“I know once we [return], theatre will be the answer for so many things we’ll need. It will be that art matters and, if you can, get that back into our lives,” producer Daryl Roth says over the phone.
A month into the ban on mass gatherings in New York state and the closure of theatres around the world, the art form that most serves as a communal experience is beginning to reckon with a new reality. What was intended as a month is now stretching into the summer, if not later. And so initial reactions to the announcement are now being re-evaluated across the industry.
Roth was days away from the start of rehearsals for the Off-Broadway premiere of new musical Between the Lines when the March 12 order came from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “It’s a problematic situation because we were meant to go into [Second Stage’s] Tony Kiser Theatre, and the period of time we had arranged to be in the space has come and gone, basically,” she says. “So then conversations have been, ‘Is there a way for us to still find 18 weeks within their programming and make that work, or do I have to find another venue?’ Because they'll have their own programming. It’s a domino effect. And it’s sort of like a big puzzle that’s very hard to put the pieces in place, when you don’t know exactly what time frame you're dealing with.”
Roth, who has produced more Pulitzer Prize winners than any other producer along with shows from Kinky Boots to Indecent, also owns Off-Broadway theatres the Daryl Roth and DR2. So in addition to shepherding her own productions, she’s also working with producers on shows they've scheduled for those theatres.
“I have a booking supposed to come in the summer, and of course that’s not happening,” she says. “So they’ve pushed off to September, if that becomes realistic. And then for the small space, the DR2, we have a potential booking for the fall.”
But she warns that plans are still beholden to when mass gatherings will be allowed again, and when everyone—actors too, not just audiences—will feel comfortable in a communal setting once more.
“I’m overly cautious,” she adds, “so I personally don’t want to move forward until the city feels comfortable with people allowed to engage again—and certainly none of us are doing anything until Governor Cuomo says it’s fine to proceed. But even after that happens, the conversations we have to have are: Will audiences feel comfortable gathering in groups, and will we be able to offer the ticket prices that make it possible for people?”
As the closure stretches into its second month, Roth stresses the importance of being a cheerleader in the community and prioritizing public health. “Everything is in flux, and we have to learn to just roll with it,” she says. “And above all, we need to be aware of health and wellness. Health and wellness are what have to be our top priorities. For the companies and for the audiences both.”
To that end, Roth was one of the first on board when The Actors Fund announced a group of producers who had pledged to match donations to its COVID-19 relief fund up to $1 million. Now a second wave of producers have also made the same pledge.
“I think that it’s the best way we could all say, ‘We’re here to help you, we’re here to support you,’” she says. “People don't realize how many people work in the industry of theatre. But that fund is available for everybody and anybody who needs help. My father always said, ‘You lead by example.’ It’s important to put yourself out there in that way. Even Brian Stokes Mitchell singing out of his window [as part of the daily cheers for essential first responders at 7 PM], it just makes me cry what everybody is doing.”
Additionally, Roth and Paula Vogel (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive was first produced by Roth) recently announced the annual Roth-Vogel New Play Commission in partnership with The Vineyard Theatre, which will be awarded to a mid- to late-career playwright. The duo were supposed to be honored at the Vineyard's annual gala April 20, and the commission "came out of wanting to thank the Vineyard for honoring us," Roth says. "And make something positive and lasting come from the canceled event."
The commission is of a piece with Roth's attitude during these times. “I’m usually quite an optimistic person, but I’ve had to balance my optimism with realism,” she says. “That’s where I find myself. I want to continue to be optimistic.”