What I Learn By Performing The Tether
I’m performing a play for an audience of one household, on their lawn or sidewalk. It’s medicine.
(For other essays on theatre and the coronavirus, see “What Are We Doing?” and “Where Are The Experts?”)
This is an eerie time to be a theatre artist.
The global pandemic has caused our entire industry to shut down overnight and has called into question the very essence of our art form. Our ability to practice our art has been rendered all but impossible, even as the need for our art has never loomed so large: who are we, without community? without empathy? without imagination? without crowds? Think pieces rage on. Artistic directors scramble. Nobody knows what to do. People Zoom. Other people protest the Zoom. Nobody knows anything. We’re all desperate to connect.
At first, I assumed the fetal position. That felt right. I teach full-time at a university; I have two young children; I have a partner and aging parents and dear friends and a world to save. We are in an abusive relationship with our government. The news is agonizing. I cannot, could not, reinvent my chosen art form AND create a new business model AND stay sane. I had quarantine brain. I was in survival mode.
But the only constant is change: I eventually fell into a rhythm. A rhythm? A fog. I learn how to teach asynchronously. Days melt into each other, no sharp demarcation lines. There is no “weekend.” There is only this gray, unceasing, uncertain present. “Are you still watching?” asks Netflix. What an asshole.
Self-care becomes the most important survival skill. Do one thing that will make you feel good, do one thing that will make you feel better, do one thing that will make you feel less bad. Or stay in bed and give up. Sometimes, that’s the best we can do.
And then one morning, I felt that familiar pressing. I woke up with an idea and had to get it out.
The idea turned out to be The Tether: A Pandemic Play. It’s a short play about this exact second in history, designed to be performed for an audience of one household, on their lawn or sidewalk. The play is all about connection, the metaphor rendered explicit by this giant, cartoonish hemp rope. The whole performance is about ten minutes long.
I slapped together a website and pumped it out on my social media feeds. I asked for a suggested $10 donation, but if you can’t afford it, you can pay attention. Any takers? Turns out, there were. Are. (I’m having trouble keeping my tenses straight. Am I in the past? the present? The future imperfect?)
Today marks a week of doing this. I drive or bicycle to the person’s house at the appointed time. I throw them the rope. I call them on the phone, which serves as an ad-hoc microphone, the distance between us being just a little too far to hear comfortably, even with my theatre lungs. Ten minutes later, I coil up the rope. I post their picture online. I go home. We think about each other.
I didn’t know how it would work, if it would work. But it turns out, It works wonders. People are desperate for connection, for truth-telling, for intimacy. That’s what theatre does best. I teach my students: theatre doesn’t happen on stage or on a page, theatre happens in the imaginations of the audience. We are limited only in what we can evoke.
The promise of technology is the tantalizing prospect that I can reach millions of people, all at once. This is the opposite of that. This is one person at a time.
What I love about The Tether is, I can start it, energetically, from anywhere. I’ve done this play from a place of joy, of buoyancy, of grief, of darkness, of bone tiredness. My audience have been all over the map, too: shy, eager, antsy, urgent. We are all a mess, but this play doesn’t require either of us to manufacture any particular headspace. I don’t have to put on a happy face. I just have to be where I am. The audience is where they are. I talk to them. We find each other. We are carried along. There’s a surprising amount of laughter. Occasionally, there are tears. I feel closer to my audience than ever before. And afterwards — maybe it’s because I’m an extrovert, maybe it’s because when I do art I don’t feel so helpless — I feel much more settled. I feel like my audience and I have exchanged gifts. It’s Christmas, wassailing with a chorus of one. Busking. But unlike traditional street art, I’m not playing and hoping they listen. They’ve invited me over to their house.
The hardest part of this, hands down, is keeping track of the emails. I could really use a stage manager who also managed my entire life. (All theatre artists understand that stage managers should run everything, up to and including the United Nations.) I really should find some kind of auto-scheduler program, where people could sign up for slots, and it would add it to my calendar automatically. Add it to the list of new technologies I should really learn someday.
I’m also getting a lot of requests for performances out of town; bundling those together, organizing multiple requests, mapping out routes that make sense so I’m not criss-crossing the same strange city over and over because I don’t know better, making sure enough people are donating so it’s worth my while — logistics. It’s a whole thing.
Not everybody donates, and that’s okay. Some people donate more than the suggested amount, and I see that as subsidizing the ones who can’t pay. It’s not really about the money, although the money helps — my partner, a designer and technical director at Riverside Theatre, is out of work during the quarantine, which is stressful. (He’s the one that picked out the rope, by the way, a generous donation from Riverside.) The money mostly serves as a commitment to principles: it says, we value this. This connection is real, not a party trick, not a causal happenstance. It’s a demarcation, for them and for me: treat this exchange seriously, reverently. This is important to both of us.
Theatre teaches us to reinvest in our community. It teaches us to be present, to listen. It reinforces what binds us together. I love it. It’s saving me.
For more information, see The Tether: A Pandemic Play https://megangogerty.wixsite.com/thetether