Oscar E Moore

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April 23rd, 2020 by Oscar E Moore

Before Coronavirus, Theater Was My Salvation. Where Do I Turn Now?
The live-streamed performances and online group chats have been useful, but I miss the joy that comes with being in a theater.
By Joel Grey
Mr. Grey is an actor and director.
• April 22, 2020

Recently, I quietly (and socially distantly) celebrated my 88th birthday. Some people might say that, even in good times, looking toward the future at my age is an act of optimism. But a life in the theater is built on exactly that kind of blind confidence, and I’ve spent my life pretty much always looking forward to whatever was the next thing: the next role, the next milestone, the next great show to see.
Now, because of the coronavirus, we’re facing a future that sure feels more tenuous and fragile than ever. Projects have been canceled, milestones have already been missed, and all the shows have gone dark. These are hard times, for sure, and in hard times I, like so many others, have always turned to the theater for comfort. Where do we turn now?
To non-theater lovers, lamenting the closing of Broadway in the face of so much widespread suffering may seem, at best, frivolous. But for many of us, this tragedy has been made that much more devastating by having to face the nightmare without the laughter, tears and sense of community that a night in the theater delivers.
The darkened Gerald Schoenfeld Theater on West 45th Street, home of the musical “Come From Away.” Broadway theaters have been closed since March 12 because of the pandemic.Credit…Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times
When politicians talk about the power of Broadway in tough times they often speak in purely economic terms. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made his interest clear when he told the nation: “If you really want to help New York City, come to New York. Go to a play. Spend money in New York City.”
It is big business, to be sure. It’s a point of pride that Broadway is New York City’s top tourist destination, drawing more ticket buyers in the 2017-18 season than all of the tristate area’s sports teams combined.
But by focusing solely on “money, money, money,” we diminish playgoing’s deepest value. When the theater reacts in real time to current events, it has a unique ability to comfort and lead us through difficult times.
The only other public health emergency in my lifetime that recalls this pandemic, both because of the terror surrounding it and the failure of our elected officials to contain it, was AIDS. When “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s dramatization of the early days of that crisis, premiered at the Public Theater, it was 1985, near the height of paranoia about AIDS. Shortly after the play’s opening night, the actor playing the role of Ned Weeks, Brad Davis, found out he was positive and fell ill.
Joe Papp, the producer, called and asked me to take over the role, which called for an onstage kiss between Ned and his lover. My doctor — who did not yet know exactly how the disease could and could not be transmitted — advised me not to take the job because of it. I’ve never been particularly good at following doctors’ orders, and in this case, for me, the notion of backing out was unthinkable; I was already committed and felt an urgent need to be a part of telling this story. But the fear that came from that misinformation was there nightly.
The fact that “The Normal Heart” was chronicling these horrific events more or less in real time made it so much more than a play. It was a coming together of the actors and the audience to to talk about it, cry about it, cry some more about it — to connect. Up until then, I had never been in a play where the audience’s weeping would become part of the mise-en-scène.
Every single night, there was a palpable sense of catharsis in the theater before, during and after the performance. The production was a release for a community in mourning, and also managed to infiltrate popular culture in a way that created much wider awareness about a largely misunderstood disease. (A few years later, Tony Kushner would dramatize the horrors of AIDS to an even wider audience with his epic “Angels in America.”)
I can’t think of any significant national trauma during my life to which dramatists haven’t held a mirror, from the Vietnam War (“Hair,” in 1967) to the Sept. 11 attacks (“The Guys,” December 2001). It’s what we do. The theater provides a fundamental way in which we process pain and learn to heal. And now, in this moment of such great loss and confusion, where do we go?
Privately, we are keeping our community intact through video chats and telephone calls. When one of us falls ill, the other members of our community rally around. While the “Moulin Rouge!” actor Danny Burstein was hospitalized and recovering from the coronavirus, I spoke to him numerous times every day. Right now, as another actor who has been infected, Nick Cordero, battles the illness, a group of his friends hold a daily online gathering to pray, commune and dance to his original music.
Publicly, our analogue art form has gone digital — play readings over Zoom, musical performances via Instagram Live and the proliferation of new podcasts. Theater people are nothing if not resourceful when it comes to reaching an audience.
Our ability to connect with audiences and one another through technology is useful, but I miss the real thing. I long to hail a cab, head to Midtown, hand over my ticket, grab a Playbill and settle into my seat, as a thousand strangers and I breathlessly wait for the lights to go down and the curtain to go up.
Until then, I’m taking comfort in the thought that at hundreds — maybe thousands — of desks around the world right now, great playwrights with too much free time on their hands are unleashing their wisdom, their fury and their boundless compassion upon the challenges we face. We may just have to wait a little longer than usual for the relief and understanding that all of that important work will provide.
And when that important work arrives, I’ll be ready. As the entertainer George M. Cohan, who I had the honor of portraying in the 1968 musical “George M!” once wrote, “Whisper of how I’m yearning/ To mingle with the old-time throng/ Give my regards to old Broadway/ And say that I’ll be there e’er long.”
Maybe, at 88, I’ve finally learned a little patience. Here I am, as optimistic as ever, looking forward to those eventual opening nights, and so much more.
Joel Grey is an Academy and Tony Award-winning actor and director.
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