Comeback stories always make great drama, and the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) is already planning one. In collaboration with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the A.R.T. is working on how it and other theaters can re-emerge in the wake of the current health crisis, uniting the community through great art while keeping audiences, performers, and theater staffers safe.
Called “The Roadmap to Recovery and Resilience for Theater,” the plan is envisioned as a continuously evolving document with ideas and source material relevant to theaters of all levels. It will develop principles and general guidance to address the particular challenges the theater faces because of the pandemic, while adhering to accepted health recommendations and the emergence of new scientific research. Once completed, it will be accessible to all on the A.R.T. website.
The collaboration, between Diane Paulus, the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the A.R.T., and Joseph G. Allen, Chan School assistant professor, began before the pandemic as part of the A.R.T.’s planning for the company’s new home on Harvard’s Allston campus, Paulus said.
Citing the A.R.T.’s not-for-profit mission “to expand the boundaries of theater,” Paulus had already engaged in discussions with Howard Koh, Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership at the Chan School, about concrete ways the company’s new building and its programming could embody a commitment to public health. Allen, director of the Chan School’s Healthy Buildings program, was part of a think tank advising the architects of the A.R.T’s center for research and performance about how to make the building healthy.
The goal is to create a structure that is not only healthy in terms of its ventilation and materials but will also incorporate public space and adapt to a variety of public uses. “We are investigating how an arts institution can lift issues around public health, like inequity in health care and the empathy gap,” said Paulus, who became intrigued by the connection between the arts and public health when she was invited to be the Marmor Artist-in-Residence by the Arts and Humanities Initiative at Harvard Medical School in February. “Theater has the power to address what the WHO defines as health: a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being,” she said.
Then came the closure of Harvard and later the state. Cambridge shows were postponed; the Broadway production of “Jagged Little Pill” and national tour of “Waitress” were halted; and the London production of “Waitress” closed. The A.R.T. turned its attention to how to respond.