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Pandemic Dreams

Masked and socially distanced, I entered through the dressing room, past a curtain, and into the theatre. But it was a mock dressing room, with cracked walls and tarnished mirrors, and a toy theatre built into a wall, with tiny seats, all empty, lit dimly by a ghost light.

“I am always standing backstage,” playwright Ellen McLaughlin said, as she began to tell me about a dream she had had. I was listening to her on a recording through the headphones they had given me, as I watched the tiny TV set on the tiny proscenium stage flash little black-and-white images of old performers. “Perhaps this is one of those Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland, ‘Hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show!’ movies?” McLaughlin continued in my ear.

The playwright’s dream started sounding like the standard actor’s nightmare—McLaughlin was expected to perform a part that she hadn’t seemed “to have ever rehearsed, much less memorized…”—until it swerved, as dreams are wont to do. It became a performance by “long-dead elders” and “living strangers” sharing the stage, recognizing one another in their “different bad times and in [their] shared ache for something [they] can’t remember…” As Mclaughlin put it, “Here in the air of the theatre, livid with dust motes, we have always been one.”

Four minutes after I had entered, I left the snug, rundown little room—a stage set, really, but constructed incongruously in the center of the self-consciously majestic public space in downtown Manhattan called the Winter Garden. The room with McLaughlin’s dream was at the foot of the Winter Garden’s Potemkin-like steep, precarious staircase, amid its defiantly out-of-place palm trees, beneath the vaulted, sky-high ceiling, on top of the glossy marble floors. For all its airs, the Winter Garden is part of a shopping mall called Brookfield Place.

The house manager escorted me through this still sparsely attended temple of commerce to an unimposing corridor, opening a white door to the remaining rooms of A Dozen Dreams, a labyrinthine art installation built largely inside a former store in the mall, which sits across the street from the site of the World Trade Center, a previous worldwide trauma.

McLaughlin’s dream was one of the few explicitly about theatre, but it’s easy to argue that the entire project was an act of theatrical imagination—one, for all its modest budget, more breathtaking than the expensive mall in which it was located. It offered a literal look at theatre artists’ interior responses to the pandemic and even suggested ways in which the pandemic will change the art of theatre.

A Dozen Dreams was conceived shortly after the start of the pandemic, when Anne Hamburger, the founder and artistic director of En Garde Arts, best known as a pioneer in immersive, site-specific theatre, asked a dozen women playwrights to send her a recording of a recent dream.

“It was a simple response to the complexity of COVID,” said her collaborator on the project, John Clinton Eisner.

A blue thing surrounded by indoor palm trees.

Scenic design from A Dozen Dreams. Photo by Maria Baranova. For full production team, see below*

Hamburger was curious about the psychological impact of the current moment, which, she said, “is one of the ongoing preoccupations of work that I’ve put my heart and soul behind.” She wanted to involve a group of playwrights who were “diverse in age, race, and perspective” but united by gender. She explained she has a fondness for supporting women artists. “Not exclusively, because everybody needs support right now,” she said, “but it’s been especially tough on women, especially mothers.”

It’s easy to argue that the entire project was an act of theatrical imagination—one, for all its modest budget, more breathtaking than the expensive mall in which it was located.

Hamburger and Eisner enlisted designer Irina Kruzhilina to lead an all-female design team to create twelve unique rooms that used sets, light, sound, video, and projection to fashion detailed total environments that palpably interpreted the wildly varied dreams.

Some of what the playwrights submitted were descriptions of fairly straightforward dreams recollected, which they then sometimes explained. Andrea Thome dreamed of her childhood home, which her parents had recently sold; she and her sister were more attached to it than her family realized. As “immigrant girls who lost a country in their infancy,” that house held their stories. Rehana Lew Mirza dreamt of packing up her house to move. She didn’t know where, but she was “surrounded by endless belongings, trying to cram a life into a box…. Packing over and over again.” This dream she deemed boring, a sharp contrast to the vivid dreams she used to have. But, as she pointed out, “Maybe it’s because real life has become so absurd, so dream-like, that to escape from this reality/fun house/house of horrors is to retreat into a world of boredom.”

Some of the playwrights, most notably Martyna Majok, recalled dark nightmares. Others, such as Ren Dara Santiago, recited dense poems. Some took the assignment to mean what they wished for the future, such as Liza Jessie Peterson: “I dream, ooh I dream… of white supremacy crumbling to smithereens, in a pile of rubble. I dream of Black liberation, Black safety, Black economic empowerment, Black joy.”

The dreams all had one thing in common: each was three minutes long.

The resulting installation was designed so that each audience member would enter each room one at a time (or two if in a “pod”) for four minutes, until the voice of the playwright in the headphone was replaced by a stage manager announcing it was time to part the curtain into the next room and the next dream—each audience member advancing at the same time.

A dimly lit room with purple lighting, several clocks on the walls, a stool, and a jukebox.

Scenic design from A Dozen Dreams. Visual interpretation of Andrea Thome's dream. Photo by Maria Baranova. For full production team, see below*

This assembly line efficiency broke down at one point thanks to a programming glitch during my hour-long visit on the first day of the run in May, and I wound up stuck in Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s mouth. Her dream was a poem that began with: “There’s a city in my mouth/its gleamin’ chatter in the night moans….” The designers had constructed a red-tinted room full of vertical tubes of varying sizes that suggested both a city with skyscrapers and townhouses, and teeth inside a mouth.

Although that was the only room in which I could linger, the designs of all of them—as varied as the dreams—were striking enough to each feel like a performance, even though the only live person was me. Some of the rooms were designed directly on point: I heard Mirza’s dream about packing while in a room stacked with packing boxes and a wall of family photographs. Others were indirect, suggestive, symbolic: Mansour’s room was full of what looked like light boxes with 1960s-style geometric patterns built into the wall, as well as a porthole-shaped window that looked into a shower piled high with intertwining old toothbrushes.

Others offered bold landscapes: Caridad Svich’s room was a gorgeous, darkly lit lunar landscape with what looked like a solar eclipse of Earth; Lucy Thurber’s a modern, clean, bright purple with a rising sun.

Thurber’s room was the eleventh; her dream was optimistic. “I hope and wish that if and when we come out of this strange, broken, scary, frightening, hurtful time, a few things will stay with us,” she said. “I like how there are less planes in the sky, that the air somehow feels cleaner better on my skin, that there is silence, that the stars look brighter.”

It was clear there was an arc to these dreams, that I had been taken on a journey from disorientation to darkness to a hopeful reemergence into the light.

It was clear there was an arc to these dreams, that I had been taken on a journey from disorientation to darkness to a hopeful reemergence into the light. It also struck me that this journey echoed the one we had all taken over the course of the pandemic.

This made me curious, since the playwrights had submitted their dreams a full year before the exhibition was mounted: How did they view what they had submitted now, when the end of the pandemic seems to be in sight?

A set of mountains surrounding an LED-lit mirror as the moon.

Scenic design from A Dozen Dreams. Visual interpretation of Caridad Svich's dream. Photo by Maria Baranova. For full production team, see below*

Mona Mansour, who loved going through the rooms and hearing the voices of her colleagues, was more struck by the other women’s dreams. “There’s something so intimate about hearing someone’s actual speaking voice. You don’t have that experience, typically, with playwrights,” she said. “The timbre, the rhythm, the setup they had when they were recording themselves—it was all a glimpse into whatever that moment was for that person.”

As for her own dream, she told me she was in a terrible state at the time. “My marriage had broken up, and my play at the Public had been stopped because of COVID after three tech rehearsals,” she said. “Life was very much about day-to-day survival. I wasn’t dreaming much in those days. So I took the one dream I’d had and, like a hot potato, handed it off to this process. I likely would have edited myself much more now.”

Majok also decided not to edit (or try to make sense of) her dreams, which were the darkest and most elaborate of the dozen playwrights; the team designed a series of cramped, haunting spaces within a dark room to accompany the eight parts of her nightmare. There were grandparents with blurred faces who disappear without saying goodbye; an infected cat; “an otherworldly hiss”; a family of four living behind a fence in a truck (“You won’t help them, they know”); a man with no eyes who looks at you (“Then his hands are inside and his mouth is in your ear, telling you what you now have to do to him”); a wolf that’s ripped the throat of your husband (“You call 911… They tell you to wait”).

Looking back at these dreams recently, she found it to be “a revealing time capsule of a moment.” There were parts she didn’t even remember writing. “Or maybe they were parts I’d tried to actively forget in my waking life,” she said. “I’m not surprised about the content of the dreams. I have nightmares like those often, especially in times of stress, which the beginning of the pandemic definitely was.”

Svich was one of the playwrights who wrote a poem, using her actual dreams as inspiration. She was surprised by the “magnitude” of the final exhibition, fascinated to see “these different worlds conjured” and was struck by how it was all happening in a mall, “this place of commerce suddenly destabilized for a second by art that makes you think and reflect.”

Paper towel rolls stacked in various lengths and blob-shaped objects against the walls of the room.

Scenic design from A Dozen Dreams. Visual interpretation of Erika Dickerson-Despenza's dream. Photo by Maria Baranova. For full production team, see below*

“One of the beauties paradoxically about the pandemic, if I can say such a thing, is perhaps the collapsing of art and life,” Svich said. “We’re neither fully through the pandemic nor are we in 2019, and so the rooms sort of remind us of the suspended state that we’ve been in.”

Indeed, it occurred to me that the rooms of A Dozen Dreams existed on three different planes: real space (we’re in an actual mall, not watching something virtually as we’ve done for most of the past year), a dream space (entering somebody else’s subconscious), and a theatrical space. It’s no coincidence that we entered each room by opening a curtain.

Intentionally or not, A Dozen Dreams makes the argument for installation art as a genre of theatre. Svich agrees: “In other countries the idea of theatrical installations have a little bit more currency, but it’s also happening here.”

The first Off-Broadway play to open after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo partially lifted the shutdown in April was Blindness, Simon Stephens’ adaptation of José Saramago’s novel, imported from London’s Donmar Warehouse, which involves an audience, a set, and recorded voices over headphones, with no live actors—an art installation, whether or not producers are calling it that.

If this marks a change in the definition of theatre during this strange era, it’s far from the only thing that’s changed about theatre. Fourteen months after the World Health Organization first characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, and physical theatres were shut down worldwide, all the playwrights I talked to were surprised to find that they actually have been incredibly busy as playwrights, much of their new work presented as digital theatre.

I ask what the effect the pandemic has had on the content of their work.

“Much, I think,” Majok replied. Going through “waves of extreme feelings throughout the pandemic,” she began viewing her work differently, asking herself “a lot of new questions, or maybe more urgent expanded versions of the same question.”

“All these tributaries,” she suspects, “are streaming into what I’m making and what I’m drawn to.” But, caught in this moment, past fever dreams but before the world has fully awoken, she’s not sure how her work has changed, only that it has. “I may learn more exactly how in some future rehearsal room.”

*A Dozen Dreams was co-conceived and created by Anne Hamburger with John Clinton Eisner and Irina Kruzhilina. Presented by Arts Brookfield for Brookfield Place New York. Visual and Environment Designer: Irina Kruzhilina. Sound Designer: Rena Anakwe. Video/ Projection Designer: Brittany Bland. Lighting Designer: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Production and Technical Director: Tech Without Tears. Production Manager: Jenny Beth Snyder. Technical Director: Aaron Gonzalez. Associate Scenic & Environment Designer: Abby Smith. Props Designer: Jessica Sovronsky. Assistant Sound Designer & Programmer: Margaret Montagna. Associate Video Designer: Christopher Evans.Assistant Lighting Designer: Christina Tang. Master Electrician: Joe D’Emilio. Sound Supervisor: Mike Deyo. Video Supervisor: Joey Moro. Video Programmer: Stivo Arnoczy. Scenic Intern: Gaya Chatterjee. General Manager: Amanda Cooper.

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