How One Theater Company Is Facing a Dark Spring

Greig Sargent and Ben Williams in a recent ERS workshop. Photo: ERS

If you time the Theater Shutdown from Thursday, March 12, then we’re through day seven. Seven days of turning into the City that Never Gathers. Seven days! Time enough for God to make a world. But as we move further into the crisis, it also seems to have been enough time to rock ours to its foundations. New York culture exists right at the survivalist brink at the best of times, and with the violence of its forced closure starting to reverberate through a hand-to-mouth sub-economy, doubts have started to grow. How exactly are we going to reboot all of live performance? How far do these repercussions go?

To try to understand the complexity of a situation that was changing minute by minute — last Thursday, we still had a full theater calendar for April, for instance — I talked to members of one downtown company: Elevator Repair Service. The ERS production of Gatz was a standard-bearer of the 2010s; the group’s networks and orbits contain many of my favorite artists; they and their artistic cohort had a lot of projects on the boil for the coming months. When corona clotheslined them, a new show at the Public Theater was under discussion — ERS was talking to the Public about bringing its Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge into the lineup in late spring. So the first day of March found them in a bright place, and although their longtime producing director Ariana Smart Truman was leaving at the beginning of the summer, they still felt stable, confident, as though they knew what was on the horizon.

John Collins, artistic director and director (Gatz, Measure for Measure, Room Tone) is just now getting used to video meetings — when we spoke, he was about to inform the staff that the Baldwin and Buckley project at the Public was definitively canceled. That conversation would be grim. “It had been such a great thing for us,” Collins said. “We were excited because even though we were heading into some 11th-hour fundraising for it, it was going to make up a deficit.” ERS spends huge amounts of time in the devising process — rehearsals and workshops can go on for years. So in a cycle when they’d lost their Mellon grant (“A very unexpected and major blow”), they were borrowing from the previous year’s surplus to develop a new version of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Still, losing Baldwin and Buckley would have simply put them back to square one. By last week, though, they’d realized they also needed to cancel their May 11 gala. Could they get their $19,000 deposit back from their venue, Tribeca Rooftop? (Turns out that it’s good for a year.) “The conservative estimate is that we’re looking at a loss of $200,000,” Collins said.

Next year’s tour to Antwerp is a question mark. Conversations about Seagull’s finding a theater are on hold. With no word on when restrictions will ease, nobody can even plan rehearsals. Talking to Collins is like talking to a man in a volcano who’s trying to figure out which fire to put out. ERS has a core staff of seven, so payroll is one immediate concern. “We have a full-time fundraiser,” Collins said, “a full-time company manager! And those people are supposed to take care of a wider constellation of artists. That’s probably 50 people — interns, artists, everyone. The way we’ve found to support an ongoing company like ours — whenever we’ve been in doubt, the answer was always: Make more work.” That option is, obviously, out of reach for now, and the sense that there’s a vast group of people depending on the company, on him, is clearly weighing heavily on Collins.

One of those artists is the Obie Award winner April Matthis. She wasn’t going to be in Baldwin, but she was ready to go back into the rehearsal room on Seagull. She’s now one of the many thousands of actors out of work, watching her email load up with cancellation notices. The TV and film opportunities all seem to be on hold too. Her 10-year-old son is home (“Getting his remote learning on,” she said, closing a door); her husband, a jazz musician and substitute teacher, is also out of work. “There’s no emergency fund, and what we had in savings was about a month’s rent,” she said. Unemployment-insurance requirements are so strict she isn’t sure if they qualify — particularly since you can get in trouble for doing a single reading.

But Matthis hasn’t started panicking yet. “We’re just checking in to see how everyone’s doing mentally and foodwise,” she said. “My relationship with ERS is familial, and so we’re just trying to make sure that folks are … okay.” (Wednesday afternoon, Truman invited the whole ensemble to a virtual happy hour to check in.) She is greeting the situation with a galactic level of perspective. “I had my moment of ‘Oh no! My career!’” she say, laughing. “And now I’m like, ‘The survival of the human race!’” And, at least on day four, when we spoke, Matthis was still focused on the art. “The work has to get better as an actor after this, because we’ve all had time to really face some stuff,” she said. “And in a future where theater comes back — time only helps an ERS show.”

There are non-financial damages from the postponement-pocalypse that are hard to quantify. In the universe where Baldwin went forward, longtime ERS member Greig Sargeant would have been playing James Baldwin on the Public’s Anspacher stage in May; ERS stalwart Ben Williams would have been drawling alongside him as William F. Buckley Jr. as they reenacted the debate those two had at the Cambridge Union in 1965. The project is Sargeant’s brainchild and dear delight, and he spent the last few months learning 15 pages of single-spaced text to play Baldwin, whose words are still fearsome, clear, and relevant. “I’m not looking at it as a loss,” Sargeant insisted. “It’s a positive! It buys me more time, to hunker down to learn it, to get this message out! It will be done! It has to be done!” The show had been galvanizing others in the company too: Company stage manager Maurina Lioce spoke about being particularly excited about the prospect — “It’s in line with what I’d like to be doing in the theater,” she said, “for us to get more overtly into something socially conscious.” She paused. “Well, poof, it’s gone away.”

And too, when ERS plays at the Public, big things can happen. Actor Scott Shepherd’s time there as the lead in ERS’s Gatz got him an agent, he says, which led to a hybrid career that includes The Young Pope, Bridge of Spies, and True Detective. “By the way, I’ve definitely got this thing,” Shepherd said, feverish and self-diagnosing, from his apartment/quarantine. (He was clinging to a CVS-brand bottle of electrolyte drink, he said, because it read “for adults” on the bottle and he was too proud to buy Pedialyte.) His own devised three-person Macbeth project This Ignorant Present — slated for Melbourne this spring, now on hiatus — will survive by moving into next year; he’s worried about all the little companies, though, that are going to have to shut down, since even small hiccups can derail people’s work. “For certain, my career changed because of that run at the Public,” Shepherd claimed. “Before that, I’d only worked with ERS and the Wooster Group and occasional other projects. I wasn’t really playing that game.”

So Williams and Sargeant are left wondering what might have been. “This was gonna be the show that could get me an agent!,” cried Williams, who was on his rooftop, sheltering in space. “This was gonna be the thing I could bank on for a couple months and pay off some of this debt.” Williams is also a sound designer, a personal assistant, a carpenter, and a cobbler-
together-er, and while he does still have a teaching gig in sound design at the New School, “I feel like I’m going back to my 20s,” he said. “I usually freelance around a lot, but given that this ERS project was going to be so big and happen so soon, I felt okay turning down other jobs. They’re all gone.” He spent the weekend “getting shows on ice so eventually they could be reattached to a living body,” he said — laying up a store of work like Liza Birkenmeier’s Islander, which might be reborn after the flood, and Shepherd’s This Ignorant Present project, which they recorded and shared with the Australian presenters. Everything has gone into cryogenic storage; hopefully, some of it will wake back up.

Because while the news is full of theater people firming their chins and stiffening their spines, the reality is terrifying — it strikes deep into the heart of what live art means to people. “What we’re being told to do is the opposite of theater,” said Collins. “A few people on our board have suggested that we create a video of the show and distribute it, and look, I appreciate that spirit, but that’s not an easy solution. To take the fundamental ingredient and nullify it? Just adopt another medium? That can’t replace what we do.”

Every person I spoke to at ERS was more worried about someone else. Collins was worried about Williams, and Williams was worried about an assistant, whose cat was at the vet. It’s these connected chains of care that have made ERS function so long — and only other chains of care will save it. “When I think who will help us,” Collins said, “it’s the city and state who would recognize what an asset this is, how much cultural organizations contribute. Even with that, restaurants will fail! For-profits will fail! I know we can’t claim some special privilege. The good news is — we didn’t get into this business because it was supposed to be profitable. We may have to keep people from gathering for three or four months, but that won’t be a permanent imposition … and then we’re still going to want to do what we do. We’re not doing this for money, so hey, a big money problem can’t stop us.”

So how’s everybody filling the time? Williams will soon launch a podcast-slash-broadcasting project called Category Other, for “design-driven works of art for your headphones” by artists like Jillian Walker, G. Lucas Crane, and Tei Blow. He’s paying for it with his credit card. Truman is planting a garden, watching her last ERS projects vanish in smoke, and assembling data about the number of freelancers who are affected. Sargeant is keeping his spirits up and working on his Baldwin. Shepherd is learning piano; Lioce is getting out of town; Collins is in a meeting. Matthis is “being a human” and baking. And all of us are turning our eyes to the federal government, the only body large enough to offer such a massive, complicated, interdependent, necessary multi-industry relief. “If ERS doesn’t make work, we won’t survive,” said Lioce. Scale that up 10,000 times — you get the picture.

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How One Theater Company Is Facing a Dark Spring