Joanne Zipay

Time in the Time of Coronavirus

Director and educator Joanne Zipay, who founded NYC's Judith Shakespeare Company, on dealing with newfound time as an artist.

published Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Photo: Mark Oristano
Joanne Zipay

Turn and face the strange


There's gonna have to be a different man

Time may change me

But I can't trace time

— David Bowie


Plano —  Public gatherings are a bad idea during contagion (just ask Shakespeare), and since theatre is a place made for people to gather, mingle, mix, and commune, it became one of the first things in our current crisis to be shut down — indefinitely. Even the lights of Broadway itself are off for who-knows-how-long, and so is everything else — from kids’ school plays to touring companies, community to off-off-Broadway, regional to international — all shut down.

A world without live theatre. For how long? We don’t know what the complete timeline looks like. How can we? We’re “on hold” in a place of uncertainty and waiting.

And yet…We’re not really waiting. It’s astounding how quickly theatre worldwide responded. From theatre people, musicians, and other performers creating art in their living rooms via the internet, to the largest theatres and networks releasing videos of live productions from their “vaults” for free viewing online, to new forms coming to life before our very eyes: play readings, rehearsals, and performances with casts all in separate locations, brought together by online platforms like Zoom. Acting teachers, dance teachers, tech teachers now learning to lead traditionally face-to-face hands-on classes via the internet — synchronously or asynchronously. And all of this is not all about making money, even though theatre artists are suffering severely right now from lack of work. It’s more about using the time to keep theatre alive — a tremendous drive and instinct which we have. And we’re pretty scrappy about creating our own work. After all, the show must go on.

Time is something that theatre artists are acutely aware of, and something we have a unique relationship with.

In the context of theatre performance itself, we can mold time, shape time, lengthen or shorten time; make it a memorable time, a good time, a moving time, a sad time, an inspiring time. In “stage time,” the events of a whole day can be played out in a couple of hours. Or the events of a year — or many years, or a lifetime — can condense to fill an evening’s (or afternoon’s) storytelling. We can also stretch time, to lengthen a moment and render it that one significant instant when an entire world changed for one person, or a group of people, or the world. We can play a moment over and over again, showing it differently each time, or change the order of events in unpredictable, mind-bending ways. We restructure time, show how people change or evolve over time, visit other time periods, travel through time, shift time, fill time, make time pass. We deal in tempos and timing and pacing as a matter of course. Our audiences trust us with their time, and we give them ours at every performance. We share time in a unique event which is unlike any other. It’s live, happening right now, instantaneously, in this moment.

Time is a medium we feel comfortable playing with onstage. But what happens out here in the “real world” during our global pandemic may be quite a different thing. Like everyone else we were going about our business, living our lives day-to-day on our own hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, and multi-year plans — and then everything shifted. Time seemed to stop.

We watched as the work of live theatre — our work — evaporated before our eyes. This was work lined up days, weeks, months, even years ago. Work that was an important step in our career, in establishing the next hill in our struggle forward to succeed or excel in our craft — that big break, that rare opportunity, that much-needed chance to stretch or show what else we can do. We feel grief for these losses and try to figure out how to be theatre people without our timeline. We feel like fish out of water. We’re used to the cycle or the pattern of auditioning, booking gigs, rehearsing, performing — always lining up that next gig, so we can continually look forward to and be assured of working. We’ve gotten good at juggling all the schedules, making the tough choices, trying to squeeze the rest of our lives into the spaces between the demands of the profession that we love. This timing of our lives is just as big a part of our careers as anything else we do in it. It really is “all in the timing,” and we get really good at it. It sometimes seems to us as if the rest of the world has only recently started to participate in the “gig economy,” which has been our way of life for so long. Time is money, as we well know. As artists we are used to this.

“The weirdest thing for me about all of this is I have lost all sense of TIME. Anybody else?” wrote local theater director, costumer and playwright Bruce R. Coleman in a March Facebook post.

At first there was a great sense of feeling lost, life being aimless, without our schedules that we live and die by. Of course, theatre folk are also used to not working, but at least we are usually able to work at booking our next gigs. With everything up in the air, no one knows how and when to schedule anything. Will there be a season this year? Next year? Will this show get canceled? Pushed back? Rescheduled? Transformed into another format? Will this theatre go out of business? How soon will audiences feel safe coming back to theatres? How soon will we feel safe doing our work again? Like everyone else in the world, we’re in limbo now. We’re not unaccustomed to being unemployed or dealing with uncertainty. Limbo is a familiar land. But at least under normal circumstances we can go to see our friends’ shows, take classes to keep in shape, audition, and reach out for future work. We can keep swimming. We’re accustomed to an ebb and flow in our lives based on projects-scheduled-to-begin-and-end-at-certain-times — but right now everything everywhere has just suddenly, oddly, vaporized — and we are forced to immediately restructure and rethink all that we know.

There’s been a shift in the reality of our time as theatre artists. Now we are unable to say, “I can’t, I have rehearsal.” When we structure our life around the rhythm of rehearsal and the 8 p.m curtain, what happens when those things are just not in our timeline, and probably won’t be any time soon?  So…we have evenings and weekends free…like “normal” people? Yow. How many times have we wished for this? How many times have we said, “If I only had time”?

As theatre people we’re also good at making things last over time — like supplies. We are a thrifty people. We’ve always lived with necessity as our very own mother of invention. We can make do with what we have, make it work for us, without having to spend extra. Craft is a part of what we do — seeing things, or parts of things, for something else, and making it look damn good when it’s done. And making things last a long time. We are very fit to meet this challenge of making do with what we have, at home, or wherever we are. And so, we can be thrifty with time as well — to choose and prioritize how we use it when we’re suddenly not slaves to schedules.

A few weeks in, and I’m getting a new rhythm of the days and making it work for me. I get to divide up time differently now in my day — and one thing I really don’t like is that I’m spending too much time on screens (even though my teaching job requires it and social media has been a lifeline). One thing I really do like is sitting for a long time in my kitchen with a cup of coffee in the morning. Being able to take my time to truly enjoy my nice, hot coffee (in a mug!), while sitting home — not driving in my car — this is a true luxury. It seems so decadent. Looking out the window, listening to the birds. In the rush-rush times, this is usually seen as “a waste of time” or at least “a use of time that I can’t afford.” As a friend said to me last week on the phone, “We’ve been given the gift of time.” What we do with it is everything.

I’ve been looking at this time as a chance to pursue what I’ve taken to calling “self-isolation opportunities” — such as, well, writing. Many of us are writing, composing, creating, collaborating. And, using the internet, some of us are doing as much performing or teaching as before, maybe even more. Self-driven as we are, we’re not waiting for opportunities, but making new ones in our living rooms!  (Just as the “lockdowns” started, Dallas’ own Mikey Abrams and Ian Mead Moore began the Facebook Group Quarantine Cabaret, which took off like a shot, featuring a wide range of performers from just about everywhere on a daily basis — and which seems wonderfully reminiscent of the days of vaudeville variety shows.)  We’re also making more time for self-care, meditation, yoga, exercise, walking. We’re having longer conversations, teaching each other new skills, making art of all kinds, sharing ideas, nurturing ourselves while gardening and noticing nature, cooking creative meals, baking bread, sewing, reading, doing puzzles and playing board games, cleaning and tidying and Marie Kondo-ing, and catching up on all kinds of things we usually don’t have time for. Getting to know our families, and our pets. Checking in on friends and relations. Taking time to breathe. Re-defining our time. (More of this, please.)

I’m a big list maker. Usually, when I’m busy with a project — a show, or a class — I write many things on my list that I know I won’t get to do until the gig is over, to do “when I have time.”  But something is different now. Rather than putting things on my list I just…do them. What is this?!  (My life in “real time?” Redefining the “now?”) It kind of feels good…just strangely unfamiliar and even a little awkward.

And, yes, with the pandemic robbing people of time remaining in life, perhaps we are reminded that we’re not here forever, that time is not endless but indeed limited. It’s valuable, precious, and we can enjoy it, share it, give it.

“One thing that I hope changes after we find a COVID 19 vaccine is that we no longer take burning the candle at both ends as a source of pride,” wrote NYC-based actor Doug Plaut in a Facebook post.

Everything is changing as we speak. The “unknown” is more present right now. Perhaps we are really learning what it means to be “in the moment.”

And I will add:  We got this.


Time, time, time,

See what’s become of me,

As I look around for my possibilities…

— Paul Simon


» Read Joanne's first column, Space in the Time of Coronavirus, here


» Joanne Zipay is a director, dramaturg, teacher, actor, writer, speaker, and producer. She is best known as the founder and Artistic Director of NYC’s award-winning Judith Shakespeare Company (1995-2015). During her tenure, she expanded the boundaries for women in classical theatre, presenting over half of Shakespeare’s canon, including the entire 10-play history cycle, with groundbreaking gender-bending casting in every show. Joanne received her MFA from the Old Globe Theatre/University of San Diego professional classical training program, and has an undergrad degree from SUNY Oneonta in Education (English) and Theatre. She has also studied with Stella Adler, John Barton, Patsy Rodenburg, Cicely Berry, Larry Moss, and Gail Cronauer.

She has taught at Pace University, City College of New York, Stella Adler Conservatory/NYU, National Shakespeare Conservatory, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Theatre for a New Audience, Dallas Theatre Center, Princeton Repertory Shakespeare Festival, SUNY Orange, Mount Saint Mary College, the Old Globe, and Collin College.  In 2008, she directed the Off-Broadway premiere of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex for Nicu’s Spoon Theatre, and in 2009 she was sponsored by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America to serve as Master of Verse for the Richmond, Virginia outdoor summer production of Henry IV Part 1.

Originally from New York, her long career in the theatre has included teaching multiple subjects to students of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels. Starting as an actor and teacher in Dallas in the 1980’s, she later returned to New York, but has continued to return to the Dallas area in the summers to teach her popular Shakespeare intensive at Collin College, and to direct several shows there, including Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew. She has just relocated to Dallas once again as of the summer of 2019 and will continue her association as a teacher with Collin College.

Joanne’s words and work are featured in two recent books: Directing Shakespeare in America: Current Practices by Charles Ney (Arden, 2016), and Shakespeare and Gender in Practice by Terri Power (Palgrave/Macmillan 2015). She is also a writer, co-authoring Come, You Spirits!: The Supernatural World of Shakespeare – A Guide for Critical Thinking and Creative Activities (Puck Press, 2016), and as a speaker, she presents lectures on Anne Hathaway and other Shakespeare-related subjects. In the summer of 2020, she is slated to direct Into the Breeches! for Stage West (but keep in mind, schedules might change.) Thanks For Reading

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Time in the Time of Coronavirus
Director and educator Joanne Zipay, who founded NYC's Judith Shakespeare Company, on dealing with newfound time as an artist.
by Joanne Zipay

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