skyler’s on how their work connects what they learned at UT with where they are headed as graduates was expressed by many students during the semester. They do not see themselves as isolated individuals but part of a energetic and closely-knit community. They know they don’t have address the world’s problems alone, they are going to continue do it collaboratively.

This cohort of emerging artists are forging ways to define and support their communities without sacrificing their own individual identities. Vivian Gonzalez’s focus on arts and social justice is her way of fusing her community and her self. Her “This I Believe” refused current national narratives and claimed spaces that are simultaneously national, local, and personal:

Why me? Every time I enter a classroom in Winship [the T&D building], I think of the immeasurable privilege I have to be provided with so many resources that my fellow artists in Brownsville lack. I’m so tired of outsiders painting the border with ignorance and hate; failing to recognize its vast beauty and rich culture that cannot be bound by walls. I feel that I have a responsibility to my Brownsville-Matamoros community to share its beauty with the family I have in [UT] Theatre and Dance and beyond. I will use this project as a tool to celebrate Frontera artists and to push for more arts accessibility in Brownsville and Matamoros.

Karyshma Khan, who is working on ethical representation and spectatorship in theatre and video games presented the same day Vivian did. She responded to all her colleagues when she observed, “What we have to say has a lot to do with who we are.” The awareness that “who we are” can mean representing a community is, for these students, always in conversation with the responsibility to help those communities change for the better.

Both Samantha Omari-Cendejas and Nicholas Saldivar are using their investments in their communities to create new opportunities for under-served members. For Samantha, the kinds of changes she wants to see connect her past to a better future. “I have heard and said a lot “imagine if we had this growing up?” and “I wish we had this” when it comes to seeing current shows on different types of media…. With my thesis I want to present…a future where children and adults can say, “That’s me!” and “I can be them!” both on and off stage.” Nicholas shares with Samantha that desire to create recognition through representation. His thesis examines queer solo performance because, as he told the class, “I am writing my thesis for the younger me who felt so scared in being so alone, the younger me who thought that he was beginning a journey that had never been walked before. I’m showing him that there was a history so wide and wavering in a world that he had belonged in although he didn’t realize it.” Each in their own way Vivian, Karyshma, Samantha, and Nicholas are imagining community based on heterogeneity and openness. For them community is defined by how it includes not who it excludes.

That restorative sense of performance is one that many of the students shared. Yessmeen Moharram’s thesis focuses on inclusivity and accessibility and her work is about how performance can be beneficial in so many different ways. “I’ve seen how healing [and] powerful…theatre can be for both audience members and performers. I want my thesis to…make it possible to get anyone who enjoys theatre to be…equally included as anyone else…, no matter their background. I want to bring those feelings of high school theatre comradery to the professional world…, and for any audience…or company member to have the tools they need to fly right into the eye of the storm.” The courage needed to “fly right into the eye of the storm” is exactly what Chase Parker is relying on for his thesis. “Casting is the door that gives access to the world of performance and through my thesis I want to uncover and change the factors that make it difficult to enter…. I will…discover new methods that can better serve all types of artists.” For him thesis work is a way to make dreams into tangible reality.

Chase shares with so many others in the class the sense that what really matters is the support they give one another. One thing that keeps him going is “being surrounded by people” who are also engaged in imagining how to make theatre during a pandemic. This idea was so common in the class that our teaching assistant Alexis Riley, a PhD candidate working from the intersections of theatre/performance studies and disability studies—from whom many of the students had taken theatre history—reminded students that a lot of theatre companies they now study were started by folks who went to college together and who said to one another, “We really need this now.” She reminded them that this is their history as theatre people and that they can claim it as precedent and inspiration.

On the last day of class Meagan McCrary, who is writing about the importance of intimacy choreographers for staging sexual interactions with high school performers, asserted that what made the three days of presentations so “cool” was that “there are so many ways” to do work that matters. Even though we all knew what each other’s projects were, she raved, “it is still so exciting how each reminds us in its own way why performance can make a difference.” Taken together the Honors’ presentations do not just chart a way into the future but also offer a glimpse of times to come filled with energy and possibility.

These presentations and conversations happened in three class sessions across 30 April to 7 May 2020. During those days not only was there no good news but the news for those of us in Texas was worsening. The number of those diagnosed with the coronavirus was growing, testing remained inadequate, and the governor announced the state was going to start reopening. Despite that reality, the honors students refused to give up or be defeated. What these emerging artists are imagining about what lies ahead in a pandemic world offers hope and anticipation for us all. In the coming months and years look for the names in this essay. They are the people whose work is going to ensure the future of live performance in a (post-) COVID-19 world.

Charlotte M. Canning
Charlotte M. Canning
Charlotte M. Canning is Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor in Drama in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas where she is head of the Performance as Public Practice program. She is the author of "Feminist Theaters in the U.S.A.: Staging Women’s Experience" and "The Most American Thing in America: Circuit Chautauqua as Performance," which won the Barnard Hewitt Award for Excellence in Theatre History. Currently, she is coediting an anthology on global feminist performance.

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