COVID has undoubtedly marked our work indelibly, both in terms of practice and philosophy. This new, short-term initiative from Theatre Alberta brings you editorial perspectives from within this change written by a variety of artists from our province. We hope you’ll find them useful in your own processing of this new reality.
COVID-BEFORE, NOW, AFTER-Chronicles of a rural theatre maker/teacher in Rosebud, Strathmore, and Drumheller – Deanne Bertsch | July 22
Before March 16, the day my world changed, I was creating a show in Rosebud with my students about the elders of Rosebud. We had met in January with six community members who told their stories and we were creating a show called Roots and Roses. It was about learning the history of the area and honoring the people who came before us. At Strathmore High I was working on a mask show with my high school students about their stories of their journeys with mental health. That’s what I love to do, devise theatre with young people, honoring their stories and the stories of the people around us because theatre is powerful when we see ourselves in it.
Over the last decade I have created many shows from the stories I heard from my students. We have told stories of Blackfoot grandparents and their journey through residential school called New Blood. We told a story about a Rwandan student who was separated from her mother and was reunited with her eight years later in Canada called Mama Ararira. We told a story of a boy who lived in 14 foster homes in ten years called Wade. We told a story of a girl who didn’t come out of her room for eight years because she was dealing with severe depression called If I was a Fairytale Princess, I Think I’d Be Sleeping Beauty. We told a story of a teenager who lived in her phone and did not see the world around her called Can We Auto-correct Humanity?. We told a story of a grandfather who lost six babies due to the RH negative factor called Wonderful. We told a story of our earth and her journey with humans called Follow The Sun… so many amazing stories to tell from the young people from my home, Rosebud, Strathmore, Drumheller.
But suddenly, that story making came to a halt, because the story became about the coronavirus. I began teaching drama and dance online to my Strathmore High students, I had students doing monologues, choreo assignments, telling their stories through art…they created some amazing pieces. Only about half stayed engaged and did the assignments—they were very disappointed about their shows being cancelled and their marks were all high because it was early in the semester. Online drama and dance were not what they had signed up for. They had signed up to be with their friends, to collaborate with their classmates and create a show that mattered. My Rosebud course ended and all of the shows were cancelled.
My world became about zoom meetings, checking in with my students, making sure they were ok. And they mostly were ok, disappointed to miss their trip to Europe, miss the high school one act play festival, miss grad, miss their last musical, miss hosting basketball provincials, a lot of disappointment, but they were ok. Many of them took on full time jobs at Canadian Tire, Tim Hortons, McDonald’s. I was always questioning whether I was doing enough as their teacher.
My Rosebud Theatre community began brainstorming ideas to fundraise as who knows what will happen to our beautiful little theatre in the valley. Former Rosebud School of the Arts students have been doing online concerts, Rosebud Chamber Music festival is doing four concerts in the park, the Rosebud Country market has been created and there is take away food from the theatre’s restaurant, the Mercantile, but of course, no theatre. I am extremely worried for my friends who are trying to keep Rosebud theatre alive through this COVID time—there was a recent outbreak reported this week in Wheatland county, where we live, so who knows what that means for our community.
As for what is to come—I still have performing arts classes in my schedule for this fall at Strathmore High. I am very grateful for that, as our school lost six teachers this year. We have not yet been told how school will look. There are the three scenarios:
1. Online (please no)
2. Part time school, part time online
3. Normal schooling with precautions – masks, handwashing stations, extra cleaning etc.
Will I be able to do theatre with my students? Not sure? Will they have to stay two metres apart? Will my class be a cohort? So many questions, but what I do know is that we will share our stories of “We’re All in this Together,” and maybe a show will come out of our experiences in some way.
I know that I will tell my students about my international student from Belgium, Elisabeth, 17 years old who had COVID back in March, along with her whole family. She no longer has a sense of taste or smell.
I will tell them about my brother in law, who on his 50th birthday was told to pack up all his things and be on his way from his job of 15 years, as safety manager at an oil and gas firm.
I will tell them about visiting my mother-in-law, who is 80 and has dementia, and how we talked through her window at Sunshine Lodge in Drumheller on Mother’s Day and how she was so disgusted she had to wear a mask and couldn’t go out about town. She just didn’t understand, and she is so lonely.
I will tell the story of my student, Brandon, who is immune compromised and hasn’t left his house since March 15 and is suffering severe depression.
I will tell them about my colleague Sara, who lost her baby two days after it was born. I was one of 50 people invited to the funeral. We all wore masks and our tears slid inside our masks and pooled by our chins.
I will tell them about my 14 year old twins who miss school, their friends, their activities, their lives.
I will tell the story of our family project, renovating an old shack in our farm yard and how we all worked to clean all the garbage out, paint it, lay floors, and decorate it for a hang out/art studio to create in.
I will tell the story of my friend Paul, who is working 60 plus hours a week, normally an actor/director/ instructor but now an accountant, feverishly trying to work numbers so Rosebud will get through this time.
I will tell the story of my friend Royal, who is going through cancer treatments and how the entire town stopped by throughout the day and helped him clean his yard.
But so far: we are healthy, we are grateful for Deena Hinshaw and a government who cares about our health and I am grateful for my community, for socially-distanced gatherings, for chances to share our stories. I feel lucky that I am a teacher and my heart breaks for my theatre communities as I took my students to see so many wonderful shows last year at Rosebud Theatre, Alberta Theatre Projects, Ghost River and Theatre Calgary.
We really have no idea how things will turn out, so much is up in the air and as Deena Hinshaw keeps reminding us, “We’re All in this Together.” Compassion, empathy and reaching out goes a long way. Notice the stories in your own lives, hear them, tell them, write them down. That’s how we honor each other and support each other. Sharing our stories, our situations and supporting each other will make the difference in making it through this COVID time.