“25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” is the play COVID-19 couldn’t shut down.
It certainly tried. Jennie Ward had to direct “25 Questions” remotely after she tested positive for the coronavirus in late July. After more than 10 days in isolation with no symptoms, Ward returned to rehearsals Tuesday for the first major live theater in the Twin Cities since the industry shut down in March. The outdoor production will open on schedule this weekend.
“I said to everyone, ‘Go on Tuesday and have the test and we’ll have them back by the end of the week,’ ” recalled Barbara Brooks, the producing artistic director of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. “But that Friday, in the afternoon, I [got] this text from the director: ‘Please call me immediately.’ Her test came back positive. She had no symptoms and she was flabbergasted.”
That’s the word for it.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god. I just shut this whole thing down!” said Ward, who immediately began quarantining in her basement, with her husband and sons leaving food and supplies on the stairs. She has no idea where she got the virus, and she feels “great,” so she was startled to receive her asymptomatic diagnosis. “I’ve been wearing masks. I haven’t hugged my mother in five months. I’m doing the things everyone else is doing,” she said.
At that point, the Minnesota Jewish Theatre play, an interview-based comedy about mothers, had already been rehearsing online for a week. That’s one of many accommodations the theater made in order to pull off “25 Questions,” among a mere handful of plays being performed in the U.S. as the theater community struggles with how to exist safely during a pandemic.
Brooks chose the two-actor piece because its loose format and small cast made it doable. Instead of holding auditions, the actors were chosen from those who had worked with Minnesota Jewish Theatre before. Actors have separate props, which they maintain themselves, and are staying eight feet apart and using microphones to prevent aerosol spray. And, like everyone, they’re using masks, washing hands frequently and taking other precautions.
Most obviously, the play by Kate Moira Ryan and Judy Gold is being performed in outdoor spaces where the audience and actors can be physically distant.
That the play is making it in front of audiences at all, Ward contends, is because of Brooks’ “incredible resilience to do the things that need to be done to make it work.”
That included announcing a modified 2020-21 season featuring this outdoor show, online programming and a hoped-for indoor play in the spring. In anticipation of being unable to sell as many tickets as usual, the theater also trimmed about $50,000 from last season’s budget for this year’s $392,000.
“People had to become much more isolated, and that [creates] a time when we really yearn for connection. I thought if there’s any way we can keep that physical connection, that would be a wonderful thing,” said Brooks, adding that rising anti-Semitism makes it important “to foster tolerance and understanding by presenting work that tells stories about Jewish culture.”
So, rejiggering the rehearsal process and shifting from the company’s usual rented space in St. Paul’s Highland Park Community Center to outdoor venues was a no-brainer. But it came with complications.
For audiences, that means masks, with household-based groups seated at least six feet apart. Only 35 to 50 people will be allowed per show, with venues including private yards and the Target Stage on St. Paul’s Harriet Island. For the company, that means teleconferencing, texting and phoning.
“We are on all the things,” joked Ward, who was in WFB (work from basement) mode last week while actors Laura Stearns and Kim Kivens, along with stage manager Samson Perry, rehearsed in a yard in south Minneapolis.
To solve problems with time lags, they developed a three-pronged tech hack: Ward and Stearns set up their laptops for a Google meeting where the director could see what the actors were doing, including facial expressions. The laptops were on mute, while Ward and Stearns used phones for sound. Since Perry was seated about 20 feet from the actors and there was lots of airplane traffic overhead, he couldn’t hear Ward, so they communicated by text.
“I couldn’t interrupt them,” said Ward, who’s usually a “very physical” director. “So we agreed to run a certain chunk of the script and I couldn’t stop them. After I watched them do a chunk, then I stepped in and we had a totally normal conversation and, hopefully, pushed the scene forward.”
Ward returned to rehearsals this week and remained physically distant from her cast. A second COVID test came back negative.
Replace the director?
Ward had recently directed an online reading for the Playwrights’ Center, so she knew how to put together a virtual play, and the first week of “25 Questions” rehearsal was always planned for online. Still, hiring someone else was a possibility when she tested positive and no plan was in place for a remotely directed play. But that would have meant adding another person to the semi-bubble the company already was in.
“I did think, ‘Do we replace her and who do we replace her with?’ ” admitted Brooks.
“It felt like the other options were riskier,” Ward said. “Everyone has been able to feel really comfortable moving forward, knowing we’re all in this together and we can continue to do this safely.”
Ward said the upshot of how “25 Questions” came together is, “The systems we set up to keep each other safe worked. They did exactly what they were supposed to do.”
Brooks knew what she needed to do.
“We had to plow forward. There have been moments where I thought, ‘Is this the last straw?’ ” mused Brooks, whose MJTC has had success programming in mid-August, when there’s typically little theater. “But I thought, ‘No, I believe in this. I’m not going to not do it.”
The new ways of working taught Ward techniques she’ll use when indoor theater is safe, and she has heard from artists who are excited about the new methods. For now, she’s eager to share this show with audiences, even small ones.
“I’m grateful I continue to be healthy and I’m in a place where I can be apart from my family, for now, and be able to work, which is mind-blowing,” said Ward from quarantine last week.
She even expresses gratitude for the airplanes, which seem likely to intrude on some shows. Ward argues the noise is part of “embracing the very present-tense-ness of performing outdoors.”
And, for that matter, of performing in the time of COVID.