Working in theatre, I’ve never had enough time for running. I used to fantasize about calling in sick on beautiful sunny Tuesdays, just to run for hours and hours in the park. I’ve run to see plays, I’ve run to rehearsals, I’ve logged miles along the West Side Highway during dinner breaks from tech or before moderating post-show talkbacks. The majority of vacations I’ve taken in the last eight years have involved running a marathon. In 2014, I made a vow to run at least a mile every day, to carve out a little time for my chosen sport regardless of what was going on in my life, in my work, in the world. There have been many days over the last six years where all I have managed was a single mile, but that mile has always been there for me, whenever I needed it.
On March 14th, I ran one sleepy mile around my neighborhood in Brooklyn before getting in a rented minivan with my boyfriend, my dog, and a large suitcase. With instructions to work from home, shows shuttered, and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increasing by the hour, we traveled 14 hours south to Asheville, N.C. Up here in the mountains, there are trees, bears, wild turkeys, and miles of gravel roads. There is no theatre. Even only 10 days in, it’s starting to feel like theatre is a ghost ship. Remember when we used to all gather together in a room and play make believe? Remember when we sat shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee with strangers and cried, or laughed, or gasped?
Instead of tacking up research photos in the rehearsal room, instead of sneaking ceramic mugs of coffee into production seats during a preview, instead of finding patchwork groups of colleagues around the bar at West Bank—instead of all that, I have infinite hours to run. The first few days felt like the most blissful vacation, an endless string of Alison Roman Sundays. Then the news got worse, and the world grew more bleak. Friends got sick. Terrence McNally died. Now my running feels a bit like black magic. You asked for heaps and heaps of unencumbered time? Here, child, now you have it. Happy now?
I’ve used running as therapy for years—it’s gotten me through breakups, illnesses, and too many deaths of loved ones. It’s been an escape from the stresses of my career, but I’ve never tried to use running as a replacement for theatre. There isn’t really an equivalency between the two things; the math doesn’t hold up. Running is a sport that requires almost nothing: shoes, maybe, and some space. Theatre, on the other hand, can almost be defined by the sheer vastness of its needs: more than one person, a place, a story, the stimulation of at least one of the senses.
When a runner is injured, there is a grieving process with which all runners are familiar. You obsessively cross-train. You watch videos of old races. You make training plans for the future, register for races that are months and months in the future. There are the fierce ricochets from one extreme to the other: only talking about running, avoiding everything having to do with running. My grief for theatre feels much in the same vein: I have a mountain of scripts to read and yet I can’t bring myself to click on the “Theater” tab of The New York Times.
I knew that this global pandemic would force all of us to confront the fallacy of our identities, of what it means to be a theatremaker or a teacher or a pharmaceutical rep. In America, we worship at the altar of work, and I smugly thought there would be a certain kind of curative power in forcing people to spend some time without the label of their careers. I thought that in the absence of creating theatre, my identity as a dramaturg would melt away to reveal my identity as a runner, and I would find some deeper purpose and security in putting one foot in front of the other, over and over and over. In reality, the concept of “identity” has come to feel like a useless jumble of letters.
In recent days, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mentor, Signature Theatre’s founding artistic director, Jim Houghton. In 2016, during a speech that he gave three months before he died, Jim said what I’ve come to understand as the most important thing I will ever have been taught: “We are in service to each other and our shared reward is this work and this life.” Jim always took the time to talk to me about my running, and would shoo me out the door if he thought he was taking time away from my evening run before a show. He knew to put humans and life first.
If he were still with us, I know exactly what he would say in the midst of coronavirus: “Stay home. Shutter the theatres. Tip the halal cart guy extra. Hug your children. Remember that the small stuffs of your life are the reason why we make art at all. Cook food. Tell everyone that you love them. Go on a run. This too shall pass.”
Jenna Clark Embrey is resident dramaturg at Signature Theatre.