May 22, 2020: An Arena Stage Docudrama

Theaters are shuttered in Washington, DC, and across the country. Nothing is being produced on Broadway. Most productions are not even being considered to open until 2021 at the earliest. The so-called gig economy is dead. So how are institutions and artists surviving? Will they be able to make it through 12 months of no business? Will audiences be confident enough to return to the theaters? The arts are in a crisis, like all of the world economy. It is a precarious time.

Many theaters I know are doing “salons.” Free programming via Zoom or other similar platforms, with interviews of artists discussing various topics, sometimes providing reruns of previous productions, all designed to keep brands alive and to to retain audiences. Other theaters are providing Zoom readings of plays. Most are benefits for a variety of charities, which mean artists are working for free to help save institutions.How long can artists donate their time for the sake of an institution? It’s a tough row to hoe. Zoom fatigue is setting in, and requests for donations are everywhere. What are theaters to do?

Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage came up with something different. She though of the idea to produce an artistic snapshot of the DC region in the midst of a global pandemic. What if, she thought, she sent 10 playwrights out into the region to interview a cross section of Washingtonians on the same day, then write a 3-5 minute monologue of each interviewee, invite 10 Washington actors to perform the monologues with 2 hours of rehearsal, shoot it all on one day, outside, in one continuous shot, and pay the artists for their work! Well that is precisely what she did. The result is a 55 minute docudrama called May 22, 2020, a kind of synthesis of theater skill meeting film. It premiered last week and is available to stream live to anyone who cares to watch. Below is a clip of my piece about a Washington beekeeper.

From May 22, 2020

Molly is deeply committed to the community and looks for ways to keep the artists connected to the Arena audience through the actual work. It was a pleasure to work with her on the film. We rehearsed twice on the same day, a Thursday, and the piece was shot on the following Sunday. It was a whirlwind, but I think the results are really fine. The film is a great artistic snapshot of what we are all going through with the covid-19 pandemic. Then, a few days later, the world changed again with the shooting of George Floyd and the demonstrations against racial injustice that continue weeks later.

This is an extraordinary time to be alive. Challenging, anxiety making, hopeful, all at once. It is not often that a world confronts its own weaknesses and issues of the health of the body, the body politic, the economy, and that of the entire social structure. We move forward one day at a time, reflecting, listening, making art, demonstrating, voting, hoping to find ways to make the world better, more just, more perfect.


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