Life in the legit theatre these days is pretty tough. Well, more than tough really, because there is almost no live theatre being made. The devastation that the COVID19 pandemic has wrought on our industry is heartbreaking. It’s been hard to imagine how we will survive, yet as I watched Monday Night Football, I was given a great sense of hope as quarterback Alex Smith led his team to victory.
If you aren’t into football or sports, hang with me for a moment and I promise we will get back to the theatre part very soon.
Alex Smith was the number one overall draft pick in 2005 and although struggling for a few years, took the SF 49ers to the playoffs in 2011. He was traded to the KC Chiefs where he did well, but was traded to Washington to be their starting quarterback in 2018. That’s where he suffered a devastating leg injury which threatened his life and required over a dozen surgeries to avoid his leg being amputated. Most thought he’d never play football again… except Alex Smith. He never considered retirement and began the lengthy process of rehab, finally returning to the Washington Football Team in 2020 as a backup.
(If you want to learn more about this, there is a great documentary on ESPN, Project 11, but I digress.)
Alex Smith stepped into his first post injury NFL football game in the middle of week 5, taking over for the injured starter Kyle Allen. Smith was sacked six times and threw for only 37 yards. Not a great start by any measure. Smith was back on the bench until another Allen injury, required Smith to step up again in week 9. Despite losing the game, he played much better and a few weeks later, lead his team to his first win in two years. Then, in week 13, on Monday Night Football, something magical happened.
The 4-7 Washington Football Team visited the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers who were favored at home by more than a touchdown. But Smith didn’t believe it. He led his team to an amazing comeback, down 14 points to beat the Steelers, 23-17 and end their 11 game win streak, handing them their first loss of the season. The Washington head coach said after the game, "These guys [this team] deserve it. We've been down for such a long time and we're trying to rebuild ourselves…” and that’s when it hit me…
The theatre is just like Alex Smith! Here’s where it ties in.
The entire theatrical industry and all of us who work in it have been completely devastated, wounded and hurt to a point that it’s hard to imagine coming back. Some have even left, moving on to other careers and that’s very understandable. It takes everything we have financially, emotionally, mentally, to remain steadfast and hold on to the belief that we will return. It would be totally reasonable to pack it up, close our shows, or find other work. Alex Smith could have pivoted to being a broadcaster and done quite well, but broadcasting (like streaming theatre) isn’t the same thing. Smith wanted to return to the game he loves. Just as all of us thespians are yearning to return to the stages we left so many months ago and have the live experience that us and our audience need and desire.
With hope, belief in ourselves, and the right medical attention, we can perceiver. We will recover and rebuild. There are things in our industry that we need to fix, change, adjust, like the coach said, “rebuild ourselves..” That is what rehabilitation is about. It’s acknowledging the challenges, leaning in to them, working through them. We don’t want to return to just the way we were, we want to return better than before than before.
We have a glimmer of hope with the vaccine finally here, but there is still a way to go before we get to be starting quarterbacks in the big game again. Rehab, relearn, rebuild, prepare, train, practice, rehearse. So when the time comes, and it will come, we can create the most inclusive, respectful, impactful, moving, entertaining, elevating, theatrical experiences and, as Alex Smith has done, lead his team on an incredible come back and overcome the odds.
Broadway is known as the Fabulous Invalid. It’s a nickname, taken from a 1930’s Kaufman and Hart play that covered the ups and downs of a 30 year period in the life of a Broadway theater. Well, life on Broadway, and in theatres across the country, has never been on a steeper drop than the one we are on now. This is just the big dip before the next great rise.
The story of Alex Smith’s serious injury and incredible recovery was so reassuring to me. The excitement of the game got me excited for the time when we come back to our theatres again. Our industry may be down, but it is far from over, and may very well be the greatest comeback story ever told!