There’s a video of Young Jean Lee performing her 2011 play We’re Gonna Die on Vimeo. It’s an exercise in minimalism and mortality: a single person with a mic backed up by a band—part stand-up, part rock concert, part TED talk, and part campfire confession—relaying a series of humiliating, horrifying, gory, and mundane incidents-in-the-life-of, and Lee is brilliant: eyes dry, voice wry, bangs on her face, feet on the ground, and a pocket full of tunes that worm their way into your ear. With the murmur of the crowd in the room, that video is a relic of a time and place we won’t reenter soon. Just before lockdown began, a production of We’re Gonna Die was playing off Broadway at the Second Stage Theater, one of the last houses to go dark in New York. And while sheltering in place, Theatre Y embarked upon making a film of the work, intentionally a piece by and for plague times.
Director Héctor Álvarez read Lee’s play in February, at a funeral. “My wife’s grandmother passed away. She was 99, and, while very sad, it was not a surprise. We flew to Ohio for the memorial service,” he says. “On the way back, I read the play. The story deals with loneliness, rejection, decay, and death, but it was also a celebration of the small things in life. I felt strangely at peace and comforted by it.” The same weekend, his own grandmother in Spain was diagnosed with the virus.
“My mom tested positive. Then uncles and cousins. It spread like a wildfire.” With summer plans to direct a show coproduced with the contemporary dance company the Cambrians (“about extinction and the fragility of life”) facing likely cancellation, Álvarez proposed a film of Lee’s play as an alternative just two days before Chicago locked down.
“At the time, I was totally untouched by COVID,” says Theatre Y artistic director Melissa Lorraine. “I knew we were heading to feeling much closer to death than we did at that moment. Héctor was ahead of us in terms of having it land. If it comforted him, it [stood] to reason that it may comfort others as we get further into this pandemic.”
Armed with Álvarez’s perspective on events in Europe and charged with an injunction by Lee that no one be exposed to sickness during the process, Theatre Y dove into creating remotely. “I invited Emily [Bragg, who plays the narrator] to live with us immediately,” says Lorraine. “I said, ‘Move into our living room. I just have the feeling we’re never coming out again, and if you don’t move into my house right now, we’re never going to be able to interact!”
The process of creating the film, which was shot on a professional camera as well as an iPhone, was dictated by the terms of isolation, with everyone working asynchronously to create a visual and sonic environment for a character, who was also developed in solitude over a series of assignments Álvarez designed. “I would share provocations with Emily,” he explains. “I would give her a couple of hours to create something and send it back to me. For example, I asked her to compile a list of 50 sounds that were comforting to her. I asked her to create tableaux or object arrangements for each of the stories”—elements that eventually made their way into the film.
The result is a peculiarly lonely and elliptical telling of Lee’s play, a set of images characterized by still life and time-lapse, occurring in the confines and cubbyholes of an interior packed with memorabilia that still manage to move. A curiosity shop of photographs, cards, candles, and tchotchkes tell the bulk of the story, and Bragg’s articulate body, when it intervenes into the action, almost seems to become another one of these objects. Never seen to speak, with her face always partially or entirely obscured, the sense of her absence and thus of all we miss of theater and each other is poignant and potently present.
“We were very keen to embrace the idea of the absent performer and the absent body,” says Álvarez. “That gave us the idea of using object theater as one of the languages.” The film references theatrical methods and devices throughout: “Emily is often wearing a mask. That’s a commentary on COVID and everyone wearing masks but also it’s hearkening back to the mask of theater! I was also inspired by a form of Japanese street theater called kamishibai, which means ‘paper play.’ Storytellers would set up a cardboard box proscenium on a street corner with painted boards, and they would narrate a story to children while changing the images. That is a technique we used in the film. When we become interlopers in a different medium, we honor the baggage we bring with us.”
Through Zoom meetings, Theatre Y kept several longtime collaborators close, including Kyle Gregory Price, whose cheery arrangements of the songs telescope Lee’s rock band aesthetic down to the intimacy of home.
Like live performance, Theatre Y’s production of We’re Gonna Die has a finite number of showings. And Lorraine insists that, despite their foray into film, including a series of Andràs Visky shorts, as well as a film of his Juliet to be released this November, Theatre Y exists to create theater. “Some artists say, ‘I don’t do virtual. You’ll see me when we’re back in the flesh,’” notes Lorraine. “Is that acceptable, knowing we have a whole society starving for something right now? Can we innovate, or is that reducing the art form? Knowing how to take care of the form during this crisis is really hard.”
“Our task, our duty, is to be the frequency of the times and filter the turmoil and suffering and noise through your imagination and give something back to the world,” says Álvarez. “The crises we’re living through are morally asking artists to respond in some way.”
“I think it’s important to all of us that the work we make is life-giving,” says Lorraine. “I hope people feel companionship in the struggle. Artists are asked to make meaning”—(“while telling the truth,” interjects Álvarez)—“which is a tall order at this time.” v