When the stage is finally set for theaters to reopen safely, no one will be happier than Sally Wingert. For now, the Merriam Park actress, known for her many roles at the Guthrie Theater and other Twin Cities venues, is content with her part in Ten Thousand Things’ adaptation of The Comedy of Errors. The Shakespearean drama will be presented live online at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 18-20.
There is no subsitute for the rewards of a live audience, according to Wingert, be it their laughter, tears or applause. But at a time when theaters are just struggling to survive, virtual productions fill the void, she said.
“We’re creatures who search for relevance,” Wingert said. “The Comedy of Errors is about mistaken identities, parents searching for their children, children searching for their parents, the special bond of twins and ridiculous happenstance. We hope these rather broad characters and their hijinks make folks laugh.”
In Ten Thousand Things’ adaptation, all of the roles are played by women. After just a few rehearsals via Zoom, Wingert said she could already speak to what is percolating for audiences.
“First of all, with the exception of one fabulous out-of-towner, all of the actors are super-talented colleagues and good friends,” she said. “I’ve worked with all of them before—Sun Mee Chomet, Cristina Florencia Castro, Mo Perry, Jasmine Bracey and Sarah Agnew. There are always plenty of juicy male parts in classical plays. The parts for women are often fewer and of lesser importance. So having the doors flung open to male parts is fantastic.”
Wingert played Emilia the Abbess in the Guthrie’s 2002 production of The Comedy of Errors. This time she plays both Emilia and Egeon, the second merchant, who “could be played as a woman but typically is a man,” she said. “This isn’t the first time I’ve played a man. As recently as last year, at this very time, I was playing Sir Toby Belch in (Shakespeare’s) Twelfth Night at the Guthrie.”
Early in the rehearsal of any play, Wingert said, actors and director “will sit around a table going through the text line by line, deciphering meaning and coming to a shared understanding of just what story we’re telling. Shakespeare is endlessly interesting to me. Many words are no longer in our lexicon, so there’s a sleuthing element at play.”
“It’s hard to work on a character and not be able to engage your whole body in the storytelling,” Wingert said. “Any rehearsal room is preferable to a screen. But you work with what you got.”
Ten Thousand Things (TTT) is providing a green screen, microphone and lights for each of the actors performing from their home, “so the Zoom performances will have a few bells and whistles,” Wingert said. “Peter Vitale, TTT’s resident musical genius, is underscoring quite a bit of the show and helping with some funny sound effects.”
Still, Wingert said, “it’s hard to work on a character and not be able to engage your whole body in the storytelling. Any rehearsal room is preferable to a screen. But you work with what you got.”
That is how the past year was scripted for Wingert and other theater professionals: “sporadic little bits and bobs of work with long stretches of unemployment,” she said. “We’re coming up on the anniversary of my last performance in front of a live audience. We were deep into the run of Twelfth Night at the Guthrie. There was more and more news about COVID shutdowns, but nothing had been said. Our audiences were getting a little smaller. We did the show one Thursday night and got an email the next morning saying it was the last—they were closing the show. We didn’t even have time to say goodbye.”
As disappointing as that was and as hard as the shutdown has been, there were no other choices, according to Wingert. “Theaters operate on a razor’s edge as it is, just managing to stay afloat,” she said. “I’m very sympathetic to all of the performing arts, but there’s been very little talk about how hard it is for theaters to shut down and still pay their rent, their utilities, maybe with a skeleton staff. When might they reopen? Should they plan a season? It’s a completely terrifying unknown that we’re all working on.”
Wingert said she has been fortunate to find work during the shutdown. “I took part in a number of online workshops through the Playwrights’ Center,” she said. “These are for playwrights to hear a new play and be able to bounce ideas off directors and actors. I just finished taping two continuing legal education courses for Mixed Blood Theatre where I got to read both the opinions and case work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It was terrific to be able to read her exact words. These were transcripts from cases she argued before the Supreme Court and decisions she rendered while serving on the Court.”
“I’ve had a really normal life, except I get to do this extraordinary work that brings me such joy. After 40 years, I continue to feel extremely passionate about it. I’m just waiting till I can get back to the theater world as I knew it.”
Over the past few months, Wingert has joined with Peter Rothstein of Theatre Latte Da on the development of a play about Frances Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants and the first American saint. “In the midst of all of this, it’s my first time having to write a play, and I’m in awe of the people who do,” she said.
“I’ve had a really long career in theater in the Twin Cities,” Wingert said. “I’ve done over 90 performances at the Guthrie. I’ve had a really normal life, except I get to do this extraordinary work that brings me such joy. After 40 years, I continue to feel extremely passionate about it. I’m just waiting till I can get back to the theater world as I knew it.”
The three performances of The Comedy of Errors are free, but reservations are required. Visit tenthousandthings.org.
— Anne Murphy
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