Intimacy/Isolation: My Year of Virtual Theatre
by Katie Premus
Last February, I sat with my planner meticulously sketching out a life that could include three workshop production schedules, script development meetings, my own thesis workload, and a continued job search. Somewhere in between, I’d find time to be with friends and family, make some money, catch most of the productions on my “to-see list,” and maybe even enjoy the New York springtime and some end-of-grad-school celebrations. There was a lot to do in little time, but I’d make it all fit. The momentum, the sense of things finally adding up, pulled me forward.
In March, I took a pen to these plans and scratched out their existence. If any projects or events were going to happen, they wouldn’t be in person or anytime soon. Resigned to my now blank schedule and a life indoors with one other human, I made plans to fill the time. Walks down by the George Washington Bridge, daily movies, take-out Fridays, Zoom game nights, and a weekly “quarantine-friendly fun” newsletter to friends felt like the most manageable kinds of routine. But I was acutely aware that theatre was missing from my “new normal.” Using my roommate’s work-from-home hours to further solidify my own, I told myself I’d sit at my desk from 10am to 6pm, only breaking from my writing and research at lunch time. I penciled in creative team conversations about postponed productions and planned Facetimes with friends and classmates to discuss the progress of our projects. I downloaded theatre podcasts, highlighted dates of virtual artistic conversations, and earmarked shows now streaming from different theatrical archives. I was determined to keep the ball rolling. I didn’t feel like I had the option not to.
But the theatre that once made me feel so energetic, only generated apathy and despair. The momentum I felt in my own work a month earlier had now halted, threatening to slow and disappear. My makeshift structures of work and community kept me sane and connected, but I didn’t have any direction or much to show for my time. My thesis felt impossible to write. Production meetings couldn’t move anything forward. My creative conversations became opportunities to vent about personal and professional uncertainties and fears. I played audio theatre, logged onto livestreamed panels, and tuned into digital performances, but most of the time I found myself staring at my computer screen, distracted or depressed. I so badly wanted to generate and participate, but I both couldn’t and couldn’t see the point. I felt guilty for all of it.
I watched from afar as so many theatre workers did what they do best: go on with the show. Artists and institutions continued to create and reach out to their communities, all while navigating a pandemic, virtual platforms, and new problems. The theatre community took a critical eye to the industry, igniting fruitful and necessary discussions about systemic failures and the potential evolutions of the theatrical medium. I compared myself to the collaborators, classmates, mentors, and friends that seemed to be grinding away in their homes. I kept thinking, “This industry is about making it happen for yourself and doing the work when it’s hard. If you can’t maintain your momentum or find a way through, then maybe you don’t really want to be here. And if you don’t want to be here badly enough, then maybe you don’t belong here.” I recognized some imposter syndrome in this, and probably a mild depression, but these were also things I’d talked about and learned. Theatre as an independent grind; theatre built on the idea of scarcity. The more I siloed myself out of guilt, the guiltier and more isolated I felt.
It was honest conversations with others that slowly shifted my perspective on this reactionary withdrawal and the guilt that followed. It made complete sense that playwrights couldn’t simply generate and edit work to meet hypothetical Covid regulations. I understood the doubts directors had about being able to get through to their actors via Zoom. I sympathized with producers as they weighed whether the reward of any sort of production was worth the risk of their team’s safety. Of course, educators and other dramaturgs felt absurd carrying on with their creative research, critical work, and academic courses as if they could provide any insights or conclusions about the theatre world when everything was surely irrevocably changed. Listening to others, I wanted to assure them they weren’t insane, lazy, or untalented. I hoped they would respect the process of whatever they were going through and not focus too much on tangible products or what they thought they should be producing. I wanted to give them permission to be upset about all they lost and were continuing to lose. I wanted them to be more generous with themselves, to rest, and to rethink. I also now wanted these things for myself. It’s easier to see yourself when you’re reflected and validated by others.
My favorite part of my dramaturgical work is holding this kind of space for my collaborators. I love figuring out how to reflect their art and ideas back at them in order to create space and opportunity for clarity and a way forward. This act of collaborative intimacy and vulnerability allows us to more precisely articulate what we’re thinking and feeling, what we want to say, and how we want others to experience what we ultimately make. It makes creative work better not by solely focusing on the work produced, but by also leaning on relationships and being generous with our process. It’s an act of being present with others and the world around us. For me, it’s what makes creating theatre so fulfilling and unique.
It was this act of intimacy with other theatre makers that brought me my own clarity and a way forward this year. The transparency of others and the space we created between us for vulnerability helped me untangle my perceptions and better understand what was happening. I could reframe and get more precise about my desire to disengage, my lack of productivity, and my guilt. These were real, but what they were pointing to was the key to moving forward. The intimacy I experienced in these conversations was also what I was missing most from theatre and the world.
When I looked to the virtual theatre, all I could think about was the missing spectacle of physical intimacy. I missed immersing myself in scenes of a caretaker bathing a loved one, lovers kissing on the brink of a violent end, an audience of strangers sharing a bottle of whiskey. When I thought about creating theatre, I couldn’t comprehend what collaboration would feel like if I couldn’t be in the room with others or share thoughts and plans over a meal and a drink. These things that made making and experiencing theatre special were the same things the pandemic stole from our everyday lives. Touching, caring, communing, and sharing have been, not just absent, but dangerous. The theatre’s gift is creating opportunities for theatre makers and audiences to explore these central ways of experiencing our own humanity through intimacy with others, but that was almost impossible now. What I was feeling was this loss, and my instinct was to mourn: to actively interrogate, name, and honor the kind of work and experiences that make me excited to generate and participate. This was its own kind of productivity, and this was my way forward.
When March reared its head once more and New York announced the upcoming return of live performances, I panicked at first. I’d spent so much of this past year questioning and better understanding what I was feeling, what I wanted to contribute, and who I wanted to be to my community. Still, I felt unready to re-enter this world and this work. Then, I watched a flurry of remembrances and reflections pour out from the arts community. Artists at the top of their game shared that they spent the year unable to create a thing or feeling odd about creating. Some explained all they had were bad ideas, others admitted they focused on watching movies, reading books, and spending time with family. I felt relief in their vulnerability. I remembered how I spent this whole year earnestly confessing to friends that I wouldn’t have gotten through the year without my community’s generosity and intimacy. It was the women of my MFA cohort that banded together on a group chat until all of us had turned in our thesis projects. It was my mentors and friends who continually sent over job openings and sat with me while I dreamed about what work could look like. It was my collaborators who said, “If there’s something we want to make, why don’t we just make it together?” Theatre didn’t have to be built on grind and the myth of scarcity, it could be founded in collective vulnerability and the notion of abundance. Maybe our work and process won’t look the way we thought it would, or should. It feels less plausible and less important to independently carve out a life and work where everything fits neatly. By creating space for intimacy and generosity, we could get closer to the work we want most. What pulls me forward now is the momentum of the community around me and the hope that I can keep others moving too.
Katie Premus (she/her/hers) is a New York-based dramaturg, writer, and arts administrator. When she’s not supporting and developing the work of theatremakers, she is avidly consuming and endlessly discussing the dramaturgy of entertainment and pop-culture. She has previously worked in the artistic and literary departments of Signature Theatre, Lincoln Center/LCT3, and The Play Company. Katie holds an MFA from Columbia University and BAs from Fairfield University.