Looking to Theater for Inspiration

Business, design, and engineering cultures have a record of looking to theater for inspiration. At any hip conference you will find at least one activity that draws on the art of improv. Improv encourages us to suspend disbelief and instead say, “Yes, and” to build on the ideas of others.

Now that we find ourselves conducting meetings and conferences on zoom, we might look to theater again to find ways to make it more engaging. Real innovation is born in the arts.

In a recent conversation on WNYC’s show The Takeaway, host Tanzina Vega talks with New York Times art critic Maya Phillips and New York Magazine theater critic Helen Shaw on how live theater is adapting in a time of physical distance.

Helen Shaw is most impressed with shows that worked out some kind of interactivity. For example, there’s a show that makes the audience into a jury and there’s a magic show for which the company mails you a box of cards so you can participate. Shaw appreciates this kind of contact in a time when contact is a “special effect.”

Maya Philips appreciates companies that are playing around with technology and having fun with different backgrounds. Philips holds that companies should not play it safe, but rather, they should take risks and think about the future.

Helen Shaw points to some specific productions that are coming up, “There’s a piece that’s going to be in a garden in Bushwick called quince… There’s a show called Cairns, which is actually an album that you download and then you listen to it as you walk through Green-Wood Cemetery….The shows where you go to a community garden and only 13 people can be admitted per day, I think is more– I’m almost more delighted that it’s happening then that I’ll be able to get there.”

Maya Philips touches on how these changes address the accessibility of theater tickets, “I would love to see a model where when things get back to normal, whatever that is, that we have the live performances and they also have an option for people who may not be able to afford the live performance rates to have a cheaper rate and just access it from their homes… Hamilton obviously is a great example of that.”

In addition to writing, Shaw teaches theater and has been exploring the pairing of real time and asynchronous engagement with her students, “going to a space and sitting together is incredibly precious and we all miss it very much… [but] being able to access it asynchronously… is still engagement, it’s still art response….I’m hoping that we will move into a phase where we do both things where we’re on parallel tracks.”

In this time of change, innovators in the arts are transforming space and time within physical distancing constraints to make new experiences that are unique and engaging. The world of zoom meetings and conferences should look to these innovators to shape and heighten their own programming and engagement.

You can read the full transcript of the discussion here: The Evolution of Live Theater During a Pandemic


Helen Shaw

Maya Phillips

Tanzina Vega