In the past several years, a phone call has begun to seem almost invasive, the unhappy middle between in-person nonverbal cues and the ability to carefully craft one’s sentences in text. Now that we can’t be in the same place, and screens are tiring and omnipresent, perhaps it’s time for a resurgence. Convergence Theatre’s The Corona Variations, written and directed primarily by Julie Tepperman, is theatre inspired by our current anxieties about the world around us and the changes to our lives as we knew them. It’s theatre that “phones home.”
There’s a well-reasoned but depressing article on Medium that’s been making the rounds lately about theatre’s need to feel vital in a time where we by necessity can’t be in the theatre itself. The thing that differentiates theatre is its liveness, the connection with the audience, and the potential for spontaneity even in a carefully-choreographed show. Theatre is about choosing to be together when we’re increasingly able to be apart. But now that we can’t choose to convene, theatre is forced to ask itself: how do we stay apart, together?
Because we’ve lost the liveness, the Medium article reasons, much of our art’s attempt to instantly respond to this contactless crisis can come off as desperate, poorly-planned, or even borderline offensive on the part of celebrities who try to convince those in truly dire straits that “we’re all in this together.”
Livestreaming and prerecorded theatre productions abound at the moment; there’s almost more to see now than in a regular season, with the added overwhelming factor that it all seems equally far away and therefore impossible to properly prioritize. Maybe, the article reasons, what that means is that we need to take a step back, or a rest.
The Corona Variations is something a little different from a livestream. It’s the opposite of screaming into the void. It’s a series of direct phone calls to you and you alone, or anyone you add to the call, which preserves the feeling of a singular connection. Over the course of three hours, you receive a well-engineered marvel of calls, precisely at specified times.
The vignettes are all styled as phone calls between two or three people. They last no more than ten minutes, giving you snapshots into the lives of people affected by the pandemic. Some feel voyeuristic, as you simply listen to the drama. Some are more participatory, giving you a prewritten script to follow, and one is a bit of a hybrid surprise. An impressive roster of Canadian theatre actors – if you participate, you find out who played what only at the very end – has come together to deliver the bespoke speaking experience to only ten households per evening.
On Wednesday night, I listened alone; others participated with friends, even discussing the plays together over Zoom in the interim. One way was more intimate, one way more social.
The topics ranged from silly to serious, but each had an undercurrent of truth and desperation. Since a lot of theatre spends time – maybe too much time – in workshops, it sometimes feels like it’s playing catch-up to current social issues. But we’re at a crisis point where we don’t know the answers or resolution. We can’t dramatize a finished story. We can only ask the questions, and react to right now.
This fight or flight response to trauma is evident in the vignettes, which deal with crumbling marriages, losses of milestone events, loneliness, and desperate attempts to connect with someone, anyone, if only for a few minutes. Certain threads reappear between pieces; the connections are minor, but they’re nice Easter eggs that populate the world.
I found it interesting trying to figure out how to behave on the phone as an audience member – there’s no cue for applause, and I felt like I didn’t want to be overheard making noise if I wasn’t technically part of the call. I wondered what that was like for the actors, to potentially hear nothing but silence. The pieces with scripts had a clearer role for the audience, but each piece felt thoroughly present, holding my focus in a different way than the multitude of lovely performances currently on my screens.
Due to the scheduling nature of the calls, the order is necessarily randomized. However, I felt the order I experienced was perfect. The last piece was a comedic bit featuring a duo of instantly-recognizable Toronto artists, and suddenly I wasn’t merely listening in or playing a role, I was simply myself. I was at home.
The call ended as many do, the way we sign off: “I love you.” “I love you.” I thought of the comfort inherent in that simple, reflexive phrase, and how I feel that way every time I step into the theatre.
I thought of all the theatre we won’t get to see this year, and of everything and everyone we’re going to lose, permanently. All of those voices, suddenly silenced.
I hung up the phone for the last time that evening, and I burst into tears.
I felt worse, then a little better. Moved, slightly, forward.
We’re not in the wake of this pandemic; we’re just testing the waters. Some tests are going to fail, and some are going to succeed. It’s not up to any artist or company to blaze a new trail or force ourselves into relevance, or to create when all we want to do is survive. But what we can do is offer moments of potential connection and catharsis. We can offer them to the whole world at once, or we can whisper them into a single ear.
We can’t open our doors, but we can pick up the phone.
I’m glad I picked up.
- The Corona Variations played Wednesday, April 15-Sunday, April 19, 2020. Tickets are PWYC – $85.
- For future dates and times, please see Convergence’s website.
- The show was for a mature audience, but a family-friendly version is planned.
Photo by Fei Peng Hu