Honors Students Collaborate to “Survive a Pandemic” Through Theatre

When gripped by anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020, Honors students Kaitlyn Fiery and Shira Weiss didn’t hide from it. Instead, they channeled outward into an opportunity for community catharsis.


“My body just felt overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness and lack of control. It was all bottled up, and I felt this intense need to let it out,” Fiery, CAMD’22, recently said of her experience during the height of the pandemic in 2020.


Weiss, CAMD’22, felt similarly. “I was eager to connect with others who were going through similar experiences and to engage with these stories through art,” she said.


Fiery reached out to Weiss with an idea for a theatre project, eager to tap into their collective experience. “I had a moment of realization that other students were probably experiencing similar things, so I called up Shira and pitched the project to her. She loved the idea, so we applied for a PEAK award and then got to work!” Fiery said.


When planning, Fiery and Weiss decided on a community-based theatre piece, rooted in social practice. The piece, How to Survive a Pandemic, follows in the tradition of the Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspapers, Anna Devere Smith’s interview-based theatre, and documentary theatre.


“Ultimately, community-based processes seemed like a natural fit to break through the isolation and loneliness of this moment in time. Connection to others has been at the heart of this project throughout its creation, from interviews and story circles to the incredible collaboration of our cast and creative team and even to the interactive moments of the live performance,” they said.


Fiery and Weiss spent the fall 2020 semester interviewing their fellow students and facilitating story circles to gather material for the production. They also recruited a production team and held auditions for actors. What brought a new facet to their work was having to rehearse, run all tech, and put on the show virtually. Some of their team members had not yet met in person, due to the hybrid nature of the current school year. The team’s resiliency in the face of these challenges reflected the common theme Fiery and Weiss saw in their collected interviews.


“While the stories in our interviews detailed experiences of struggle, the most powerful throughline was the incredible resiliency of each individual in getting through that struggle. We asked each participant: what kept you going? The multitude of coping mechanisms that support each individual’s resiliency became the crux of our narrative,” they said.


What kinds of coping mechanisms did folks share? Playing games, music, cooking, baking, and creatively connecting to friends and family over distances and technologies. Gaming in particular was a popular one, and provided the framework for the production. Fiery and Weiss created an episodic structure based off of popular computer, arcade, and games like Jenga and Gone Fishin’, using interviews and story circles to create monologues within the episodes.


“In the context of our project, theatre is a powerful testimonial tool. We created a space organized by students, for students, to hear from students. We approached interviews, story circles, and rehearsals with an emphasis on community and listening to ensure everyone felt cared for and supported,” Fiery and Weiss said.


For a project this complex, institutional support was necessary. The Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships awarded Fiery and Weiss a PEAK Experiences Summit Award to support their project in Fall 2020. Northeastern theatre Professor of the Practice Melinda Lopez and Assistant Professor Dr. Dani Snyder-Young, as well as the broader department of Theatre at Northeastern and Fiery and Weiss’s fellow students were champions of How to Survive a Pandemic.


“We could not have gone through this process without our mentor, Melinda Lopez, who has been with us every step of the way. As a playwright herself with experience in community-based theatre, her wisdom and insight has been invaluable. She has been so supportive and encouraging and we could not be more grateful for her mentorship,” they said.


Additionally, the University Honors Program supported Fiery and Weiss through each iteration of the project. Through advertisements for their story circles and interviews, to promoting the performances themselves, Honors was thrilled to see how creatively Fiery and Weiss implemented research ideas into a performance.


“The Honors Program has been an incredible resource throughout our Northeastern experiences and the process of this project. They were essential in assisting with outreach and generating publicity around opportunities to become involved in the project, whether as participants, actors, or designers,” they said.


Both Fiery and Weiss have benefited from their membership in the Honors Program, in academics and in networking.


Weiss’s most memorable Honors experience so far? “Living in East Village freshman year! I met some of my closest friends through the Honors community in my first year at Northeastern, and we’ve remained good friends since. I even still live with my freshman roommate!”


As for Fiery, her most memorable Honors experience so far took her beyond the Boston campus. “My Honors dialogue! I went on the 2-month long dialogue [Professor Michael Hoppmann’s Honors twin Dialogue on Human Rights Communications] with an awesome cohort of fellow Honors students,” she said.


How to Survive a Pandemic as a project is an excellent example of how Honors students conceive of  creative endeavors as innovative forms of scholarship. Fiery and Weiss hope the project will continue beyond its three virtual performances in February 2021.


“The life of this project doesn’t end here. We hope to further develop this project and continue to discover what this story is and what it can be,” they said. “Ultimately, we hope this piece will go beyond a single story, giving us an opportunity to share and process our emotions, to find resilience in each other, and to connect with our peers.”


They hope their project will inspire other Honors students to think outside the box when imagining their own projects, and have advice for those students looking to develop their ideas.


“Start meeting fellow creatives as soon as possible! Whether it’s through a club, classes, or just hanging with friends, those people you form connections with are most likely the ones that will support your project the most—whether they are on your team or just available to bounce ideas off of,” they said. “And then once you’ve identified a project you want to work on, just go do it! Build your network of support and resources, and reach out to others to collaborate and share ideas. Keep a lookout for various Northeastern-specific grants and awards that may help you finance your project.”


Fiery and Weiss demonstrated just how resilient our Northeastern community has been during this strange time, and created a virtual space for audiences to commune together through How to Survive a Pandemic. The Honors Program is proud to call them Honors Huskies, and look forward to the show’s further development.