Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
A theatre lover and maker on returning to in-person performances after a year away
In early March of 2020 I was anxious—but not about COVID-19. I was in rehearsals for my first show since having back surgery, so my excitement was tempered with trepidation. I was also working in TDF's education department, seeing at least one production a week with dozens of high schoolers, and I was settling into a new front-of-house job at New York City Center. My life was theatre, every day from morning 'til night. Even on my rare evenings off, I attended shows for fun. That's what I was doing on Tuesday, March 10, 2020 when I went to see the Laurie Metcalf-led revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Broadway's Booth Theatre.
That turned out to be my last show as well as the production's penultimate performance. On March 11, news broke that an usher at the theatre had tested positive for coronavirus. The next day, my entire world came to a screeching halt: Broadway was closing for at least a month. Smaller theatres soon followed suit, including the show I was rehearsing. I was crushed and confused and scared—not just for myself but for the health of our entire industry, especially as a monthlong intermission turned into three and, eventually, more than a year.
Yet the quick pivot to virtual theatre filled me with hope. Internationally renowned institutions such as London's National Theatre and New York's Metropolitan Opera shared professional recordings of prior productions for free so theatregoers would have something to hold on to as we mourned the loss of in-person performances. But small companies were even more nimble. Just a few days into the shutdown, several Off-Off Broadway companies launched live online performances on Facebook and YouTube, with one dubbing its series "The Plague Play Readings." Streaming theatre helped me stay creative and optimistic at a time when so many people were dying, or losing loved ones or struggling to make ends meet. It also connected me to artists around the globe, both as an audience member and an artist. I performed a new adaptation of Dracula with an actor in Colombia and another in India in addition to domestically cast online shows.
But as much unexpected fun as I've had with virtual theatre, screens aren't our medium. As theatre lovers and makers, we need human connection. Even a proud curmudgeonly introvert like me longed to be in a room with others, enjoying a communal experience.
Thanks to the easing of New York's COVID restrictions, I recently returned to live in-person theatre for the first time since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This was the moment I had been desperate for since the shutdown began. However, I admit, I was hit with a mix of emotions, excitement but also fear. Was it safe? Was I putting myself or my partner or roommates at risk? Was I being selfish? Even though I had pored over the show's website and was comfortable with the production's safety protocols, there were no guarantees. But I also realized that, at some point, every theatre lover is going to have a first show back. I decided I was ready for mine.
I entered the side doors of the Judson Memorial Church, which has hosted cutting-edge performances for decades. A staff member took my temperature with a contactless thermometer and confirmed my contact information for tracing, then I was allowed to proceed into the house. As I walked into this beautiful and cavernous space with stained glass windows, I was greeted by a warm yet confused feeling. I looked around. It seemed familiar but off, like how sometimes when you're dreaming, your apartment doesn't look quite right. The chairs were very spread out and there were only a handful of us. I made my way to the first row (for my return to in-person performance, I wanted to be front and center) and sat anxiously and uncharacteristically fidgety in my chair.
Then the calming tones of the preshow music began. I looked around at my fellow audience members before turning my attention to the set adorned with sheets of cardboard and flattened boxes. Then, out of my periphery, I saw the musical's sole cast member make his way from the back of house to backstage. I welled up with emotion as I recalled performing in nontraditional spaces that weren't designed for what we do. It reminded me of how much I had missed the DIY, guerilla-style theatre I'd seen and participated in Off-Off Broadway. I sobbed quietly to myself during the curtain speech. As the lights faded to black, my anxiety waned, and when the lights came up on stage, I was transported—not just due to the artistry, but because I felt as though I were finally back home.
After the curtain dropped on the one-act performance, the audience applauded and we exited using the taped arrows on the floor to guide us. Out on the street, I stopped to reflect on what I had witnessed and the upsides of socially distant seating. Not once did I get distracted by my neighbor elbowing me or chewing loudly or slurping out of overpriced Whirley cups. I didn't miss the awkward shuffle through a packed row to get to my seat, or the mad dash to leave the theatre at the end. Not only did I feel safe because of these new precautions, I was also able to focus solely on the story unfolding in front of me. While this is certainly a period of adjustment, we may find we don't want to go back to everything the way it was.
And as we ease back into in-person theatre, it's going to be Off and Off-Off Broadway that will lead the way, just as they did with virtual theatre. The first weekend of indoor performances just passed and included a monologue by Mike Daisey at the Kraine Theater (which was also streamed online), performances at the Guggenheim Museum and The Shed, and the immersive audio play Blindness, which, admittedly, has an audience but no live actors. Every day I hear of more projects. I even booked my first show back as an artist: a production of Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries that I'm co-directing with Cameron Clarke.
We all have our fingers crossed that Broadway does indeed reopen this fall. But if you're ready to return before then, there will be theatres and artists beyond Broadway ready to welcome you.
Tyler Riley is an actor, director and podcast host in the greater NYC area. Follow him on Twitter at @itstylerriley. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.