The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Other nations have reopened theaters — why not us? With ‘The Comeback Project,’ two stage directors scour the globe for answers.

With theaters in the dark, including on Broadway, above, artists across the country and world are gearing up for their return to the stage, no matter what that might look like. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

Like thousands of other theater artists across the country, directors Sammi Cannold and Rebecca Aparicio were in the dark about how Broadway and the rest of their industry were going to get back onstage. So in their search for answers, they turned to other nations that have surpassed this country in engineering a return.

The result is “The Comeback Project,” a series of discussions beginning Thursday with theatermakers and others around the world who have been grappling with reopening performance spaces. To various degrees they have succeeded, partly because they have pursued national strategies in ways the United States has not.

“We are in a position to learn from those who have come back before us,” said Cannold, a Stanford- and Harvard-educated director with Broadway and off-Broadway experience. “Some have opened and been able to stay open. Some have opened and had to close again. I think there’s a lot to be learned from both.”

Australia, with low covid rates, is open for theatrical business

In the absence of much guidance from industry leaders about what lies ahead for theater here, Cannold and Aparicio reached out to their global contacts, from South America to Asia, to explain their nations’ strategies. For the first talk, at 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, Cannold will moderate a five-member panel of producers Ginny Kim (South Korea), Michael Cassel (Australia), Haruka A. Nakagawa (Japan) and Ariel Stoller (Argentina), along with Britain’s Alistair Smith, editor of London-based the Stage.

The conversation series will be available on the Broadway Podcast network at BPN.FM/TheComebackProject.

The protocols these countries have developed the past year to permit some live performances depend greatly on the magnitude of the pandemic and the efforts by government to contain it. South Korea, for example, has operated some theater almost completely uninterrupted since the coronavirus manifested itself, and Australia has been inching back to widespread theater openings since the fall. American arts workers and theatergoers alike are entitled to ask: Why not us, too?

“What has made the pandemic response difficult for our country specifically is that everything is so individualized, state-specific, city-specific,” said Aparicio, a director based in New York who staged “In The Heights” online last year and wrote the musical “Pedro Pan.” “And it’s the same way with theaters. Everything is very localized.”

The women worked together on a staging of “Evita” for New York City Center in 2019 that sent them on a research trip to Argentina. And while Aparicio has remained in New York during the pandemic, directing digital productions, Cannold traveled on another theater research project to Seoul and London for extended periods beginning last summer. It was their overseas experiences that convinced them that they could help fill the knowledge gap for their field. The project also is reflective of how younger theater artists are taking the initiative — like the actors who have created the Be an #ArtsHero arts worker aid movement — during the pandemic shutdown.

“We were having to search kind of hard to find out where this information was,” Aparicio said. “And Sammi being in these countries gave us that direct access to those two specific markets. We thought, ‘I wish there was a place where all of this information could come together.’ We wanted to provide that space.”

In her travels last year, Cannold saw “The Phantom of the Opera” in Seoul and, when London theaters reopened before closing again, a revival of “Les Miserables.” “Being able to watch a show that I know and love with other masked people, at full capacity? It was very emotional,” Cannold said.

The “Comeback Project” panels have a more instructive than emotional mission. After the initial conversation — “Reopening Theaters: Lessons From Countries Who’ve Done It,” Cannold and Aparicio plan to host discussions about procedures in rehearsal rooms; the prospects for outdoor theatrical productions; and lessons from other facets of the entertainment industry.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Cannold said. “We don’t get to make the decisions. But we can provide a platform for other people who do have answers and are making decisions to share information about what they’re doing.”

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