As a rural southern playwright, I am often isolated from the most vibrant theatre artists in the country even though I previously lived in New York for over a decade and currently work remotely with a New York based collaborator. For the past few years, I have relocated to Chicago for a few weeks each summer so that I can participate in Chicago Dramatists programming, and that has been enriching, but I always return to my nest in the country feeling detached from my tribe. Although my quality of life is gentle and affordable, geography prohibits my eligibility for many fellowships and resident playwright programs contained in metropolitan areas. In fact, over the years the disparity between the haves (big city theatre) and the have nots (rural theatre) of the theatre world has become painfully evident to playwrights such as me.
Then came COVID-19. Like a bully, she has forced the collective national theatre community into the same train car even though we are many people living in many places. That train car is called Zoom. Because we have all had to operate from inside our homes, regardless of where that home is, we have found ourselves equally qualified to participate in many of the classes, seminars, readings and workshops that are now being offered daily and virtually to anyone, regardless of locale. Is this an act of desperation on the part of theatres? Maybe, maybe not but since the world entered lockdown, I have found myself ironically liberated where access is concerned. Even though I live in a small town in the deep south I am suddenly equally qualified to participate in professional development with a vast community of theatre artists and it has been exhilarating. Were I a big city writer, that reality might feel threatening. But this is the thing. Theatre artists as a whole are the most generous people in the world. Primary Stages, Dramatists Guild, Chicago Dramatists and others have wholeheartedly welcomed me and others into their classrooms, theatres and studios even though we live far away. Just a few days ago, I participated as an actor in a reading of Kate Hamill’s Little Women at Primary Stages with the playwright herself in attendance and chatting with us afterwards. Be still my heart.
My question is this: Once this is over, what will happen to those of us who were so collegially admitted into these exclusive rooms during the quarantine? Once theatre folk are again allowed to commune face to face, will writers like me lose access to the rooms and people we have been so interconnected with during quarantine? My hope is that theatres and their adjacent organizations will have developed a new appreciation for playwrights living outside of major theatre hubs. Surely, the efficiency of virtual cultivation will have had some sort of impact. Right? I am hopeful that others like me will not have to retreat back into the second or third tier of desirability because we choose to live in small towns and on country roads where quality of life is attractive and feasible. It may happen and it may not. Either way, I will always be grateful to those theatres and organizations that intentionally welcomed all of us into their communities during this time. I have loved interfacing with so many exceptional theatre artists. Maybe when we all “get back to normal,” normal will look a little larger than before.
I sure hope so.
DONNA GAY ANDERSON is a playwright/lyricist currently collaborating with composer Theodore Christman on the musical, Unfolded. Works include High and Mighty, Shrimp and Crab, and Formula One. MFA Spalding University. She and her husband live in swampy south Louisiana. www.donnagayanderson.com