With “The Amateurs” play coming to a close mid-October, the Willamette community has had a wonderful opportunity to not only take a break from midterm season by viewing the entertaining and poignant show, but also to truly consider its timely message about the human reaction to tragedy.
The show follows a ragtag group of 14th century actors as they attempt to gain shelter from the Black Plague by impressing a duke with an outstanding performance of “Noah’s Ark.” “The Amateurs” however, differentiates itself from an ordinary play by engaging with a unique plot break in the midst of the show. Danny Davis (‘23) portrays the playwright Jordan Harrison as he examines his personal experience with the AIDS epidemic, and how the tragedy drove him towards writing a piece of work that captures the human response to tragedy.
The Amateurs manages to pull together a seamless look at both the pandemic in the 1400’s and the 1990’s epidemic, and the honest, emotional manner in which people reacted to the terror and losses of both. However, between the carefully woven together storylines, the audience will find it hard not to draw parallels with the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Emily Embleton (‘23) who portrays Hollis says that the ties between our current world and that of the 14th century players was not lost on those who produced the play. They considered the content of the show, and how post-COVID times have brought a new level of emotional relatability and impact-fulness to the plot: “I think that this [pandemic] is just so timely because it makes this play much more accessible to a broader audience. And it’s been interesting going through the script and finding those lines that, even though this play was written pre-pandemic, are very much about the pandemic.”
They noted about one of their own lines, “At one point I say ‘for all those gone to ill,’ and for a very long time that line was just about the Black Plague. And then recently I was thinking about it and I realized that it’s about literally the millions of people who have died from this pandemic.”
Indeed, the play can be an emotional experience for everyone involved as they see their own lives and the loss they’ve experienced over the last year and a half written out in a script and performed on stage. However, as Embleton observed, the plot of the performance is also very sweet—a good amount of the play is made up of smaller, more human moments in between the characters as they find connections even during the terror and grief of the Black Plague. Take, for example, the characters Rona and Hollis discussing Rona’s pregnancy, or the final scene in which four of the players manage to find love. The performance not only captures the all too familiar feelings of hopelessness and loss, but also the smaller, more joyful moments that occur even during a time of tragedy.
The play within the play, “Noah’s Ark” certainly demonstrates this incredible human tenacity. Even in spite of the deaths occurring around them, the surviving players cling to their art in the hopes of salvation. Davis doesn’t fail to connect this aspect to the world around us, either. They said, “Creating art and telling stories is a choice to sort of imbue the world with...a little more life. Like finding those moments, even if they don’t really exist.”
And indeed, “The Amateurs” itself can feel like its own small, joyful moment. Just as much as it is serious, the play can also be wonderfully lighthearted. For some, in a season of stress and hopelessness, viewing the production was simply a much-needed break. Embleton hoped as much: “I think you can leave and feel like you were really pulled through the difficulties of disease. Or you can leave and be like, ‘Oh, I laughed a lot tonight.’” They also noted the play’s versatility of interpretations: “One of the things I love about the play is I think the audience can take away what they need to take away from it.”
Though the final performance has finished at Willamette, the actors are excited for what’s in store for the theater department. Their upcoming performance, “Wayfinding,” is yet another opportunity for the Willamette community to take a peaceful evening to themselves with an enjoyable performance.
In addition, all the actors hope that other students will continue to get involved with the theater department. Embleton stated that working on “The Amateurs” was an extremely welcome relief in an otherwise very stressful time in their life. Davis would like to encourage, “If you have ever considered not just acting, but working on sets, working on lighting, sound design, if anything interests you: definitely come, check it out and see if it’s something that you would enjoy. And feel free to audition because it’s fun!”
However, those who chose to stay as audience members can still be impacted by the performances. Davis says that they hope that the audience takes away an important message from “The Amateurs”: “I want people to continue making art...to continue to appreciate the power that art has to introduce excitement and feeling into life. And [to recognize that] art can be made under any circumstances.”