Nothing next to normal | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Nothing next to normal 

As the curtain falls on live performance, museums and performing arts groups scramble to adapt online.

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click to enlarge The Chicago Theatre and Chicago theater are both closed for now.

The Chicago Theatre and Chicago theater are both closed for now.

Samantha Bailey

Let’s not call this the new normal. There’s nothing normal about every theater, museum, restaurant, and bar in the city shutting down.

What we have here is the new abnormal: bumping elbows that we sneeze into and jamming supermarkets, while schools and offices empty out; thinking it’s still OK to get into an elevator or an el car—as long as we keep six feet between ourselves and any other human. Governor Pritzker closed restaurants, but gave takeout a pass.

No one sneezes in a restaurant kitchen, right?

This, apparently in response to an announcement by the Centers for Disease Control that we need to prepare for a pandemic.

At Sunday’s coronavirus press conference, President Trump assured the nation that he was absolutely right about Google putting 1,700 engineers to work on a website where, very soon, we can enter our symptoms and find out if we should head to a Walmart parking lot to see if we need to self-quarantine. Even though Google has said that’s not actually what they were doing.

And the CDC, after deciding not to use the World Health Organization’s coronavirus test, says they’ll have other tests available any time now, but also that they’ll have to ration them, that the health-care system is in danger of being overwhelmed, and that the worst is yet to come. Translation: there won’t be enough ventilators to go around, and you’ll be dying in your own bed.  

“This is an unprecedented situation,” is what Art Institute of Chicago’s executive director of public affairs Kati Murphy said when I called to ask her about the museum’s announcement that it would close for two weeks, March 14 through March 27. (AIC has only closed seven times before that she knows of—once for Queen Elizabeth, but mostly for blizzards, and never for an extended period.) I wondered what they’d be doing during the shutdown that would allow them to reopen, since they’d already doubled down on the hand sanitizers.  

“We’re going to be figuring out what the new best practices are when it comes to preventing the spread of a virus,” she said. “Social distancing will be something we’re looking at: coat check, people in lines, the way we do financial transactions. We’ll be encouraging online ticket purchases.” Because, literally, all money is dirty money.

As for that reopening date: “If this gets significantly worse in the next two weeks, we would not open; we’ll be following the guidance,” Murphy said.

In the meantime, look for “enhanced content” from the Art Institute on social media, maybe an online tour of the towering canvases in the El Greco show, which will only be here through June 21.

Eureka: That unhealthy Internet-bred social isolation we’ve spent so much time worrying about? It’s now a commendable way of staying in the scene while social distancing. So Saturday night, two days after the League of Chicago Theatres had assured patrons that its member companies remained open for business, and one day after the start of a torrent of cancellations that’s seen them go dark, I hunkered down at home in pajamas and slippers to watch a livestream of the Cabinet of Curiosity’s Farewell Fables. It had opened one day earlier and was already, except for this online-only performance, closed.  

A laptop screen doesn’t do old-fashioned spectacle any favors, and spectacle is something Frank Maugeri’s Cabinet, with its Redmoon roots, excels at. What I got was an idea of Farewell Fables—a multistory human-and-puppet show about the departure of traditional gods. Better than nothing, yes, but, flat and small and tinny—nothing like the possibly magical experience of being there. And it reminded me that the deluge of recent cancellations included another story of departing gods: Lyric Opera’s Götterdämmerung, and its multimillion dollar, years-in-the-making Ring Cycle, which was to have been staged April 13 to May 3. Lyric said on Monday that there are no immediate plans for rescheduling.

Also on Monday, Theater Wit, which had been a holdout for live performance, announced that its production of Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick, a riff on Shakespeare’s Richard III that features a young Dick with cerebral palsy, would film one private performance on Monday night and then go to online viewing only, beginning Wednesday, at the regularly scheduled performance times.

According to artistic director Jeremy Wechsler, “The show [directed by Brian Balcom, with MacGregor Arney in the title role] was in tech, it looked great, and I just couldn’t stand the idea that no one was going to see this play after all this work.” Union rules would have been an issue for livestreaming, but Actors Equity worked with them on this alternate plan. Wit will continue to sell no more than 98 tickets per performance, priced at $28 each, with postperformance discussions also available online. Weschler’s hoping “to preserve as much of the in-theater experience as possible.”  v

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