One of the world’s leading experts clears up what theaters need to know.
I first learned of Dr. Linsey Marr when I read a startling opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times July 30: As “a civil and environmental engineer who studies how viruses and bacteria spread through the air,” she wrote, “I believe that the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 via aerosols matters much more than has been officially acknowledged tao date.”
She was not talking about those exhaled droplets that are said to fall to the ground within six feet such that so-called social distancing is a fix. She was talking about the even teensier aerosols that can waft in the air and spread the virus hither and yon.
Reading further about Dr. Marr, a professor at Virginia Tech who is quoted often in public health coverage, I realized that she knew something that the theater community had an urgent need to know.
The theater community (meaning theater management, union leadership, theater practitioners, other arts workers, and audience members alike) is at an awkward impasse. Theaters have been wrestling with issues of safety—in the lobby and auditorium, in rehearsal rooms, backstage, in dressing rooms, and the control booth—while still much in the dark. There simply has not been a lot of science-based guidance that is specific to theater spaces. So I reached out to Dr. Marr.
While very busy, she graciously made time for us to talk. In a warm conversation, I learned that she is herself a theatergoer. She’s never had experience onstage or backstage, but she is, she says, “an appreciator,” with season tickets to the Virginia Tech performing arts series. I also learned that aside from being awesomely knowledgeable across multiple disciplines—the New York Timescalled her “one of the world’s leading scientists on airborne viruses”—Dr. Marr has that rare gift for making things plain and clear.
John: I feel I should first thank you for your service to the nation’s well-being.
Dr. Marr: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.
When theaters went dark in mid-March, there were mixed messages from the CDC about whether masks were necessary outside of medical contexts. At the same time, there was a lot of concern about sanitizing and disinfecting of surfaces. Given what science has learned about COVID since, do you think surface transmission has been overemphasized and transmission through the air by aerosols not emphasized enough?
Yes, absolutely. We are now referring to all these surface-cleaning protocols as “hygiene theater.” Time and resources could more effectively be directed toward cleaning the air—which means not spraying things in the air, but better ventilation and filtration.
Looking at the risk of aerosol transmission at close proximity indoors—on a scale from breathing to talking to speaking to singing loudly to shouting to coughing and sneezing—where would you rank laughter?
Thats a good question. A good hearty laugh is probably somewhere between speaking and shouting.
And a mask would mitigate that?
Yes, a good mask should mitigate that.
But without a mask, at close range, there is the same risk from laughing that loud singing would be?
I think so. Or even a cough. I know when I laugh, I’ll sometimes get visible droplets on things, which means there’s even more of the smaller things we can’t see coming out.
Now that theater has migrated from the stage to online, audiences can no longer be a body laughing as one. Everyone is home on Zoom. And laughing in large numbers in close quarters is potentially lethal—which is a terrible thing to think about laughter.
It’s supposed to be the best medicine.
Under what circumstances would you tell someone—an actor, for instance—that it would be safe to participate in an indoor live theater production today?
I think if there are few people on stage and it’s a large stage, high ceilings, and if the audience is very sparse.
Under what circumstances would you personally go to a live theater performance indoors?
I don’t think I would.
There are no circumstances today that—?
I would do outdoors. Or I’ve seen on your website there was a drive-in performance. That seems like a great idea.
One theater in DC—the first local company to resume live performances indoors—has installed a new HVAC system with HEPA filter designed to change the air six times an hour.
Okay. That’s what we target.
So, assuming mask wearing and social distancing, you would think that would effectively mitigate aerosol transmission risk?
It depends on how many people there are in that theater.
The theater seating capacity is more than 200, but they’re planning to have no more than 50 people in the entire building at one time, including cast and backstage crew and audience.
If everyone’s masked, I think that’s probably okay. Let me rephrase that. I will say it’s a lower-risk situation.
They’ve done the best job of ventilation that can be done?
They’ve done a very good job of ventilation if it’s reduced capacity. And if people are required to wear masks, then that sounds like excellent risk mitigation.
As audience members arrive, their temperature will be checked. But how reassuring can that routine be given the fact that asymptomatic people can be infectious?
I think it’s hygiene theater. Hopefully, it emphasizes to people that if they do feel any symptoms, they shouldn’t be out in public. But because we have so much asymptomatic transmission going on, temperature checking is of limited utility. It mostly makes people feel good.
What else do you consider hygiene theater?
The idea of the deep cleaning—like all the attention to wiping down nooks and crannies—and certainly any kind of fogging of the air would fall into that category.
It’s performative, not—
Because of the administration’s meddling, the authority of the CDC has been compromised, and the U.S. has pulled out of the World Health Organization. How are theaters to know what and whom to believe?
I don’t know of any resources specifically for theaters, but I do know that the Harvard Healthy Buildings program has been putting out a lot of really good material at its website, where they have a COVID-19 section. Their focus has been on schools, but there can be some similarities between schools and audiences in terms of the numbers of people you have around. And school is like a performance for the teacher, right?
Since the pandemic began—in the context of widespread denial about the climate crisis—public health experts have been met with partisan suspicion and rebuke. What, if anything, can theater makers do to help restore Americans’ confidence in science?
Oh, that’s a great question. Make scientists seem cool. On TV shows they lionize doctors and first responders and athletes, but nobody’s really lionized scientists.
On Friday, September 18, the day this interview took place, the CDC changed its guidance and now acknowledges that inhalation of aerosols (microscopic droplets or particles) is the main way that COVID-19 is transmitted.
Dr. Linsey Marr is the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech. She holds a B.S. in Engineering Science from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. She leads the Applied Interdisciplinary Research in Air (AIR2) laboratory and teaches courses on air pollution and environmental engineering. She is a Fellow of the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate and serves on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology. Dr. Marr’s research group studies the emissions, transformation, transport, and fate of pollutants in indoor and outdoor air. She is especially interested in emerging or nontraditional aerosols such as engineered nano materials and viral aerosols such as viral pathogens and how they can be physically and chemically transformed in the environment. Her research on the airborne transmission of infectious disease has focused on influenza, Ebola virus disease, and Legionnaires’ disease. She collaborates broadly with others to understand how changes at the microscopic to global scale affect public and environmental health. She tweets at @linseymarr.
During the past seven-odd years that I’ve contributed to DC Metro Theater Arts, I’ve written about upwards of 600 shows—sometimes as the designated reviewer (when I followed criticism conventions) and sometimes as freewheeling columnist (when a colleague was assigned the review so I was at liberty to engage with a work however I wished). Looking back, I realized that the freestyle columns that were most fun to write are still fun to read. I’ve collected here my five faves. —John Stoltenberg (Read time: about 15 minutes.)
5 reasons Christopher Boone liked ‘Curious Incident’ at Round House better than on Broadway
I had already marveled at The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Broadway, so before seeing the production at Round House I decided to read the novel it was based on. I was so charmed by voice of Christopher Boone, the fictional narrator, that I could not help but borrow it. —J.S.
My name is Christopher Boone and I am 15 and I am brave and I can do anything. I know that because I traveled by train by myself from Swindon to London and I solved the mystery of a neighbor lady’s murdered dog and I found my mother who I thought was dead and I wrote a book.
A man named Mark Haddon published my book under his own name and called it The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I am okay that he did that, just so everyone knows I wrote it.
My favorite teacher Siobhan made some suggestions but she would tell you I wrote it too. Also I made the drawings.
A man named Simon Stephens made a play out of my book. He told everyone it was based on a book by Mr. Haddon but that was not true. He needed to say it was based on a book by me. Sometimes adults lie. That comes up a lot in my book, especially with Father and Mother. I did not like finding out how much grownups lie because I believed that loving means never lying and I wanted to be loved which meant I did not like being lied to.
I do not tell lies. I can’t tell lies. I don’t know how grownups do it. I think they might have a behavioral problem.
There was a big production made of the play that Mr. Stephens said was his. I went to see it in a big Broadway theater. The stage was inside a big picture frame and there were lots of bright flashing lights and the floor and all the walls were computer screens and there were animated graphics that made me dizzy and distracted and it was hard to pay attention to the characters, even though one of them was Father and one of them was Mother and one of them was Siobhan and one of them was me.
I sat up close but some seats in the theater were so high up and far away I wondered what people in them could possibly see. The play won a lot of awards and a lot of people came to see it. I was okay with that, just so everyone knows it’s about me and my book. I wondered if some people might have thought the play was about computer graphics, though. I could not tell. Everything was enormous, which made the characters seem negligible (which is a word I used in my book once to say how small I felt).
A man named Mr. Stoltenberg took me to see the play at a very much smaller theater with a rounded stage that came right up to the laps of some audience members and no one had to sit very far away at all. Afterward Mr. Stoltenberg asked me if I liked the play better that way and I said yes I did. Then I made a list of reasons why to send to Mr. Stoltenberg as a thank-you for taking me.
Reason 1. I like to think in pictures. I like to do maths in my head and I’m very good at that and I like to do detecting and think about things logically and I’m very good at that too. But mainly I see what I’m thinking while I am thinking it. I explained that in my book. So l liked it when things my character said or thought appeared projected on a screen like drawings that were as alive as I pictured them to be. It was like the drawings were performing right along with the actor who was pretending to be me. That meant I could see inside my own brain. And when he played Tetris, I could play along.
Reason 2: I say in my book I play computer games but I never said I played Tetris. The people who put on the play made that up. It’s false but it’s not really a lie. And the back wall of the set is made up of boxes like a big Tetris game in three dimensions so it all worked out. The show had a lot of good thinking in pictures like that and it didn’t make me dizzy or distracted.
Reason 3. The actor who pretended to be me is named Harrison Bryan and he already pretended to be me once before at another theater. I don’t know if he plans to make a career of pretending to be me but if he did he would be very good at it and I would be okay with that just so he doesn’t do identity theft. A lot of what Harrison Bryan says in the play Mr. Stephens took from my book, but he also says some things Mr. Stephens made up, like for instance this: “I don’t like acting because it is pretending that something is real when it is not really real at all so it is like a kind of lie.” In my book I never said that. People laughed when Harrison Bryan said it but I didn’t get the joke. And I was okay with how Harrison Bryan pretended to be me even though he’s not really me because he did so many true things. Like a lot of times when someone said something to him he would make a look with his face and go hmmm or hunh like he was thinking something that he couldn’t say out loud because Mr. Stephens left it out but Harrison Bryan knew it would be on my mind.
Reason 4: The actors who pretended to be Father and Mother also did many true things and it hurt a lot to watch and remember what happened. Ever since I wrote my book I have not known what to do with that hurt and I could see that Harrison Bryan could not figure that out either. It seems to be a problem that does not lend itself to logic or detecting which made me very sad.
Reason 5: Siobhan. I could not have become me without her. The actor who pretended to be her did so many true things that she made me feel believed in all over again. That made me happy I got to see this version of the show. I wasn’t overwhelmed but I was whelmed. And I know that’s a real word because I looked it up and it means something very good.
Even though in my book I don’t have any friends unless you count Siobhan, which you can’t really do because she is my teacher, if I could I would ask Harrison Bryan if he would be my friend. I like a lot of things about him that I like about me. For instance he seems very good at maths and logic and he is very good to the white rat who pretends to be my pet rat Toby. If Harrison Bryan said yes he would be my friend I would ask him next if he would like to call me Boone Christopher since his own name is backward. He seems like someone who would get that joke.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (by Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon, directed by Ryan Rilette andJared Mezzocchi) played November 21 through December 22, 2019, at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda MD.
‘The School for Lies’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company
After delighting in David Ives’ rhymed couplets for 90 minutes, something must have rewired in my brain, because I couldn’t quit thinking in them.
The set that we see is a towering eyeful, The interior decorator spared nary a trifle, For decked all about are amusing objets d’art On loan from museums with tastes tres bizarre. Claes Oldenberg’s oversize cherry and spoon’s Propped opposite that dog in balloons by Jeff Koons, Which is hung in a bird cage directly ovah Salvador Dali’s Mae West lips sofa. So many cultured sculptures from who knows where, Plus Pedro Friedeberg’s gold hand chair! Could it be these fine artworks are what meet our eyes? Or might we be in for a bigger surprise?
Bingo, in case you’re still paying attention: This comedy is shot through with pretension. Ergo its title, a snarky rant Against society’s predilection for cant. Mon dieu! another drama about truth and illusion! Have we not seen such plays in profusion? Why dust off Molière for our modern amusement? He’s yesterday’s news, man, what’s the inducement? The dude wrote in French, he has to be translated What was funny back then has got to be outdated. Bottom line, can we enjoy what’s about to go on? Absolutament! And yes we Kahn.
The costumes alone are enough to drop jaws The foppery and finery would give Sun King pause. He’d invite the whole cast to Versailles too Since they’re all worthy of giving high fives to. I was nuts about the show if you haven’t deduced. The performance could not have been better produced But what got me hooked was the way it was written, David Ives’ script had me totally smitten.
His crackerjack couplets, his playful bag of tricks, Made my ears want more and more as if I needed a fix. When he worked in some words that were crude or risque It was like I’d been tossed a verbal bouquet. Once he even mimicked Valleyspeak and rap And my higher cortex went, Oh snap! For an hour and a half this went on and on As ear candy goes it was bon upon bon bon Delicious his rhymes were, like fine French fromage, I could not resist serving up this homage. So delightful they were, so wicked and sublime, Oh yes! said my mind, hit me up one more time! And then it hit me I’d been guessing or predicting How each couplet would finish. God it got addicting!
Some might surmise all this rhyming’d be annoying But I’m here to tell you it was not at all cloying. It altered my brain, rearranged how I listened Linguistic piss and vinegar made me totally blissened. If you see School for Lies, which I heartily recommend You will hear what I mean: The script has pleasures no end.
The School for Lies (by David Ives, adapted from Le Misanthrope by Molière, directed by Michael Kahn) played May 30 through July 9, 2017, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC.
‘Falling Out of Time’ at Theater J in Verse
“Fun to read” does not describe this one. The production was painful to watch. It was unrelievedly about death, about parents who had lost offspring; and despite excellent performances, the play as a whole left me dulled and detached. I wrestled with what to write. Because the script’s central grief had never been mine, it felt wrong to just say “this and this didn’t work for me.” Instead I decided to see if I could get inside the pain that prompted the play. Inspired by the script’s blank verse, I did it this way.
There is so much sorrow in this show Nine fine actors playing nine parents All mourning dead children Searching to see them again Seeking to be with them one more time Speaking words of unspeakable loss Each groping their solitary way Going in circles Burdened by unbearable grief Each child’s dying retold Each child’s death relived Mothers and fathers intoning One by one Poems of loss and sadness Lyrical lines of lamentation Becoming a chorus of bereavement No longer alone Finding solace in shared heartbreak In freeing verse In full disclosure of private pain All their sadness aired No more to be said Able to breathe again Still their children are dead Gone from them Yet they have found the words To say what it is like What it is To lose the precious life of one’s child
So know this before you go: It is all in verse And it is all about sorrow Soulful sorrow, all of it A show made solely of sorrow Yes, one note A note you may know But this singular maybe-familiar note has been scored like a magnificent symphony And it is voiced by nine superb soloists Who become an exquisite choir That may lift you up If you have already known the note
Falling Out of Time (based on David Grossman’s novel, adapted and directed by Derek Goldman) played March 17 through April 17, 2016, at Theater J in the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington DC.
A Love Letter to ‘Dear Evan Hansen’
It’s a show about a kid who writes himself letters, so why not? And I really was this overwhelmed.
Dear Dear Evan Hansen,
I know it might sound odd, but this is a love letter to a musical.
I saw you for the first time in my life last night, and I knew right away I had to write you to tell you it was love at first sight. You moved me, you thrilled me, you out and out wowed me. (Gosh, I hope you will not think me weird for gushing.)
You’re a musical about a lonely and depressed high school senior named Evan Hansen who writes letters to himself to cheer himself up—which is why you’re called Dear Evan Hansen (duh). What happened last night, though, was that you cheered me up. I remember when we finally had to part, I left you where you’re staying at Arena Stage (I assume that’s temporary and you’ll be relocating to Broadway, where I hope we can meet up again, because I really want to stay in touch). As I walked out into the summer night, I found I could not shake the feeling of elation you had given me. So I figured you might understand why I felt compelled to publicly declare my passion for you this way.
I haven’t yet read what any of your other admirers may be saying about you. I can only imagine they were similarly smitten. (How could they not be?) But I hope you will take to heart this letter to you, because there’s something really important and personal I want to share with you.
And it’s this, dear Dear Evan Hansen.
Until I met you I had never in my life seen a musical I would call redemptive. I don’t mean redemptive in any divine sense, because you never mentioned faith. I mean in the very human sense of revealing to us a very identifiable inner self that feels so isolated and unworthy it will pretend to be someone else for acceptance. (You nailed it: Everyone’s got Imposter Syndrome. We’ve all been there done that.) And then you showed that self be caught in a Really Big Lie and stricken with recrimination.
You presented a central character, Evan, whose dramatic character arc is actually a profound trajectory of conscience—who despite his good intentions in deceiving others comes to realize that he has totally, totally screwed up. The deception he committed was so wrong he cannot stand himself. And by that point in the second act when Evan falls apart emotionally in a morass of crushing guilt and remorse (in his song called “Words Fail”), you embody on the stage such a searing image of a self feeling utterly irredeemable that I was stunned into awed silence. You dug a hole for your main character so deep it seemed impossible to climb out of, and you dramatized exactly what being at a moral nadir feels like.
What happens next, though—and what prompted me to write you this letter—is that you found a way for that main character to atone and go on. It was as if a redemptive miracle occurred on stage, except of course there was no divine intervention. There was only the careful, conscientious craft of a brilliant book writer (Steven Levenson) and two equally brilliant composer/lyricists (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Together they had told a story on stage so original, emotionally identifiable, and redemptive that what’s possible to achieve in a musical got a Big Bang that will ripple through theater history from now on. Plus everyone who attends can come out a healed and happier person.
Thank you, dear Dear Evan Hansen.
Dear Evan Hansen (book by Steven Levenson, lyrics and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, directed by Michael Greif) played July 10 through August 23, 2015 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC.
‘The Norwegians’ (‘Da Norvegians’) at Scena Theatre by a Norvegian
This last one is all for laughs, but first a serious setup: Before my forebears came to America where they became “white,” they were German in Germany (on my mother’s side) and Norwegian in Norway (on my father’s). I do not much own my cultural heritage anymore, but I keep working at renouncing the white privilege that my lineage made my birthright. To that end, I find, the best takedown is sometimes a sendup.
So dere’s dis play goin’ on in town called Da Norvegians, and it’s set in Minneapolis and it’s got Norvegian characters in it, so I tought I should go check it out, on accounta I vas born dere and grew up dere an’ my fodder vas Norvegian, so I know da lingo pretty good, doncha know. I tought maybe I could assess da play for accuracy in how it depicts my Minnesota Luteran cultural milieu, ya know. Plus it mentions lutefisk, vich I myself ate ven I vas a child, dough I hated it. I hated everyting about it: da smell, da taste, da consistency, vich vas like rubber. It’s a traditional Norvegian delicacy but I could never understan’ vy dey dint yust leave it back in Norvay. Ennaway, dat vile fish vas served special at Christmas in my fodder’s fodder’s dining room in Minneapolis, and I never hauled off and said how much I hated it, ’cause dat vould not be nice.
Nobody in da Minnesota Luteran family I grew up in ever hauled off an’ said anyting. It vas yust not done, doncha know. Dere vas an unspoken ting dat it’s a sin to be angry or rude or confrontational. So you learn to lump it and stuff it. C. Denby Swanson who wrote Da Norvegians got dat part right fer sure. Dere are dese two Minnesotans, Tor an’ Gus, who are business partners, an’ dere business is contract killing—vich isn’t very nice necessarily, but neverdaless Ron Litman and Brian Hemmingsen who play dem make it very funny how dey practice dere profession using nice manners. Dere’s a lotta laughs about dat, you betcha.
Dere are also two non-Minnesotans in da play, and you can tell dey are from elsewhere because dey are not Norvegian and dey don’t talk Minnesotan at-tall. Dey are two vimmin named Betty and Olive. Betty is from Kentucky and Olive is from Texas, an’ it turns out dey vere boat dumped by dere respective boyfriends and so dey become clients of contract killers to off dere not-nice boyfriends. Uff-dah! Dat makes for very funny complications, you betcha. An’ Nanna Ingvarsson and Nora Achrati who play dem are so funny dey reminded me of dat British comedy team Joanna Lumley an’ Jennifer Saunders. Someone should write a notter play for dem two because it’s so rare dat vimmin togedder get to be over-da-top hilarious like Ingvarsson and Achrati are ven dey are trash-talkin’ dere fateless men.
I got to tinkin’ dat if dese two vimmin characters vere Minnesota Norvegian, dere vould be no play, because it’s not nice to kill your boyfriend yust because he dumped you, an’ every Minnesota Norvegian knows dat, doncha know. If dey vere Minnesota Norvegian vimmen, dey vould need a much bedder reason den dat to kill dere boyfriends! Dern tootin’! Minnesota Norvegian vimmin dumped by ex-boyfriends yust lump it and stuff it. So it’s a good ting fer dis funny play dat Betty an’ Olive came from Kentucky and Texas.
The Norwegians (by C. Denby Swanson, directed by Robert McNamara) played March 19 through April 19, 2015 at Scena Theatre, performing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, D.C.