Can You Hear Me?
Jonathan Spector, Playwright
Most playwrights I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks have had productions canceled. Some never opened. Others are never going to begin rehearsing. Still more got canceled mid-run or in previews. We all know it can take years for plays to be seen in theaters. And that it takes years to write plays. The sadness is cumulative and to some degree, inexpressible. Even as we mourn, there is also restraint – not purely because of the shock of the pandemic- but because, as we grieve, we also wrestle with something more existential that lies buried under every conversation about theater. After all, there is something strange about mourning the ephemeral. It feels oddly futile. As futile as creating something ephemeral to begin with? The faulty logic tugs. It is as though in order to mourn, we are simultaneously contending with why we make… and that, I think, is a thing of hope. Because whatever the impulse behind creating may be, we know for certain that it isn’t going away.
One playwright I know is holed up in Rhode Island teaching herself to lay down beats - a childhood dream. Another is panic buying bidets in San Francisco and teaching himself to install them. A third, in Los Angeles, is taking online yoga classes, revamping her diet, and taking long walks. A writer/musician friend in London who has had a year’s worth of gigs go away suddenly has taken up running. A lot. As he does, he is realizing how much plenty there is in doing little. A lifetime of planning, organizing, anticipating and worrying has suddenly dropped away. Producer friends in theater are worried for their jobs – some are caring for elderly relatives, others are realizing how little they speak to theirs- rifts in families are beginning to rise to the center of our consciousnesses. A playwright friend with children is keeping them to a routine as best she can. In keeping the illusion of order up, she explains, she’s trying to keep them safe from the painful adult truth of the moment… that there isn’t any.
In group texts we’re all wondering if anyone else is writing? And how? How are you concentrating? No one is writing. Everyone is trying. Zoom writers groups are popping up. We’re asking each other to hold us accountable for pages. But wait- is it enough to live for a while? Can we afford not to? Financially? Spiritually? Crucially, as a field of people who keep to an unerringly relentless pace because we can’t afford to stop, now can we afford to not stop?
Suddenly everyone in the world is discovering how theater artists have always lived. From month to month, with no financial security, making our own schedules, relying on our own motivation, seeking solace with our friends and leaning hard on our networks without whom we are nothing- as artists or as people. Little has changed for us in some ways. We were born, raised and sustained in a field in scarcity and crisis. Some questions thoughts and questions remain the same, others are a virtue of the moment… “but it was broken to begin with” and “will anyone want to reconvene in a closed space together?”- “Perhaps we all will? Perhaps we absolutely won’t.” “Perhaps we should make stories and film them with our cell phones at home and upload them to YouTube.”
“Can you hear me?” and “Is anyone there?” is the refrain of Zoom calls and conference calls and Skype calls with friends, collaborators, and colleagues. What is clear is yes we are, in fact, here for each other. Our instinct is to connect- and to keep connected. Where once square boxes held the ephemeral – it is now the territory of the daily. We’ve all had a lifelong practice with sitting with the temporary present- the heightened moment that hangs pure in memory. We have worked hard to make peace with what passes. And we have each other.