It was 5 a.m. The sun began peeking through the sky, which was illuminated with a vibrant pink.
Seema Sueko was in her car, driving to Southwest D.C. through the still streets. She parked her car at Arena Stage, which had been closed for weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She masked up before entering the quiet theater, which is usually buzzing with activity. Finally, she thought to herself, it was time to create more art.
It had been weeks since Arena Stage had put on a show because of increasing precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. This meant cancelling three productions, which lead to a drop in ticket revenue — roughly $3 million, according to Sueko.
“Theaters, I think across the nation, are figuring out alternative revenue streams,” Sueko, the deputy artistic director for Arena Stage, told The Washington Diplomat. “[That] is part of the work we are doing daily.”
While some ticketholders allowed the theater to keep the funds, Sueko said they issued refunds to everyone who requested it. The theater started looking toward socially distanced, virtual outlets for the show to go on.
Molly Smith, artistic director for Arena Stage, pitched the idea for a docudrama that highlights the ways in which COVID-19 has fundamentally altered lives in the nation’s capital. The docudrama “May 22, 2020” follows a day in the life of 10 locals from backgrounds and how they’re grappling with the reality of living through a pandemic.
“The concept of ‘May 22, 2020’ is to capture a moment in time that will never occur again,” Smith said in a press release. “This part of America is unlike any other part of America and we want to capture it.”
The docudrama features everyday people from D.C., Maryland and Virginia, ranging in age from 18 to 89, who’ve been affected by COVID-19 in different ways. Among the subjects are a nurse working in a coronavirus ward, a senior graduating high school and a grandmother living alone.
“You get to capture these moments and look back on them,” Sueko said. “This was really our way to articulate through performance these moments.”
The theater commissioned 10 area playwrights to interview the 10 locals and script their experiences. It then hired actors to recite these interviews through monologues in a documentary-style performance that will premiere virtually on June 12.
These five-minute monologues were recorded near Arena Stage in Southwest D.C., where Sueko traveled to that early morning. Cautionary measures were taken, with an on-site medic to ensure that all the actors, producers and directors were socially distanced.
Everyone on set wore masks — except when speaking — and producers used boom mics so they could avoid high-touch surfaces.
Despite the constraints in the typically social and interactive world of acting, Sueko said producing the film brought excitement back into the theater.
“Just seeing the power of an actor working on a text is always inspiring to me,” Sueko said. “I could feel that over Zoom, but getting in person and seeing how not only are they all artistically excellent, they are also deeply focused.”
The show was entirely funded through the Artistic Director Discretionary Fund and the Barbara R. Walton Playwrighting Fellowship Fund, allowing the theater to pay everyone involved with the production.
The Arena Stage docudrama premieres Friday, June 12, at 7 p.m. through its new online service called the Supper Club. The theater partnered with local restaurants and caterers so that audiences could order dinner delivered to their doors to create an at-home show experience.
The docudrama is the first project Arena Stage is launching to support local artists. The theater will also launch a Theater Artists Marketplace where audiences can directly purchase and commission pieces of art from local artists.
“Artists still exist and audiences still exist and the only thing that is broken is the delivery mechanism,” Sueko said. “The delivery mechanism of gathering together and rehearsing in person and then gathering with the audience and sharing it.”
The marketplace, along with the docudrama, are ways the local theater plans to put “much needed income into artists’ pockets now,” Sueko said.
“Many [artists] are looking at months to a year to maybe two years without work,” she said. “Depending on how the recovery goes and the reopening of theaters … it may be a long, re-phased process.”
Although it’s a new genre of theater and incorporates vastly different mechanisms, Sueko says all of these projects reflect the original ideals on which the theater was founded.
“It still links directly back to our roots,” Sueko said. “These are monologues, which is our theatrical form, so it still captures the artistry of theater artists.”
Since Arena Stage’s founding in 1950, the theater was designed to serve its community and interact with its audience, Sueko said.
This docudrama serves as a love letter to the city, highlighting a unique moment in its history.
“The roots of serving our region, listening to our region, being connected to our region,” Sueko said, “you will find that in this docudrama. We as a regional theater are nothing without our community.”
In addition to “May 22, 2020,” Arena Stage is also debuting the film “Inside Voices,” based on its Voices of Now ensemble. Voices of Now is season-long drama program that creates autobiographical plays with groups of middle school, high school and adult artists, both locally and internationally. The plays are fast-paced, collaboratively written physical theater pieces that pose challenging social questions relevant to the ensemble of artists and their communities.
For more information on “May 22, 2020,” “Inside Voices” and Arena Stage’s complete virtual spring/summer season lineup, visit arenastage.org.
About the Author
Cami Mondeaux is a news intern for The Washington Diplomat.