What will theater look like in a post-COVID world? Old Globe launches initiative to answer that question

The six artists participating in The Old Globe's "What is Theatre Now?" initiative
The six artists participating in The Old Globe’s “What is Theatre Now?” initiative are, clockwise from top left, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, James Vásquez, Johanna McKeon, Whitney White, Patricia McGregor and Justin Emeka.
(Courtesy of The Old Globe)

Six theater artists have been appointed to work on projects exploring the virtual realm


Six months after San Diego’s oldest and largest theater closed its doors due to the pandemic, the Old Globe Sept. 21 announced an initiative to reimagine the future of theater performances in a post-COVID world.

The Globe has recruited six theater artists from around the country to grapple with the question: “What is theater now?” In future months, these artists will develop different ideas for projects that can be produced online, or onstage when state and county health officials deem it’s safe for theaters to reopen.

Their ideas include adapting stage plays for online performance to blending live and digital formats for entirely new shows that could run from two minutes in length to several hours. The diverse group will also help expand the company’s dialogue on employing and serving audiences of all ethnicities and genders.

Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein said facing an uncertain future where the return of live theater could be six months to a year away has been frightening. But it has also been “wonderfully liberating,” he said, because it opened a window of time where he and his collaborators can reimagine what theater is and how it will be presented to audiences in the future.

The six artists taking part in the initiative — “What is Theatre Now?” — are freelance director and former Moxie Theatre artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg of San Diego; veteran Old Globe and freelance director James Vásquez of San Diego; theater and film director Johanna McKeon of New York; director and writer Patricia McGregor of San Diego; director, writer, actor and teacher Justin Emeka of Oberlin, Ohio; and Obie and Lilly award-winning director, writer and musician Whitney White of New York.

Edelstein, who co-created the program with associate artistic directors Freedome Bradley-Ballentine and Justin Waldman, formed the group in April by reaching out to these six artists who have all worked in the past at the Globe and share an understanding of the theater’s identity and its place in the fabric of the community.

“These are people we had very exciting conversations with over the course of their past visits with us,” Edelstein said. “They’re people who we knew were doing experiments in form and in content and also people who are grappling with the other gigantic issue that is roiling the field: the massive racial reckoning that is taking place.”

“We’ve had a couple of meetings with the group and the sparks have flown,” he said. “These are people who have their sleeves rolled up and are really wrestling with these questions, and they’re artists who are trying to fold their already existent practice into this new world. It’s really exciting.”

Edelstein said the group’s mission is open-ended. They’re all working independently on their own projects and come together on Zoom once a month to discuss their progress. Eventually these ideas will be shared with the public. Not all them will end up online or onstage, but Edelstein said he and Bradley-Ballentine hope to learn a lot through the process.

Over the past six months, the Globe has successfully transitioned its arts engagement and workshop programs online, generating more than 409,000 combined views from as far away as New Zealand. While the viewers are there, Edelstein said most theaters have been unsuccessful at making money from their online programming. He wonders whether selling tickets to online shows should be a priority in a time of crisis.

“We’re thinking about this notion of theater as a public good,” he said. “Theater obliges us to be a little less transactional in these moments and more about our relationship with the community and the value we want to provide.”

Edelstein described the recent comment by national health adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci that live theater might not return until the end of 2021 as “a jaw-dropping moment.” But he said Globe fans have been patient and very supportive since its stages went dark in March.

“Mostly what we’re hearing is a lot of love,” he said. “I’m so thankful for the unconditional support of San Diego for the Globe and what it’s going through.”

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune