What the Pandemic Taught Us About Prioritizing Artist Health

by | Sep 22, 2023 | ART Productions, Blog, News

by Melory Mirashrafi
In May of 2023, during ART’s production of True Story by E. M. Lewis, actor Maria Porter experienced a health emergency that led to actor and writer Lolly Ward stepping into her role leading up to opening night. Director Luan Schooler, Porter, and Ward sit down with Artistic & Producing Associate Melory Mirashrafi to discuss their experiences on True Story, and what the world of theatre has learned about prioritizing actor health as a result of the pandemic.
What the Pandemic Taught Us About Prioritizing Artist Health

Maria Porter, True Story by E.M. Lewis. Photo by Lava Alapai.

Melory Mirashrafi (MM): What was your experience stepping in or out of a role during True Story?

Maria Porter (MP): It was the first day of tech, and I had started to see floaters in my left eye.

I was on lunch break with two of my colleagues, and one of them said, “You know, my dad had that. It was retinal detachment and it was pretty serious.” So I reported to the stage manager, Danny Rosales, and to the director, Luan, and our associate director, Vin Shambry, drove me to the emergency room that night. Two days later I ended up having emergent retinal reattachment surgery.

It was a shock, clearly, and a trauma. What was secondarily traumatic, and I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, was that this had been my first text-based role in many years, and I had been having the time of my life. It was a company of incredibly supportive artists, and it was like… heaven. I felt like I was in heaven every day. And to be faced with the idea that I might not be able to complete the performance was heartbreaking.

We went to the doctor Monday morning after the surgery, and he said, “You have to lie face down for two weeks, 50 minutes out of every hour,” and I said to my husband, who jokingly is also my agent now, “You know how much this means to me. Can you promise that you’ll help me try to do this?” and he said yes.

So then I called you, Luan, and we navigated a solution that was generous and had me back in the room, lying face down during tech rehearsals, hearing this wonderful human and artist, Lolly, jump in and embrace this role.

Luan Schooler (LS): It was a big day.

As Maria said, it had been a dreamy process. It was such a comfortable, joyful group of people. So when Maria came and said, “I need to go to the emergency room,” it was like, “Yes. Let’s just make that happen.”

This was two days before the next rehearsal, so we had a little cushion of time to go, “Who do we know who’s wonderful and equally generous, who will match this group of people, who would do the job really well… Why Lolly Ward! Lolly Ward comes to mind.”

Lolly Ward (LW): When I got the call, I was finishing jury duty, and everything slotted together in this perfect way.

I was able to come in on that Tuesday and start rehearsing, and I thought, “When in my life do I have no obligations, no trips, the children are taken care of, and I can actually do this thing?” It was ideal.

What the Pandemic Taught Us About Prioritizing Artist Health

Joshua Weinstein & Lolly Ward, True Story by E.M. Lewis. Photo by Lava Alapai.

Coming into tech was an interesting experience… that’s not my favorite way to come into a show. Just as a metaphor, when I arrived, the door to the theater was locked, so I came in from backstage. So I was coming in literally through the back door into this show! But everyone was so nice, introduced themselves, and ran to get things. Luan printed up the book for me—and then printed a second book that would work a little bit better on the stage—Maria was there to answer questions, and the costume fit… it all came together in a beautiful way.

LS: I think the whole thing actually went quite smoothly because of the people involved. Maybe because of the pandemic we have all learned that it’s not the end of the world, like, “No one has died today.” But I don’t think we can overstate the importance of the generosity of the people. That’s what made it almost funny when Maria was lying face down on her little cot in front of the stage, and Lolly was walking through lines saying, “Maria, where do you put your scotch?!” It was a wonderful experience in its own weird way. I don’t wish it on anyone else… but it was.

LW: I agree that we’ve learned a lot from the pandemic. We’ve had to cancel so many things and change so many expectations, and it’s made us more flexible, to say, “This is what we’re doing now.” And I absolutely agree about the generosity of the whole team.

MP: I think I healed in the way that I healed because I was allowed to come back and continue to be a part of this community, which had become so important to me. It never felt like I stepped out of the role; it was as if we were all in it together. I just stepped aside.

MM: How else has the pandemic changed our expectations around illness and health emergencies? I think about all of the times that I’ve seen people go on while ill or injured under the pretense of “The show must go on.”

MP: I’d like to speak to that. I think the culture of scarcity, in terms of opportunity in the theatre, and especially for people who identify as female, is still prevalent for me. In me it has bred this sense of, “There are 10,000 people behind you who can replace you.” And that is really hard to shake. It is really hard to shake. There was that vestige of scarcity of opportunity bred in me from when I was a young actor that said: “If you go down now, you’re going to get a reputation; you’ll never work again.” Fortunately, I wasn’t able to give it any air.

LS: I think [before the pandemic] theatres also had an expectation, and maybe audiences had it as well, that every performance would be the same. Whereas now I think there’s a little more permission to say, “Oh well, that person has just picked up this role, and so they have a book,” without it seeming like you’re being robbed of a perfect experience. After COVID you’re just like, “Yay, I went to the theatre and the show happened! Let’s all celebrate!” So maybe there’s more space for saying, “It’s a little different tonight. It does have somebody carrying a book,” but that doesn’t have to invalidate the experience.

LW: And now I’ve heard of several people with retinal detachment, so let’s spread the word!

MP: Watch out if your eyes get dry, friends.

MM: Maria, what was your experience stepping back into the role?

MP: Yes, well, I had one eye. I was wearing an eyepatch. I remember Luan holding my hand—it was so dark for the first entrance—and saying, “Feel your hand along the desk. Just feel the edge of the desk,” and our production assistant, Riley Lozano, behind me. Riley would gently help me onto the stage up to closing night, because I didn’t want to change any of my routine. I’d become superstitious in that way of magical thinking.

I remember that first night back thinking, “Oh my God, where is the audience?” And hearing Luan in my head saying, “Just find the edge of the desk, and rest against it,” which I think is also a metaphor. As soon as that light went up and I was able to see the back of the theater, I thought, “I’m good.” I just needed to see the back of the theater from the stage.

In terms of generosity, I was also very aware when I came back that I was putting people through more rehearsal than they needed to have.

LW: I was aware of that for me too.

MP: I was deeply aware of the cost of extra labor on everybody else’s part, and feeling like, “Are you sure you want to do this for me?” And that was also something I had to put down, so that I could move forward. [Producing Director] Shawn Lee was there an extra day, the light board operator, Joel Ferraro, agreed to go through the lights with me, and then when I took the eye patch off the last week, Joel and Danny went through the light cues again and made sure that I could tolerate them with both eyes. This was the last week of performances.

I don’t know what magic ART does, I don’t know how you manage to gather such salt of the earth people, but I tell you… all of that labor on behalf of this opportunity, to see this to the end, was the most moving, generous thing that’s ever been done for me in the theatre, I think.

LS: I will add that you looked so dashing in that eyepatch.

MM: I almost hesitate to use the word “understudy” for you, Lolly, because that implies some kind of preparation–

LS: There should be a better word. Hero?

LW: I had a dream of being off book. I do a lot of staged readings, so I knew I could come off the page, but I didn’t feel 100% confident, so having that book in my hand was so great. I used every available moment to memorize: every moment in the dressing room, every walk to dinner, every walk back. I read [the lines], I wrote them, and I listened to them like a song, so that I could get every different sense working on them. And again, there was such generosity—people in the dressing rooms and in the halls would say, “Do you want to run lines?” Anytime, they were up for running them with me.

MP: Now would be a wonderful opportunity for me to express how deeply grateful I am. Of course to ART, but to you specifically, Lolly. It must have been terribly difficult, but you did it with such ease and grace, and it was an amazing act of generosity, and I am so grateful to you.

LW: Thank you. I feel the same.

MM: What advice would you have for someone who comes across a health emergency, or has to step into a show last-minute?

MP: Trust and advocate for yourself. That would be my advice for a person who’s stepping out.

LS: I think that’s important. Advocate for yourself. When you [Maria] said, “Here’s what I can do, here’s what I think will happen, and here’s our checkpoint,” it was good to know that you wanted to come back, and of course we wanted you back, but also you had clearly talked to your doctor first about a way forward.

From the producorial side, try to hold this stuff lightly. Miracles don’t come when you squeeze it too hard. Try not to catastrophize about things. Just go, “What do we need to do right now? Where can we get to? What’s the first step?” And of course, only work with super generous people who make these things possible.

LW: Understudies, if there’s budget! It sure helps. I know companies where they do a whole second cast so they can alternate; they build it into the process.

LS: Yes, understudies from the beginning who are part of the process, and have just as much love and investment in the processes as the main cast.

I think it comes too with releasing the expectation that you have for a show when something changes—part of the generosity is saying, “The show that we built may not be the show that we have now, but it is equally as valuable.”

MP: It was helpful to sit with you all. To remember what it was, and to look at everybody in both of your eyes and say thank you. Thank you.