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Theatre in a pandemic: Q&A with playwright Don Zolidis ’97

In a world turned upside down by a global pandemic, how does one even begin to fathom creating theatre works—an inherently physical, social, and in-person art form that is predicated on the unique and powerful relationship between actor and audience? As a Class of 2020 Theatre Arts Major, I am asking myself these questions and more each and every day. How can I be an artist when my craft is on pseudo-pause? How can we continue to create art in this new e-world, transferring our skills, processes, and crafts online? Don Zolidis ’97, a former Carleton English major who gave a Convocation talk this past February, has some thoughts on the matter. Zolidis has written over one hundred plays, and his latest, 10 Ways to Survive Life in a Quarantine, is designed to be performed over Zoom. I sat down with him to discuss theatre in the COVID era and his new work.

Colleen Scallen: So for those who didn’t see you speak at Convo this past winter, can you give a brief background on your playwriting career?

Don Zolidis: Yeah. So I wrote my very first play at Carleton for something called Chelsea 11:17 in winter term of my freshman year. And the very first reaction was somebody stood up and pointed at me and said, ‘you’re going to hell’ when it was over—a person who’s still a good friend of mine and later directed one of my shows in Chicago, actually!

CS: Really! Oh my gosh, that’s so funny.  

DZ: Yeah! Anyway, after that I really fell in love with it. And I wrote a lot of plays for Chelsea. I wrote and directed a show, my senior year at Carleton that was I think three and a half hours long because I didn’t understand formatting. I ended up going to graduate school for playwriting at the Actor’s Studio program at The New School in New York City. And from there, I ended up teaching middle-school theater at a public school in Texas. And that’s when I started writing for young people. And then those plays got published and were very very popular. And I wrote a ridiculous number of them.

CS: I think it’s cool to contextualize that Little Nourse was a part of it, and Chelsea 11:17 which was kind of the precursor to our 24 Hour Show / Lenny Dee.  And you were an English major, yes? What was your comps?

DZ: I took the test. I went and I asked, I think my sophomore year, whether I could write a novel for my comps, and they were like, ‘no.’ [laughs] And so, I decided since I had written that play, and I was focused on doing that, I was just going to do comps to get it done. It’s not going to be the culmination of my education. I felt like writing my own show—you know, it was kind of like, there were rules, and I ignored the rules that didn’t help me, and did what I wanted to do. I got my educational experience that way.

CS: Yeah, I know that for me so much of my education was outside of the classroom, you know? It was the ETB show I was in, it was the Players shows I was in, it was the comps shows specifically that I was in that taught me a lot about how I want to make theater. 

DZ: Yeah. I really credit Carleton with my becoming a playwright, but very little about is about what I learned in a classroom. Most of that is what I learned with my friends and peers doing shows. But that’s part of Carleton and that’s, you know, part of why I went to Carleton, was to have that community.

CS: Yeah, absolutely. And community is so, so important. So much of theater is the community and is being present with people. So, how are you handling it? How are you like looking at it and thinking forward about how to shift this community online? 

DZ: It’s kind of, I mean, this is gonna sound weird: it’s kind of a wonderful challenge. I had learned how to do something one way and I had written 120 plays, you know, doing it one way. And suddenly you’re forced to say: ‘okay, you need to throw that out the window, you need to think about this differently.’ And it’s such a great creative challenge, to suddenly have to write in a new form and with new restrictions, to suddenly have to reinvent how to write a play. It was kind of thrilling—scary, but thrilling because it forces you to grow and to change, which I really appreciated. So specifically thinking about these plays, I’m thinking about: how do I create that sense of community, virtually and online? And how do I provide an opportunity for people to get together to find some kind of joy or humor in the world? 

CS: Yeah.

DZ: So there was sort of a scramble between other established professional playwrights. And I saw a lot of them writing really heavy stuff, you know about isolation and about quarantine and those types of things. And I thought, the last thing that I want to watch is something really heavy about a disease right now. You know? I just want something to take my mind off it. And I want to give an experience to probably a teenager who has lost their show and lost their school and lost their community. And I want them to have some fun. So I wrote a play specifically designed for fun and I think that’s why it took off like it did.

CS: Okay, awesome, that’s a great segue. Let’s talk about your new work 10 Ways To Survive Life in a Quarantine. Could you give a brief summary of the play itself? 

DZ: The general conceit is that it’s kind of a how-to guide to survive and thrive in the current environment. And the humor of it is that essentially everybody who’s giving you advice is doing terribly. So it essentially opens with a scene from Castaway— basically, somebody has like, befriended their basketball, and that’s their only friend now. And I did things like I had people act out Shakespeare plays with stuffed animals. So I had, you know, MacBear and MacDuck murdering each other. And then I also did things with pets,because I assumed that people would have pets at home, or there would be enough pets that they could be in the show. So there’s a person who’s trying to do a production of Cats, and there’s a performance of, I called it “furball of the opera,” and I did Beauty and the Beast with the dog as well—the dog is Belle and the human plays all the other roles. And again, those are challenges that I’d never had as a playwright. It’s like, how do I fit a dog into the show? And  I have to write the play in such a way to account for the fact that the dog might wander off during the performance. These are not trained animals, they’re just random dogs. So, how do you write stage directions? Like: “also, if your dog leaves, do this.” So that’s part of the play, too, is trying to think about what a kid has in their room. What can they make a costume out of? What can they make a set out of? How can I bring them some fun? And how can it be fun for people watching? 

CS: Oh my gosh, that’s great. That’s so cool. So earlier you mentioned what inspired you to write it, to bring some levity and help focus on the students whose productions were canceled. I think it’s awesome that you were bringing what you were talking about at Convo—that harnessing joy, saying you can use it as a method to reach people and to bring people in. 

DZ: Yeah, that was where my mindset was, and I wanted to have some fun writing it myself, right? When I’m writing a comedy, I’m enjoying it. And I’m hopefully laughing when I’m writing a comedy. At the end of March, it was so hard to focus on anything. And, you know, your brain is just reacting to all of this terrible news coming hour by hour, and I needed a little bit of solace to get away from that. Writing kind of has always been that for me.

CS: Yeah. So I saw that the play has 100+ applications for rights in seven countries, which is incredible reach. 

DZ: We’re at 200 now, we have more than 200. 

CS: 200? Wow! That’s bananas. I love it. And your plays are and have been historically wildly popular and widely performed in middle and high schools around the country and various countries. But this is a pretty rapid response relative to the play’s recent release a month and a half ago. So do you think that COVID is playing a factor in that popularity, because it’s kind of unique in that sense?

DZ: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, I wrote this play in four days. And everyone’s show was canceled. So, in a lot of ways, I was one of the very first people to get something out there that people could do. I was kind of a first mover in that sort of marketplace. And again, the speed at which I write plays, which I’ve learned from Carleton came in real handy later on. [Laughs.] 

CS: Right. So have there been other works that have come out since?

DZ: There have been a couple. And you know, this gets into a bigger question of balancing art versus commerce as a professional artist. So I’m creating a play that can be done virtually online. Hopefully, that play is only going to get performed for like three months, and then it’s going to go away. So balancing art and commerce, I needed to get that play out quick. And other playwrights who are not fast would miss the window when these things would be useful. You know? If you came out with a play right now that’s only designed to be done by people in quarantine, it’s not going to do very well because we’re rapidly getting—hopefully, maybe—past the need for that show.

CS: Right, and it’s different now because many places in the U.S. are starting to open back up, so as you said, the need for it, or the ability for it to exist in that specific niche atmosphere is kind of shifting.

DZ: Yeah. So I’m currently writing plays that can be done in what I imagine as a fall landscape that is still different from what we have right now. So I wrote a play—again, a really fun, silly play—that could be done by people who are socially distanced onstage. Or it could be performed live-streamed, or it could be done virtually online. So that no matter what’s happening in the fall, the show could still be performed. 

CS: I’m mulling over what you said about the intersections of theater and commerce, because you know, like you wrote this play and like, in two or three years, we won’t have to do a quarantine play, so it’s not meant for the long haul. And I think so much of art is “contributing to the canon” or whatever, but you have to balance that with what people need right now and how that intersects with people’s sanity, really.

DZ: Yeah, it’s an interesting challenge. It’s like thinking “I’m going to write a play that’s going to be done for the next six months, and then never again,” you know, that’s very different from your normal mindset, which is “I’m going to write something for the ages.”

CS: For sure. And theatre has always been an important tool, an important contemporaneous tool in that it’s supposed to be addressing the current times, but focusing it in such a micro lens, I think is new. And there’s a lot of online Zoom table reads and video performances or stitched-together recordings, and obviously, as you said, a hefty dose of COVID or quarantine-inspired projects. But it’s really interesting to see how that landscape is shifting, and one of the questions going through my brain is “is this still theatre? Where does it start intersecting with performance art or film?” And, you know, theater shouldn’t be gate-kept, but how do you hold on to stuff and also allow it to shift?

DZ: I was listening to NPR this week, and they had Oscar Eustis, who’s the artistic director of the Public Theater in New York talking about this and his plan. And you know, they normally do like Shakespeare in the Park, and they can’t do that. But his plan is to take theater out of the building, and take it to the communities, to take the actors out instead of asking people to come into the space. They’re going to go out to the community and do those shows for free first, to sort of share theater rather than asking people to go, you know, mask themselves and risk infection to go into a closed space for two hours. So I think that we’re going to see a lot of that. 

CS: What I’m struggling with right now is what role artists have with this kind of landscape, and what role art can have in a way that’s not trite or contrived. I think it brings up this larger question of: what role does art have, and how can art be something that’s political and worthwhile in this climate?

DZ: I think that artists need to really be listening to people right now. I love what Anna Deavere Smith did with Fires in the Mirror and Twilight Los Angeles, where she went and she created art out of people’s stories who were involved in those disturbances. And I think that you can share stories that can hopefully spark change, and I think those have to exist hand-in-hand with people who are on the frontlines and people who are at the same time working to elect candidates who can work it from that direction as well. So I think of art as one prong in a way to create change.

CS: Yeah, that’s a really that’s a really good way of putting it, “one prong,” because as artists, we have a skillset, we have something to contribute, but it’s figuring out how to do that in a way that’s not taking more space and is instead uplifting what should be uplifted. And obviously part of that starts in art as well, because theater, particularly— and art in general—once you get into the higher echelons of it, is a very white, male space. And so, figuring out how we can “walk our talk” is something that’s really important.

DZ: Absolutely, and amplify voices that are not just those white male voices. And I think that’s a role for everyone involved, and I try to amplify voices that are not my own, especially those who are better able to speak on this particular issue than I am, of course.  And again, you know, we’re in a very chaotic phase right now with, COVID, and with this, and the art that’s going to be created is going to be different than what we have seen before. 

CS: Yeah, absolutely. And this time is forcing us to reevaluate the expensive, metropolitan, “only Shakespeare” kind of theatre.

DZ: There’s a lot of money in buildings, right? There’s a lot of money that’s gone into spaces. 

CS: And those spaces are useless right now. 

DZ: Right? And is that the best use of our resources? I mean, that’s a pretty old model. So, what is the new model that we can work from? You know, one of the things that this play has shown me is how truly global you can be. I have a show in Egypt, I’ve got one in China, I’ve got one in Slovakia, you know, they’re all over the place. I got contacted by a teacher from Colombia. So you know, on practically every continent I have a show! [Laughs.] And you know, this is such an interesting way to suddenly address people all over the globe that are experiencing very similar things. 

CS: Yeah, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about too. If you want to talk about accessibility in theater, this kind of stuff is making theater less accessible because of the fact that there are barriers to people accessing Zoom, to being able to have a stable Internet connection or presuming they have access to a computer. Where for a lot of people you know, free Wi Fi and computer access was through stuff like public libraries, which aren’t open right now. But it’s also making it more accessible for physical accessibility needs, as so many theaters are not ADA accessible, or they’re not accessible for the deaf community. So I think it’s interesting. It’s showing how it’s a double-edged sword of accessibility, sort of. 

DZ: Yeah. I mean, there’s absolutely the notion that that Internet is a utility, and it needs to be available for everybody, and it’s not totally there yet. I think we have pretty good coverage in this country, but there are a lot of people who do not have access. So that’s one kind of accessibility. And then the other one that you mentioned—I think of this in health terms, too, that if we do reopen some kind of theatres in the fall, you know, maybe your 87-year-old grandmother shouldn’t come.

CS: And at places like the Guthrie, that’s a lot of their—

DZ: That’s half their audience! So, if she can tune in from her computer and watch, while there are also people who maybe can be in the audience—maybe they’re safer, maybe they’ve already had the virus. So that’s kind of this hybrid thing that I’m thinking of, where we have a live-streamed performance that’s going on at the same time as a live performance. Anytime there’s a huge disruption like this, there’s a period of chaos and creativity around it. And there are opportunities in there to change it. And there are opportunities and I think positive outcomes that are possible. But we have to think creatively about those things. 

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