- Richard Byrne
What Not Why: Making Art in a Pandemic
A version of this essay appeared in the January 2021 issue of The Ryder.
When the COVID-19 outbreak was on the cusp of graduating from epidemic to pandemic status, back in late February of 2020, I was in Virginia Beach, feverishly trying to finish a new play.
Over the past few years, off-season Virginia Beach has become a creative refuge for me. I get a cheap room on the ocean and write and walk. It’s one of the few East Coast beach towns that does not close up for winter. It’s quiet. No one bugs you at all. Accessible by Greyhound from Washington, D.C. So it’s perfect.
My intention had been to take this trip a month earlier. But the demands of my day job, as well as some family health issues requiring my immediate attention, postponed my journey. I was desperate to get there this time, because I was very close to finishing a work I’d been researching and writing on Kristina Söderbaum – a Swedish actress who became one of the luminaries of Nazi cinema. Her story is hopelessly entangled with that of her equally-infamous husband, Veit Harlan, who was one of Joseph Goebbels’ go-to film artists and the director of the flagrantly anti-Semitic film, Jud Süss.
The Söderbaum play had become a personal mission. Her story was an opportunity to consider the anatomy of complicity: How do sensible but ambitious people end up serving horrific political masters? Their help is essential to maintain such regimes in power, of course. But by what mechanisms are they enlisted? How do they rationalize their choices? Can they ever do so, in fact?
The week by the sea was extraordinarily productive. I finished the play, which took the title of The Drowned Girl. I was writing it with an eye towards a Brooklyn staging later in 2020 as a double-feature accompanying another a one-woman show I had written. (I worked on The Drowned Girl with an extraordinarily gifted actor already in mind. We had plans, you see.)
Yet by the Thursday of my week in Virginia Beach, the shadow of pandemic – and the panic it begat – was already starting to darken everything. I could feel that all the little pleasures of such trips – sitting in a coffee shop, having breakfast in a pancake house, sitting in an Irish pub and watching Liverpool lose while killing time before my bus – were the last such simple pleasures I’d experience for awhile.
I rode an empty bus to Newport News where I next boarded a nearly-deserted Amtrak car for the trip back to DC. The COVID-19 news had already made me queasy about riding the train. I arrived back in town at about 10 p.m. on Saturday, February 29.
Less than a week later, I was told to work at home. The pandemic had pushed its way strongly into life in the Nation’s Capital.
All of us quickly took to what we knew we had to do. Social distancing. Hand washing. Finding masks. But the gravitational pull of an artistic world now imperiled by the coronavirus was still strong, so much so that the idea of abandoning works or projects in various stages of progress was wrenching. My partner and I had long and somewhat fraught discussions about whether the show that she was stage-managing should close. (It finally did.) With a strange mix of enthusiasm and dejection, I went to the two last concerts that I had tickets to see, resolving that they would be my last for the duration. Looking back, it was practically OK - but philosophically reckless. A moment of weakness.
One can look back at the history of the stage and say: “Oh, the theatres closed from plague in Shakespeare’s time. They’ll be back.” But that’s a much more complicated story than it seems. The theatres were closed for months at a time over a period of seven years in the first decade of the 17th Century. There was no rhythm to it. It was chaos. Whether theatres opened or closed literally depended on the plague rolls. City artists suffered particularly. Many fled to the country.
Musicians seemed to have the worst of it in this new plague – and quickly. Two of my collaborators on music for theatre – Jon Langford of The Mekons (Nero/Pseudo) and Dean Schlabowske (a forthcoming play called Congressman Davy) – are founding members of the Waco Brothers. They are brilliant and popular working artists, with busy schedules filled with gigs. They found their calendars emptied overnight.
In particular, the Waco Brothers faced the dismal and immediate prospect of a key event in their entire performing year – Austin’s annual SXSW Festival – shutting down entirely mid-March. It’s impossible to calculate what SXSW means to Jon and Dean: Both men have deep connections in Austin, and between them, their calendar of appearances at a typical SXSW (and on the way there and back from their hometowns of Chicago and Milwaukee) run to almost thirty band or solo gigs. That’s serious money.
The festival’s last-minute cancellation was a bitter blow. There was rage and bluster. But Jon and Dean did something that artists-in-crisis often do well: Innovate. On March 20, 2020 - the afternoon that they would have played Bloodshot Records’ annual blowout party at the festival - they donned hazmat suits and played an ebullient and brilliant set live-streamed from Jon’s Chicago studio.
That show was delightful. Brave. Defiant. And it planted some powerful hope inside me. I’ll admit to getting weepy as I was watching. Doom’s shadow hung over it. How much money would my friends be losing? (Hell, yes, we broke the virtual tip jar.) Yet there they were. Playing. No surrender. ¡No pasarán, pandemic!
For me, that moment laid down a blueprint for how we would survive it. Jon and Dean have kept on going – releasing new work, playing online. They aren’t quitting. Almost a year in.
That’s the gauntlet that my friends threw down to me in their hazmat suits: What are you going to do?
Pandemic forces a pervasive paralysis upon artists.
Artists don’t create in a vacuum. They’re attention seekers, They need an audience. Whether it’s making a living, or a desire for self-expression, or both. There is immense fulfillment and deep satisfaction in the act of creation. But artists crave an audience for the end product. Period.
Back to Jacobean plague. Has anyone not heard that story about Shakespeare writing King Lear in a pandemic? Yeah. Sure. OK. He did. But he likely wrote it to play at court in 1606-07 as a new play for King James in the holiday season. He didn’t just sit around writing theatre for no one. He always wrote plays for an empty stage that needed filling. Like, yesterday.
Our pandemic has obliterated so many venues favored by audiences. The club, the theatre, the concert hall, the stadium, and even (from fear) the open-air street corners and parks. The spaces that are available – filmed or streamed performance – usually require technical proficiency, money, institutional support, or all three elements.
The erasure of customary audiences (and the means to pursue them) along with the seemingly-insurmountable odds of accessing new audiences, often leads artists to succumb to despair. Go into fallow mode or worse. Because the creative process, amazing and fulfilling as it is, is not enough.
Those who do try to DIY it often run into another sharp buzz saw. As artists crowd into the video space, they discover that audiences have not abandoned their aesthetic criteria for patronizing, enjoying, or even paying for art.
Take the agonized and abusive reception accorded to “Zoom theatre.” Of course it’s not “real” theatre. It’s missing what makes live performance in a room with an audience so magical.
Yet past that, there are other problems. The space is over-supplied – and over-subscribed. Audience mileage varies. Quality is spotty. Performances featuring mastery of the technology can still seem inert. Artistic successes can be hobbled by poor technical acumen. Ten months into the pandemic, there is palpable fatigue.
And no one gives you any points just for trying.
I was immersed in remotely publishing a magazine in the earliest days of the pandemic. But I also had quietly resolved to use my time without an audience to work on a few long-term projects that had languished over the past few years.
What changed for me? A few things. But there was a definite beginning, thanks to Paula D’Alessandris, artistic director of New York City’s Mind The Gap Theatre.
Paula’s brief is basically finding the best talent on either side of the Atlantic to stage and re-interpreting British plays for American appreciators, but with the coronavirus taking the stage, the real-time material was so obviously rich that it was the stuff of plays to be written now, with immediacy and urgency. Paula decided early on in the pandemic to engage with audiences through video, and put out a call for playwrights and actors to contribute to an innovative monologue experiment she’d produce. The title she gave the series was, if nothing else, apt: “Housebound.”
I was super busy. But I had an idea percolating in my brain. So many of the COVID-19 stories I was reading and watching – mostly from New York – were obsessed with data, numbers and macro-level analysis. But what was actually happening in the lived experience of New Yorkers? What was happening to those whose homes were suddenly offices, populated with equally-stressed spouses and children banished from day care? And there are so many things happening in New York City on any given day: What happens when an earth-shattering cataclysm interrupts our carefully-arranged quotidian order?
So I wrote a monologue called Day 21. Quickly. Over a weekend in April. And sent it off to Paula for her series.
It was June before Paula posted Day 21. The thrill was palpable. Cathy Conneff, a wonderful actor from the UK, performed it. It had a relatively high viewership in the series. I felt that I was finding an audience.
Also: I thought I had more to say in the monologue format. One of the reasons Day 21 turned out so well is that I took the formal constraints as a challenge and an opportunity. The play was written as a Zoom call. It was an attempt to articulate common lived experience.
So I started writing more monologues sparked by ideas about the pandemic. My ground rules for myself were simple, but I observed them rigorously.
First, I wrote these pieces as broadsides. Short, sharp and aligned tightly with our moment. No fuss. Clear lines. A thing to say, but with energy and subtlety.
Second, they had to be monologues in which form and technology were central to the incident of the play. The technical distancing of video had to be woven inextricably with the content. A video lecture by a professor. A last message from a fired CDC researcher to her colleagues. An actor’s Zoom audition.
I was fortunate that my partner, Laura Schlachtmeyer, was intrigued by the possibility of shooting these monologues. Her longtime film collaborator, Andrew Bellware, was intrigued as well. We made plans to shoot the first of four short monologues. Together with Day 21, they would make a series of five snapshots of our moment.
Laura and Drew were as excited as I was at the prospect of rowing with a tricky current. Could we fully exploit the possibilities in writing and filming theatre in a socially-distant manner? Could we serve the story and still keep our team safe?
We used TaskRabbit to ferry gear. Shot with lenses that worked 12 feet away. Rehearsed and worked remotely. In the process of creation and collaboration, one film got a new name. We re-created Florida on a Brooklyn rooftop in November.
It’s better to watch the plays in the series than simply have me describe them, but I’m proud of how we worked through technical problems, expanded our scope in filming and editing and music, and yet still made a series of short films that were rooted in the theatrical power of direct address inherent to monologues.
Are they perfect? No. But these works fulfilled our intentions and our vision. And the viewership exploded our expectations. In fact, it’s easily exceeded the number of people who’ve physically attended the staging of many of my works.
I also felt that I was keeping faith with the things that I learned from Jon Langford and Dean Schlabowske and Paula D’Alessandris. We succeeded in making art in a dire moment. Telling stories that people needed to hear at that moment.
We decided to ask what, not why – and we are richer for it. We hope our audience feels that way.
Sometime in late November, a short film came across my path.
It was the most hilarious thing I had seen in the pandemic. Few films make me laugh as hard the second time as they do the first. But as I shared this piece with friends, we were repeatedly convulsed by our violent laughter.
The film – Russian Cyberpunk
Farm – was made by Sergei Vasiliev. It depicts a traditional Russian farm aswarm with technological advances (robot milkers, drones, and even alien spaceships), and yet still cannot seem to advance past the perpetual pastoral challenges of late mail, bad reception, bumpy roads.
Russian Cyberpunk Farm is simply astonishing. It’s technically brilliant, and, yet, at its core, is something so uniquely human: the divide we feel between ourselves and the technology that’s supposed to improve our lives. How lonely (and comic) we are as human beings, even when surrounded by the most dazzling gadgetry.
The film made me ponder much. It reminds, for instance, that despite the havoc Russia’s government continues to wreak across the planet, there are, and always have been, delightful, talented people in that nation simply making great art. And just as many American artists wouldn’t wish to be judged by our government of the last four years, many are the artists in Russia who, as artists most everywhere do, likely harbor similar antipathies to their ruling classes.
But, more to my own experience of this pandemical year, it reminded me the quest to replace “why do something?” with “what shall we do?” is universal somehow. That we’re all struggling with our present situation to find a future and communicate with each other. That quest is what will sustain us as we steer a course into the uncertainties of 2021.