Last December, when it came time to plan a spring production for the Macalester College Theatre and Dance Department, director Beth Cleary asked students a question: How do people develop the resilience to withstand the likes of the COVID-19 pandemic and use that strength for the better? “I told them to make theater that testified to that resilience, and I let them go,” she said.

The result is Portals, nine separate performances, each no more than five minutes in length, that portray resilience, resistance and resolve.

“What came back from the students represents a great variety,” Cleary said. Their dramas draw on memory, oral history and various texts. Among the subjects are 16th-century Dutch mysticism, the Red scare of the mid-20th century, the experiences of a medic in the Vietnam War, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic as well as COVID-19.

“Two of the students are telling their own stories,” Cleary said.

   

The title Portals was inspired by an op-ed piece that appeared last April in the New York Times, “The Pandemic is a Portal” by Arundhati Roy. At the time, people the world over were shuttered in their homes watching grim telecasts about the lethal spread of the coronavirus in China, Italy and New York. In her essay, Roy calls the migration of the virus “biblical,” though even the Bible could not have imagined numbers this big, she wrote.

Mac portals
Pictured in rehearsal are "Portals" actors and playwrights (clockwise from top left) Elinor Jones, Miles Latham, Aela Morris, Nikita Belyaev, Ezra Muthiah and Faith Milon. Photos courtesy of Macalester College

“Roy’s was a truth-telling voice, and millions of people worldwide distributed the essay on social media,” Cleary said. “She asks, ‘from where have we come, into what will we emerge, and when?’ She writes, ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.’

“In the process of creating our show, we’ve made a little world together,” Cleary added. “It’s modest—under an hour—and simple with solo performances on video. But making Portals has allowed us to bring together stories, family memories, instances of courage from different places and periods in human history.”

 

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“Art makes its way even in these times of diminution,” Cleary said. “It’s a torch for illuminating the hidden things, for passing through and beyond this portal together.”

“In rehearsal, even on Zoom, we rediscovered the emotional currents in spoken stories. We’ve cultivated empathy by embodying the hardships of our forebears. “Art makes its way even in these times of diminution,” Cleary said. “It’s a torch for illuminating the hidden things, for passing through and beyond this portal together.”

Macalester senior Elinor Jones has created a drama in two parts for Portals. “It begins with Fleta G. Woolsey, a doctor who graduated from Baylor Medical School in 1923,” Jones said. “I found her story in The Baylor University Oral History Collection. I also found a collection of interviews from the mid-1970s with women in Waco, Texas.

“Fleta interested me because of her tenacity and her huge accomplishment of becoming a doctor as a woman at that time,” Jones said. “Her voice in the recording is engaging. I loved hearing her think through the memories of her life…and her perceptions of the 1918 flu pandemic.”

Jones’ production concludes with a portrayal of Kori Albi, 31, a nurse in the COVID intensive care unit at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho. Albi was featured in the December 7 Washington Post in an article on the battle against COVID-19.

“I wanted to bring Portals into the present day,” Jones said, “seeking the truth beyond the limitations of theater and the lives of college students, into the exhausting, existential situation that nurses have had to live in for almost a year. Much of the text is pulled from Ms. Albi’s reflections, and I deliver it as if she is being interviewed by a news station. Her goal is to convince viewers of the gravity of the situation in a new, visceral way

“As Macalester students, we’re always doing our best to engage with academic material but also with the community around us,” Jones said. “This work is an example of an extra project students have taken on to enrich our experiences. The piece will include professional videography, creative production design, original music and the performances of many Macalester students.”

“I feel heart sore for our students having the experience they’re having in school,” Cleary said. “They’ve had to put their shoulders into this with great compassion and a resilience of their own.”

Johanna Lorbach, coordinator of Mac’s Theatre and Dance Department and a resident of Highland Park, believes Portals has much to offer. “I think that now is a really interesting time in our pandemic experience,” she said. “On one hand, we continue to struggle and grieve. At the same time, we’re walking into spring, into a time of vaccines and whatever this new world will be. It continues to be so important to connect with our neighbors, whether on campus or in the neighborhood.”

In preparing Portals for virtual production and the filming of each student’s performance, Mac followed all COVID-19 safety protocols. That included one-on-one Zoom meetings between Cleary and students during their research and rehearsals.

“I feel heart sore for our students having the experience they’re having in school,” Cleary said. “They’ve had to put their shoulders into this with great compassion and a resilience of their own. They astonish me with their courage. It’s not an easy thing.”

Portals may be viewed online anytime from 7 p.m. Friday, March 5, through Sunday, March 7. To reserve a free ticket, visit macalester.edu/boxoffice.

— Anne Murphy

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