Stage Fright: How playwrights are vulnerable in the COVID-19 era

Guthrie Theater (photo by Mark Vancleve), Kate Hamill (promo image), the Playwright's Center (photo courtesy Star Tribune), and Jeremy Cohen (provided).

Guthrie Theater (photo by Mark Vancleve), Kate Hamill (promo image), the Playwright's Center (photo courtesy Star Tribune), and Jeremy Cohen (provided).

“I’m not worried that artists won’t make work. Look at the history of the world: Artists have always told stories,” says Jeremy Cohen. “The infrastructure to make that work, to keep people sustained to tell those stories, that’s where we really need to focus.”

Cohen is producing artistic director at the Playwrights’ Center, which at press time on Monday was preparing to announce new spring programming in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That includes “new classes, seminars, public discussions, and opportunities to share work, and a whole series of commissioned articles that we’re going to be releasing. Plus, we’re going to be launching a new reading series at least for the next couple of months so that we can share work and employ local theater artists.”

The rapid shuttering of public spaces had an immediate effect on actors, directors, crew members, and theater staff, who found their venues suddenly closed. The impact on playwrights was less visible, but could ultimately be even more severe. “It all happened really fast,” says playwright and actor Kate Hamill. “It happened within 48 to 72 hours. It was a complete shift in how everyone was able to plan their year.”

The NYC-based Hamill is currently in Minneapolis, for reasons that were highly anticipated but under circumstances that were certainly not. Her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma is part of the Guthrie Theater’s 2019-20 season; the world premiere was in rehearsals when the shutdown struck.

“I’m in the Guthrie’s housing,” says Hamill. “They very graciously have offered to allow me to stay until, basically, it’s safe to go back to New York.” Hamill’s husband, actor Jason O’Connell, was able to come join her after his own show had “what we are now calling a ‘clopening,’” Hamill says, “which is where you open and close the same night.”

At press time, Emma was still officially scheduled to begin public performances on April 11, but given the continuing health risks involving large gatherings, Hamill says, there’s “a lot of creative thinking happening right now.”

In some cases, theaters facing financial uncertainty are asking playwrights to return advance payments for new work. “You wouldn’t retroactively ask any other theater artist to pay back money,” says Cohen, noting that playwrights are “incredibly vulnerable” with no union protections. “Actors, directors, designers, stage managers, through unions [have] agreements...pretty much everyone other than the writer in the room.”

Both Cohen and Hamill say they’re watching the progress of proposed legislation that would allow freelance artists to collect unemployment benefits. Hamill also suggests that “if you have a ticket to a show that was canceled, consider not asking for a refund and treating it as a donation, because a lot of institutions are hurting right now.”

“Theaters were closed during plague times and theaters went on during the Blitz,” says Hamill. “Building back is part of our artistic legacy, but that doesn’t make it any easier in the moment.”