When COVID-19 shut down most in-person live entertainment, some dramatists decided to get creative. If audiences couldn’t go to the theater, the theater would come to them.
On Sept. 22, Janet Arnold Rees, senior concierge and creative aging coordinator for Jewish Family & Children’s Service, and Ed Asner, star of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant” as well as the Pixar film “Up,” performed the play “Hunker Down” live. But instead of treading the boards onstage, the production happened on Zoom.
Robert Benjamin’s “Hunker Down” stars Asner as Kevin, a recluse, and Rees as Bari, a woman looking for social contact while sheltering in place. Kevin reluctantly agrees to a video call after refusing a visit from Bari.
The play is about and primarily for older adults who are sheltering in place — hunkering down — and find themselves dealing with loneliness and the isolation brought on by COVID-19.
Benjamin said everything that’s happened since the start of the pandemic in terms of social distancing and technology was ripe for a production, especially one that had to utilize a platform like Zoom.
He also just enjoys writing about aging with grace, courage and humor. “Hunker Down,” encompasses all three things, he said, adding, “It’s just beautiful.”
More than 300 people tuned in to watch the 30-minute production live. It was sponsored by JFCS, the Scottsdale Art Center and the Ed Asner Family Center in order to raise money for the organizations.
In an ironic twist, the technology that made it all possible, failed when the donation button didn’t work for a period of time during the production.
Rees thought it was pretty genius to create a play that could be broadcast on Zoom. “I’ve seen other plays that tried to be done through Zoom, but of course it’s difficult when you need a narrator or somebody to explain movements that aren’t happening,” Rees explained. “But this is set up specifically as a Zoom phone call. So it appears very realistic. and it’s so today.”
The two people who are struggling to find their way through this pandemic is something Rees said she sees all the time in her work. “The woman in particular is just going nuts and wants to have some human contact — even if it’s six feet apart contact, they’re at least breathing the same kind of air,” Rees said.
Isolation is a reality that scares her and those working with seniors because it leads to cognitive decline, emotional decline and depression.
Benjamin wrote the show over the last few months, but the organizations involved only made the decision to perform it live roughly five weeks ago. Rees and the sponsors knew it could come together quickly, especially since people don’t need much advance notice to attend.
“It’s not like in the old days where people have to plan to go out on a Saturday night, and they need to make babysitting arrangements and all the rest,” she said.
Suzanne Dreyfus, a regular theater-goer in Phoenix, enjoyed the play thoroughly. “The author’s hit the nail on the head with this, and I’m sure it’s how a lot of older people feel,” she said. She’s participated in JFCS’ reader theater and tries to watch as many Zoom events as she can. She looks forward to more plays like this.
Laurie Steen of Scottsdale was also delighted by the performance. She thought it captured the zeitgeist fully. “I thought it was taking something that’s so timely and putting some humor to it,” she said. JN