Love & loss in the time of coronavirus

With stages shut down, the work's stopped cold. Bobby Bermea asks his fellow performance artists: Can the fire be relighted post-pandemic?

It’s weird when you wake up one day and realize that everything is different. 

For me, just how different hasn’t fully hit me yet, not even more than a month later. I still feel insulated, like I’m in a bubble where time has become elastic, amorphous. It takes an enormous effort just to intentionally shape the course of a given day. How many times already have I eaten at 11 at night or woken up at 11 in the morning? As violinist Michelle Alany puts it, the struggle is “trying to find some kind of rhythm and structure so I don’t lose the art and creativity.” 

In thirty years as a professional theater artist, I had never rehearsed a show for four weeks only to have it cancelled right before we opened. PassinArt’s Seven Guitars, which was scheduled to open in March, was the first. By that time, I think we’d all seen the handwriting on the wall. I remember the morning the call came that it was over: It felt like I’d woken up in another dimension. It wasn’t the last time I was going to feel that way. 

Since that day I have heard innumerous people describe this moment in history as “crazy” or “surreal” or “like science fiction.” Except, it’s not like science fiction. Face masks. Rubber gloves. Zoom. Science fiction is now real life.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


As I write this, about 37,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, about 420 a day since the first confirmed U.S. case on Jan. 21 (the first known U.S. death came five weeks later, on Feb. 28). That might not seem like much, considering that about 8,000 people die every day in the U.S. But the numbers are rapidly escalating. On April 16 alone, nearly 4,600 people in the U.S. died from coronavirus. That feels different. 

I have one friend who came down with COVID-19. She’s 70 years old and was my first harmonica teacher when I was working on Seven Guitars. She spent two weeks in the hospital. She has nothing but great things to say about the medical professionals who took care of her. But the disease is no joke, and she felt like hell most of the time she was there. While she was in the hospital we stayed in contact via text (talking took too much out of her). One of the times I checked in to see how she was doing, she texted back, “Feeling shitty! Everything pisses me off!” I suspect that anger helped get her through it. She’s home now. A nurse visits her three times a week. Only today she was told that she can go outside if she wears a mask and practices social distancing. It’s an incredible victory. 

Author Bobby Bermea in CoHo Theatre/Beirut Wedding World Theatre Projects’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”: “If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist.” Photo: Owen Carey/2019

When the proverbial feces came into contact with the rotating blades of the proverbial air circulation device, I called my parents and offered to come down to where they live in Southern California. I could do my job at Profile Theatre remotely, and I could help them by buying their groceries and taking care of whatever other needs they might have that took place outside of the house. My parents declined my offer, saying they were perfectly okay. 

My parents are salt-of-the-earth, hard-working, bill-paying, no-money-owing types, so initially, I didn’t think anything of their denial of my assistance other than them just being their usual stalwart selves. It didn’t occur to me until later that they might not have wanted me to come down because they were wary of my visiting. They were being cautious and I was a risk it was better not to take. I didn’t have the courage to ask them. After all, nothing had been lost per se. Before the coronavirus, I hadn’t planned on seeing my parents in March or April. But completely illogically, the idea that they might have avoided seeing me stung anyway. All that matters right now, of course, is that they’re safe. 

My aunt and uncle had been planning to fly out to Portland from Richmond, Virginia to see my show Seven Guitars in April. They also, regretfully, let me know that they wouldn’t be making the trip. By that time, of course, it was simply de rigueur. Southwest Airlines, for instance, has cut 500 flights a day. On one hand, that makes me more determined to go see them. On the other hand, when? How? And will they even want me to come? Not because they don’t want to see me but because it might be dangerous. Even, say, if I got tested here, by the time I got there I might have run into someone or something that infected me. It’s crazy that I’m thinking like this. 

***

Lauren Steele in “Queens Girl in the World” at Clackamas Rep: Post-pandemic, “I think (the theater’s) gonna be the first place a lot of people want to go. Any opportunity to connect with other people and be in a room breathing with other people is going to be very appealing.” Photo: Travis Nodurft/2019

I TALKED TO A FEW FRIENDS, professionals in the industry, about how the coronavirus has impacted their lives and careers, and how they were dealing with it. They were all realistic, but hopeful. It’s a scary time, but the people I spoke to had not yet been overwhelmed. Everyone was hurting. No one was broken.

(Speaking of “not broken,” I feel the need to point out that as I write this, it just turned 7 in the evening, and on my block everybody opens up their windows at 7 and shouts or hollers or bang pots together, to let everyone else know they’re still here. I thought it was corny at first. But as the days stretch into weeks, and the weeks into months, I’m starting to dig it.)

Actor Lauren Steele, who only recently left Portland to make a go of it in New York, has returned home (temporarily, she insists; “I really hope I’m not here any longer than two months”) to be with her parents. When I asked what motivated her decision to come back, she answered, “More space. Living with people I know. We can all hold each other accountable as to where we’re going and when we’re coming home. Something like a thousand cases (at that time) here and what? Eighty to ninety thousand in New York. I have more space to move around here.”

Actor Seth Rue, who has also been living and working in the Big Apple, also felt the call to come back home: “New York started to get really bad. A lot of my friends were getting sick. And a lot of my friends’ loved ones and family were getting sick and going to the hospital. People very close to them. Parents. Being with my family became my top priority once it became clear that this was a very serious situation for which the United States was not prepared in the least.” His parents made him quarantine-camp in the backyard for two weeks. 

Violinist and vocalist Michelle Alany, who tours internationally,  luckily was already with her family here in town. “We’re lucky to have all of our people in one area,” she says, “so we’re quarantining between two households. My brother’s house where my dad’s staying and then my mom’s house. I’m going back and forth. I’m the main care person who’s involved working with my dad.”

Actor Cycerli Ash got trapped here. For most of this time she was planning on being here, anyway, doing Seven Guitars, going away, and coming back in May for By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at Profile Theatre. (She’d also been in Portland performing in Profile’s Sweat in January and February.) But when Vera Stark was put on hold, she found she couldn’t get back home to Atlanta: One by one, flights kept getting cancelled. “First it was April 12th. Then I had a flight back on the 20th of April,” she said, “But then everything got locked down until April 30th.” Right now, she doesn’t know when she’s going to make it back. 

Then there are the artists who are also parents. Veteran stage manager Carol Ann Wohlmut suddenly found herself home-schooling two teenagers, though by her account, she scored. “My kids, it turns out, are pretty good introverts,” she says. “They’re actually very happy. My youngest is like, ‘You know, middle school actually kind of sucks, Mom, so I actually like being home and doing my stuff online.’” This doesn’t cure everything, of course. “I find I have to spend more time in my room doing stuff,” she says. “I’ve always thought I was an extrovert but I find that I’m an extroverted introvert. I really like my quiet time.” 

John San Nicolas, center, flanked by Michael Mendelson and Ayanna Berkshire in “Small Mouth Sounds” at Artists Rep: “I don’t go out a lot and am in constant anxiety over how I’m going to pay my bills. I’ve gotten used to living in a desperate state.” Photo: David Kinder/2018

For others, among them actor John San Nicholas, things haven’t really changed in a lot of ways. “I already practice a lot of frugality in order to survive, especially when I’m not working,” he says. “I don’t go out a lot and am in constant anxiety over how I’m going to pay my bills. I’ve gotten used to living in a desperate state.”

Desperate state. That’s where we are. Even if we “reopen” Oregon in six weeks, as the papers are starting to suggest, a lot of economic damage will have already been done. You don’t drop a rock this big into the pond without there being, not just ripples, but waves. I remember when I first heard the National Basketball Association was shutting down for the season. The NBA. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to appreciate the mudhole that shutdown must be stomping into the belly of the U.S. economy. At the other end of the pop-culture spectrum is what I do, theater. 

Theater’s story is the same everywhere. Show after show after show got canceled. Seven Guitars got shut down and the hope is that we’ll do it next year, but as of right now, who can say? The day I talked to San Nicholas was the day he and Wohlmut were supposed to start rehearsals for Looking for Tiger Lily at Artists Rep. Both expect Lily to return next season. But it’s not a given. “Like it or not, a lot of our audience is still an older audience,” says Wohlmut. “I think that they’re going to be cautious, particularly at the beginning. And if things really don’t get started until late fall, say we all get it together and we’re producing by October, we’re heading into flu season again.”

Alany, a violinist who makes the vast majority of her money playing music live, said, “It’s like someone just drew a big ‘X’ through our lives. The bottom just fell out of everything I was working on. Everything got canceled, all the gigs, everything for well into the foreseeable future. I was going to be out of town for most of April, in May I had a bunch of projects and June was starting to fill up and then I was going to travel to Spain for two months in August and September. So, basically the next six to eight months are just a wash.” 

Michelle Alany, performing at the Oregon Country Fair: “How long will it take to build anything once we know that it’s even okay to have smaller gatherings outdoors? We don’t know when it’ll be okay to book a gig again, let alone a bigger festival.” Photo: Kim Still/2019

For my entire adult life I have been a theater artist. For all of time, and longer, I’m sure, some variation of “theater is dying” has been a constant refrain, from critics, academics, and younger generations. Until now I have always considered this a gross exaggeration, silly even. But as I write this, not only is it not silly, it’s true. It’s happened. Theater has died,  and the end came quicker than anyone would have thought.  

The twin pillars of theater are story and community. Take away the community, separate the storyteller from her or his audience, even if that audience is a single person, and you don’t have theater. You have something else. If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist. COVID-19 has managed to accomplish what the internet, movies, television, and a shoddy business model had failed to do. Nobody is telling a story to a live audience, in the same room, anywhere. Theater is dead. 

Theater companies are still around, valiantly struggling to stay relevant long enough for “the day after the coronavirus.” But no one can tell when or whether that day will come. In the meantime, other options are a long way from the real thing. “It seems like we’re all kind of grasping at straws to try to keep this thing alive that’s dependent on being in this room with other people,” says Steele. “That’s the magic of it. Monologue challenges on Facebook and Instagram — that’s not the same thing.”

The question is, of course, will theater, like some zombie from a George Romero movie, dig and claw its way out of the grave into which it’s found itself unceremoniously dumped? 

Presumably, yes – theater will return in some fashion. But like that zombie who shambles its way back to the home from its prior life, well, let’s just say daddy’s not going to look the same as when he left. He’s going to be altered, considerably. How much altered remains to be seen. No theater is safe. “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival had to deal with the fires and had much of their season cancelled last year,” Wohlmut recalls. “And then they canceled their season this year until the fall. That’s 800 employees. How do they come back? That’s the whole town.” 

Cycerli Ash, right, with Linda Hayden in Profile Theatre’s production of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” at Imago Theatre. Now she’s waiting to get home to Atlanta: “First it was April 12th. Then I had a flight back on the 20th of April. But then everything got locked down until April 30th.” Photo: David Kinder/2020

Steele is convinced, with qualifiers, that theater will make it back from the abyss. “If [the pandemic] truly is over,” she says – and that “if” seems to hang in the air like the sword of Damocles – “and there’s no more fear around it, I think that’s gonna be the first place a lot of people want to go. Any opportunity to connect with other people and be in a room breathing with other people is going to be very appealing. If it truly is ended, people will need it more than they have in a long time.” 

Wohlmut, though hopeful, is not quite so sure. “I think people will come to the theater to celebrate at the beginning but I don’t know that we’ll get as many subscriptions and I don’t know if we’ll be able to sustain it,” she says. “I think we’re all gonna rush out and go to our favorite restaurant, we’re so glad they’ve reopened, it’s gonna be a treat for them and a treat for us but I didn’t work for three months so I’m glad I could support you today but I can’t come as often as I’d like to. The bigger concern is the long-term effects.”

Alany has similar concerns. “It’s had a huge impact on festivals that need a year (or more) to roll out all the funding and all the logistics,” she says. “How long will it take to build anything once we know that it’s even okay to have smaller gatherings outdoors? We don’t know when it’ll be okay to book a gig again, let alone a bigger festival.” 

It seems obvious that American theater will never be the same. San Nicholas, asked if he thought theater would return, replied, “Absolutely, I’m not concerned it won’t come back.” But, he added, “The question is, in what capacity and to what extent it will come back?” 

Rue expects a tectonic shift, no matter what happens. “I’m worried and excited about the future of theater,” he says. “In its current iteration, it will never recover on a general broad basis. But I think it will be something brand new and there will be all kinds of innovations during this time, not only in terms of content but in terms of format and style.”

Seth Rue in Anna Deavere Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror” at Profile Theatre: “I’m worried and excited about the future of theater. … I think it will be something brand new and there will be all kinds of innovations.” Photo: David Kinder/2018

One can only hope. But, heck: Theater, like this nation, has needed an overhaul for a while now. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, the nuts and bolts, the dollars and cents, of how theater gets made will also be reimagined, a more sustainable model will be introduced, a clearer sense of purpose will be found. Who knows? Business has certainly never been my strong suit. But many people both in and out of theater have believed for a long time that change was needed. Maybe this will be a necessary catalyst. 

When the nation and world reopen, you would think that just the fact that theater is alive and three-dimensional – the things that make it unique and appealing – and not on screen would be a point in its favor. Granted, that wasn’t true before. But maybe after people have been stuck with only screens for a while they’ll feel differently. Maybe. And, heck, it’s not like it’s the first time theater has been through an epidemic. Some of the others, like the Black Plague and the Spanish Flu, were far more deadly. But theater always came back. 

It feels important not to let this opportunity pass by. I talk about theater because that’s what I know; that’s what gets me up in the morning. But the same can be said about the city, the state, the nation. Everybody’s taking a hit. I’m hearing some airlines are in fear of going under. That’s big. But fear-mongering is not the point. All I’m saying is that it’s not the time to feel sorry for theater. But what is the lesson to be learned? 

 I remember when I was a kid, OPEC, the international petroleum alliance, got mad at us and turned off the taps, creating a worldwide oil shortage. There were lines for gas everywhere. The government then ordered, for the first time, 55 mile per hour speed limits to cut down on gas consumption. It worked. Another consequence, one that no one had planned for: There were fewer car accidents. Fewer people died. So, for a while 55 became the law of the land. What is that lesson now? 

Since the ’70s, of course, and America being who we are, the speed limit has steadily crept back up, the lesson buried under the “need” for expediency. I’d be curious to see if car accidents and deaths in car accidents also went up accordingly in that time. But that’s a stat few people want to know, because we can’t afford – or aren’t willing – to slow back down. I wonder if the lesson we’re supposed to be learning is something along those lines, something as simple getting our priorities corrected, or as my father would say, “straighten up and fly right.” 

“What gives me hope for the future,” asserts Rue, “is that during this time many of the ways that our society and our systems of governance are entirely broken and disastrous have been highlighted, and the hope is that we will remember these and will have been documenting them and will demand that they are changed or reformed or entirely dismantled.” 

Carol Ann Wohlmut: “I think people will come to the theater to celebrate at the beginning … The bigger concern is the long-term effects.”

Wohlmut, astute and compassionate, is “concerned about the people that are falling through the cracks, the people on the street, single parents, people who have to go to work, somebody who’s counting on a check, a child-support check, an alimony check, someone who got laid off. That’s who I’m thinking about right now. I’m worried about the vulnerable people.”

Alany finds hope close to home. “I have a four-year-old nephew,” she says, “and when I see he is connecting with music and finding it on a much more personal level, that gives me hope.”

“I do have concerns (about the future),” confesses Ash. “I’m a firm believer that what is for me is for me. So, I try not to live in fear or worry.” 

What is for me is for me. A simple mantra that takes on resonance and nuance the more I turn it over in my head. Somewhere in those seven syllables, I feel, is my lesson that I’m supposed to take from the Age of Coronavirus. What exactly that is, I haven’t quite figured out. But I have time. 

10 Responses.

  1. Rosalie Tank says:

    Bobby, I always like reading your essays. And I’m so sorry for all the artists who are stranded right now.

  2. James Ryan says:

    Son, you have always been my favorite writer. I may be a little biased but I loved every turned phrase in this piece. Keep up the good work and know that pandemic or not you are always welcomed here at home. Love Dad!

  3. Joyce Tinsley says:

    Nephew we love you, we support you and when this passes we will be together. We had been looking forward to seeing you in April there will be more plays and we will definitely try our best to come we also look forward to it being safe so you come see us. Keep up the good work!!!

  4. I don’t agree that theater is dead. She is changing forms. I have been to shows on the internet – and there are possibilities there. Interactive theater. Connecting intimately with an audience. Doing the show LIVE. No, we aren’t breathing the same air, but we are alive in the same moment, experiencing somewhat the same thing. I have hope. I have ideas.

  5. Sherry Lamoreaux says:

    What Seth said. And: Theatre is an essential human endeavor, because storytelling is an (the?) essential human endeavor. We began with telling stories around the fire. If everything got scrapped we would begin again, there, and build something new/something old, again.This is, or will be, a forcing house for growth.

  6. Judy Henderson says:

    Thanks, Bobby, for your thoughtful essay. Your writing feels like I’m listening to a friend looking at his life and at the same time getting a look at a bigger picture. You have a unique and lovely style.

  7. Chantelle Arentsen says:

    Such a great piece, Bobby! I love your work. So proud of you big brother.

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