Arts - Autumn 2021

If You Can’t See the Stage, Turn to the Page

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With theaters shut during the pandemic, reading plays has shed surprising light on works both familiar and strange

By Wendy Smith | September 7, 2021
Keith Morris/Alamy
Keith Morris/Alamy

When New York State shut down all theaters on March 12, 2020, I held a half-dozen tickets to productions that I soon realized I might never see. I go to the theater at least once a week all year long, and the shock of deprivation was considerable. I knew how relatively fortunate I was. New York City was a scary place that spring, and I live just a few blocks from one of the hospitals hardest hit by the pandemic. Whenever my husband and I walked by in April and May, we saw long lines outside the special pavilion set up for emergency admissions. We were healthy and employed while others were suffering and dying.

At first, I watched many of the online performances produced by theater companies struggling to maintain contact with their audiences and provide their actors with some minimal income. But “Zoom theater” was an alienating, unsatisfying substitute for the real thing. I fiercely missed the charged communication among actors and audience that’s possible only when they’re sharing a physical space. I missed it even more when I watched the July 2020 livestream of The Persians, a one-night benefit staged by the National Theatre of Greece. The broadcast began a full hour before the performance; I could see people filing into the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus and hear the hum of their conversations as they took their seats, the sky slowly darkening above them. The performance was thrilling, but the real-time glimpse of a living, breathing audience was almost as exciting. No matter that the production was in Greek, with hard-to-read subtitles.

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