A Pandemic’s Impact On Theatre: An Interview With Jason Brubaker

Theatre companies have been thrown into chaos amidst Covid-19. In the face of this pandemic, though, many of them have shown inspiring resilience and ingenuity. One of these companies is The Playthings Theatre. The Playthings Theatre is an intimate theatre company based in Midtown Manhattan. Their mission? To create a safe space for a family of storytellers in the LGBTQ+ community, as well as to produce classic, contemporary, and new LGBTQ+ works for the New York stage.

They’re a young but vibrant company with a passionate devotion to their mission and like so many others in the artistic community, they’re currently coping with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. As theatres across the country have shut down and artists find themselves unable to tell stories, large and small companies alike are grappling with what this pandemic means for the future of the arts community.

Jason Brubaker, Producing Artistic Director, He/Him/His

In order to further understand the situation of Intimate and Off-Broadway companies, I sat down with Jason Brubaker, the Producing Artistic Director at The Playthings Theatre. Jason has proudly worked for the award winning Irish Repertory Theatre for over a decade under the guidance of Charlotte Moore. He has also worked for The York Theatre, Second Stage Theatre, New York City Dance Alliance, On Stage New York as well as many other Broadway and Off Broadway houses. He is a proud member of Actor’s Equity since 2009.

When the video call began, I noticed almost immediately a key hanging around Jason’s neck- a key he wears nearly everyday. To him, it holds incredible significance. “It was actually the main prop from the first Off-Broadway show I ever worked. It was at a theatre called Irish Rep.” The key is more than a fun keepsake, he explained, but it holds intense sentimental value, a representation of one of his early steps into the New York theatre scene and ultimately one of his first steps toward the founding of Playthings.

“Playthings was founded… oh Jesus…. five years ago?” The year was 2015, making Playthings a young but energetic and creative company with a devotion to telling unheard LGBTQ+ stories. He explained, “When the Wings Theatre on Christopher Street closed, I decided that it was important to have a home for storytellers, a home that offers a queer voice. The lay theatergoers coming to New York can’t think that Kinky Boots is the only queer theatre out there.”

Playthings identifies itself as an Intimate Theatre Company, as being defined by having a smaller performance space and a closely knit performance style. The company puts far less emphasis on spectacle and an increasing amount of thought into the overall storytelling experience.

Jason believes this intimate format to be a freeing one. He explained, “There is a drive and want to bring creativity to the community, but we don’t have to worry about the overhead- paying for a venue (other than renting out our own venue). Yes we have a board, but they aren’t focused on gained or driven income. They focus on the impact we want to have on the community.”

The company’s lack of financial ties gives it the freedom to explore theatre as an art-form, pushing the envelope in the name of artistic expression. Jason clarified this freedom through the lens of PlayThing’s creative mission, “Like The Irish Rep or The York Theatre, even though they’ve surpassed the ‘mom and pop’ vibe that they used to have- they still hold true to those sentiments. They’re very focused on their mission. Irish Rep will always be doing Irish works, York Theatre will always be doing musicals. Intimate Theatre means focusing on the goal, the mission. It’s not commercial.”

Jason lights up whenever the mission of Playthings is brought up. The opportunity to help tell LGBTQ+ stories is something deeply important to him. That enthusiasm positively radiates into the community as a whole. Many intimate theatres share this enthusiasm and lust for innovation. Jason believes this directly contributes to the lifeblood of the Off-Broadway theatre scene in the city, making intimate theatre absolutely essential.

However, due to the pandemic, artists across the country have suffered financial and psychological hits. This has resulted in significant damage to the the arts community as a whole, damage that is hard to quantify in the midst of a Covid related shutdown. With talks of a second wave, many companies are discussing plans for the future- plans that involve adapting to a world without live audiences.

As a member of the community, Jason has directly witnessed the effects of the shutdown on artists around him, saying, “There have already been a handful of companies that have had to send out messages announcing that this will be their final season. It’s terrible because anyone in that position is fighting so hard and striving to make that original dream come true.” It has left him reflecting about Playthings and its path forward.

I asked him what these closures might mean for the New York Theatre scene as a whole as well as what kind of cultural toll it would take on the artistic community. He paused for a moment and furrowed his brow. Then he began thinking out loud, “That question really hits me hard because when this first happened I had a meeting with the board and I was outwardly very optimistic, thinking we were going to come out the other side of this- while my internal monologue was shouting, holy shit how are we going to get through this…”

How are we going to get through this? A question that many companies and artists across the country are asking themselves right now. Jason was quick to note that the only way to survive the pandemic was as a community, without the help of the government. Jason likened the government’s neglectful Covid response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He recounted a specific quote on the topic:

“Let us remind ourselves that our work is far from complete. Where there is poverty and sickness including AIDS, where human beings are being oppressed there is more work to be done. Our work is freedom for all.”

-Nelson Mandela

“It was specifically written about HIV/AIDS,” he said, “the country decided that AIDS was a LBGTQ issue and not an issue for rest of the world. Covid, along with half of the other scares (bird flu, swine flu, the rest of it), they were some of the first times the straight community had the realization that the government wasn’t going to help in regards to a pandemic. We’ve been through this before.”

Still, Jason feels optimistic about the future of theatre. When pitting grim prospects against the resilience of the artistic community, he bets on the latter nearly every time. He elaborated, “I read an article, two, maybe three weeks ago? It said that only 3 percent of theatergoers were willing to return to the theatre post Covid.” He laughed, “But people don’t trust the person in the seat next to them anymore than they trust the stranger in the grocery store right now. Once we have a strong plan and once we can implement it, I think people will be more willing to come back. We are taking the time to ensure the safety of our patrons, actors, crew, and staff.”

His optimism is infectious and I find myself inclined to agree with him. Theatre has survived pandemics before. The human need to hear stories in a live, communal fashion won’t dissipate due to fear. It is a need that must be satiated. Jason was quick to reference Shakespeare during the plague, “Even Shakespeare had to deal with a pandemic. What did he do? He shut his door and he wrote his next play (Lear).” He’s very excited about the upcoming Playthings season, some shows having been specifically selected for a Covid oriented (streamed) format, while others are original picks that are being adapted for new mediums. As much as I would like to share, I have been sworn to secrecy as the season will not be announced until July 24th, 2020.

I asked him if he had a message for other artists out there who are struggling and afraid during a time of such uncertainty. He glanced at the key hanging around his neck and then said, “I would tell them what I tell myself. When you started this process, the process of going into theatre, you didn’t have a dollar to your name. Remember that bravery. Remember that boldness when you set out to do it the first time. Know you can do it again.”

Thank you for stopping by the blog. If you enjoyed the post, please follow the blog. The Playthings Theatre website can be found at http://www.playthingstheatre.org/. Feel free to share the post and be sure to comment your thoughts on the subject below.

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