How Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company crowdsourced a docutheatre piece on how a year of COVID, racist violence and protest, and political division felt in their state.
by Gemma Wilson (See the original.)
Is CO2020 theatre or film? Devised or documentary? Yes to all of the above. This Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company production, streaming April 5-18, is a hybrid work born of COVID necessity, calling on the talents of a multi-hyphenate creative team.
“Crisis always breeds new opportunity,” said BETC artistic director Stephen Weitz (he/him). “That’s the upside of it.”
With all plans and expectations out the window (and with some grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts), BETC’s leaders reasoned, why not try something entirely new? Over the course of several months last summer, the creators of CO2020 interviewed more than 50 Coloradans to try and capture the state of the state.
In addition to Weitz and BETC associate artistic director Heather Beasley (she/her), the co-creators of CO2020 are actor/director/playwright Jada Suzanne Dixon (she/her), actor/educator/activist Ilasiea Gray (she/her), journalist/playwright John Moore (he/him) and dramaturg/literary artist Lynde Rosario (she/her).
The concept of “documentary” is deployed in a broad sense here: This is a document of a time, a place, and a community, with all the looping, impressionistic uncertainty that requires. There’s no concrete narrative arc, no answers, no synthesis—and that’s by design. “We didn’t want to just do a chronicling of 2020,” Moore said. “We didn’t want to show people exactly what they had just lived through—who wants to go through that?”
When the CO2020 creative team began this 10-month-long creative odyssey, they started with honesty: What were the questions they were asking themselves? And who did they want to talk to about them?
“I have two-and-a-half pages here,” said Dixon, laughing as she held up a notebook to her computer’s camera. You all might not remember,” she told her teammates, virtually gathered with her, “but I’ve got them all written down.”
Those pages, dated July 3, 2020, overflowed with the questions that formed the foundation of CO2020. From that brainstorming tangle, Dixon said, themes emerged: loss, self-care, racial injustices, systemic racism. By investigating the root of their own curiosities, the team landed on a set of five questions or prompts they would ask every single person interviewed, no matter how much other questions varied:
What have you lost?
How are you talking about racism?
Is this a time of reckoning or awakening?
What does America need most right now?
Describe your community in five words or less.
The team interviewed a diverse swath of Coloradans: students, teachers, politicians, faith leaders, activists, police officers, artists, parents, healthcare workers, business owners. The youngest interviewee was just 5 years old.
“That’s the start of everything,” said Moore. “Once we had this diaspora of people representing Colorado, [the interviews] really became a treasure trove to pull from to say: What can we say about this, rather than just, This happened.”
The resulting 75 hours of raw material gave them plenty to say. Rosario, Gray, and Beasley—known as the Script Squad, Rosario said, with serious team spirit—began sifting for common themes among speakers, recurring emotional and narrative threads from which CO2020’s episodic structure is woven.
(To clarify, as everyone on the CO2020 team took pains to do: They all contributed to the script, but one of the project’s great collaborative pleasures was allowing each artist to play to their strengths; hence the Script Squad.)
Certain episodes were clear—George Floyd, systemic racism, protests, and masks—all of it underpinned by the chronology of COVID and its waves of economic uncertainty, job losses, school closures. A few interview subjects played themselves; most were portrayed by actors. Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre shared his own words; after seeing him on screen, it’s impossible to imagine them coming from anyone else.
“We started looking at the bigger documentary style as a base style, with poetic stitching in between,” Beasley said, “to give people that time to take a breath or shift into a different emotional mode before they came back to that direct listening.”
For safety reasons, only one actor could be filmed at a time, which eliminated any multi-person scenes from early script iterations. But the visual language of film still allowed ample variety. “It was exciting for me, artistically, to get to play with a different toolbox,” said Weitz, who directed CO2020, working with video producer and editor Ray Bailey.
Sounds of a police radio play under aerial footage of evergreen treetops, soft-focus shots inside an empty theatre. Long stretches of interview are followed by archival imagery overlaid with narration, intercut with poetic stitching, like music, or like haiku crafted from interview language.
The story of Elijah McClain, a young Black man and violinist murdered by police in Aurora, Colo., in 2019, is told with incredible tenderness, while violin music—from footage of a violin vigil held for McClain, and as played by another young Black artist—provides the score.
Placing disparate voices together in conversation proved a simple yet effective structural tool: COVID skeptics and healthcare workers, business leaders and unemployed people. In one powerful section, the voices of a protester and that of a police officer play one after another, in a way that reminds you, without agenda, that no one is the villain in their own story.
“I really wanted to just go back and listen, and listen, and listen,” Beasley said. “To try to really make sure we’re fairly and accurately representing people—that was really important to us through the whole process. We didn’t want to soundbite anyone unfairly or clip them in some way that would be inauthentic to who they were and who they wanted to represent themselves as.”
For all its dynamism, CO2020 can’t be a living document, endlessly amendable. An early conception of the show focused on Colorado’s political status as a purple state, but the team realized any language around the election had a short shelf life. Similarly non-timeless: a section on COVID-19 vaccines. (And obviously Boulder’s most recent national-headline-generating incident, the supermarket mass shooting on March 22, doesn’t make it into the piece.)
The work’s many voices help to fix emotional truths in time, even as time remains a slippery thing: Indigenous leader Jennifer Wolf; author and civil rights pioneer Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine; Gray herself, who both co-created the piece and spoke on her experience at many of the protests that followed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder; the executive director of Rocky Mountain Black Conservatives; a kindergarten teacher who showed her young children video footage of George Floyd’s murder.
“That one was really striking to me because the Black community, we have these conversations about race—we have to, it’s not a choice in protecting our young people,” Gray said. “And I appreciate that from a white parent that could be like, Ooh, murky water, to feel that it was necessary to not only have them watch it, but to discuss what they were seeing, and allow them space to ask those questions.”
A beautiful section interweaves the language of many Black women, with the speakers’ own powerful words amplified by the rhetorical structure of the CO2020 script. “It’s battle fatigue,” they repeat. “We are tired.”
If CO2020 treads into visual schmaltz from time to time (montages of people staring out of windows or smiling at loved ones), so be it—there are no gimlet eyes here, only creative minds searching for hope and an honest look at who we were (are?) when faced with unthinkable circumstances. The moments that Mack-trucked me might not be the ones that most move you. A slideshow of crowdsourced art, for intance, or depictions of women doctors of color floored me.
Later, I laughed out loud when a young boy said, “I really miss school…lots of people miss me.”
“Dramaturgically, we tried to find a really strong balance between the trauma and the joy,” Rosario said, “and the ways in which we have to make sure that we as the creative team are artistically satisfied, but also that we care for our audience in the way that we craft the narrative, to make sure that the heavy things are balanced and offer hope, in some way.”
Gemma Wilson (she/her) is a contributing editor to American Theatre.