And the numbers continue to rise. The number of inpatients with Covid at the Birmingham VA has quadrupled over the last two weeks. I haven’t seen the numbers for UAB hospital, but scuttlebutt is that they’re on the way up as well. Test positivity rate has climbed from about 5% to 30% here in Alabama and, at last count, 22 of the athletes here for the World Games have tested positive, although none has required hospitalization. The numbers are equally bleak on the national level. There are well over 100,000 new diagnoses daily, 40,000 people are in the hospital, and the national death rate, which was down around 200 a few weeks ago, has more than doubled. The BA 5 wave is definitely here (and the BA 2.75 wave is hot on its heels. It’ll be interesting to see which of those two outcompetes the other over the next month or so).
Will it be as bad as the omicron wave of this past winter? Unlikely as there is still lingering community immunity from those cases. Natural immunity seems to be in the four to eight month range so it is starting to fall off somewhat and the current BA strains are quite resourceful at getting around the immune system so I don’t trust that particular defensive line to hold a whole lot longer. Then there are the vaccinations. I would strongly suggest anyone eligible for a second booster go get it as vaccination remains our best bet to keep hospital and mortality numbers down. Death rates continue to run six to seven times as high in the unvaccinated population. The health care system is on somewhat shaky ground, as anyone who works in it or who has tried to use it recently can attest, and another out of control wave that shoots the number of patients requiring hospitalization back to extremely high levels may be enough to start bringing some of it crashing down.
I know you’re all tired of this mess. I’m just as tired as you are but the virus isn’t. It’s too simple an organism to have emotional states. It’s just going to keep on searching for hosts and replicating and mutating. That’s it’s only aim and mission. There are a few things we can all do besides getting vaccinated. We can make sure that public spaces are properly ventilated. We can mask up indoors and outdoors in crowds. We can properly quarantine if we get sick to help break transmission chains. We can pretend that we give a good god damn about each other. I know that’s unfashionable these days but cooperation is the only way through all of this and it’s going to have to be on a global scale as there isn’t a human on the planet that’s not at risk.
Am I going to turn myself into a hermit again? Wasn’t planning on it. Like everyone else, I’m doing my risk/benefit calculations regarding activities and public mingling. I’m still eating out some, but I look at table spacing and ventilation and how crowded the dining area is. I go to live theater as I tend to trust that the type of people who comprise theater audiences are likely vaccinated and making the same sort of calculations I’m making. I’m not going to the movies very often, and when I do, sit away from others. I continue to mask up at work when around patients. I fully expect to be reinfected at some point. I don’t know that it’s possible to completely avoid it. I’m going to trust to two boosters, some lingering natural immunity from January and my fairly solid constitution to keep me from becoming too ill.
Where do we go with live theater as the pandemic grinds on? Both of the large companies in town lost performances in June to Covid in the cast despite significant precautions. Smaller companies locally also had to cancel or reschedule shows due to illness in key roles. And this was when numbers were down prior to the new omicron BA surge that’s now taking shape. Backstage areas are cramped and require a lot of hanging out together for entrances. Dressing rooms and lobbies are often in older buildings that are inadequately ventilated and companies don’t have the money necessary to upgrade. There are newer performance spaces for hire that are built with better safety measures in place but they’re beyond the budget of most production companies. Even Broadway continues to have significant issues with show cancellations or unscheduled understudy appearances with Covid spreading backstage.
Over the last century or so, long before the pandemic took shape, live theater in the US began to morph from a populist art form accessible to pretty much anyone to an expensive hobby, confined mainly to the professional and upper classes. Movies and television took over mass audiences and theater stars and authors, once familiar from variety shows, and talk shows, and other pop culture organs were gradually relegated to a small group of cognoscenti. Productions that gained national attention, tended to do so based on spectacle, becoming elaborate theme park type attractions, rather than on superior artistic expression. When I was a child, everyone knew who Richard Rodgers, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and Jerome Robbins were. If you’re not a theater person, you might not know the names Duncan Sheikh, Gavin Creel, Jerry Zaks, and Sutton Foster.
At the same time, public funding for theater to keep it accessible to the population as a whole more or less dried up. Most advanced countries have strong support for art and culture. Not the US where everything is supposed to sink or swim on its own in the marketplace. There is some private philanthropic support, but it’s not broad based and is usually disinclined to support nontraditional ways of presenting theater. The beauty of theater is its temporary nature. Every performance becomes a cooperative venture between production and audience, never to be repeated. It truly serves as the mirror of society in ways that film or television cannot but to really do so, it needs to grow and evolve along with society and each generation needs to revisit the texts and the scores and use them in new ways to enlighten and illuminate. Reinterpretations may not always be successful, but they give theater life and vitality. To me, there’s room for both a classic production of a classic work and a radical rethinking and both give us something. The classic allows us to see and better understand the past. The rethinking allows us to better see ourselves and how we have changed, for good or ill.
So how do we make all of this work in a time where gathering together indoors is possibly dangerous, both for performers and for audience? A couple of things come to mind. One, public funding for retrofitting of theater buildings with better ventilation systems, for any place of public gathering as a matter of fact. It needs to be part of the continuing work to improve infrastructure. When climate permits, more outdoor performance. Long before there was electric light and smoke machines, there were ampitheaters with engaged and attentive audiences. It may require training performers to project and audiences to listen and not rely on amplification but I don’t have a problem with that. We need to culturally normalize good theater as existing outside of the Broadway spectacles and their touring versions coming soon to a civic barn near you. Good theater does not require top notch production values and million dollar sets and costumes. It requires performers that can cast the spell which gets the audience to suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours. Time and again I have found that I have enjoyed a small scale local production of something far more than a national tour but the public has been trained that unless it has a high ticket price and the imprimatur of Broadway in the advertising, it’s not a worthy endeavor.
Theater will survive, it always has, because the people who create it are passionate about the work and the people who feel uplifted by the connection that only live performance can make will seek it out, whether it be in a Broadway house or a church basement. We just all need to be prepared to do our part for society in order for it to continue in its current forms… get vaccinated, provide the financial support to production companies to forge ahead, lobby for societal support for infrastructure improvements, be prepared to explore new venues and ways of presentation in this moment of change. We live in interesting times.