In the early days of the pandemic, performer and writer Gloria Alcalá sat at home in Seattle, hearing horror stories from a roommate, whose sister was an ICU nurse in Long Island.
“She described it often back in those days of just feeling like she’d entered into a different dimension as a health care professional,” Alcalá said. “That has stuck with me since then.”
The experience helped inspire the creation of “An Endless Shift,” a documentary play devised by Alcalá and playwright Alma Davenport, opening at ArtsWest on Jan. 26. Directed by artistic director Mathew Wright, the solo performance features Alcalá personifying four nurses and a respiratory therapist, using their words, verbatim, about working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s something striking about watching something on stage and knowing that it was spoken by a real person,” Alcalá said. “It wasn’t a fabricated language.”
The piece began to take shape over the summer and fall of 2022, with interviews of health care workers, including three from the Seattle area. Alcalá initially hoped to speak with someone from Kirkland’s EvergreenHealth, where the first U.S. patient died of COVID-19, or the Life Care Center in Kirkland, where dozens of residents died in an early outbreak, but they didn’t find any sources interested in reliving their experiences.
For some of those who did, the feelings still felt immediate, Alcalá said.
“Our more veteran health care professionals, they were watching history repeat itself — they could remember feeling as vulnerable during 9/11 [or] the AIDS epidemic,” Alcalá said. “But some of our younger ones were still deeply traumatized in recounting the events.”
The intensity of health care workers’ experiences in 2020, as deaths mounted while PPE and solid information about the virus remained elusive, was theater fodder from the beginning, with Zoom plays like “The Line” and “That Kindness,” a star-studded effort created by V (the playwright, performer and activist formerly known as Eve Ensler).
In 2023, the subject might seem less timely, and Alcalá has gotten some “weird reactions” when telling people they’re doing a play about the pandemic, they said. But for Alcalá, the timing feels right.
“It would feel like such a disservice to these people who risked their lives and risked their family’s lives to keep our loved ones alive, to continue moving forward without acknowledging they’re still seeing COVID deaths,” Alcalá said. “A couple of them asked, ‘Is it even over?’ To a lot of health care professionals, it isn’t over.”
In creating the play, Alcalá had to make some difficult decisions to cut out compelling stories that didn’t quite fit the overall narrative arc. But they were determined not to lose one from the Long Island ICU nurse, who recounted how a Hindu man was intubated and close to death, and she made the decision to enter his isolation room to bring him an iPad to pray with his family in his final moments.
“It’s that pure selflessness that told us, these people need a platform,” Alcalá said. “We can’t move on from this pandemic before we represent these experiences. Because if we don’t represent them, we decide to erase them.
“These aren’t just the people in scrubs on ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ These are our family members; they’re our community members. We can’t just let their experience be washed away with the urgency to go back to normal life.”
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