If 2020 were a play, it would never get produced. “Egads!" critics would say. “I thought it would never end!"
Act I - Hope Springs Eternal
Live theatre came to a screeching halt in spring of 2020. Shows with late March openings were postponed. Until when? Directors shook their heads. A month? No one knew. The actors left, the stage manager locked up, and the ghost light glowed.
Then we got word: Cancelled. Cancelled? Until when? No one knew.
Costumes pulled for shows were put away and sets dismantled without audiences ever seeing them. Lines were no longer recited. Props stored (or not). Everything began to gather dust. Even the actors.
Everyone was hopeful we’d get Covid-19 under control and pick up the season where we left off – theatre people are a messy mix of worry and hope. August? September? December?
Theaters announce their next season with pride -- we survived another year! -- however, there was no new season in 2020-21. Posters from March still hang, fading on bulletin boards, like images from a post-Apocalyptic movie.
I was scheduled to tour my commissioned play Persistence: Woman Suffrage in North Dakota in August. I was asked to write it last year by The North Dakota Woman Suffrage Centennial Committee to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. 2020 was the year to share our story. We'd booked Stanley, Bismarck, and Grand Forks. There was going to be a reading in Valley City in June. I was still hopeful in March that the tour would happen. After all, August was a ways off.
Act II - Summer of our Discontent
In June, one of the venues that had booked Persistence cancelled. Then in early July my acting troupe told me they weren’t comfortable rehearsing and touring: They had grandchildren and elderly parents. They didn’t want to risk it. I understood. We cancelled the remaining performances of Persistence. It took the women of ND decades to gain full suffrage. I figured I could wait a year to see it on stage.
Act III - The Fall of Quarantine
In September, I got an email from Susan Wefald (1st woman in ND to serve on the Public Service commission), one of the women who commissioned me to write the play, along with Dr. Barbara Handy-Marcello (Professor Emeritus – UND – History & Women Studies). Susan basically said, "The show must go on!" Susan would not accept the play sitting on my desk until next year. She approached ND Public Television to see if they’d produce it. We all agreed it would be too difficult to rehearse it during Covid, so she said, “What about a radio play?”
What about a radio play? I had never written one, but I liked the idea of giving it a try. It would be fun to figure out how to convert the humor so it “read” on radio. John Harris at Prairie Public Broadcasting and Bill Thomas at Prairie Public Radio agreed to air it, and Susan and Barbara went about finding the funds to produce it. (They were feminists in the 1970s -- they know all about persistence.)
I adapted the script for radio, gathered a new group of actors, and we Zoomed rehearsals, just to be on the safe side. There was no blocking, so Zoom rehearsals were easy enough to do. Then Covid struck my house.
The week before we were going into the Fargo studio to record, my son tested positive for Covid. He was sick for about a week. I tested negative, but my last day of quarantine was two weeks after my son's last day because he lives with me. Bottom line: I wouldn't be able to go to the studio with my cast. However, I was fortunate for two reasons: Most importantly, I did not get Covid, plus I was just directing the radio play and not performing in it. On October 23, the actors went to Fargo to record, and the good people at Prairie Public rigged up a feed so that I was able to direct and watch from home.
Act IV -- (Who writes a 4 act play?!) A Winter's Tale
On TUESDAY, DECEMBER 15, 8PM | SUNDAY, DECEMBER 20, 5PM | SUNDAY, JANUARY 10, 10AM, Persistence will be aired on ND Public Radio. (It will be archived on the website after the final presentation.) I haven't heard a cut of it, and I am eager to hear the sound effects that Bill Thomas added to the performance. Collaboration is the best part of creating theatre -- on stage or radio.
Persistence. I feel like I have something in common with my foremothers. But then theatre people are no strangers to this word. It fuels every, single production we do. There are many times a producer or director wants to give up; obstacles are par for the course. Actors face personal challenges during rehearsal, second guess themselves, struggle to find their character, learn their lines. Parts are recast. Sets don’t magically appear and tech can be a nightmare. Producers lie awake at night as pesky questions needle them: Will it sell? Will it put butts in the seat? Will it flop once we sell tickets and put butts in the seats?
No. There would be no theatre without persistence. 2020 has just made it more challenging. But you know what? I can't wait to see what next season brings. This hiatus has only made the promise of live theatre all the sweeter. The lights will be brighter, the smiles wider, and you can "bet your bottom dollar" that all the Louises waiting in the wings are going to "sing out" when they take to center stage. In fact, I think it might be the best season ever.
Writing Challenge: I wrote this piece to remind my future self how I spent 2020. Think about your year. What did it look like? Were you a helper? A community builder? How did you hold your family/self together? Your future self wants to know.