“I THINK THE HARDEST thing for me personally — I think for everyone — is the lack of being able to be close to people. … It’s been a real eye-opener for me how much we are social beings. That even though there isn’t a lack of technology to communicate, contact and human touch are so necessary and important.”

These words frame The Corona Monologues, a recorded performance by Thespians in Herbert Hoover High School’s advanced theatre class. For this project, students interviewed 40 people in their Glendale, California, neighborhood about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives, then reinterpreted the material as a series of monologues focused on enduring human connection.

Juliana Acevedo with her sister and interviewee Karina Acevedo, a social worker.

Juliana Acevedo (right) with her sister and interviewee Karina Acevedo, a social worker. Photo courtesy of Juliana Acevedo.

In March 2020, the same class was consumed in research for their spring play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, including hosting several guest speakers exploring autism spectrum disorder. So, when the coronavirus shutdown canceled that production, David Huber, director of Hoover’s Thespian Troupe 430, knew he “needed to replace this with something meaningful — something they could create from home.”

Huber had always admired Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, plays Anna Deavere Smith developed by interviewing real people about real events. “Using the issues within our community and our own voices is the most immediate form of art,” he said. “Documentary theatre can really get to the heart of these local issues in a more timely manner.”

The concept of documentary theatre wasn’t new to Hoover Thespians. In spring 2019, teachers and administrators from the school had performed monologues compiled from interviews with homeless people by the organization Homeward LA as a fundraiser for Midnight Mission, a human services nonprofit in Los Angeles. To prepare students to collect and perform their own work, Huber discussed interviewing techniques and showed them interviews with Smith and excerpts from Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

While both of Smith’s productions address race and criminal justice, Huber and his students completed their work in March and April, months before the death of George Floyd sparked a nationwide racial reckoning. The class focused their project on the human impact of the coronavirus shutdown, but in early June, they added an epilogue addressing the protests.

Recent Hoover graduate Katrina Manor saw the assignment as a chance for students to appreciate the bigger picture of the shutdown without detracting from the pain they felt from missing rites of passage, including prom and graduation. “I thought it would be great for high school seniors like me to know we’re not the only ones suffering,” she said. “The entire world is affected.”

Rising senior Juliana Acevedo said the project forced her to confront her camera shyness. “I was eager to start the project because I knew there wasn’t much else we could do,” she said, “but I was nervous as well because I prefer acting onstage. I tend to get very nervous when I’m on camera.”

Huber asked each student to interview one relative and two non-relatives, looking for those particularly impacted by the shutdown. Suggestions included people who are elderly, self-employed, or extreme introverts or extroverts; medical workers, teachers, police officers, or politicians; individuals planning a wedding or other large event; and those who lost their jobs. Overall, Huber wanted a range of ages, races, economic situations, and professions to provide variety.

Acevedo explored the impact of the pandemic on people’s work lives. She interviewed her older sister, a social worker “who works with felons who tend to be homeless, mentally ill, and battling addiction, and are disproportionately affected by this pandemic.” Acevedo also talked to an attorney adjusting to working from home and a woman who runs a travel agency. “[Travel] was one of the industries that has suffered most,” she said, “and I was really curious how she was handling such challenges and how she thought the travel industry would change after the pandemic.”

Manor, meanwhile, focused on the convergence of inner and outer struggles. “I chose people who had internal or home problems because I wanted to see if the external problem of the coronavirus opened their eyes, pushed mental health to a breaking point, or changed things for the better,” she said.

According to Huber, “Anything the interviewees said was fair game. They needed to feel free to talk without censoring themselves — understanding a teenager was doing the interview, and these [discussions] will be performed.” Huber himself conducted supplemental interviews to include perspectives from a nurse, an Asian American experiencing coronavirus-related discrimination, and a school principal.

One challenge was getting adult subjects to open up to teenagers over the phone, which Acevedo said could feel “cold, clinical, even impersonal.” Despite knowing her interviewees quite well, she said, “At times I felt like a doctor talking to a patient rather than a person talking to a person. … That in-person, face-to-face contact is what I really missed. But that’s the whole point of this project, right?”

Acevedo wanted to explore “the rapid and absurd changes everyone underwent in a matter of weeks” and how each person was coping. Although she came to each interview with a list of carefully worded questions, she said, “I found myself straying from what I had originally written and asking questions that popped into my head as I listened to each woman speak.”

Manor also moved off-script in interviews. In fact, her first question ― “How have you been personally affected by COVID-19?” ― was the only prepared question she asked every subject. After that, she allowed responses to guide the rest of the conversation.

Students scheduled, conducted, and transcribed interviews, then Huber selected excerpts for them to perform and record. He admitted the transcripts were “all really boring for the first few minutes. But, as I got farther along, I found the monologue.” Most performed material was mined from each conversation’s conclusion, he said, noting that longer interviews tended to yield better monologues. “It took people a long time to warm up, to get past the facts and talk from the heart.”

Afterward, students recorded themselves performing their monologues and sent them to Huber, then had one-on-one Zoom sessions with him for feedback. Compared to in-person directing, the process took some getting used to. “I love working with my actors in rehearsal,” he said. “The spontaneous discoveries, all the talking about the characters and why they do what they do. This part of the process was limited and a bit disappointing for me.”

Still, he enjoyed helping young actors develop original character choices based on words by people they knew, especially in terms of physicality. “The voice, nervous habits, gestures — all that,” he said. “I had a few students who were quite successful at creating distinct characters.”

Acevedo had to “fight every urge to copy the mannerisms and gestures and intonations” of her sources. “I had to find a balance of doing their interviews justice and staying true to their messages while also developing a character of my own,” she said. “It would’ve been easier if we’d been given scripts written by people we’ve never met, but then they wouldn’t be as personal.”

Katrina Manor (left) and one of her interviewees, Patsy Allen, the mother of a disabled child.
Katrina Manor (left) and one of her interviewees, Patsy Allen, the mother of a disabled child. Photos courtesy of Katrina Manor.

For Manor, reinterpreting characters became easier once she realized she did not have to precisely embody her interviewees to capture the authenticity of their words. “Once I got over the fear of doing them perfectly and [instead did] what was natural, I got the take I needed,” she said.

Next, Huber stitched the monologues together into a cohesive performance. Huber “really enjoyed discovering the story through the editing and the placement of the monologues. The play could tell a different story if I simply rearranged the order.”

During the editing process, Huber found a through line. “I discovered the many ways the characters talk about being ‘in this together’ — that we are all here for each other,” he said.

The original YouTube premiere was set for May 30 to allow teachers to promote the performance in their classes before finals. But as Huber finished editing the show, Floyd’s murder sparked protests across the United States.

“In a matter of days, a more important historical event was happening throughout the world, and I realized our little film might help add our voices to the call to action,” Huber said. “I needed to add something to the end of the play that would help connect the two events and add an exclamation point.”

Huber interviewed a former student who had attended marches. “I simply let him talk about his thoughts and feelings,” Huber said. “He helped put it all together as our epilogue. I was hoping [he] would add to our theme (without telling him to), and he really did.”

When The Corona Monologues “opened” on YouTube on June 6, Acevedo was surprised by both the emotional range of the final product and “the support and feedback we received from people who watched the monologues. I wasn’t sure we’d get many views, but we were overwhelmed with love.”

Her interviewees loved the performance, Acevedo added. “They felt the project was something very needed in these troubling times,” she said. “I also liked seeing that no matter how different the monologues were, they all felt so human and real and connected. It was very touching.”

When Manor watched the final product, she said she was struck by the commonalities connecting everyone’s divergent experiences. “It’s very hard to explain,” she said, “but watching the film — we are more alike and less different than we think.”

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