In short order, Arena found 10 actors, 10 playwrights and 10 ordinary people from in and around Washington — among them, a nurse on a covid-19 ward; a high school senior; a pharmacist; a police detective; a climate change activist. On a single day — May 22 — each writer contacted their subject, spent two or three hours in conversation, and then set about the task of turning their words into five-minute monologues. All of which, too, would be filmed on a single day.
The result is titled, crisply and dramatically, “May 22, 2020.” It debuts online Friday for those who have signed up for Arena Stage’s Supper Club — a dine-and-watch experience — and then it will be available free to the general public beginning Saturday on Arena’s website, arenastage.org, for the immediate future. The project includes such accomplished actors as Holly Twyford, KenYatta Rogers, Edward Gero, Rachel Zampelli, Dawn Ursula and Nancy Robinette. They were hired to recite speeches by such writers as Psalmayene 24, Karen Zacarias, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, John Strand and Annalisa Dias. It is all meant to evoke the style of Studs Terkel, the Chicago journalist who in his book “Working,” and other works, catalogued the verbatim accounts of average Americans.
Thus the ER nurse, portrayed by Zampelli, declares: “I live in the basement, alone. I’m a risk to my own family. I haven’t hugged my kids in three months.” A D.C. community leader, embodied by Jaben Early: “Folks ask me what they can do to initiate a conversation to the Earth — especially now. Start a garden. Take a walk outside. Meditate outside. Just be.” A graduating high school senior in Northern Virginia played by Raksa Lim: “I am also a military kid so I’m better prepared for the moment. I know how to breathe through the hard parts.”
The monologues make up a kind of video time capsule. (The real people otherwise remain anonymous.) Anchoring them all on a randomly normal day confers on the narratives both specificity and universality. The collaboration of artists in their own communities added significance for Smith, a longtime advocate for homegrown talent.
“It’s the voice of the nurse and the voice of the writer and it’s the voice of the actor,” she said, adding, “I wanted this to be about life, even though we’re in the midst of death and suffering.”
The virus-driven lights-out on stages and the uncertainty of when performances can safely resume have steered companies in directions they never imagined a few short months ago. The programming shift to digital — online classes, summer camps, filmed stage productions and live Zoom readings — has spurred a revolution of necessity. To stay relevant — and solvent — theaters have been compelled to remake themselves as multimedia enterprises.
“May 22, 2020” won’t be much of a moneymaker, certainly nothing on the order of the live plays Arena has had to cancel. (The company, like many others, says it is in the process of figuring out its path forward.) For Smith, the film is simply another way to talk to audiences. When a door is locked, you open another. “It’s all,” she says, “telling stories.”
Smith and her crew chose the daunting assignment of shooting all 10 stories of “May 22, 2020” on location outdoors in Southwest Washington last Sunday: June 7, 2020. The shoot began at 6 a.m. and moved apace through nine monologues, winding up just before 7 p.m. with the 10th — Gero at the Southwest Duck Pond at Sixth and I streets SW.
He was playing a middle-aged amateur beekeeper from Washington who recounts his recruitment into apiary culture by a woman of advanced years who was herself a force of nature. In cargo shorts and panama hat, Gero looked every inch a gentleman on urban safari. The philosophical challenge in Jennings’s smart script was to convey the convergences — how overcoming one’s anxiety around beehives might illuminate other contemporary worries.
“Covid is a virus of the body,” Gero’s character says. “Fear is a virus of the mind.”
In a Zoom interview a few days before the shoot, Gero said the piece took him back to the start of the pandemic and his own initial fears about survival: “I said to my son, ‘I’m not going to make it out of this.’ ” Over time, that nervousness subsided, but Smith asked the actor to use those sensations to connect viewers to the solace the beekeeper found in caring for bees.
As daylight faded on the duck pond, Smith watched Gero from a lawn chair. He executed one take, and then a second. And then in customary filmmaker fashion, the director gave the actor the indication the work was done.
“That was hot,” she said.