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How to Stay Creative During Covid

As a playwright, I struggled when the theaters went dark. Here’s how I kept my artistic lights on

By Pamela Weiler Grayson

When the theaters began to close, and Broadway’s lights went out, I tried to treat it like an extended intermission. As a New York City–based playwright, lyricist, and composer, I was used to the uncertainties of the theater industry.

But as COVID began to rage through New York and other parts of the country, that second act seemed farther and farther away. How would theater artists survive, both literally and in terms of our creative livelihoods? I felt paralyzed and anxious, wondering how I’d continue to be creative during this dark time. 

My mother kept telling me to “write a funny song” about COVID. But as a professional writer and performer (as opposed to someone who, in quarantine, has her husband follow her around with an iPhone while she sings and dances in her pj’s about how she’s having a nervous breakdown), I didn’t feel motivated to write funny songs about what was going on. And not just because I wasn’t finding inspiration. I was also afraid my “professional” efforts wouldn’t be as clever as that video of the family that sang songs from Les Miz. Yet I also knew that creating is what has always kept me (relatively) sane and helped me navigate an inexplicable world. And it’s what I do.   

So after a few weeks of despair and atrophy, I began to exercise my creative muscles again, and exorcise most of those artistic fears. Summoning up that old “Defying Gravity” spirit,  I dove back into some familiar writing spaces and also found new strategies and communities that inspired me to venture down different paths. 

For years I’ve been part of a playwriting class taught by a wonderful playwright and teacher, Kate Moira Ryan. This workshop (which has actually been online for a while) motivates me to write on deadlines and provides a fantastic community of writers. When lockdown started, we briefly disbanded, but Kate then continued to teach the class online. That was the first way I stayed creative during the pandemic, as we kept sharing our work, fears, support, and laughs — humor is the ultimate panacea. I became inspired to write a short play, Pandemic Private, about a family forced to live together in an apartment during quarantine, and how nobody can find a private space to talk about each other to other people. As you can imagine, this was based not-so-loosely on my own experiences. 

At the end of April I had that same play read at Naked Angels, which is a wonderful theater company that produces a special cold reading series for writers and actors, called Tuesdays@9. They went virtual during the pandemic, like everyone else. I had another short play read there in September, and while we missed gathering on a real stage in the East Village, being virtual does have its perks: no commute, and you can hang out in your sweats. However, while I like seeing Chat comments like “This is hilarious,” or “This is powerful and moving,” it can’t compare to the sound of live laughter or tears in a theater.

Also in the spring, I participated in Primary Stages/ESPA’s “Lunch and Learn” seminars. In May, I wrote a monologue for their virtual event, “50 Shades of Detention.” My chosen theme was “Love in the Time of Corona.” We were each paired with an actor and director and worked on Zoom.

The monologues were streamed over two nights in May, and it was the first time I realized the power of streaming “theater.” This platform, where an international audience can watch a streaming theatrical event, is so exciting — the reach is so much broader than trying to get local people to attend a show — that many of us creatives are grateful for this incredible opportunity. My brother and another friend in London watched those monologues, even though it was very late at night for them. They’d never have been able to see it otherwise. 

The expansive reach of virtual performances is something that may be with us long after the pandemic and is not just a stopgap measure. It’s changed theater, possibly forever. Not that we won’t have live theater again (because otherwise it’s kind of just Netflix), but we’ve also realized that there is something positive and exciting about growing our audiences. It also allows us to have actors in readings who are not in our same city. One of my actors in a summer reading was in LA, while the rest of us were in NYC. 

I had several other virtual readings of my plays, including in a Ten Minute Play Festival. That play also had a “production” in LA, with the Group Rep/Lonny Chapman Theatre, along with some other short plays. They performed the plays in a real theater, with no audience, but recorded and streamed them. They had everyone COVID-tested, and staged it socially distanced. It worked out beautifully, and the actors were happy to be working in a theater again. The play, Wine and Squeeze, takes place in a fictional breast imaging waiting room. You can watch the production on YouTube if you’re interested.  

In September, I was invited to work on a new play as a writer-in-residence for the 2020-21 season at Kervigo Ensemble Theater, a NYC-based theater company. Receiving a writing residency is a rare honor at any time, so the fact that it happened during COVID, when live theater has been shuttered, is truly remarkable. It’s especially rewarding for me as a mid-life writer to be invited to join a new group of diverse artists committed to equity, inclusion, and sustainable theater. The ensemble meets once a month to have our pages read out loud, and I’m also participating in regular, private feedback sessions with the co-artistic directors, so it’s been a fantastic way to keep my creative juices flowing and finish a new draft of this play. 

The most significant thing to happen to me artistically during the pandemic was that my writing collaborator, Alice Jankell, and I found a composer for our new musical. And we still haven’t worked together in person! Alice and I were searching for a composer for this piece called Coda, which is about love and connection in an assisted living facility. We found Aaron Drescher through professional networking, and he was a musician on a musical Alice and I had worked on a few years ago. Aaron fell in love with our script, and we fell in love with his music (and him!), and we’ve been working together ever since, completely on Zoom. We had a private Zoom reading of the show over the summer, and we’re continuing to develop it.

My other seminal COVID creative experience was reconnecting with my college a cappella women’s singing group, Brown University’s The Chattertocks, and making a video of one of our classic songs. Being part of that group was so special (many of us were in it all four years), and while some of us have stayed connected, not all of us have, especially those in different graduating classes. One Chattertocks alum messaged those of us in classes of the mid-1980’s to set up a Zoom call. We had a fantastic time reconnecting, and decided to try to sing together in a video. Luckily one of our members has video production experience, and some of us made click tracks of our four parts. In the privacy of our own homes we each listened to the track and recorded our parts, which most of us had to relearn, as it had been many years since we had sung it (and let’s face it, voices change over 30-plus years). Then we each videotaped our singing. After multiple takes, we had the videos professionally edited and included some group photos from the ’80s. We wound up with a really nice video — not always “Pitch Perfect,” but we’re proud of our final product and how much fun it was to blend again. Here’s a link to watch it.

Many of my writer-performer friends have found their own ways to stay creative during this time. Some are monetized, some not. Christine, a writer, actor and activist, was in the national tour of Broadway’s Come from Away when theaters closed. Christine is the most productive person I know, so she essentially just pivoted to more writing rather than performing, and she’s been incredibly prolific. As an Asian American, she’s even more focused these days on writing “Asian American stories into the narrative.” She noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which coincided with the pandemic, has given her even greater motivation to be bold in her storytelling. My friend Christiana has been teaching voice on Zoom, and they and their husband, Aaron, also an actor-singer, record demos in their home studio. Christiana is also developing multiple shows. Amy, a songwriter-playwright, started online songwriting seminars. Because so many artists can’t afford classes right now, Amy offers one “scholarship” spot. Lori, an actor-writer, is teaching on Zoom and has “weekly Zoom or Skype accountability calls with creative friends.” I love that idea, and I think that’s something many of us could do as well. 

As a theater writer struggling to stay creative during this pandemic, I’ve gone through different “stages.” Sometimes obstacles are what inspire the most innovative ideas. And there is more time to write now (although I probably spend most of that extra time wiping down my groceries or watching Schitt’s Creek). If we find communities that nurture our creativity, we can actually thrive, even during this crisis. We may emerge with skills and projects that endure long after COVID subsides. And if you want to make that video, singing and dancing around in your pj’s, then I say, “Go for it!” 

Pamela Weiler Grayson’s musical, Urban Momfare (composer/lyricist/co-writer of book), won a Best Musical award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and was a Critics Pick from Time Out. Pam’s award-winning songs and plays have been performed and developed in New York City and nationally. She is the co-writer, with Alice Jankell, of Cicadas, The Musical, featured on Season 2 of the top-rated Amazon streaming series, The Other F Word.  She has written for The New York Times and The New York Observer, among others.


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