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Chicago: Takeaways for a Post-Pandemic Theatre
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2021 is shaping up to be a year of tremendous change with reasons for optimism and concern in every aspect of our work. As winter wound down in Chicago, we surveyed membership to ask a few key questions: What is missed most from pre-pandemic theatre? What new ways of working are worth keeping? What theatre industry practices should be left behind permanently? Over 60 members in our region responded to our questions. Here are the key takeaways:

What We Miss Most

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that dramatists are devoted to their craft. In unprecedented circumstances, we found ways to gather, build, and grieve. It’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of survey respondents said they miss “everything!” the most. Drilling down, 32% identified “in-person live productions” as most sorely missed, with about 15% yearning for in-person development opportunities.

While development and production are top of mind for most dramatists, it’s worth noting many respondents expressed desire for the return of opportunities that were not widely available to them pre-pandemic. Our membership is eager to find ways to counter long-standing barriers many promising playwrights face at every phase of their careers. In this way, pre-pandemic “normal” in Chicago may better serve as a reference point for improvement than a golden era.

What to Keep

On a positive note, 2020 theatre inspired many members to embrace working in new ways. With 44.6% of member responses indicating strong support for virtual readings and workshops in a private forum, it was the most popular item to keep. Support for virtual readings and workshops in a public forum came in second.

For these dramatists, pandemic restraints created opportunities to work with those outside respective localities just as easily as those here in Chicago. This opened the pool of collaborators and allowed dramatists to more easily nurture and maintain inter-regional relationships. People further benefited from the cost-savings that virtual readings and workshops bestowed. With transportation, parking, and outside food costs eliminated, paid collaborators took home money otherwise subtracted from these costs.

Of course, this applies to dramatists and collaborators with access to reliable internet and other necessities like microphones, headphones, and the private space necessary to collaborate without interruption. For those for whom these purchases were not sunk costs or even possibilities, the price to overcome these challenges was steep, and theatre may have remained completely inaccessible during the pandemic. Over 20% of members surveyed said there was “absolutely nothing” worth keeping from pandemic theatre.

What to Leave Behind

For many dramatists, pre-pandemic theatre was less than rosy. These artists welcomed some of the changes brought about to address challenges faced. Over 60% of responses embraced continued reduction in ticket costs post-pandemic, signaling a potential unwillingness to rely on higher ticket prices as a backbone of support, or perhaps highlighting a disparity between what members earn versus invest in theatre.

Roughly 30% of members surveyed called out storefront pre-pandemic working conditions as something that should also stay lost. It seems this sentiment reflects the reckoning Chicago faced in 2020 regarding pay and work inequities and renewed calls for ensuring the health and safety of collaborators. Regional theatres were not immune. Overall, public and private voices charged the entire industry with doing more to combat racial inequality and be actively anti-racist. With this in mind, our membership responses reflected a widespread yearning for theatre in Chicago to forge a new normal.

Conclusion

While 2020 presented a number of challenges, it also afforded an opportunity to take stock. Chicago membership looks forward to a post-pandemic future with live productions that maintain elements of virtual collaboration and an improved quality of life for artists.

chicago@dramatistsguild.com