The Covid Requiem: Can theater play a role in the healing process?
Sixteen months ago, when the UK’s first pandemic lockdown was only six weeks old, Pitlochry Festival Theater artistic director Elizabeth Newman gave an interview to The Scotsman about everything she and her colleagues were doing to try and keep the theater alive as a creator and community center, following the sudden shutdown that caused the complete cancellation of what would have been Pitlochry’s 70th annual summer season.
Newman spoke eloquently of the new online work the theater was commissioning and its telephone chat service for regular viewers feeling isolated; and towards the end of our conversation, she added a few words that stood out to me, like a prediction or a promise. “It’s already evident,” she said, “that by the time we reopen again, the world will have changed. This pandemic is the kind of event that remains in people’s collective memory for a very long time, and we will have to recognize it, in different ways. And whatever our audience needs and whatever our artists want to do, my job is to make sure that somehow this theater will be there, trying to make it happen. .
With these words, Newman may have become the first of Scottish theater leaders to recognize the scale and special quality of the losses people suffered during the pandemic. And now, after a year and four months that in many ways seems like a lifetime, Newman’s promise to respond to that experience is coming true, thanks to two remarkable women. This month playwright and performer Jo Clifford, and theologian and feminist activist Lesley Orr, will join forces to create a special walking performance called The Covid Requiem, in the beautiful forests behind the theater, where the Pitlochry company now has built a beautiful amphitheater space for outdoor performances.
For about an hour, to music from Duncan Chisholm and Innes Watson, Clifford and Orr will lead an audience of 30 through the woods to this space and then back again, stopping at five stations or locations. rest, to reflect on the many experiences and emotions of the past 18 months; and, for those who wish, to speak and remember the names of some of the missing. Both women were drawn to the topic because of their own experiences of recent loss – for Clifford of her brother Tony, who passed away at the end of 2019, and for Orr of her husband Reverend Peter Macdonald, of the Iona community and of Broughton St Mary’s Church. in Edinburgh, who died suddenly in February 2020, just before the pandemic; and both were struck by the need to recognize the deep pain of those who, during the pandemic, were not allowed to be with their dying loved ones and were unable to mark their passing with something like a funeral gathering normal.
“There were hundreds of people at Peter’s funeral,” says Lesley Orr. “We knew the pandemic was coming, and I remember thinking that day how helpful and heartwarming it was to be able to come together in this way, and how soon it might not be possible. “
Clifford had a similar experience writing and delivering the eulogy at his brother’s funeral. “It made me realize the importance of telling someone’s story and witnessing it after their death. So, during the first lockdown in the spring of last year, I felt very deeply for the families who lost people at that time. It seems to me that there is a tremendous amount of grief that is held collectively, without ever having been expressed correctly; and it occurred to me that theater could have a role to play in the beginning of the healing process.
So Clifford approached Newman, who in turn suggested he collaborate with Orr, who, like her late husband – and eldest son, talented young actor Lorn Macdonald – has been a lifelong theater buff. They started their collaboration by walking together in the woods of Pitlochry and deciding that the performance should take the form of a journey; and they also began to explore the various religious and spiritual rituals they had encountered in their parallel but very different lives as radical celebrants, in search of new forms of spiritual life. Clifford, for example, uses the ritual of Holy Communion in his internationally renowned and much discussed program, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven; and as a member of the Iona community, Orr is part of a radical religious movement that is trying to create new forms of ritual for our time.
“We looked at traditional funeral services and Requiem Masses, to prepare for them,” says Orr, “and we recognize the comfort people often find in these traditional words. But our goal is to take people with us and respond to these traditional services and other traditions of mourning, in a way that really holds and carries some of our feelings, right now. “
“There will be a lot of different emotions in our Requiem,” adds Clifford; “Grief and gratitude, as well as an element of anger – protests as well as lamentations. I have always been very aware of the sacred dimension of theater, and now I am more certain than ever that theater has to change, take on this role in people’s lives in order to survive.
“And Lesley, on the other hand, comes from a movement that believes that traditional religious institutions are also failing people and in need of a radical change. So we are in the process of creating something together that we hope will meet some of those needs right now. And of course there is something very special about doing that here in these wonderful forests in September – the time of year that marks the start of another cycle of death, and eventual revival and Renaissance.
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