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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I knew I’d miss theater when Broadway shuttered. I didn’t know I’d miss the audiences.

Closed Broadway theaters on a February evening.
Closed Broadway theaters on a February evening. (Jeenah Moon/For The Washington Post)

A year ago this week, every theater in New York went dark.

I’d just seen what would turn out to be the penultimate performance of “Coal Country,” a haunting play about a West Virginia mine explosion; three other productions I held tickets for were suspended, too. The news was disappointing — for fellow fans, actors, and the broader ecosystem of workers and businesses that rely on performing arts to pay their bills. But everyone understood the closure was necessary to protect public health.

Besides, curtains would rise again in just a month, once this silly virus had been vanquished.

Or so we hoped.

Over subsequent weeks and months, Broadway remained silent. Ambulance sirens, with occasional bursts of applause for essential workers, scored the city, instead. Death washed over New York; refrigerated trucks were converted into overflow morgues, and at one point a New Yorker was dying every two minutes.

I mourned this mass tragedy along with my city. But I also sometimes found myself guiltily fantasizing about a more frivolous loss: those plays that shuttered. The shows that hadn’t, as it were, gone on.

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I missed the diversion of live theater, of course — the opportunity to escape into worlds whose characters faced misfortunes and joys altogether different from those around me. I missed the ability to exalt in the virtuosity of members of my species: the trill of a silver soprano, a brilliant plot twist, a jubilant fan-kick. And I missed having a different lens through which to view questions of class and race and family, enemies and friends, compassion and conflict. Theater can entertain and energize, sure, but at its best it has left me deeply, squirmingly uncomfortable. Great shows have a way of dislodging calcified beliefs and behavior, as only storytelling can.

Those things I missed almost immediately. What it has taken me a year to realize is how much I also miss the community of the audience — the strangers surrounding me, obscured by the dark, who have tacitly agreed to escape and exalt and squirm together.

A year ago, I generally noticed my fellow theatergoers only when they annoyed me — with a crinkly candy wrapper or view-obstructing hat or ringing phone. A friend once joked that if she ever struck it rich, she’d use her funds to buy every seat in the house so she could enjoy a performance solo. The idea had appeal.

But it’s only in the extended loss of theater that I’ve come to appreciate how social the medium is, indeed needs to be to succeed. It is a fundamentally communitarian art.

A punchline seems funnier, and we laugh harder, when we’re surrounded by others guffawing. Not because we’re trying to fit in, but because we’re buoyed by the communal mirth. A character’s death or heartbreak likewise feels more painful when the sobs and sniffles of strangers bear witness to it, too.

Theater rests upon these invisible relationships — between performers onstage and their audience, as well as between audience members; we all agree to a collective delusion, to make the storytelling work. That “fourth wall” notwithstanding, the audience is complicit in the performance.

Over the past year, many theaters have presented some of their work online. Bored Americans trapped at home devour content from Netflix and TikTok; why not also streamed theater? Some companies share archived footage of old productions; others convene performers for new concerts or Zoom readings. While I have enjoyed many of these efforts, they’re usually poor substitutes for the real thing.

At first I thought the limitation was stage-acting techniques. Those bigger gestures and facial expressions, designed to reach the balcony nosebleeds, don’t always translate when magnified on camera. But the real problem, I think, is that the medium of live theater requires that real-time connection between actor and audience members, and audience members with one another. Part of the magic comes from watching actors calibrate their pacing and delivery ever so slightly for this audience, and this audience alone. A performer might start a line a millisecond later so as to not step on a laugh; or accelerate her monologue to feed off audience momentum. Live theater thrives on this feedback-driven shared project. When its community is severed by a screen, the viewing experience can feel isolating.

These lost connections — purely symbolic ones, among strangers — may seem like trivial things to mourn in a year filled with much more material and personal losses. But in a way, they’re representative of why the past year has felt so lonely, even as we have the tools to regularly talk and FaceTime with loved ones. Someday, when this scourge is behind us, I look forward to sitting in a dark room, with my phone silenced and candy pre-unwrapped, to once again laugh and cry and connect with New Yorkers I’ve never met.

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