“We’ve never had to think about building community when we haven’t had one.’’
Melinda Lopez, the celebrated playwright who grew up in Bedford and stayed, has time for contemplation about the role of the arts during this interminable quarantine.
That doesn’t mean she isn’t busy. Lopez is working on a long-term project – a production for the Central Square Theater about young scientists of color. “I also teach graduate students at Boston University and a class at Boston College. So there was a lot of uncertainty for a while; it was a matter of moving the curriculum online.”
Her husband Matthew Siegal is a volunteer with the town’s Citizens Emergency Response Team. Her daughter Madeleine came home early from freshman year at Brandeis. “We are all at different tables in the house on laptops. I bet that’s an experience that many people have.”
Lopez’s most significant lockdown experience involves the Huntington Theatre Company, where she is still “part of the family” as playwright-in-residence from 2013-2019.
The Huntington was into its final dress rehearsal of Our Daughters, Like Pillars when everything stopped short in mid-March.
“One of the things we realized, once we got our bearings, was to figure out how to make theater when you can’t gather people. We had a lot of conversations about what that means.”
She noted that “many theaters are doing online or Zoom meetings. But what about older people or others without Internet access?”
So the Huntington chose low technology. “If you sign up, someone from the Huntington staff will call you and you will get a monologue read to you over the phone. We decided to communicate with one audience member at a time – it’s a great way for staff members to feel like we being productive and reach people with theatrical readings,” Lopez related.
“There is something very intimate about that experience,” she continued. “We selected monologues from different shows we produced and people get to pick – sometimes I am reading my own material to them — I read from Mala and Sonia Flew. It’s a free program, open to anyone.” Details are on the Huntington website.
“We have such a talented assortment of people, and so we have also been doing weekly hour-long workshops” on line, Lopez said. There have been classes in millinery, writing poetry, or talking about what it’s like to design a set. “Anyone with a talent on staff can put forward an idea. It’s a great way to stay engaged.”
“This is our work. And I also think there is something about the human experience that craves company,” Lopez observed. “The theater is so good at pulling people out of isolation. You see a show and a whole theater of people feel the same. It’s really good at building community.”
“Writing is such a solitary process, so being alone is very good. You need a lot of quiet psychic space. You need to sit with your r imagination and your feelings,” she continued. “Right now that space is contaminated with fear for the future. It’s hard to sit in the quiet and not obsess. Many of us are feeling that. There’s some comfort in being alone together, everyone asking the same questions.”
“My life in Bedford is very privileged, but we have a very similar reference point. And we’re seeing the fragility and unsustainability of things we thought would last forever, that we thought we built.”
One aspect of the current crisis is “the disappearance of jobs. I’m a writer, so I can write anywhere. People who design sets and costumes or build shows, as well as business owners – we have to find ways to sustain their lives and keep them employed.
“Institutions are run by people who keep the arts alive — museums, theaters. Many cultural houses have benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program There is also a huge subsection of artists unaffiliated with a business or an institution. There’s lots of support for people in the arts through various organizations, but those individuals are really struggling.”
“All of us need to find ways to continue to be part of a solution,” she asserted. “It is important for our mental health as well as our physical health.”
What will become of the performing arts? Ultimately, Lopez said, “I’m assuming we will be back to a more healthy relationship to the virus. We will have safe ways to be together and there will be a vaccine or lots of ways to deal with the risk.“
And it’s worth the risk. The arts are like a “social service,” Lopez commented. “I think the arts are critical – we tell stories to tell people what happened to us. We make art to make order out of chaos. To have someone tell the story back to you in a way that expresses a deeper truth about humanity is a healing experience. A painting is critically valuable for mental health if it tells of the human condition.”
The story isn’t always art, she acknowledged. “Sometimes it’s something you do for your children or your parents or a small community. But the need is for humans to organize the chaos that they lived through – in words or images, whether by baking or by making quilts – into something that is beautiful and meaningful.”
That includes “finding a way to explain this new world to your kids,” she noted.
Asked whether she will be writing about what the world is experiencing now, Lopez said, “I would want to compile a whole group of stories – a huge range of experiences. That would make a very compelling order of this chaos. But my experience is not one that I would share in a theatrical form. That’s so different from writing very personally in Mala.”
“My focus has gotten closer. I’m less interested in writing for an audience a plane ride away,” Lopez said. “I have been thinking about how much I would enjoy writing a piece of theater about Bedford. The diversity of experience in our own town would probably blow all our minds. That’s something theater can do. When we are on ‘the other side,’ we could come together and say, ‘This is what happened in Bedford,’ and claim our identity and reclaim our community.”
“It’s really an ancient art form; it’s primal: sitting around the campfire, telling our stories.”