I’m writing this after a 13-hour solo drive across the country from Kentucky to New York City two days after the coronavirus outbreak cancelled—rightfully, as it was and is the right thing to do—my beloved production of Nicole Clark Is Having a Baby, which was to premiere at the 44th Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville. When I first found out, I was heartbroken for myself and all the other brilliant festival artists. I was heartbroken that my hardworking, talented, and insanely wonderful cast would not get to play out the run as we expected. My designers, the rest of the dedicated, skilled backstage crew, the time and money and effort expended by Actors Theatre—the work would just vaporize. I was like: Of course a pandemic would cancel the biggest production of my career.
As it sunk in that theatres all across the country were shuttering their doors, their productions (written and created by so many of my friends and colleagues), and their offices, as they prepared to ride into an uncertain and terrifying future, I hit the road and drove the 13 hours on I-71 straight through, stopping only for gas (while wearing rubber gloves and lysol wiping EVERYTHING in my power). Will there even be theatre six months from now? I thought.
If you’d asked me last week to write about what my goals and dreams were for myself and my work, I might have written about how I write about women, how I write about fat women, how I write about people no one cares about and no one wants to see. How I write comedies that are actually terrifically sad. How I care about the inner lives of working-class people. How excited I was that my play was going to premiere at a festival that many gatekeepers would see (GATEKEEPERS AND ANYONE ELSE YOU MAY ABSOLUTELY READ THE SCRIPT WHILE YOU “WORK” from “HOME”). Maybe I wouldn’t be emerging anymore! Maybe 33 is the year I am no longer “early career.” But 13 hours in that car by myself, after the devastating cancellation of the most perfect production of my play I could have imagined, while the world is feeling like it crumbles around us all, seeing Trump sign after Trump sign in the middle of coal country, I’m not sure about all that anymore. I’m really not.
I know that in the midst of everything—a quarantine, school cancellations, gatherings of only 10 people or fewer—I know people are reading books. Listening to music. Telling stories. Watching television. I know art matters because in the end, it will be all we have. We won’t have careers. All of that is temporary. We will just have what’s left. The actual stories. I think my role as a theatre artist is to adapt to whatever mechanism I have to tell stories. If it’s not a giant festival, it can be a living room. It might not be a stage with insane production design. It might be around a campfire (as Anne Washburn predicted!). But it’s my job to bring hope and tenderness and humanity to a cruel and impossibly scary world. It’s all I can do. In the best scenario, perhaps that ER nurse comes home and puts her feet up and watches something I’ve made and her mind can rest for just a minute before she goes out again to save the world.
I have a friend who is a neuroscientist. She worked on the team that is likely just a few years away from a drug therapy that will literally reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s. I joked to her at a party once that my job seems so stupid next to hers. She said, without skipping a beat, not even a slightly joking note in her response, “I save people’s brains so they can do what you do. If what you did didn’t matter, we wouldn’t need what I do.” Over a decade later, I remember that moment.
I have always been a person who jokes that theatre is stupid. I made a whole theatre company about how stupid theatre is. We threw an awards ceremony with hundreds of donuts and no real awards. But—because I can hold two truths, a thing we must do in 2020 more than anything—I am also someone who believes theatre is amazing. I also think: I’m becoming a person who is rapidly seeing the difference between CAPITALIST ORGANIZATIONAL THEATRE MODELS and storytelling, human to human. The former may die off (though I hope it doesn’t, of course—I hope it changes and shifts, and that this experience is instructive for us all). But the latter will always, always prevail. There is nothing else. There will definitely be theatre six months from now. We get to decide what that means. Now that my show and so many others are closed, we can all think about that. Maybe that’s the silver lining.
For now, I’m in solidarity with theatre staff and leaders as they begin to look at and hunker down for whatever hardship lies ahead. In solidarity with those who have lost jobs and gigs and opportunities they’ve worked a lifetime for. I really, really feel you. But if you’re like me, and you probably are—this really is a field of incredible overachievers—you’ll work another lifetime for them. Because it’s all you know how to do.
Morgan Gould is a New York-based writer/director, resident at New Dramatists and recent graduate of the Juilliard playwriting program.