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A Plague Upon Our Houses

Coronavirus Threatens Shakespeare Theaters is on the mailing lists of 239 North American, European, and Australian theaters on our Theater Links page, and I've received a large number of emails the past couple of weeks related to coronavirus and COVID-19. They've pretty much said the same things: how the theater is still open for business, is monitoring the status of the virus’s spread, is following the guidance of local public health service, is taking extra sanitation procedures, and asks patrons to do the same when attending plays.

The tune and tone changed today in an avalanche of messages announcing cancellations and postponements.

These announcements came just hours after those same theaters had sent a “business-as-usual” notice, an indication of how rapidly the coronavirus crisis has spread around the globe, across continents, and throughout communities, leaving established plans and best of intentions in flux. This week I was in Kansas City on site visits for the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety. On my way to dinner last night, I rode the hotel elevator with fans of the University of West Virginia basketball team in town for the Big 12 Tournament. By the time I got back to the hotel after dinner, the Big 12 had decided to bar fans from attending the tournament, and the NCAA had made a similar decision for its “March Madness” championship tournament beginning next week. By the time I got home today, the NCAA had cancelled its tournaments altogether.

All three in-progress major sport leagues have suspended their seasons, and Major League Baseball has pushed back its March 26 Opening Day at the end of this month by two weeks—for the time being. Many other entertainment entities are in a similar state. MGM postponed the opening of its latest James Bond film, and Disney postponed the opening of its latest Mulan film. Disney and Universal Studios have temporarily shuttered their theme parks. Houston shut down its Livestock Show and Rodeo.

The pandemic is impacting daily life in big ways and little. All those Big 12 fans were checking out of the hotel this morning, swallowing disappointment and financial commitments. On my flight home, the flight attendant couldn’t get her trash bag opened; normally you would lick your fingers and rub them at the bag’s seam, but that’s not an option for a public servant in the days of coronavirus. And America’s most reliable actor, one I’ve featured on, tested positive for COVID-19: Tom Hanks as well as his wife, Rita Wilson.

Which brings us back to the world of Shakespeare. The major entertainment and sports institutions have the means to rebound once the pandemic has passed, but for the majority of theaters that covers, coronavirus is an existential threat. Right now, most people are focusing on the short-term: to the end of March, for 30 days, through April. However, the traditional annual Shakespeare festival season is right around the corner, and many authorities say the hard times have only just begun. So far, I’ve heard of no festivals being cancelled, but I’m sure festival companies as well as many year-round theaters are fretting the pandemic lingering into the summertime.

That is why I find so inspiring the “business-not-quite-so-usual” email I received yesterday from Sweet Tea Shakespeare in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In his note to the company’s patrons, Artistic Director/Master of Play Jeremy Fiebig reported that the company still plans to stage its Julius Caesar this weekend and open A Midsummer Night’s Dream next month followed by Knight’s Tale (The Two Noble Kinsmen). At the same time, the company is taking COVID-19 seriously and “will take responsible action when needed.”

Then, Fiebig made this most salient observation. “A few times during Shakespeare’s career, his theater companies had to close their doors because disease—in this case, the plague—[made it too] dangerous to gather in large groups. Each of these times, Shakespeare and his fellows had to employ their ingenuity to keep their operations afloat, their bills paid, and food on their tables. Playing companies packed up and headed for the countryside where there were fewer people and the environment less virulent. Shakespeare resorted to writing his now famous sonnets and long poems for his patron, adapting to meet challenges with creativity and wonder. Sweet Tea Shakespeare is committed to that kind of ingenuity.” He mentions the company’s recently launched public podcast, The Sweet Tea Shakespeare Hours, and a new initiative to produce an exclusive, behind-the scenes podcast. “We’re adapting like Shakespeare and his fellows did,” Fiebig writes, “and we’re committed to riding out this particular plague with ingenuity, a sense of adventure, and good care.”

It’s that attitude of initiative, as well as the collaborative spirit that Elizabethan theaters displayed when rival companies combined to form touring troupes, that can help today’s Shakespeare companies get through this season of plague. will play its part, too. That’s my pledge to my readers and the theater community at large. First, I will take care of myself. This is not a selfish standard but the most effective way to minimize the spread and impact of the virus (a wakeup call for me was learning that the people most prone to being infected are those 60 and older who are stressed and don’t get enough sleep—I’m triply condemned). I will update and maintain Bard on the Boards with greater regularity, and I will transmit developments and alerts on the website’s Update page and via my social media channels. also will serve as a conduit for best practices, where theaters can share or seek ways and means to survive to the other side of the coronavirus pandemic. Here, for example, is the notice from Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, which intends to continue its runs of David Lee Nelson’s Stages this weekend and open Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 next month. It's similar to what many other theaters have issued, but I found Riverside’s the most thorough and best presented:

Enhanced cleaning procedures are being implemented, particularly for audience seats, armrests, door handles, railings, countertops, and restrooms. These surfaces will be disinfected following every performance.

Hand sanitation stations have been added in our lobby and disinfectant wipes are being placed in all restrooms.

Hand sanitation procedures are now being implemented after every patron transaction at the box office and concessions.

Program recycling is being halted until further notice.

Riverside is closely monitoring the health of all employees and artists. Anyone showing signs of illness or reports feeling ill will be required to stay home.

We ask that you do the same! If you are feeling ill for any reason, please stay home. Ticket exchanges (always free for Riverdog pass holders) will be free for the remainder of the spring. Feel free to contact our box office to exchange your ticket for a later performance. You may also request a refund.

Finally, Riverside will follow the lead of national, state, and local public health authorities, such as the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control, and will implement recommended proactive strategies in our space as necessary.

This weekend I plan to attend Henry IV, Part Two, and the opening of Henry V at Brave Spirits Theatre in Alexandria. That’s a little more than 24 hours away, so much can change in that time—for the company, for the venue, and for me, too, because if I feel the slightest bit ill, I will not go, as that is now my stated duty in supporting my local and theater communities.

My goal in all of this is to keep Shakespeare and his theaters going for all time.

March 13, 2020

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