I recently saw a heart broken 75-year old man see his dream collapse around him in the midst of our nation’s recent epidemic. Playhouses and theaters around Manhattan are shuttering their windows and closing their doors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many shows are uncertain when, if ever, they will be able to open again. This is the case for Eric Krebb, owner of the Playroom Theater, and one of the shows housed at Playroom, “That Physics Show”.
I ventured into New York City from the desolate Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, NJ in order to help with the disassembly of the set for “That Physics Show”. The city was vacant and quit by New York City standards on a beautiful summer day in June.
Co-creator and star of “That Physics Show”, Dave Mauillo, is my boss and mentor here at Rutgers University. He had driven us into the city in our physics department van, covered in witty physics jokes. The vehicle would soon be filled to the gills with remnants of Krebb and his widely successful show.
For a person like myself, who loves physics, pillaging the equipment at the theater was almost like Christmas. However, there was a palpable feeling of sorrow in the air. The tragedy of the nationwide shutdown is potentially destroying an entire community and a long-loved art form, theater.
That Physics Show is a theatrical production that involves a physics demonstration performed by Mauillo in an intimate theater, open to the general public. The show includes fantastic spectacles such as firing a ping pong ball through soda cans at over 700 miles per hour. This demo is as cool as it sounds. There is also a rocket cart that is propelled by a fire extinguisher. The cart reminds one of a soapbox derby car erected during the summer when I was a child. There are explosions involving hydrogen and a light spectrum demonstration which leaves the audience mesmerized by the everyday lighting and the spectra of the same.
The show has been running for five years and performed over 500 shows. That Physics Show has also been featured in the New York Times and won a Drama Desk award for Unique Theatrical Experience. Despite the tremendous success of the show, it has come to a screeching halt due to the recent shutdown.
The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the theatrical community in New York, as well as around the globe. The shutdown was sudden and indefinite. Without a light at the end of the tunnel, producers are hemorrhaging money by way of rent and other everyday expenses in order to maintain the theater space. The actors, theater hands, ticket takers and all other people involved with Broadway productions have been forced into financial destitution as well. Many were forced to vacate their tiny apartments throughout the borrows as a result of the lack of work available. Many lost secondary sources of revenue, like waiting tables, bartending, even working as tour guides and performers at the city zoos.
The ripple effect of this closure has impacted many other businesses. Most of the impact is flying under the radar of the public eye. These businesses are those which support the theater industry. Such as custom manufactures in the garment district and cobblers specializing in theatrical footwear. Sure this is a niche market, however these people rely on the theater community to make a living as well. No shows, no costumes, no boots, no work.
While speaking to Krebbs about the lasting effects on the community as a result of the shutdown, he spoke of the troubles smaller productions would feel as a result. The larger shows which have a long history of success and have grossed millions of dollars will be much more likely to bounce back. So if you are worried about seeing the show “Wicked” oneday, do not worry, it will likely be one of the shows which remains open when the closure is lifted.
The shows which might not survive are the smaller ones. Those without unlimited financial backing. New shows that were scheduled to open might never see the stage. Krebbs spoke of a particular play which had been ready to open the night of the shutdown. This play was “Six”. With a multi-million dollar cost to produce, the play never got off to be opened and probably never will.
The adverse effects of this shutdown on the theatrical community is overwhelming. Krebbs plans on using this hideous production to start a nonprofit organization, which he hopes lives on after he is gone. Sceincetheatercompany.org will be the organization and That Physics Show and That Chemistry Show will be produced in the future by Krebb’s nonprofit.
I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to assist with the production of That Physics Show online. The online show is a classroom-based version that is often done here at Rutgers. In efforts to reach the public during the shutdown, the aforementioned show has been posted online which you can see at the hyperlink provided. Here is a link to the actual performance as it is performed on stage.