ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
A Theatrical Exit Ramp on a Summer’s Evening
by Steve Kaliski
Editor’s note: Davidson College Visiting Professor of Theatre Steve Kaliski formed a team of artists to create a safe experience in the time of COVID. We asked him to tell us about it.
Exit 30: A Pandemic Theater Detour, which played three sold-out evenings at Davidson College this past weekend, was a logic-first experiment. The central creative question was not “What do we want to stage?” but rather “How do we want to stage it?”
With generous support from Davidson Arts and Creative Engagement’s “COVID-19 Creative Initiative Grant,” I worked collaboratively with co-directors Savannah Deal, Zoe Harrison, and Karli Henderson to answer this question. It was thrillingly difficult. The ancient art of live theater has a knack for surviving whatever society throws at it, but a virus is a different story. Theater and COVID both thrive on bringing people together. To mitigate the latter, you have to disperse the former. With that brutal truth placing theater on an indefinite pause across the country, devastating an already precarious industry, we knew we had to think big…and think weird.
Here’s what we had: a large, evocative campus with very few people on it; a state mandate limiting outdoor crowd size; evolving science on COVID that pointed to outside being far safer than inside; and delicate audience psychology.
A note about the audience psychology: we didn’t just want to make our public space safe by minimum health standards. We wanted it to really feel safe, too. Maybe in a year we’ll look back on our collective risk mitigations and realize, “Oh, that behavior didn’t actually require the caution I afforded it.” But we’re not there yet. Too much remains unknown, and too many choices are left to individual standards of risk aversion. What feels safe to one person might seem totally not worth it to another person. Both reads are fair, but we as producers don’t want to skew to only to the daring. That would make our work profoundly inaccessible and unsustainable in an economic sense. All in all, a bad survival technique for live arts!
So how could we build Exit 30 in a way that felt worth it, as in, felt 100 percent risk-free? This is how we came to the drive-thru module. In very small clusters, the audience would drive to various evocative spots around campus, park, get out, and watch a scene. They’d park far apart from the actors and each other, and they’d be advised to wear face masks and not to move away from their cars. When one scene was over, they’d drive in their clusters to the next scene, repeating until the full loop was over. Lead drivers would speak to audience cars through a conference phone line, another way to layer in some interactivity sans respiratory droplets.
There would be a twist, of course. Each cluster started the show at a different point and made the loop in unique orders. Like clockwork, the clusters all finished at the same time, arriving back to the Baker parking lot at 8:30, where the night began an hour before. Using this vast space, we had the entire audience get out of their vehicles and watch the last scene together, from a distance. This was an important gesture for us, an attempt to honor the shared space of the theater, even if that space was, thanks to a COVID, a giant, diffuse slab of asphalt.
Beyond an exercise in gamemastering, what was Exit 30 about? We knew that 2020 has been a torrent of lived experiences, and if we got a good group of artists together, we didn’t have to force a theme with a heavy hand. It would emerge from the work regardless.
We provided generic-bordering-on-boring short texts to six groups, and we asked them to fill those texts with meaning. We got scenes about Black Lives Matter protests, adventurers searching for a cure amidst a zombie apocalypse, a postponed wedding, the oppressive standards of Eurocentric beauty on Black women, loud cathartic screams, and a graduation party where the only guests were cardboard cutouts of the friends we miss so much. Timely, weird, totally live…and for the audience, a safe return to the theater.