Acell phone rang. Halfway through the performance, that ridiculous sound, muffled in the bottom of a purse or pocket, somehow accompanied the dialogue. For the first time since the advent of cell phones, I felt not annoyance but a kind of peaceful pleasure. Whoever owned the deviant device was mortified, and the sound quickly ceased. When it happened a second time during the show, I felt even less concerned.

The past few years have been brutal. My mother died. I was diagnosed with severe systemic arthritis and both lupus and lupus-related Parkinson’s. My voice is a ragged thing that I don’t recognize, and my balance is poor. I’m a “falling risk.” But the biggest hit of all came with the pandemic. Every theatre in our nation was dark for some 18 months. Live theatre simply did not exist. 

Who am I in a world without theatre? 

I can no longer sing. I’ve finally given in to the reality that I can’t act anymore. But I can, by God, write and choreograph and direct. So I wrote and directed online theatre.

I felt saturated, overwhelmed, and just flat over Zoom theatre events by a year ago May. At first a welcomed innovation, the ferocious blitz of online content by theatres desperate to stay alive spread as relentlessly and mercilessly as the virus itself. My company produced an online, live festival of four plays and a panel discussion last fall; this year, a summer festival of pre-recorded works performed by some of the world’s greatest actors. The latter landed with a thud. I think we’re all up to here with Zoom theatre.

Back in March of 2020, I was in rehearsal, with my scratchy voice and precarious balance, as the Nurse in the stage version of Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare In Love. There’s a moment in the play to which all theatre people relate with warmth, bitterness, and humor:

Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Fennyman: So, what do we do?

Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Fennyman: How?

Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

If we know anything, we theatre types, it’s that catastrophe passes, and we live to play another day. 

In this late time of desperate isolation, we’ve been given an opportunity for a great big reset. No, the theatre isn’t dead — and, by the theatre, I don’t mean musicals. Obviously, musicals will never die, and I love musicals, especially the most theatrical and magical of the genre. I adore The Fantasticks and Into the Woods and A Little Night Music. I also love The Music Man, even though it’s tough to top the film. Speaking of which — theatre can’t do that. We not only shouldn’t try, we absolutely can’t. 

Film and TV are what they are, and they’re not live theatre. Movies don’t need us at all. I mean — yeah, they need our money. They need us to pay to see them. But they don’t need us in the room when they say the words and breathe the breaths and think the characters’ thoughts. 

Theatre differs from film entirely because deep in the soul of the art form is the collective, cellular knowing that witnesses are as essential as players.

I was in Reno in July, and I have a new play that needed a public reading, so we put one together at the Potentialist Workshop. We had time to put it on the Artown calendar. The NPR station ran a bunch of promos, and the News & Review and this fine pop-up ran stories. We found a terrific caterer and collected non-perishables for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada. We had a couple of frustrating Zoom rehearsals. We were all so more than beyond sick and so utterly tired of internet rehearsals. Argh!

But then, we had two in-person rehearsals. Live with paper scripts and pencils and talking over each other and laughing and rushing rehearsals.

When Churchyards Yawn actors Annikki Larrson, Cori Lynne Cooper, and John Frederick pass mimosas post-performance. Photo: Kris Vagner

The day of the show dawned, and it was still early when the people started showing up, mostly vaccinated and without masks. Many with masks. I forgot not to run up and hug everyone — it had been so long since we had gathered. The food was out, and champagne with it, and the audience sat with flutes and plates of food on their laps.

The play was introduced, the fluorescents went out, and the pretty lights illuminated us eleven as we delivered When Churchyards Yawn, a new divine comedy I’ve written, and we collectively exhaled. We players on the stage and the beyond-capacity audience, some of whom were sitting on platforms in back and on rolled in office chairs and funky stools scavenged from throughout the studio and gallery spaces, we exhaled. Then we inhaled the air in there, in that kaleidoscopic, rough black box.

When the play was done, we all talked and drank and ate some more and hugged and waved goodbye until next time — which will be soon, because we all need to meet and share stories, food, drink, and air. 

Come play with us. Soon. And, if you think of it, do switch off that cell phone.

Cover photo: Anton Novak

A note of disclusure: Jeanmarie Simpson is among Theater Scoop’s supporters.

Posted by Jeanmarie Simpson

Jeanmarie Simpson—actor, playwright, and former Renoite—is the founding artistic director of Arizona Theatre Matters, a radically inclusive company.