Lost but Not Forgotten: COVID-19 and ‘The Refugees’
At 6:25 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11—five minutes before our full-company rehearsal of The Refugees was scheduled to begin—I received an email from a college administration source that implied that our show would very soon be canceled.
The email was cryptic enough to leave room for intellectual doubt but clear enough to cue up an anticipatory grief right where it hurt, deep in the bones.
Nonetheless, the show was still technically “on,” and this was a very important rehearsal. We were polishing an intricate ensemble sequence connected to the play’s climactic refugee testimonials. Marginalized voices on the fringe of the previous action’s intellectual debate finally had their moment to make themselves heard. The queen was in close proximity to them, to their breath, their hurt, their lived experiences, and they knew that this rare intersection of space was their best shot at persuading a remote ruler to actually change.
As the refugees spoke, the rest of the cast played out their humanity around them, a sort of beautiful but discordant community dance.
Professor Alison Bory joined me for this rehearsal to help clarify the devised movement we’d created through chance-based algorithms. With lots of starting and stopping, what had previously felt a bit haphazard evolved into a more organized and meaningful chaos, a medley of duets, gift-givings, vignettes from childhood, and unison rituals. It gave me chills.
Fingers fidgeting in Cunningham 100, I flashed back and forth between parallel universes: In one, I couldn’t wait for Davidson audiences to see this; the other, if this had to be the last rehearsal of a lost show, what a great rehearsal it was.
Deep down, I knew the latter universe was the one I’d really experience, but in those mid-March early pandemic days, there were cognitive gymnastics between each moment and the next.
Shared Space and Social Distance
Reflecting back on the months before this moment, The Refugees was not just another show for me.
Before returning to Davidson College, my alma mater, for a two-year visiting professorship, I’d worked for over a decade in the professional theatre world of New York.
I’d worn every conceivable creative and administrative hat for every conceivable kind of show—coffee-getter for off-Broadway Shakespeare, resident director for a Broadway musical, writer/director of absurdist indie dystopias, producer of new works in which human beings played literal chickens—but none of those projects matched the timeline or scope of The Refugees.
This play, a contemporary riff on the civically engaged tragedies of Ancient Greece, had a very intentional two-year arc to match the duration of my contract: year one, research and write; early summer, lead a student/faculty trip to Greece to meet refugees and see ancient theatre; late summer, workshop the show with professional actors on campus; beginning of year two, rewrite; and end of year two, present.
Community was essential to the concept. My especially close design and production collaborators, Prof. Anita Tripathi, Kaylin Gess, and Karli Henderson, worked with me to make sure we had as many voices as nearby as possible. Every decision we made was tailored to maximize engagement for Davidson College students, Davidson College faculty and staff, Davidson residents, and even the city of Charlotte, a vital but theatrically underserved metropolis.
The notion of gathering was critical. I don’t believe the play offers a solution to refugee crises across the world, but if there’s a gentle suggestion, it’s this: sometimes, y’all really just need to be in the same room together.
You can see where this is going. Appropriately enough for its genre, The Refugees exposed a perfect Achilles Heel to an encroaching pandemic. All theatre is about liveness, a sense of shared space, and The Refugees doubled down on this.
I remember saying in production meetings, “I want a huge revelation of people, masses of people, so many people!” Students, faculty, staff, community members! Those physical bodies, overwhelming in their cumulative life, would be the force to change the mind of Clytemnestra, the play’s central philosopher of isolationism and apart-ness. I suppose in hindsight, in the meta-sense, she had her way.
Like I said, March 11 was a fabulous rehearsal. On March 12, we received an email from President Quillen entitled “Important Campus Message Regarding COVID-19.” And that was it.
It was devastating, though I feel sadder now, more aware of the loss, than I did then. There were so many logistics to manage in March that there wasn’t much room left for the quotidien grief of canceled activities.
A couple weeks later, we did succeed in a Zoom reading of the show, a form we can only pray is not long for this world. As much as it meant to us at the time, the truth about the virtualization of theatre is inescapable: filmmakers are way better at that stuff than we are. The theatre must be, by definition, in person.
Capacity for Change
What does all this mean for the future of The Refugees? Is it truly the one that got away? I maintain that this was not a project equipped to handle COVID-19, and as long as the pandemic rages, the play will need to remain on the shelf.
Some artists might disagree with me there, suggesting that The Refugees is perfect for pandemic times because it reminds us of the power of community. This leads me to some thoughts about how to hold space for live entertainment in the midst of our global catastrophe.
There are essentially three options. First, theatre could press pause and just wait for this all to be over. Second, theatre could follow the health guidelines just enough to make the Old Ways possible. Third, theatre, the ever imaginative and eternal art form, could evolve.
Option one is no good. The performing arts industry is completely devastated right now, and the last thing we want is to imply through passivity that our craft, a major public service by any reasonable measure, is dispensable enough to be paused at all. Option two, the option that would invite a modified production of The Refugees with fewer seats or radically distanced staging, does not seem to give the coronavirus the respect it deserves. Option three is the one I’ve chosen for my own practice. It accepts the virus as a new creative partner, seeking not to bypass it but rather to incorporate its realities into our creative mandate.
This July, I worked with a group of 20-plus Davidson and Charlotte artists to stage Exit 30: A Pandemic Theater Detour on our mostly empty campus. A drive-thru live event in which the audience occasionally stopped at evocative locales to watch a 2020-inspired original scene, this was an attempt to reframe our current constraints as thrilling opportunities for invention. The three sold-out performances (our beta test of the form) were so promising that I further developed the model with this fall’s Ubi Orta Pestilentia, a zombie horror adventure that offered a crowd-pleasing release to our students desperate for a primal scream.
The approach worked, showing how Davidson could lead as the area’s premier producer of COVID live arts. It’s not the sort of theatre I love the most, but it keeps us relevant while we wait for the viral skies to clear.
I prefer to save The Refugees for the moment when the return to theatre-as-we-know-it is truly safe, both from a medical and psychological perspective. Our Zoom reading in March was a moving vigil for a lost semester, but it only partially captured the gathering at the heart of the play.
In between the lines of the text, there’s an optimism about our capacity for change when we sit in a circle together, participants in a shared kinetic energy, occupants of the same small kingdom for one night only. What a celebration this will be, once COVID-19 has exited the stage. I hope to see you all there.
This article is an online exclusive companion to the Fall/Winter 2020 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.
- January 12, 2021
- Davidson Journal
- Davidson Journal Fall/Winter 2020