To Move Forward During the Pandemic, Go Back to Basics

In 1960, a Turkish immigrant named Erol Onaran arrived in the United States with a whopping $32 in his pocket and a fair bit of skill as a television repair person. Erol was a man full of energy and ideas and creativity, and all he wanted to do was make sure people were connected to sources of entertainment. That was his personal mission. He fixed every bit of electronic equipment he could, and he was very successful at it. His business grew tremendously for a long time, and people liked working with him.

By the late 1970s, when videotapes became a thing, and his customers started asking him to fix their VCRs, Erol decided he could do more to achieve that personal mission. He bought a bunch of videos, put them on a rack in the corner of his repair shop, and invited his customers to rent them overnight, returning them the next day. They loved it so much that before long, video rentals became his primary business. By 1985, Erol’s Video was the nation’s largest privately-owned video rental business, with locations in five different states and DC. I used to rent from Erol’s Video myself, and I remember it fondly. Blockbuster, however—with a large number of public investors—was larger, and in 1990, as the video rental business was contracting, Erol ended up selling his beloved business to his rival.

What he didn’t sell in that transaction, however, was his original mission: to connect people to entertainment. On that front he would not compromise, even though he’d become very wealthy with the sale of Erol’s Video. He did take a while to regroup, but half a decade later, he saw yet another opportunity to live up to his life’s purpose: he could connect people to the internet. Erol’s Internet was one of the first dial-up internet service providers, and the business was once again tremendously successful. (Again, I was a customer myself.) Erol’s Internet lived longer than many of the earliest dotcoms, but it was eventually purchased by Starpower. Erol’s Internet customers live on to this day as subscribers of RCN.

Erol Onaran was a technologist who not only survived, but actually thrived during the most turbulent technological era in world history. He managed that feat by focusing not on what he did, but on why he did it. He put his mission and his service to his customers at the center of his work, rather than the type of work itself.

This is what I wish more theaters were doing during this pandemic. So many administrators seem to be asking how we can make theater, given the constraints we’re all living under, and that’s great: I admire their creativity, and I’ve enjoyed some of the early experiments I’ve seen. I’m not knocking any of that. But I also want to suggest that now is the time for us to ask why we make theater, too. I think we ought to emulate Erol and start thinking about how we can achieve those ends by other means, because this pandemic isn’t likely to be over for three years, and if we spend that whole time doing filmed versions of what we typically do in person, hoping to get back to “normal,” I fear there won’t be any normal to get back to.

Perhaps the why for your theater is entertainment. (That worked for Erol!) If so, perhaps you ought to be asking yourself how you can entertain people, letting go of as much or as little as you like of how you currently do that. Maybe you can re-tool your non-profit as a web series production company for a while. Or an audio book narration company. Or a podcast company. There are innumerable possibilities.

For many theaters, the why is about social justice, or a deeper engagement with the human condition, or sparking revolution. (Collectively, that’s the territory I live in myself.) There are innumerable ways we can be working toward those ends right now! (From my own experience, I think about Woolly Mammoth opening its doors to 6,000 cold souls during the first Women’s March in 2017.) All we have to do is accept that, for the foreseeable future, theater isn’t the path we’ll be walking to get to those places. We just need to hop over to one of many adjacent paths heading in the same direction. We can always hop back—if we still want to—when conditions improve.

And if you’re an artist, like me, you can ask yourself the same question: why do you do what you do? Sure, part of that answer is your love for the art form of theater. Inasmuch as we all can’t have that right now, though—and probably not for the foreseeable future—we have to work our way through the stages of grief. As part of that grieving process, I think we’ll find comfort in the fact that there are deeper levels to our personal missions, too. We artists need to be asking ourselves for The Deep Why behind that surface why. The way to move forward for each of us, I believe, is embedded in our personal answers to that question.

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