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When crisis becomes a drama: a survivors’ tale



The COVID-19 pandemic and electricity crisis have pushed many creatives in our community – especially those who require an audience – to the limit, but for many, it has spurred creativity to change, adapt, and grow.

The SA Jewish Report spoke to artistes and entertainment professionals who have used the winds of change to propel them in new directions.

Actress, playwright, and director Sharon Spiegel-Wagner wears many caps as a professional. She said the COVID-19 pandemic had been a huge game changer for her and many other industry professionals because, ‘there was room to own a bigger piece of artistic identity’.

“From vocalists singing from the balconies of Italy to Broadway stars singing in their living rooms on Zoom, entertainers and performers tried desperately to stay relevant during the pandemic,” she said. “Many of us, pushed to the point of desperation and needing an outlet for the fear and insecurity caused by the pandemic, finally said, ‘I’m trying this. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter because at least I tried.’”

The result of this striving for Spiegel-Wagner was the production Locked Upside Down, showcased at Daphne Kuhn’s Theatre on the Square in Sandton.

She wrote it alongside friend and fellow playwright, actress, and co-director Lorri Strauss. The moms shared their experiences during lockdown and realised that they had good material under their noses for a production. “We laughed about home schooling; only being able to walk outside at certain hours; only getting essentials for food. It was a complete horror show.” However, instead of crying, they chose to laugh about what was happening and teamed with Alan Swerdlow to create their stage gem.

Strauss said she had learned much about herself and her capabilities through the challenges of the past few years. “I have discovered that I’m resilient,” she said. She also honed her professional skills during lockdown. “I signed up for online courses on Masterclass during lockdown. I did an acting course with Natalie Portman, and a singing course with Christina Aguilera, to name a few.”

Spiegel-Wagner believes that the pandemic and current challenges have forced all artistes, even the most established and experienced, to reinvent and pivot their skill set. “They have put so many things into perspective for us and in many ways, this is the first time that all artists are in the same boat.”

Dorothy Gould, the founder of Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM), which she founded to teach acting to Johannesburg’s homeless and underprivileged, said history had shown that pressure was the catalyst for masterpieces. “Shakespeare wrote 37 of his plays and many poems during the Black Death,” Gould said.

She believes pressure is a catalyst for reinventing and honing skills, and gaining new artistic direction “because creativity gives a voice to the deep-seated emotions created by change and uncertainty”. She chose Shakespeare as the material of choice for JAM because of the plethora of emotions expressed in the scripts which allow actors to find solace and expression by stepping into the characters’ shoes.

Vicky Friedman, the new chief executive of the National Children’s Theatre, said she believed artists had always been a resilient sort as the creative industry is traditionally tough, and requires determination and a measure of resilience to earn an income.

Friedman decided to work with her passion for children’s theatre shortly before the onset of the pandemic. When it interrupted her plans, she sought out a plan B, and started writing a children’s musical focused on climate change. It will be released early next year.

The challenges of recent years have given Friedman greater professional clarity, and prepared her for her new position at the Children’s Theatre. When the position recently became vacant, she realised her passion and experience were a perfect fit.

Some artistes were forced to extend their skills to survive during the difficult pandemic months.

Actress, director, and producer Gina Shmukler said though she has had many titles as a creative, she was forced to adopt new ones as a result of COVID-19, saying that the tragic and tough period forced many to go beyond their realm of comfort and explore new territory professionally.

Shmukler had two clients who were a godsend during this time and allowed her to “get on their raft” during the tough months of the pandemic. Like many businesses, they explored the online world of virtual events and Shmukler honed her skills on this platform. She said there were times where as many as 500 attendants were at an “event”, and though she longed to be in the room with those present, she realised the new platform was essential for her and others’ survival.

Other artistes have found new creative direction, seeking to use difficult circumstances to give meaning to their experiences.

Megan Choritz, the owner of theatre company Improvision, said the COVID-19 lockdown happened shortly after her marriage fell apart. Isolated in her home and going through a divorce, she took what she had in her hand – a skill for writing and her story – and began to write. The result, her recently published book, Lost Property.

“It wasn’t that I hadn’t written before. However, the challenges put me in a situation where it felt like writing was my way of surviving. The book gave me some kind of refuge, and became a way to share meaning with others.”

“Perhaps in a decade’s time, when we look back, we’ll be able to pinpoint the masterpieces that were created in the years that followed the pandemic, such as Master KG’s Jerusalema or Mandela the Musical,” said Friedman.

Shmukler said it would be interesting to see what became of the “unprocessed trauma” which she believes still exists in professionals following those years. “Who knows how it will come out? I suspect it might find its way onto the stage,” she said.

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