The performance is scheduled to begin promptly at 8 p.m. “No one will be admitted. No one will be onstage,” reads a news release for the production. “Don’t call for reservations. No live streaming.”
Inside the Frear Ensemble Theater, a black-box space in the Lang Performing Arts Center, a computer will be activated remotely. Over the next 32 minutes, projections created by Zadara and his cast will unspool, encapsulating the events of this rarely revived Greek tragedy. The projections contain the student actors’ interpretations of characters and plot, scene by scene, recorded recently on TikTok and iMovie, where each student is sheltering in place: Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Russia. The effort has resulted in what might be deemed an ethereal new genre for a surreal new era.
“One morning, it just became totally clear to me,” said Zadara, a Polish-born visiting professor whose stage work has been seen across Europe. “It’s theater for nobody.”
What could be a more fitting metaphor for the suspended state of an entire art form — one that depends on public assembly — than a play performed without or for a single living soul? And not just any play, but a tragedy that distills an eternal human paradox — our fleeting brush with existence — in a work that has itself existed in obscurity for millennia.
Lest you consign this anti-event to the category of clever stunt, consider the rigor that has gone into its development. The adaptation of “The Women of Trachis,” the tale of a wife’s revenge against an unfaithful Herakles, was meant to be a traditional live performance. It was scrupulously researched, dissected and debated by Zadara’s Greek tragedy class, with the production as the second semester’s capstone.
With the guidance of dramaturge Nathaniel Ziv Stern, a senior who has studied ancient Greek, the class spent the early part of the semester discussing the meanings of the play and its characters’ roles, and created an original text based on their interpretation. Swarthmore’s classics department chair, Grace Ledbetter, also advised them, and a biology student in the class, Sophie Nasrallah, was to be the stage manager.
Then, at spring break, the advance of covid-19 canceled everything, including the rest of the school year. With only extremely limited access to the campus allowed, Zadara was granted careful use of the Frear. As long as it remained, well, off-limits.
When Zadara described his revised plan to the three students who would play the chorus, as well as most of the other characters, they were intrigued but a little leery.
“I didn’t understand at first how it was all going to work,” said Alexandra Kingsley, a senior staying in a dorm kept open at Swarthmore, who was cast as Herakles. Josephine Ross, a junior from Minneapolis, tried to explain to her family how the play could still go on. “My parents,” she said, “were very confused.”
And from Moscow, Nadia Malaya, a sophomore and the third member of the chorus, said she was “surprised but not surprised” by the professor’s brainstorm.
“Having worked with Dr. Zadara,” she said, “one thing I learned was he comes up with unconventional thoughts.” (The others involved were Nasrallah and anthropology and theater student Cynthia Ruimin Shi as a fourth cast member.)
Soon, though, a realization set in that the sadness of a production not fulfilling its mission had meaning, too. The fact that no one would see it became a rallying point for completing an otherwise fairly routine journey.
“I think even the small losses deserve mourning,” said Kingsley. “It’s so easy to fall into this trap: Does it really matter, because no one is going to see it? No, it has to be perfect because no one will ever see it.”
The lessons taking hold were much larger than the professor could have anticipated.
“The students all felt they have had the rug pulled out from under them,” Zadara said. “For an 18-year-old, is this normal? This is the best artistic education — art and theater are all about the rug being pulled out from under you.”
Theater is a most ephemeral form: What happened in a performance space yesterday is gone today. But did one have to be there to feel its impact? “That’s the tragedy,” Stern said. “You have this thing that is beautiful that you can only gesture at, but no one can reach.”
Knowing that people might learn of their efforts became as vital to the participants as performing the work themselves. Anyone who has ever been in or worked backstage on a play — whether a middle school musical or a Broadway epic — is aware of the exhilarating bond. When the project ends, it’s a letdown. You’d become a unit, allied in purpose, dependent on one another, unified in its execution. This group was denied that catharsis, so it had to find another one.
“There’s something almost inspiring to that,” Malaya said. “The permanence of the need for art in human life is something the pandemic unravels.”
As Kingsley put the experience: “As much as theater is about the process, I still really got excited about my family coming to see it. There is still that childlike joy. Now, we feel the tragedy of the play in a way we couldn’t have accessed before.”
Zadara’s intelligent charges understand, of course, that not doing a play isn’t the end of the world. But presenting the play in an altered state, giving it an airing even when they couldn’t breathe it, was an act of optimism. Art, it seems, will out.
“Theaters are shut, and they’re going to stay shut for some time,” Zadara said as he made plans for a computerized dress rehearsal of “The Women of Trachis.” “What we can do now is show theater’s shadow, in a cave.”