The American Theater 2020 Survival Strategy – Part 1 – Syracuse Stage

Syracuse Stage_Amadeus
Syracuse Stage’s Amadeus.

Syracuse Stage’s Bob Hupp on COVID-19’s Impact On Live Theater

By Michael Raver

The circumstances of the pandemic have brought live performances in all genres to a grinding halt with little certainty about when things will return to some sense of normalcy. However, reopening isn’t the only factor on the docket for theater companies across America. With the Black Lives Matter movement rising to long-overdue prominence, as well as women’s, LGBTQ+, and other minority-related inequities finally being brought to light, artistic directors are reevaluating what theater will look like when performances can happen again.

Syracuse Stage Artistic Director Bob Hupp is among those determined to see to it that what we see on stage is a truer reflection of what we’ve experienced in the last several months.

Syracuse Stage_Bob Hupp
Syracuse Stage’s Artistic Director Bob Hupp.

How has the pandemic affected your theater?

BOB HUPP: Like every non-profit theatre in the country, the shutdown has had a profound impact on Syracuse Stage. We lost half of our season and we can’t currently predict when we can safely reopen. That uncertainty makes it hard to chart a course forward. So, there’s the immediate financial impact on the organization and, more significantly, there’s the unbelievable financial strain on the artists who come together to create the work. The situation is unprecedented in our lifetimes; the silver lining is how we’re coming together to reimagine the future, how learning that is happening now will inform our work and our institutions when that reopening day arrives.

What are you doing to keep your sanity?

BH: Well, you’re making an assumption there….. But, I’m privileged because I still have a job, our kids are grown so we don’t have an issue with schooling,  and we live in a beautiful part of the country. I try to maintain a consistent work schedule, but more than I’m used to, I’m trying to take the time to get outside, to take socially distant day trips in the area, to reach out to old friends that I’ve let slip through the cracks, and to tackle all the projects that I’ve let pile up over the past few years. At the end of the day, I lean towards the introvert, so social distancing comes relatively easy for me.

Have you had to lay off any employees?

BH: Fortunately no. We came into the pandemic in a relatively strong position, so we haven’t had to lay off any full-time employees, and we’ve been able to honor all of our guest artist contracts. We have had to adjust seasonal employee schedules, though. Being in residence on the campus of Syracuse University, and knowing that students will return soon to campus, drives our schedule since we provide production and teaching support to the University’s Drama Department.

The socio-political environment has become tense.  How do you think this will reflect on the theatrical community when things do eventually reopen?

BH: The cliché that all politics are local applies to theatre. We’re all going to be digging out of a huge financial hole. Not every non-profit will survive. I think our strength will come from our local networks and how we position ourselves to be thought leaders in our community. We have to move beyond traditional ways of creating, marketing, and supporting our work. We have an opportunity to re-evaluate and re-envision the who, what, when, why, and where of how we make theatre. While we learn from and share best practices with our peers nationally, I think we have to focus on collaboration, sharing resources, and building bridges to everyone in our community, especially those who have been historically shut out of our institutions.

Syracuse Stage_Thoughts of a Colored Man
Syracuse Stage’s Thoughts of a Colored Man.

Do you plan on marking the country’s cultural shift in some way?

BH: If by cultural shift you mean de-centering whiteness in the American Theatre, then yes, we are working on how Syracuse Stage will rise to the demands of We See You White American Theatre and other anti-racism calls to action. We’re working on this across the organization, from our production staff to our board of trustees. In this context, we are specifically focused on how we can be a stronger ally in our community, and how we can use the language of our art form to affect change in our city.

For many, this has been a major creative drought. What is your advice for staying creative during this era?

BH: My various feeds buzz with new projects and new ideas. I’m in awe of the work I see so many folks accomplishing right now. But, we have to take the pressure off and lower expectations. This pandemic pause affects people differently and we have to be mindful that slowing down is okay, too. I try to take a little time each day with a script just to keep the juices flowing. For me, this is the right time to read the scripts I couldn’t get to in the hectic BC (Before Coronavirus) era.

Is there anything about our industry that you’d like to see change when we’re all able to get back to work?

BH: I hope we use this reset to move towards more equitable and just practices in our field. I hope we can take advantage of this enforced pause to examine where our theaters sit in our communities and how we can evolve to be even more engaged in the vital civic and cultural life of the places we call home.

For more information about Syracuse Stage, visit https://www.syracusestage.org/

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The American Theater 2020 Survival Strategy – Part 1

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