Features Published 9 November 2021

Going to the Theater is Weird These Days

Playwright and performer Kev Berry offers a personal essay in which he grapples with returning to theatre after the shutdown and his own journey to sobriety.

Kev Berry
Kev Berry

Kev Berry

Going to the theater is weird these days. I don’t know that I enjoy it much anymore. At least right now, I don’t. The grave pomp and circumstance of all the new Covid protocols, while completely necessary, feels alienating and I often find myself taking my seat flooded with anxiety. As a playwright and performer aiming to somehow make a living telling stories onstage, admitting that feels shameful, especially since we’re supposed to be “saving our stages” and bringing back the arts or whatever we’re supposed to be doing. It feels silly to be looking at the world through the lens of the theatre again after spending the last 18 months with my eyes wide open. And through that lens, nothing I’ve seen thus far seems to be able to adequately reflect what’s happened in the last nearly two years with any sort of fresh clarity. This new mythology we’ve been forced into, this new way of viewing the world, is a challenge to me. I’m a playwright who believes our stories hold the power to change the world, but I also know that, in reality, they likely won’t. Which is why the theatre feels so futile to me lately.

So much has changed in the last two years that I’ve concluded that maybe anything that doesn’t help hinders. Cynical, maybe, but I was stuck in this mode of thinking until a few weeks ago when I was at an early return performance of Wicked with my best friend, Max. Before the pandemic, I had seen the show many, many times, very, very drunk. My old routine involved getting absolutely happy-hour-hammered at the margarita place around the block from the Gershwin, rolling up to the theater ready to go, and downing at least one Oz-themed frozen cocktail before the show and a double whiskey at intermission. Act 2 frequently went by in a blur, and I usually didn’t remember getting home or going out after the show.

And then I quit drinking. And then the pandemic hit. And then theatre came back.

And then I was at that early return performance of Wicked two scenes into Act 2. I leaned over to Max and whispered into his ear, “I don’t remember any of this, I have no clue where this is going.” I was shocked. I’d seen the show once as a kid, but all of my remaining experiences with the show were as an active alcoholic likely making a fool of myself in front of strangers.

But here I was, getting to view a show I thought I knew like the back of my hand through completely refreshed eyes. And maybe it’s nothing new to people who haven’t had to recover from alcoholism and addiction, but sitting there watching Wicked, I realized that the show is Glinda’s story, one made even more powerful by the amalgam of issues that have come to the fore during the pandemic. The show resonated deeply with me as it told the story of a woman thrust into a position of relative power and struggling to effect changes she knows need to be made as the land she calls home slowly descends into proto-Fascism. Since returning to the theatre as both an audience member and an artist performing for audiences, this is the only time I’ve felt like I was doing something completely necessary. All because I was given the chance by my sobriety to experience this show essentially through the eyes of a child being told a story for the first time. And even then, the necessity of this moment was realizing that I’m not alone in not knowing what the hell we’re supposed to be doing right now.

I recently had the opportunity to see another show that’s long lived rent-free in my head for the first time. Like Wicked, I’ve had the cast recording to Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s operatic musical Caroline, or Change memorized since 2004 when the two shows competed against each other at the Tonys. But unlike Wicked, I’d never seen the show–its original run was too short and I was too young. I wrote almost 1500 words for this magazine on that show, and won’t repeat all of it here, but I took major umbrage with the way the mostly white audience acted during a show that spends a good chunk of time calling out white liberal inaction on social justice issues. I asked myself, “Are you listening?”

At American Utopia this week, a woman was absolutely hammered. During David Byrne’s stunning, percussive rendition of Janelle Monae’s protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout,” comprised of a litany of Black lives taken too soon, this woman behind me was gabbing away full volume about God knows what with her friend. I asked myself, “Are you listening?”

During one of my several uncomfortable trips to the Delacorte in Central Park this summer, where in my experience mask enforcement in the unvaccinated section was shoddy at best and vaccination checks were often rushed and muddied, I saw a woman reaming one of the front of house workers about having to wear a mask despite being vaccinated. I should have asked her, “Are you listening to yourself?”

And I found myself thinking again about our new mythology. Everything from here on out, will be shaded by the pandemic we’ve so far survived. Everything from here on out, will be shaded by how you reacted during the George Floyd protests. Everything from here on out, for the rest of our fucking lives, will be informed by the way you reacted to the Trump administration in the last 14 days of his reign, by your vaccination status, by the way you behaved during a show that’s calling you out for inaction during the last 19 months. People remember that shit. I know I will at least. We should be asking ourselves, “Are we listening?” and, “How are we responding?”

Even writing about the pandemic is a complete bitch. I am currently working on a very large play about gays behaving badly during COVID and I am mired with fear about making people angry with the play. In writing this furious exegesis-cum-callout, I am trying to take up a mantle that I feel has been met with silence, especially in a community previously ravaged by another pandemic botched by the government. But someone’s got to say it. If we’re not calling out bad actors in our communities, how are we realistically going to leave the world a better place than we found it? Isn’t that at least part of the point? I often feel my work and outlook comes across as cynical, and who could blame me, but what I really feel is an intense optimism so deeply lived it makes my bone marrow pulse sometimes. This hope causes rage when I feel no one around me is willing to fucking listen or fucking act.

There is nothing to be grateful for when it comes to the pandemic. Nothing. Sure, it got me out of my old restaurant job where the workplace was slowly becoming toxic and abusive. Sure, it allowed me to refocus my interests into working in the public health field. Sure, it gave me time to write when I could stop focusing on the relentless pain and grief and fear and turn off the TV after sitting on the couch for 13 hours a day. There is nothing to be grateful for. But I will say, I am glad that the first six months of my sobriety, during which I had quit drinking, but was still smoking weed, and which had rendered me completely unable to do anything social, lead directly into the pandemic. Because I wasn’t seeing much theater during those first six months. I was focusing on keeping myself sane and finding some semblance of healing. Because I came back to the theatre with my eyes open. Ready to listen and ready to work. Sober.

I really hope I don’t sound like I’m complaining. I’m not. I’m healthy. I’m alive. I have a great job working for the city’s Department of Health and am looking to transition to HIV patient care advocacy. I understand that all of our reactions and behaviors as we process the trauma we continue to endure are going to be different. Sometimes, more often than not these days, I just feel at a loss.

And I don’t have the answers. Again, I’m a playwright. I let voices in my head argue in iambic, and then I type those thoughts out. It’s silly. Writing plays is a silly pursuit. Now more than ever. In these unprecedented times. Which is why I am diving in headfirst. I am trying to help, not hinder.

Kev Berry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine