When Corona Came to The Party
What do you do when Coronavirus comes to your birthday party? And if another guest is an Essential Worker?
If you’re the Internet, you distract them with your children: Facebook, Madame Netflix, Twitter, Instagram, and Baby Tiktok. Luckily, everyone is easily seduced by the children of the Internet.
In 1930, Leah Hofman’s short play Kraft (Power) was published in a collection of her work. Hofman was not a well-known author and little is known about her life or performances of her work. But ninety years later, Kraft was reborn as a Zoom play, now called Korone un der nayer normal (Corona and the New Normal).
This performance was the mastermind of Jana Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh, founder of the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America. Mazurkiewicz, who has a performance background and is a PhD candidate at University of Michigan studying Yiddish theatre, partnered with Yidishvokh to lead an online theatre workshop. Using Hofman’s play as an inspiration and supporting structure, the group of seven participants wrote, cast, and rehearsed the play in just six days.
In Hofman’s play, Steam is celebrating its 250th birthday. Steam welcomes the audience to its party, along with special guests Electricity, Radio, Airplane, and Madame Cinema. There is also one guest beckoned from the far-away past, a Slave arriving from the Biblical era. Each guest brings with them their own need: the need to dance (Electricity); the need to be in the dark (Madame Cinema); and so on. These contemporary guests try to teach the Slave about modernity and their role in it, but contradictions abound. The Slave is taken with Madame Cinema, declaring that in his time, this would be considered magic. But of course, in modern times there is no magic. Not quite, Electricity says. There is still belief in an invisible God. “Religion is a mania,” Steam says, “and good business too.” (Hofman takes no prisoners.) In the end, the audience, like the Slave, is left only to wonder at a society with so many sources of power, and so little to show for it.
In its re-worked version as Korone un der nayer normal, the modern powers of the Internet and its offspring try to convince an Essential Worker of the bounty of the contemporary world. That goes about as well as you might expect. Just as in Hofman’s original, there is no way to square the circle: the world remains as cruel and capricious as it was before its modern wonders were invented.
Mazurkiewicz took inspiration from Hofman for a number of practical reasons, she told me. The play is short (twelve pages in the original), which makes it accessible to people with less Yiddish fluency or less experience in theatre, and also doable with the timeframe of Yidishvokh. She also liked the way it could include actors of different ages. Mazurkiewicz has a personal commitment to staging women playwrights, and has researched specifically to find material like this.
And also, she says, an abstract play is much better than a realist one. This surprised me! I thought abstraction would be more difficult for people who might be new to Yiddish, or to acting. But Mazurkiewicz argues that abstraction requires more imaginative investment. “People associate Yiddish theatre with Fiddler on the Roof, she says. She has been approached over and over to re-stage that one work. She always declines: “What’s the point of performing the same few plays over and over?” With an abstract text, actors have to approach it completely fresh, without pre-conceived ideas about what makes the play Jewish or how it should be performed. Same for audience members: Hofman’s play is not what the average theatre-goer expects, and they will be challenged to put abstract ideas into conversation with their own experiences. For both artists and audience, Mazurkiewicz recommends finding material that is truly surprising. The main downside with abstract theatre, she says, is “you don’t get grants.”
Another reason for choosing this play was its incredible resonances with the COVID era. First are the contemporary forms of slavery: gig work and low-paid service industry jobs. Then there are the things that are supposed to serve us, but end up running our lives: things like social media and the constant curating of our own images. Hofman’s play seems pretty prescient in many ways. This exchange near the end of her play hit a nerve with me:
Slave: And the people who use you, they’re happy?
Electricity: They would be happy but…
Slave: But what?
Electricity: They don’t have time.
Slave: If you do so much work for them, why don’t they have any time?
Steam: They’re always busy thinking up more ways for us to work for them. And with any time they have left over, they’re fighting and killing each other.
Translating this into the internet and coronavirus era was Mazurkiewicz’s idea. She liked the fact that it allowed them to imagine interplay between the human virus and computer viruses. It enabled COVID/koved jokes (koved means “honour” or “respect” in Yiddish). There were some timely opportunities with this structure, too: the character of Twitter speaks of its special relationship with a great leader, one who has the best words. Workshop participants also found they wanted to explore the role of social media in how we talk about COVID. Mazurkiewicz says creating these links was therapeutic for everyone involved. The process was truly collaborative. They read the original play together, then re-wrote parts of it overnight in teams of two. Drafts were discussed in workshop, and as they rehearsed they would change it again.
I asked Mazurkiewicz if Zoom is good for the Jews. “Unfortunately, it is!” she says. Zoom allowed people from around the world to work together: this cast included actors from the UK, Mexico, Canada, and the US. Zoom also has nice features like backgrounds, participant names (which you can set to the character names), and video filters, where you can add a hat, say, or (relevantly) a mask, using a digital overlay on the actors’ screens. These are all nicely theatrical touches that create some of the magic of live theatre or movies. As an audience member, I appreciated having access to this cultural event from my home in Canada, and the way Zoom’s “speaker view” setting automatically directed my attention to the person who was speaking. Subtitles were also provided, and Mazurkiewicz generously shared the script with the entire audience.
As advice for future Zoom theatre producers, Mazurkiewicz recommends utilizing movie acting techniques, such as making larger, slower, more deliberate movements to make sure the camera catches them. She also urges Yiddish creators to record their online work. “We don’t have enough visual materials. We have to build a solid corpus of visual recordings.”
I was thinking about Hofman, the acuity of her vision and her cynicism about the progress of the modern world. But even so, she held onto her hope. While she didn’t think technology was a cure for what ails us, Mazurkiewicz tells me, “she thought the Soviet Union was a cure. Now what can we have as a cure?” Perhaps the answer is in the process, rather than the product. In working collaboratively to make theatre, there is little room for ego, and everyone has to share power. I was impressed by the creative generosity that made this new Zoom-based, COVID-aware theatre possible. “These days it’s very important to emphasize the importance of community. Especially in the US where people are supposed to be independent and self-sufficient, and we see where it’s heading,” Mazurkiewicz says.
Korone un der nayer normal was performed via Zoom on August 30, in a co-production of YAAANA and Yugntruf—Youth for Yiddish (sponsors of Yidishvokh). The cast was:
Stephen Olgin as Corona
Pam Singer as The Internet
Sasha Hofman as The Essential
Susanne Katchko as Facebook and Madame Netflix
German Alonso as Twitter
Tanya Yakovleva as Instagram
Jana Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh as Baby Tiktok