Several years ago, in Spring of 2017, University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts did a production of Anne Washburn and Michael Friedman’s play, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. The play’s three acts span a very specific 82 years in a world without electricity. Washburn is uncharacteristically prescriptive (for a playwright) about the lighting for each act.

  • Act I – firelight, outdoors
  • Act II – In an interior under a skylight in the afternoon
  • Act III – after nightfall, in an interior stage, lit with non-electric instrumentation: candles and oil lamps, probably, or gas
  • Act III finale features an assortment of old theatrical instruments, Christmas lights, etc.

Act I takes place in a forest “in the very near future”, where we find a group of four campers sitting around a fire made in a wash tub turned on it’s side.

They are reconstructing a story – an episode from the popular show, The Simpsons. We soon realize that they are there not to get closer to nature by choice, but because of the failure of the nuclear power plants which has caused the end of electricity, and the end of life as they know it. Early in the first act, they are surprised by a new arrival, a fellow traveler. His arrival into the firelight elicits a heavy show of firearms, and we soon know we are not “in Kansas” anymore. Gibson, who’s just arrived, carries a book, and the initial four, hungry to hear who he might have met along the road listen to the names he’s written in a composition book. It is eerie to hear the list of names in light of the mounting count of fatalities from the COVID-19.

10,000 today in Italy, over 2,000 in the US. Tonight, I stepped outside onto my balcony and saw this:

I’ve been thinking a lot about Washburn’s play in the past few days, especially about how the characters in her play adapt to circumstances beyond their ability to comprehend. Sort of the way we’ve all been forced to adapt.

33338515994_9f51982e7a_kAct II of the play, seven years later, takes place in what we soon realize is a commercial studio, where the re-telling of the Simpson’s episodes has become a cottage industry and way by which these actors or re-enactors support themselves. Washburn has cleverly structured her play to mimic the history of theatre making. In Act II, we learn that there is competition between the various re-enactors and that people will go to great lengths to steal effective bits from one company. Finally, with many apologies to Ann Washburn for this emaciated synopsis of her amazing play, we find ourselves in Act III, where theatre has become ritualized beyond the secular appreciation to have almost a holy feeling. Oh, and did I forget to mention, Act III is a full musical, complete with full costumes, and takes place 75 years after Act II.

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All photos from the USC School of Dramatic Arts production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play were taken by Craig Schwartz.

The play is stunning and odd, but until the last two months, it felt like a far-fetched scenario. That is, until people started hoarding toilet paper and water. Until I started to see people reporting in their Facebook feeds the loss of close family members from the Coronavirus. Workplaces are shuttered, leaving 2.3 Million people unemployed.

Suddenly Ann Washburn seemed like a freaking genius.

I wrote a few posts ago about the beautiful letters we used to get from our dear friend Candasa, and inspired by her, I began to write to friends “Letters from the Pandemic,” each clearly labeled as such, full of deep feelings and fondnesses rarely expressed. It’s not that I think I won’t get to see them and say those things to them when we next embrace, but I’m coming to realize that I really may not get to see them again any time soon, either because they live across the country, or are advanced in age. I started mailing them on March 22nd and sent another batch tonight, and am starting to hear back from the recipients, by phone, or email, or text.

In the meantime, adjusting the syllabus from a class which had half its learning outcomes tied to the performance as a backstage crew member to something they can do while sitting at home is challenging. Fortunately, there are a lot of really good resources out there. When this is over, (another phrase which has multiple meanings, some of which are chilling), I have thought about the series of videos that we will need to make to demonstrate how we made theatre happen. Meanwhile, while we wait, the content making abounds. Every day there are more examples of frustrated, siloed artists trying to make connections from the confines of their own individual firepits. And what will the children who have suddenly found themselves in an unexpected golden age of time with parents take away from all this?

A brief list of comments from friends who’ve shared with me some of the unexpected boons that have resulted from our mass quarantine:

  • I was having a really hard time with my boss, and now I don’t have to deal with him/her because I’m working from home.
  • I’d been wanting to spend more time with my kids but was working such long hours that I never got to see them.
  • I suddenly have so much more time to read/write/think.

As Aesop said, “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.” Be safe and know that the world has changed and we will change with it. And keep writing your form of “Letters from the Pandemic,” whatever that may be. 

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks Els… This is a piece of thought guidance. Something I find myself needing alot these days. Your missive provided much welcomed sustenance in making connections of people, places and events that are relevant to our crazy times.

    1. Thanks, Steph, that’s what has always been so important to me about the theatre. How there is always a thread of truth in a play that takes it outside of mere entertainment into the realm of holding up the mirror…. hang in there!

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