The fall season! It’s a time of Broadway debuts, opera openings, Oscar bait, triumphant television returns and fat special issues heralding the sumptuous delights of “the fall season” — packages like the one you are reading right now.
The cultural slate arrives like an advent calendar, stuffed with all the goodies that the entertainment industry and the arts world have saved up in anticipation of their dramatic reveals. This is the dawn of the cultural new year. And this fall was supposed to bring the most dramatic of reveals, the most triumphant of returns, the fattest of special issues — the most deeply metaphorical cultural rebirth of all.
Oh well. The summer refrain was that the vaccines would bring on the second coming of the Roaring Twenties, but it now seems that we are settling in for the Prudently Restrained Twenties. Precautions were cast off and then sheepishly retrieved. Flights were canceled; face masks were reordered; day care centers were closed. (At least, my child’s day care was closed, and my personal fall cultural slate so far consists of experimental pot-banging and close readings of Eric Carle.) A wave of theater and dance, TV and film, art and music will soon be unleashed alongside breakthrough infections from the Delta variant and whatever the “mu variant” has in store for us. Discussing the genetic mutation pattern of the virus now feels as mundane as talking about the weather. But of course the weather is no longer a mundane topic of conversation.
So what is there left to discuss? Movies? TV? As the world burns, streaming entertainment has supplied us with distraction and proffered the illusion of sublime control. Whatever may be happening outside, we can always fumble for the remote, assess our algorithmically derived preferences and scroll through social media to judge the results. But after a year and a half of loafing around the Roku home menu, my brain is eager for cultural engagement that requires the participation of my body. I want to see “Spencer” in a movie theater, “Pass Over” on Broadway and Brandi Carlile performing Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” at Carnegie Hall. Except that I probably do not actually want to go to Carnegie Hall.
For those of us who appreciate the sciences as well as the arts, live performance is now a tricky proposition. The risks can feel too slippery to calculate, the logistics too maddening to square. The fall is meant to bring more challenging artistic offerings, but this is not exactly what I had in mind.
Already some of the season’s anticipated players are peeling off, waiting for the epidemiological weather to shift. Taylor Mac’s play “Joy and Pandemic,” inspired by the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak, has been postponed, presumably until there is more joy and less pandemic. “Jackass Forever,” the latest franchise installment of men elaborately hurting themselves, was billed as a movie about “celebrating the joy of being back together with your best friends,” but even that bland premise is suddenly questionable, and it too has been put off. Studios are still finalizing release dates for a raft of fall films, waiting to calibrate their timing with the virus’s reach. BTS, Garth Brooks, KISS and Nine Inch Nails have all punted their tours. In a statement, NIN said that it had planned its shows as “a cathartic and celebratory return,” but, you know.
I waded back into live performance last month, under a tent on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, where the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival mounted its take on “The Tempest.” There were new rules: masks on our faces, vaccine passports on our phones, distance between the seats. The effect was mildly uncomfortable and faintly ridiculous; instead of breathing on one another, we spent several hours sitting outside, breathing on ourselves.
Why? To be enchanted. After too many months ogling screens in my apartment, there was a surreal thrill to finally seeing people materialize before me as shipwrecked royals and island sprites. Even the arrangement of standard theatrical equipment felt unduly charming. My heart leapt as the vapors from a fog machine billowed across the lawn.
Not that you could tell by looking at me. I worried that we theatergoers might seem less like an audience than a kind of ritualistic jury. You go to a show to see but also to be seen, to meet a performance with an emotional response. Now a curtain has been drawn over our own faces. Earlier this month I called Jason O’Connell, who played Caliban in “The Tempest,” to ask how he is adapting to playing for a masked audience. “I’m focusing on the eyes now,” he told me. “They’re giving me more, to tell me that they’re with me. Something that would once be done with a smile is now done with a cock of the head or a raise of the eyebrow.”
Live culture has always been a pact between performer and audience, but now that relationship has been made explicit. We all need to do more to pull this thing off. The virus poses an existential threat: to our lives and to the experiences that make life worth living. Those of us who are reconvening in theaters and arenas are doing so not because Covid-19 has ended but because we have come to terms with the fact that it may not exactly end, at least not with narrative finality. We may be living with this for a while, so we might as well figure out how to encounter culture together. Not just sighing in relief, but holding our breath.