Skip to main content

What’s new in the performing arts?

As 2023 begins, Northwestern faculty assess their artistic fields and the impacts of COVID-19, social justice and technology
arts trends
Robert Schleifer in the role of the Provost delivers his lines in American sign language, which cast member Kidany Camilo, in the role of a nightclub performer, interprets simultaneously in “Measure for Measure” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Liz Lauren

Nationwide, performing arts programming has returned after two years of loss and upheaval caused by the pandemic. Northwestern practitioners of theater, music and dance assess the impacts of COVID-19 — and social justice changes still in progress — on their artistic fields.

Two trends have been quick to emerge.

The most performed playwright, Lynn Nottage, and Musical America’s Composer of the Year, Jessie Montgomery, of 2022-2023 are Black women, pointing to more inclusive programming. On the downside, performing arts venues have struggled to return to 2019 attendance levels.

From merging technology with live performance, to greater engagement with social issues, here are Northwestern experts’ predictions for new developments in the performing arts.

Embracing inclusion, attracting new audiences

Actor, director and theatre department chair Henry Godinez directed Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s fall of 2022 production of “Measure for Measure.” The production included a deaf actor delivering lines in American Sign Language while another actor simultaneously interpreted his lines.

“Theatre companies must understand that the most genuinely effective way to attract new audiences is by telling stories that reflect the experiences of historically under-represented communities,” Godinez said. “The recent Broadway production of “Death of a Salesman” with an all-Black cast also illustrates the artistic benefits of telling classic stories in inclusive ways.

“The immediacy and significance of the social justice uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder will hopefully not be lost to avaricious impulses to first and foremost sell tickets. The evidence so far is that it won’t,” Godinez said.

Dance faculty note a similar trend among choreographers to “look within” when creating new works.

“We are seeing more biography and identity politics as the basis for making creative work in dance and dance theater,” said Thomas F. DeFrantz, director of SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology Lab at the School of Communication. 

“We’re likely to see more experimental dance performances that explore how people feel from a very personal perspective of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, disability, body type and place.” 

Jeffery Hancock, associate professor of instruction of theater adds, “In addition to the ‘how we got here’ in the work content, there is increasing awareness of power and positionality in the practice of making dances.”

Using technology and interactive media

Music faculty note trends in technology usage and the physicality of performance.

Joachim Schamberger, director of opera at Bienen School of Music, staged the Midwest premiere of “In a Grove” last fall.

“As COVID-19 shifted our world, few fields were as fundamentally impacted as performance. Those who produced live theatre were in a rapidly changing landscape that transformed in many ways. One of the most notable shifts was the use of technology and interactive media.”

“In a Grove” composer Christopher Cerrone called for various forms of electronic processing (reverb, granulation, delay, and pitch shifting) to be applied live in real time. To stage Northwestern’s opera production, a sound engineer mixed the singers with the orchestra all of which were picked up by individual microphones.

“Training new musicians today requires more than mastery over an instrument. It can require speaking and performing with your whole body,” says Alan Pierson, co-director of Northwestern’s Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME) and artistic director of new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound.

Pierson worked with CME students to reconstruct avant-garde composer Julius Eastman’s improvisational work “Stay on It” for Bienen’s Black Composer Showcase in 2022. In addition to playing their instruments, musicians walked about the audience and recited text from Eastman’s score.

“Clearly the direction is toward more intermedia work. Performances that are not just purely musical – but bring into play other kinds of performance to create a more immediate experience.

“As it becomes harder to get people out of their house to go to an event, my sense is that those events that are more unique, immersive, ‘you have to see it’ musical events will become more common.

“What is important to us as educators at the Institute for New Music is to prepare players for a world in which it is not enough to play your instrument well, but to be trained to speak and perform with the whole body.”

Audiences are delighted to be back!

The Bienen School hosted the 26th Winter Chamber Music Festival in January. Concert manager Jerry Tietz noted a healthy demand for tickets. 

“Performing arts organizations discovered that ‘where there is a will there is a way’ to make digital and live streaming available to audiences. And while the genie will never go back into the bottle, what I hear most often from patrons is how utterly delighted they are to get back into the halls,” Tietz said.