Digital Theater Isn’t Theater. It’s a Way to Mourn Its Absence.


This isn’t about lacking a sense of proportion or danger, then. And live theater, though overwhelmingly M.I.A., isn’t gone for good. But its absence is profound and lingering — for Broadway, through the rest of the year at least.

So it’s not overdramatic to speak of grief, a freighted word that we associate most with death, but that is simply the sorrow that comes with heavy loss. For some of us who depend on the theater for sustenance — creative, spiritual, economic, all of the above — that is the term to describe what we feel in this time of limbo.

Uncertainty makes it scary, not knowing what damage will be irreparable by the time the field reanimates. Which companies, artists, careers will make it through?

This is the anxiety that roils and percolates, mixed with all the sadness and futility. What theater people do is put on a show; what audience members do is gather. It’s ritual; it’s reflex. It is also, in any conventional sense, largely inoperable right now.

So we take the closest substitute we’ve got, and even that can be fraught. Just ordering a virtual ticket for a performance of “Lungs” at the Old Vic — a starry, socially distanced experiment born of that company’s financial peril — made my throat catch as I imagined the empty house, the echoey silence of the air in there.

It also sent my mind wheeling into thoughts of a crunchy little restaurant I’m fond of in that neighborhood. Countless favorite spots like that are part of the ecosystem in every city, every theater town.

Whether they survive, and in what condition, will either salve our grief or add to it.

For now we hold a vigil, awaiting the reawakening.

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