Duke Alumni and Faculty Lead the Return of Live Theater
After nearly two years of virtual performances, live theater has made its long-awaited return to both Broadway and Duke’s campus. Samantha Streit ‘22, who was part of the cast of Duke Theater Studies’ Fall Mainstage Show Golem, interviews Duke alumni and faculty about their thoughts on producing theater during the pandemic and what the future holds for live performances.
Golem Brings Live, In-Person Theater Back to Duke
Nothing makes me feel more alive than performing theater. The audience’s energy bounces off the walls onto me and my fellow actors. After nearly two years of virtual performances, Duke Theater Studies’ Fall Mainstage Show, Golem, opened November 4 with an in-person audience and unmasked performers. It was my fourth and final Mainstage Show at Duke. On opening night, I burst with energy, instantly reminded of the magic of sharing an experience with a live audience.
Many artists felt alone in the loss of live theater, but Duke faculty and alumni found creative ways to navigate the changes while holding out hope that when it returned, it would come back stronger than ever.
Jody McAuliffe, professor of the practice of theater studies and slavic and eurasian studies and director of Golem, held masked rehearsals since August. She expressed that the cast’s ability to perform maskless was a “godsend,” made possible by Darren Gobert, chair of the Theater Studies department, who organized for the actors to receive nightly rapid tests in the weeks leading up to the show.
“You can still read body language with the mask,” McAuliffe said. “But certainly you are not getting the full picture of what a person is doing. It was a revelation to see the actors’ faces.”
Danya Taymor’s Pass Over Reopens Broadway
While Duke navigated the path back to live theater, so too did Broadway — with the help of some Duke alumni. Danya Taymor, who graduated from Duke in 2010, directed the first show to reopen Broadway: Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over.
“Making art during the pandemic was transcendent. Even being back in a rehearsal room was amazing,” said Taymor, whose Broadway production of Pass Over was a New York Times Critic’s Pick. “I also felt that the audiences came back with a renewed appreciation for live performance; the quality of the silence in the room while they watched, their laughter — it was just different.”
“Making art during the pandemic was transcendent. Even being back in a rehearsal room was amazing.” —Danya Taymor ‘10
Taymor expressed that the time off during the pandemic, though difficult, allowed her and her collaborators to engage more deeply with the politics of theater and art-making. Following last year’s national upheaval over racial justice issues, Nwandu felt compelled to rewrite the ending of Pass Over — which partly deals with police violence in America — in anticipation of the show’s outsize importance to Broadway’s revival.
“She knew she wanted to meet this moment,” Taymor said. “That was really bold for her to do, especially at a big commercial level and as the first play back on Broadway. But she leads with that boldness and audacity in the best way.”
Broadway Plus Takes the VIP Experience Virtual
Another alum helping shepherd the return of live theater is Nathaniel Hill ‘12, founder and president of Broadway Plus. Before the pandemic, his company functioned as a luxury concierge service dedicated to Broadway, offering VIP performance experiences and opportunities to meet artists.
I began working virtually at Broadway Plus in May 2020, at the height of COVID-19, when theaters were closed and we were all forced to stay isolated. It was incredible to watch the company grow and adapt within the confines of the pandemic: very quickly, Hill transitioned Broadway Plus’ offerings to Zoom, hosting panels, hangouts, and even live concerts with performers. When I hosted a Q&A for Beetlejuice, I was greeted by over fifty fans from across the world, some of whom were tuning in at the middle of the night, dressed up as their favorite characters, cultivating a community over Zoom.
Although “nothing is the same as before,” as Taymor puts it, that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Broadway Plus embodies one of the positive effects of the pandemic on theater: increased accessibility.
“I definitely want to go back to live performance; I don’t think anything can replace it. But I think virtual and live performances will coexist and be two great, different options,” Hill said.
Taymor offered another silver lining brought on by COVID-19: “The pandemic reinforced my practices around care, trust-building, and intimacy. It emboldened me to advocate for the actors, the designers, the playwright, myself. It’s been difficult, but I feel like there is a genuine effort to change. A lot of people have found their voice and are unwilling to be silenced — that’s a good thing.”
Each character in Golem navigates why he or she wants to make art, and, after the production concluded, I have been exploring this question for myself. Every theater artist has undoubtedly been sitting with this question during this pause, unable to pursue their passion to its fullest, but knowing that it is worth waiting for.
“I think art is meant to do something,” McAuliffe shared. “The great works that I’ve experienced have led me to see the world in a different way, transported me, transformed me, made me transcend my world. That’s what I try to do for my audience when I make work.”
“As an arts entrepreneur, every day brings new challenges, stimulations, and occasional triumphs. I never get bored.” —Nathaniel Hill ‘12
“I chose to work in the arts because every day is different — new art is always being created and managed, and I like variety,” Hill said. “I didn’t want to do the same thing every day, or really any day. As an arts entrepreneur, every day brings new challenges, stimulations, and occasional triumphs. I never get bored, which is a priority for me in life and in a career.”
“I make art to tell the truth,” Taymor said. “I think it’s one of the most powerful ways of telling the truth, using the senses, heart, mind, and soul to shine its light.”
Theater is constantly evolving because it is a reflection of the moment we are in, allowing us to understand ourselves and the world on a deeper level. As we look forward and imagine all of the shapes the future can take, we know one thing is guaranteed: theater is here to stay.
Samantha Streit is a senior pursuing a major in Theater Studies, a minor in Psychology, and a certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This year, she is a writer/content creator for the Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).