Birth Pangs and Growing Pains: Theater After COVID

No child was ever born without pain–even if the mother was anesthetized by an epidural, general anesthesia, or a fifth of Glenlivet.

Theatre in 2022 and beyond will have to experience similar spasms if it is to survive and grow as a viable force in this century. Zeiders American Dream Theater in Virginia Beach, VA, is a case in point.

Michael Zeiders’ Dream

“Everyone should have one of these.”

Michael D. Zeiders Sitting in a san diego theater

It began as a dream of Michael D. Zeiders who had already created a successful multi-million dollar business in the field of services to veterans. One would think that would be enough. He is a modest man, not given to grandstanding or seeking the limelight. He was giving back to the Armed Services which had fueled his early life. He had a wife and sons who seem to fit reasonably fit into the “all happy families are alike” school of literature.

However. The arts–music and theater in particular–had sunk their hooks into him. A musician and founder of a big band in college, he continues to write music and perform today. And he fondly remembers sitting in the welcoming darkness in a theatre many years ago in San Diego thinking, “Everyone should have one of these.”

Miike Zeiders is not a backstage Johnny-come-lately. He didn’t grow up breathing in the musky smell of backstage in a bassinet housed between the costumes and the make-up chairs. He didn’t pound the streets of New York praying for his big break that was always just around the corner.

In fact, most people who meet him see the quintessential American, the American we used to mythologize as representing the majority in this county. Eager to succeed in this life, in business, as an entrepreneur but mindful of the people who worked for him and whom he served as customers. Willing to serve his country as a member of the Armed Services. Committed to supporting and raising a family. One senses none of the dissatisfaction, the unmet angst, that lurks just below the surface of so many who are drawn into some form of the performing arts.

There have been a handful. Arthur Rubenstein, from all reports, was a relatively contented man who hated to practice and sometimes didn’t. Billy Crystal is one of the few comics who talks about his childhood with warmth and whimsy.

So why is Mike Zeiders risking a pretty penny by funding an amazing performing arts building in Town Center in Virginia Beach, inviting an evolving menagerie of artistic types and temperaments, and basically saying, “Here it is. I can’t wait to see what you make of it!”

Before I seem to imply that Zeiders is some Willy Wonka type handing out fireworks and golden tickets to all and sundry, let me clarify. Zeiders American Dream Theater is not the venture of a fuzzy-headed wannabe with vague dreams of glory and fame.

It feels like more of an experiment in the business of the arts, a trial balloon set aloft by someone who has calculated possible trajectories and wind speeds. But still, once we let go of the string, we need to watch to see where it really goes.

After beginning in a small black box, Zeiders American Dream Theater officially opened its doors to its present location housing two theaters in October of 2018. It began with an in-house comedy troupe (Plan B) and a children’s theater presenting regular performances. During the first couple of years, the stage began to showcase new plays from local playwrights and playwrights who had begun to establish their careers in larger venues like Chicago and New York.

It seemed to me that audiences were slowly growing. During their fall Proteus Festival, a number of new works in several genres emerged. The theatre encouraged the exploration of the arts by various local artists through team collaborations. I remember Mike Zeiders in the lobby of one production at intermission. Someone asked him what he would eventually like to see there. “A long line of posters of all the plays that had their beginning here.” I could almost see them.

Then Came COVID.

Let’s not enumerate those struggles. We’ve lived them. Suffice it to say, through a combination of Zoom and personal ingenuity, the theater kept its doors open. After a hiatus, Plan B, the improv comedy troupe, is back in full swing. New plays in the Hatchery series have opened their curtains. Dreamwrights, the theatre’s playwright development program, continued developing new plays and playwrights through a series of bi-monthly new play readings throughout COVID and now have a stack of plays ready for further development on their feet in the studio theatre.

So, what is the theatre’s future? Will Mike Zeiders ever see posters lining the lobby walls as a testament to works of art the theatre has been instrumental in creating?

Keep in mind that MIke Zeiders was more aspirational than simply creating theatrical productions. He wanted to build a place where aspiring artists could come, find a home, and develop as artistic professionals. In fact, he believes that creativity, in some form, is an essential part of each person.  His dream is to create an environment that inspires everyone to use their gifts and act on their creative spark. That’s a pretty big order. But is it unattainable?

What is the Strategy?

There is a legitimate business strategy that postulates:

  • define your goals with some room for change, modification, and growth.
  • find people who have the following characteristics: some hands-on knowledge of the field; a creative and emotional intelligence; a willingness to fail, admit to it, and analyze it (Black Box Thinking); a generous nature and instinct for sharing credit and supporting colleagues.
  • encourage them to find creative approaches to business challenges required if the lights are to stay on and the water running.
  • allow your original goals/product to change as the talents of your staff and the needs of your community emerge.

Mike Zeiders is trying to create a performing arts space that brings disparate communities together in a common experience. A space that allows not only artists but audiences to discover the best in themselves and others. In a time when “the public” seems more engaged with Jerry-Springer-like politics and Reverend-Ike-Tammy-Fay-Baker ministries.

So, what’s the good news? Here it is. The world is in total flux. World War III feels right around the corner. The economy is unstable. Hatred, mistrust, and anger are on the rise. Journalists have been replaced in many households by “commentators” who fuel divisiveness, blame, and anger rather than cooperation, caring, and commitment.

Wait! That’s the good news?

Yes, it is. The times that “try men’s souls” are exactly the times when new ventures, new ways of approaching old systems, discovering new news of living harmoniously, and new forms of celebration (and isn’t that what theatre and the performing arts are?) emerge.

Right now, Zeiders American Dream Theater seems to be taking advantage of that. Operating more as a think tank that is trying to rebuild what might have been a successful theater of the past century, staff members are being encouraged to develop new strategies, goals, and endgames. They have the attention of the national Dramatists Guild of America. And a community, at least in Hampton Roads, seems to be ripe for engagement in the theaters they’ve been attending.

Perhaps the magic has stayed behind the curtain long enough. Perhaps the current political, global, and spiritual upheaval will shake some marbles free. Perhaps it’s time that the community–formerly the passive audience there to be entertained–is ready to see what’s put in the cauldron and even add a few ingredients.

There are babies we have yet to conceive, babies awaitin’ birthin’; midwives on standby. Maybe it’s time we all got out of our seats and joined in the process. The Z is waiting to make that happen.

Look for coming blogs on the growth of devised theater and its essential role in Virginia culture.

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