Live Theater and the Stories We Will Tell

Graphic by Robert Samec

History is made up of grand tides of change: of stagnation, revolt, movement, and disease; of the rise and fall of leaders and heroes; of war, casualty, and sacrifice. I’ve heard repeatedly since the pandemic started that “we are living through history,” as if the unprecedented nature of this moment is itself a point of comfort — as if to say: “At least I’m not alone, at least our suffering will be remembered!” I certainly understand what’s reassuring about this view, especially considering that I am anxiously refreshing the New York Times for election results as I write this. By translating the existential uncertainty of this moment into a vision of the stories that will one day be told about it, we can give our frustrations and dread some much-needed meaning, structure, and sanity. Envisioning what these stories will sound and look like before this chapter of history ends is, of course, impossible. We are deep in the midst of this tragic moment, and the way out is foggy, rocky, and long. Still, we may find solace in the fragments of memory that seem to persist within us and demand to be told. 

This past week, I sat in the bitter cold with my brother Oliver on a dark industrial street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to see live theater. Around us were a dozen or so other audience members in metal chairs spread six feet apart, in front of a yellow roll gate. Target Margin Theater’s Electric Feeling Maybe, a thirty-minute show created collaboratively by the cast and directed by David Herskovits, was well aware that it was the first piece of live theater most of us had seen in months. That fact alone remained the essential theme of the performance all night. At one moment early in the play—which they dubbed a showing rather than a show—an actress told us that this show is a placeholder for the theater that will be made once this pandemic ends. The show was a reminder that we can still cast aside our fear of one another (at least momentarily) and remember the world we once inhabited and to which we will one day return. Indeed, simply seeing an actor on stage before the blue curtain as the gate rolled up may have been the most affecting part of the evening. The show, which had no narrative, was a series of fragmented reflections and fleeting interactions on the nature of memory, grief, touch, togetherness, and fear by the actors, who played themselves, interspersed with movement and song (which included the very fitting “Touch Me” by The Doors). The actors seemed to be searching in fragments for ways to contextualize this moment through poetry and memory, but failed to see each other or listen for very long. The very nature of the show—short moments of sight that leave you longing for more—highlighted the transient connection we accept as fact in this moment.

Two moments jumped out to me as particularly gripping that night. The first was a shared and hazy recounting of the loss of Aeneas’ wife during the Fall of Troy from The Aeneid. Together the actors searched deep in their memory to uncover and connect all the pieces of that story, as if remembering reading The Aeneid or perhaps returning to find themselves there in the burning rubble of Troy, searching in vain for a loved one. The other particularly affecting moment was a lone actress’s poetic and mournful recollection of a dream in which she danced with her late grandmother, in a place that  she “knew was her grandparents’ house even though it looked nothing like it.” These two moments powerfully questioned the ways in which we tell stories about loss as we all search for a way to grieve this tragedy as it unfolds before us. On one end, we hear the fall of Troy, the archetype of disaster in the West immortalized by Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare. On the other end, we hear the isolated dream of one woman. The individual loss is made archetypal through the shared myth of Troy. Recounting the scene from The Aeneid was the most communal act in the production. By tapping into the shared image of loss, the actors inextricably began to understand each other. Art and images translate the existential uncertainty of our lives into something tangible and communal. 

Aside from the Aeneas moment and the occasional dance, the show emphasized the ways in which we are failing to connect substantively with one another. The fragmentary scenes created a jumble of language and reflections that were incomprehensible and unnatural. This was not a failing of the production, but simply an inevitable and necessary fact when delving into the longing and fear we are all currently in the grip of. Honestly, it was what happened on the periphery of the show that demanded most of my attention: the arrival, the cold seats on the sidewalk, the fever check, and the anxious subway ride back to Crown Heights were as much a part of the production as the thirty minutes when the garage door was open. By simply having an in-person event to attend, my brother and I confronted grief, loss, and brief, vivacious moments of connection. 

When we first arrived at the theater there was a major technical difficulty: the garage door was stuck. For 20 minutes, the dozen of us sat in the cold with our masks, jackets, and mittens as a white van screeched up behind us and two men with ladders and tools climbed out to save the show. The repair itself was work of astounding theatrical merit: the balancing act of the ladder, the prying and uncurtaining of metal. These were men of skill who, with patience and strength, made the broken gate roll again. As the yellow door raised and the blue velvet of the curtain came into view, we applauded the men. Oliver turned to me, already visibly shivering, and said, “They’re gonna tell their wives about this.” Live theater is about attention. By creating a theatrical setting in this moment, all acts are bestowed with theatricality. 

Most of our lives are terribly small right now. It is the mundane interactions and worries that occupy me: sadness about my time at Yale interrupted, worry about what I will do when I leave my friends from my gap semester and return home at the end of the month, and, at the show, my brother shivering in the metal chair next to me. There have been so many disasters, wars, and epidemics forgotten or consigned to history in simple and digestible monuments and plaques. As we live through this “moment in history,”, we must honor the trivial and the banal: our nightmares and dreams, our glimpses of connection and hope, and the sudden sadnesses that sometimes overtake us in a grocery store or waving to a loved one on their porch. Here we are in 2020, strung between the perpetual now and the glaring eyes of history, those eyes which turn what is present into past before we may experience it. One day all this history will be probed with clear, impartial eyes and written down in a depressing chapter of a civics textbook. But we are here now; we cannot live through this pandemic as if our lives are bones unearthed and examined. 

Today it is warm and I will walk with a friend on a rocky New England coastline. We will listen to one another and tell each other our small worries as the water beats the rocks into sand.

Leave a Reply