In an (almost) post-pandemic America, people need theater now more than ever

May 18, 2021 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
Anne Bernstein house

There is something particularly magical about live theater. Many of us can probably remember the first show we saw, how the songs or dialogue made us feel, how we related to a character on stage.

Theater, it could be argued, connects individuals to the human experience unlike any other form of art.

There is a saying that “myth is a mirror”—that is to say that myth, or stories, help us reflect on our own lives. This is probably why live theater is such a cathartic experience. We see our own struggles reflected in the players on stage. When they overcome their obstacles and succeed, we have hope that we can do the same. And hope is, after all, one of the most powerful drugs on the planet.

Hope is something the entire country is in desperate need of right now. That is why theater veteran Catherine Russell is fighting for the right to fill her theater at the same capacity as other businesses and bring light to those whose worlds have been darkened during the pandemic.

When began relaxing its shutdown rules in phases, churches were permitted to open at 50% capacity, while theaters like the Theater Center, which Catherine both runs and stars in its main show, was only given permission to open at 33%.

To be sure, even though churches are now allowed to open at 50% capacity, they also had to fight for their right to reopen in the New York, eventually having to argue their case before the Supreme Court. Thankfully, the Supreme Court recognized the importance of in-person worship and therefore demanded that New York Governor Cuomo allow them to operate.

While churches should absolutely have the right to reopen at half-capacity, if not more, there is no reason why theaters shouldn’t be allowed the same privilege, especially since many of these theaters are also serving as churches on the weekends.

Theater Center is one of several theaters in New York City that rent out their buildings to churches when there are no performances. This means that the same buildings, with the same safety protocols in place, must abide by two different sets of capacity rules, depending on what is being said on stage.

Whether a preacher is preaching or an actor is acting should not matter, so long as the building in which they are speaking has instituted proper safety protocols. In Catherine’s case, she has gone to great lengths to install a new ventilation system that sanitizes the air. She also ensures that other practices are in place to keep theatergoers, and her employees, safe and healthy.

While Broadway theaters have decided to stay closed for the time being, smaller ones like Theater Center can’t afford to keep their doors shut, or operate at a small fraction of their full capacity. They rely on their patrons to stay in business.

This is why Pacific Legal Foundation is helping Catherine lead the charge against these selective regulations.

Economic liberty and the freedom to express oneself rest at the core of this legal fight. But as theaters provide a much-needed connection to other humans during a time of unprecedented isolation, reopening these venues plays an important role for those longing for human connection again.

For well over a year now, many Americans have felt hopeless as they have been cut off from other human beings. Clinging to whatever connection we still have to the outside world, many of us have been glued to our television screens as we binge-watch hours of Netflix. But this is no substitute for community interaction—or the experience an individual has while seeing a live performance.

As Catherine said:

“I think that we are, by nature, communal animals and it makes me sad that so many people are now working at home and staying at home and watching Netflix on their couches, and there’s something really wonderful about sitting in a room with people and watching a story and laughing or crying or feeling that energy, and I think that’s really important.”

She added:

“I’m not saying that you have an epiphany, but I think that, if it’s done correctly, you feel something; even if you just sit there and cry a little bit or laugh a little bit, it lets something out, an emotion that you’re not going to necessarily feel when you’re looking at a screen.”

Without social interaction, so many people have been suffering. According to the CDC, drug overdoses have been skyrocketing over the course of the pandemic. People of all ages have also reported a decrease in their overall mental well-being.

In addition to running a theater and acting, Catherine is a professor at New York University, where she has seen hopelessness and depression reflected in her own students firsthand.

“I see with my 18-year-old college freshmen, some of them are so depressed, and I do one-on-one conferences with them and I can’t get off the phone with them sometimes. They talk for 45 minutes when it’s supposed to be a 10-minute conference. They’re so lonely and needing some sort of connection, so I think that’s really important, and we need to remember how enjoyable it is to sit in the theater.”

Catherine doesn’t think all theaters should be forced to reopen; she believes the decision to reopen should be voluntary. She also doesn’t think her legal battle to safely fill her theater will solve all the mental health issues we are facing. But theater offers a remedy and a temporary escape from the uncertain and downright scary times we are experiencing.

“I think if you’re sitting in a room with people, you’re more connected and you feel them and sense them and smell them and hear them, and I don’t know. I think theater provides that for people.”

She continued:

“We’re not changing the world. But it’s a distraction and I think it’s also different than watching a screen at home. It’s better, I think … It doesn’t have to be high art, great art in order to affect people. I bet you’ve all seen a commercial that made you really laugh or that made you cry. That’s one of the reasons why I love being an actor, because people feel things when they sit there.”

People aren’t only in need of a cathartic experience—they need to laugh. Theaters like Catherine’s are not the only venues being hit hard by the COVID shutdowns. Small comedy clubs are also struggling to stay afloat.

It has been said that laughter is the best medicine, and just like live theater, comedy offers an escape for those who want to forget about the whirlwind of change the world has undergone over the last year.

As Catherine says, “If you think about it, if all you’re doing is thinking about your problem, you’re going to obsess. You’ll obsess about it and it’ll become huge and as soon as you have some distraction, it gets put into place. My mother used to say, ‘Everybody needs a little wickedness to focus on.’”

PLF is not only helping Theater Center stand up to these unequal regulations; we are also representing other small theaters and comedy clubs completely free of charge.

While New York is expected to start reopening at larger capacities soon, this legal fight is still extremely important. Too many times during the pandemic, we have seen governors and other local authorities abuse their power and go back on their word. We witnessed things in California begin to open back up, only to be cast into the shadows of economic shutdowns once more.

Everyone deserves the right to provide for their livelihoods, whether they are earning an income through preaching religion or acting on stage. And as the pandemic comes to an end, and the sun begins to shine on our lives again, we are all in need of community and the human connection we have been deprived of since March 2020.

“I think no matter how depressed you are, how lonely you are,” Catherine said. “If you’re around other people, you’re going to feel better. That’s why I think when people were having mental health issues, one of the things to recommend was go for a walk around the block. Wave to your neighbors. You don’t have to get close to anybody to get out of your house. And I think that’s really important.”