“Human beings tell stories. And the best way we tell them is through live theater.”
Michael Barker has spent his life in theater. For more than 16 months though, the Westport Country Playhouse — where he serves as managing director — has been dark.
There were no live performances last year. There have been none this summer either — the 90th year for the legendary theater.
“The pandemic was terrible for everyone. It was especially terrible for the arts. And among the performing arts, it was especially terrible for theater,” Barker says.
COVID forced the Playhouse to furlough 14 of 24 “wonderful, talented” staff members. “It was incredibly painful,” Barker recalls. (The board of directors covered insurance deductibles while those employees were out of work.)
This year, all but 2 have returned. “We were determined to have a season,. We didn’t know if it would be in person, under a tent or online. But we needed them back,” Barker says.
The decision was made to show 4 productions — virtually.
But now — as the world cracks open for in-person theaters — the Westport Playhouse has taken a big step.
The final show of the 2021 season — “Doubt,” a riveting Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a religious school principal, a young parish priest and a troubled boy– will be performed live November 2-20. (A streaming option will be available for patrons who cannot, or do not want to, attend in person.)
It normally takes a year to design, cast, rehearse and stage a play. This time frame is much shorter.
And the demands are much tougher. Rather than create something solely for an in-house audience — or one that will be seen only via livestream — director David Kennedy must balance the needs of both. He’s got to think about hundreds of eyes sitting in the famed red seats — and 3 cameras arrayed unobtrusively around them.
Why invite audiences back now, and not wait till 2022?
“In-person theater is what we do,” Barker says. “We’ve been waiting for the state to open back up. Every day I’m grateful for the (high) vaccination rates in Connecticut.”
Live theater is “even more important now, because we’ve been without it,” the managing director adds.
Story-telling is part of what makes us human, he notes. And though there are many ways to do that, when we watch other forms of drama — movies, say, or TV — we see a story that has already been told.
Live theater, however, is “story-telling in the moment,” Barker explains. “There’s no replacement for seeing that story with many other people, the instant it happens.”
Loyal Playhouse patrons understand that. There have been live events this year, like cabaret and concerts. But, Barker says, audiences keep asking, “When can we come back and see plays?” Now he can tell them: November.
Hard as it’s been, the pandemic has taught WCP officials important lessons. Despite the power of live theater, they’ve learned the importance of video.
“We should have done more in the past. We’ll do more in the future,” Barker promises.
“Probably every theater will do some form of virtual offerings, for those who want or need it. Then it goes into the archives.”
But his main hope for the future is linked with an event from the past.
“This may not be a perfect analogy,” Barker warns. “But after 9/11, there was an enormous explosion of the arts. It was a way to tell the terrorists, ‘You can’t make us stay home.’
“Now we’ve had our shots. We’re coming back. And we’re getting ready for an explosion of experiencing live theater together.”