JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: And finally today, when theaters were closed last fall, reporter Jeff Lunden spoke with three artistic directors of nonprofit organizations to learn about their hopes for what things would look like once the pandemic was over. Now, with vaccines and strict COVID protocols, all three theaters have begun performances again. So Jeff Lunden caught up with those leaders to see how things have changed.
LUNDEN: When we first talked, much of the conversation was about bringing in new audiences, producing work that better reflected the communities they served and improving pay and work conditions at their theaters. And the three people I talked to say that a lot of that has happened. But when I asked Stephanie Ybarra, the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, how tickets were selling, she didn't pull her punches.
STEPHANIE YBARRA: It's bleak. I'm not going to lie. It's bleak. I talk about this with my colleagues around the country regularly. Though there are diehard theater fans who are coming back to the theater, and when they are in the house, they are joyful and warm and so enthusiastic, but there aren't enough of them. We're going to be rebuilding brick by brick for a while, I think.
LUNDEN: Part of rebuilding is trying to figure out how to meet the audience where they are. While theaters were closed, many nonprofits made their shows available for streaming. And even now, they're making it an option, says Nataki Garrett, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or OSF.
NATAKI GARRETT: If you don't want to come to the theater, another point of entry is going to be on the digital stage. Like, if you don't feel safe or comfortable, there is a way for you to connect with OSF. Either you use whatever actual physical doors or we put a door in your hand by giving you access through your device.
LUNDEN: And in terms of getting people to walk through the physical doors, OSF has reduced ticket prices across the board and rethought some of their programming. When the theater reopened last summer, it was with a one-woman show about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
GARRETT: I have people who were upset that I didn't do Shakespeare. Fourteen people on a stage in the middle of COVID was never going to happen. And Shakespeare didn't write any one-person shows.
LUNDEN: The Public Theater in New York did put on Shakespeare, an all-Black adaptation of "The Merry Wives Of Windsor" at their free outdoor venue in Central Park. But they noticed that audiences were mostly white, says artistic director Oskar Eustis.
OSKAR EUSTIS: But then our marketing department came up with this idea of doing targeted Black theater nights.
LUNDEN: So they sent invitations to Black theater colleagues, inviting them and their friends to the production.
EUSTIS: And we had two nights in which the Delacorte was 98% Black audienceS, 1,500 people at night. And it was a fantastic experiment.
LUNDEN: The OSF staff and the Public have hired new associate artistic directors during the pandemic. Oskar Eustis says the Public's leadership team is now...
EUSTIS: Three men, three women, three white, three bipoc. And what the pledge was was that every major artistic decision of the theater would be made in the room with those people after a full and frank discussion.
LUNDEN: Which is not to say that there wasn't some pain as they reopened. A musical based on an indie film, "The Visitors," stopped rehearsals for a week so the mostly non-white cast could discuss problems with the way the story addressed characters who were undocumented immigrants. Based on that, Eustis says...
EUSTIS: We are actually devising a whole set of rehearsal room protocols to make sure that everybody in the room feels like they have a voice and feels like they can stand behind the story we're telling, both because they've been listened to and because we've given them information they need in order to fully invest in what we're doing.
LUNDEN: And theaters are investing more in paying actors and staff a living wage and making work rules more humane, says Stephanie Ybarra of Baltimore Center Stage.
YBARRA: Five-day rehearsal weeks, paying playwrights for their time in rehearsal, increasing wages for our artists and paying above the contractual minimums. We're going to keep working on our compensation, our benefits and understanding how we better care for the whole human.
LUNDEN: And since theater is all about human empathy through storytelling, all three artistic directors are putting forward an inclusive slate of plays and musicals, many of them world premieres by writers of color, as well as works featuring LGBTQ stories. At Baltimore Center Stage, this has put off some older subscribers but brought in new ones like English teacher Jack Garcia, who's already seen four shows in the theater with his boyfriend.
JACK GARCIA: What I love about the shows at BCS, at least what we've seen so far is they've all been very culturally, like, relevant to the experience today. You see the play and, afterwards you have some drinks, and you discuss the themes. And it's just been really rewarding.
LUNDEN: This is exactly what artistic director Stephanie Ybarra is hoping for.
YBARRA: The more we are normalizing different identities on stage and humanizing different identities on stage and de-politicizing Black and brown bodies onstage, that is just one tiny way we can help heal the divide. But I also think that it has to be about more than just performance. We have to be holding space for conversation in our buildings and - for contemplation and reflection.
LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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