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My Turn

by Dmae Lo Roberts


From The Asian Reporter, V31, #2 (February 1, 2021), page 6.

Adapting work

Nearly a year has passed since the coronavirus pandemic shut down large indoor public events. For theatre productions, itís been devastating. The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559, which I directed at Oregon Childrenís Theatre (OCT), was closed in mid-March, halfway through its four-week run. It left the actors stunned and caused a revenue shortfall for the theatre company.

As April arrived, it became clear that the Oregon tour of Here On This Bridge: The ĖIsm Project, a series of monologues about the intersections of race, gender orientation, and national origin presented by nonprofit MediaRites, needed to be cancelled. Instead of lamenting the cancellation, MediaRites pivoted, like so many nonprofits, businesses, and organizations have done. We worked with the playwrights and actors to adapt the monologues into short films. This proved to be challenging because we did not know how long COVID-19 would continue its exponential spread.

There was mixed information at first about mask-wearing and virus transmission taking place through aerosolized respiratory droplets. I was afraid to go out in public because of my age and potential complications from the conditional asthma I develop when Iím sick. Iím still not sure if I could survive COVID-19 if I contracted it.

In May, Samson Syharath, MediaRitesí associate producer, and I adapted the scripts weíd written for The ĖIsm Project tour. We decided to add reflections on the anti-Asian coronavirus racism occurring nationwide. Samson taped his piece, about his Lao mother, at home. Jane Vogel Mantiri recorded my script, about an Asian-American woman recounting four generations of her family in Oregon, on her iPhone. We premiered the two videos and a panel discussion on Zoom as part of the Vanport Mosaic Festival. The virtual event included more than 800 people watching and commenting.

In July, MediaRites hired a small crew to film The Diversity Thing in four hours. I worked with the playwrights, Bonnie Ratner and Roberta Hunte, to adapt their script about a Black female utility worker and disappointment with diversity training initiatives in the workplace. They turned the character, played by Shelley B. Shelley, into an essential worker coming home during the pandemic. Summer heat and audio issues proved too challenging at the time, unfortunately, and we did not receive the footage and audio recordings to complete the project.

In the fall, Shaking the Tree Theatre offered the use of their large converted warehouse space. We worked with a crew of four people ó including the actress and me ó all wearing masks except for the actress while she performed. The playwrights again rewrote The Diversity Thing script, this time to take place as an indoor workplace interview situation. Luckily, this video effort was successful.

We also taped an adapted script by Josie Seid, called Being Me in the Current America, about a Black woman (played by Shareen Jacobs) who talks about racial profiling in Oregon and last yearís Black Lives Matter protests. There was some street noise to deal with, but we were able to get the footage and sound recordings we needed within two six-hour timeframes with frequent breaks outside. We also opened up the space during those breaks to allow in fresh air. We felt we were able to work safely.

As the weather turned rainy, we experimented with a script by Yasmin Ruvalcaba Saludado self-filmed by actress Yolanda Porter. Luckily, Yolandaís husband is a photographer, and she has sound equipment as a voiceover actress. We also involved her young daughter, who appeared in the video. It took a little longer because the family shot the scenes when they had free time. I loved the poignancy of a family working together as they used their home for the setting, especially since it tells the story of a Central American mom waiting to hear about her daughter who might be in a detention center.

The three short films will premiere soon. Weíre also going into production for a fourth script about a former border patrol guard who has regrets about separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

What have I learned through this process of adaptation? In fairness, itís how Iíve lived my life. Iíve always adapted my work to current circumstances. Itís the essence of art. Our creative projects always change and evolve in order to survive and grow. But I have learned that going more slowly is okay. The tasks will still get done as long as you keep going. And frankly, it was important for the artists to still work, and MediaRites found a way.

This form of improvisation compelled by global events was tough but it wasnít too bad. We found audiences and funders are more understanding and kinder about the shifting expectations and readjustments. Thereís an awareness that this is what we need to do right now. I do wonder, "Why canít we be more kind and compassionate always?"

The films will be showcased on YouTube and Facebook from mid-February through early March. I hope you are able to check them out. To learn more, visit <www.mediarites.org>.

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