For many people, the pandemic has caused us to examine just about everything in our lives. What is important? What is necessary? In the midst of so much suffering and loss, what can we justify?
Theaters and performing arts venues across the country were among the first industries to shut down when the pandemic hit the United States last year. For an industry in which many participants, companies, and theaters work on slim margins, the prospect of shutting down for an indefinite amount of time, laying off staff, and cancelling contracts was frightening. Many companies have shut down. Some will return, if they haven’t already. Others never will.
Last March, I was just about to head into a week of dress rehearsals for a high school production when we got word that school would be cancelled for two weeks. The set for our show was up. Props and costumes were set. We were ready. We figured we could perform when school returned. Those two weeks became four, and then those four weeks became the rest of the school year. We never got the chance to perform that show. Over the summer, the school discontinued their performing arts program. I, like so many other theater artists, was out of a full-time job. I was able to cobble together some part-time work in the fall.
Around that same time, Theatre Arts Prof. Eric Berninghausen called me to talk about my interest in directing a show at Gettysburg. As soon as I was offered the chance to direct a show at Kline Theatre, I emphatically accepted. Did I have any reservations? Sure. We were attempting to do live theater amid a pandemic. Case numbers nationally at that point—early in 2021—were high and climbing. We were going to need to follow all health and safety protocols—making normally easy things much more complicated.
“Have you listened to music this past year? Admired a painting? Watched Netflix or a movie? How many of us have sought refuge in entertainment? Thank an artist.” – Weston Jackson ’14
However, my experience directing Antigone Now by Melissa Cooper was exceptional. I am truly thankful that there was such a talented group of staff, students, and faculty to be able to execute a show under these conditions. The same regulations that caused us to alter how we do things and challenged our natural instincts as theater makers, also allowed us new opportunities to overcome challenges and explore new ways of doing things.
Due to the safety measures that have been in place on campus, we were able to safely perform a show with a limited audience in Kline Theatre. While these measures made us feel safe, they also directly impacted almost every decision the designers, actors, and I made regarding the show. From matching masks to costumes to keeping actors physically distanced, we brainstormed as a team to make sure we were all comfortable.
Was it always smooth? No. Zoom rehearsals were fine at first, but quickly got old. Figuring out how to manage props and costumes safely was not the easiest task. These challenges made us bond more closely. At the end of the day, all of us were just so thankful to be doing what we love again. I am also thankful to the college community for adhering to the guidelines, which is what allowed us to perform this show. This past year, we have truly seen that the actions of one person can impact a whole community.
Often, when times are tough, things that are deemed extracurricular or unnecessary are cut or defunded. The arts are usually the first to go—if there is even an arts program. I am so happy that Gettysburg College and the amazing theatre arts department saw the necessity of mounting a full production this spring semester. While it may seem frivolous to some in such a time as this, I would argue that it is just as needed as ever.
Have you listened to music this past year? Admired a painting? Watched Netflix or a movie? How many of us have sought refuge in entertainment? Thank an artist.
The ancient Greeks, to whom we owe much, viewed theater as medicine—a way to purge built-up emotions, explore concepts, and examine society itself. When you get the chance to safely visit a theater, club, museum, concert, or studio, remember that you are getting more than entertainment. You are getting medicine and community, too. You are also giving people the chance to make a living.
So, was it worth doing theater in a pandemic? Yes. But it wasn’t just worth it. It was needed—medicine for a weary soul.
By Weston Jackson
Class of 2014
Theater Arts and Philosophy Double Major