The Apocalypse Onstage

In my defence, it sounded like a great idea at the time.

Back around Halloween, daily case counts in the province were lingering around the low-hanging 350 mark. Indoor capacity limits had just been lifted just about everywhere. And I was walking around town with a spring in my step that could only be attributed to this pesky bug I’d caught: hope. 

After nearly two years of cancellations, delays, disappointments, and so much uncertainty, I’d been trying to protect myself from another infection. 

But this time, I couldn’t avoid it. I’d gotten my hopes up. 

That’s because, for the first time in a long time, it looked like the world was starting to get some colour back in its cheeks. Hell, the world looked like it’d be back on its feet in no time. Performance venues were full, cantankerous theatre bloggers were grousing about great new plays at great, newly-reopened spaces, and just like that, it felt like it was business-as-usual in the Toronto theatre scene. So when Cass Van Wyck asked to produce my comedy Two Minutes to Midnight at the Assembly Theatre to celebrate the community’s resilience, I didn’t need too much convincing. 

Two Minutes to Midnight is about a couple, Tracy and Jack, who happen to be vacationing at an all-inclusive, discount resort retreat when they receive a warning that a nuclear missile strike has been launched and everyone in their vicinity is about to be eviscerated. Tracy and Jack’s relationship is on the rocks and the play’s wacky premise sets the scene for their ultimate showdown. The piece interrogates these characters’ priorities in the face of crisis. With the world crashing down around them, the audience learns what matters most to these two very sad people. Maybe the play gives audiences the space to reflect on how they themselves would behave while staring down the apocalypse, and what their own priorities are now while facing our own unprecedented disaster. Even though I’d written the play as a kind of response to the wildly divided, solipsistic society into which I’d watched the world devolve even before the politicization of pandemic response measures, the play felt very now. I was grateful for the opportunity to work on it some more.

Of course, we were younger then, back around Halloween.

Of course, we were younger then, back around Halloween. Younger, and more foolish. Had any of us known what was about to unfold over the next few weeks, we would have stayed more vigilant. We would’ve taken more proactive measures to safeguard ourselves against hope. Instead, what was supposed to be a fun vacation from a pandemic-weary world turned into something that felt like the apocalypse. 

I wrote Two Minutes to Midnight a couple years ago, but prior to October hadn’t taken a look at the script in a while. Even though it was an idea I’d been kicking around for some time, without any production deadlines to write towards, the first draft of the play kind of got lost in the shuffle. I liked the premise of the piece and liked picking on its characters, but I hadn’t done any real work to deepen or enliven the material since working on the first draft. When Cass suggested staging the play in just over six weeks’ time, I was worried it  wouldn’t be ready for an audience. 

But Cass had read the first draft of the play shortly after I’d written it, and it had stuck in her mind over the last few years. She proposed acting in the two-character piece with Luis Fernandes. As co-artistic directors of the Assembly Theatre, the production would serve as a way for Cass and Luis to welcome full-capacity audiences back to their small blackbox space in Parkdale. I re-read the script for the first time in a long time, and I could clearly hear those two great actors in those roles. And I knew right away what I didn’t like about the script. With a little bit of time and development, and with an excellent team of collaborators, I felt like the play could become something really special. 

As the joyful, familiar panic that comes with the production of any play began to set in (I kept asking the team, “Are we really doing this!?”) I truly felt like the luckiest playwright in the world. I think every writer dreams of the day when a theatre company will call them up and just ask to put on a new play of theirs. Companies take a risk every time they produce a show, especially if they don’t have money to burn (and let’s face it, few do). To have a theatre affirm that my writing has value, that it’s worth the risk — that’s what I’ve always wanted. Even if it’s a sixty-seat blackbox with a leaky ceiling and noisy neighbours, to have a theatre call me out of the blue and invite me to do the work I love doing made me feel terrifically fortunate. And I was even luckier to have the opportunity to work with this particular creative team.

There were just over six weeks to re-write, design, block, and sell tickets to a brand new play during a pandemic. The first couple of weeks moved like a fever dream as we put the team together. The email I sent to Janelle Cooper asking her to direct the play had the subject line: “A Genuinely Crazy Idea.” By some miracle, she agreed to work with me and these actors without even hearing them read the script.

Janelle’s vision for the production involved transforming the entire theatre space into an immersive, tropical resort experience. Audiences would escape the snowy January streets into a vacation-themed funhouse inside a tiny Parkdale hideaway. Elements of the resort-themed set design would extend into the theatre’s lobby. The bar would be given a tiki makeover and signature island-themed cocktails would be served. Audience members would be given leis and all-inclusive resort wristbands after providing their proof of vaccination. Like the characters in the play, we’d all go on a trip together. 

The development of a new play can only really coalesce in the rehearsal room. As we were putting the creative team and marketing materials together, I was busy rewriting the script. I did my best to tailor the new draft to these actors’ voices. I tried to discard what wasn’t necessary and investigate the crevices of good ideas that came off as a bit shallow in the first draft. But it wasn’t until we all sat around a table and read the revised script aloud that it became clear what the play still wasn’t accomplishing. The plot’s outlandish, satirical elements were there, but the characters’ genuine, deeply-felt fears and longings weren’t on the page. I needed to take some of the heartache we’d all experienced over the last two years and infuse it into this broad comedy. 

Dramaturgical conversations with Janelle were enormously helpful in that respect. We didn’t have the luxury of time, so discussions about the play’s development were mostly practical but, at the risk of sounding wanky, they were thrilling. 

I rewrote the play again and the dots started really connecting themselves. I didn’t have time to think — I just needed to finish a working draft I was happy with so everyone could begin rehearsals in earnest. The characters started speaking for themselves in my head, I was just typing as fast as I could to accurately transcribe their dialogue. Out of nowhere, Tracy delivered this monologue about a screenshot of a text message she saved on her phone; I wholeheartedly believe that speech is one of the best things I’ve written. 

The team read the new draft around a table only a few hours after I finished writing it, and all of a sudden, everything seemed to have fallen into place. The set was being built. Tickets were being sold. I continued to revise the script during the initial rehearsals. It felt like this struggling indie theatre company was going to come out swinging on the other side of this pandemic.

Of course, the Omicron variant changed all that.

Things got scary real quick.

Things got real scary real quick. Three weeks away from opening night, I found myself in a four-and-a-half hour meeting with Cass, Luis, and a bottle of Jameson. We talked about contingency plans. We kept revising the budget to try cutting costs. We speculated on what might happen in the coming days. Would capacity limits be reinstated? How much money had already been spent? Would a three week run be feasible with only 30 audience members a night? Would people even feel safe coming to the theatre? Would the actors be comfortable doing intimate physical work together? Did these rapid tests really work on Omicron? Where the hell do you get them, anyway? How much more disappointment can we actually handle?

There was only enough money in the theatre’s bank account to pay rent for the next two months. At the outset of this production, we all thought the play would be good business for The Assembly — that it would mark the beginning of a new era when indie artists could once again roll up their sleeves and put on shows in an affordable, volunteer-run venue. 

The characters in Two Minutes to Midnight are faced with impossible circumstances. Now, the artists that operate the Assembly Theatre found themselves in a familiar-seeming situation. It felt like the sky was crashing down on top of us all. And just like characters in the play, we needed to take stock of our priorities.

I have a rule for indie theatre: if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. 

And no one was having fun anymore. 

We were drained, we were preoccupied, we were scared. Those aren’t the conditions you can make good theatre in, especially if you’re not even gonna make any money.

There was nothing to do but postpone the run. With Doug Ford at his fucking cottage, and no clear guidance as to how we were all going to get out of this new mess, the production had to eat its losses. 

Somehow, I had to find a way not to beat myself up for catching the nastiest case of hope I’d faced all pandemic.

In the face of a real-world, apocalyptic crisis, it was important to me that we prioritize our physical safety, our mental health, and our civic duty. We needed to focus on getting our boosters, taking care of our loved ones, and making sure we had the emotional fortitude to get through another long, tough pandemic winter. We didn’t need to put on a play. We needed to face the crisis immediately in front of us. We didn’t need to be artists right then. We needed to be citizens.

We also needed to feel our feelings. We needed to be sad for a little while. Let me tell you from personal experience, there’s no better time to rage-watch a two-and-a-half-hour all-star ensemble Netflix comedy about impending global extinction than right after postponing the world premiere production of an independent play that tackles similar themes without all the bells and whistles but with more (I’m willing to bet on this) funny jokes, and in a fraction of the time. 

Somehow, I had to find a way not to beat myself up for catching the nastiest case of hope I’d faced all pandemic. 

Hope’s a funny little virus, though. Ultimately, it’s what brought me to this lowest point of the pandemic, when certain days feel like the world’s coming to an end. But this deceptive, microscopic germ has, in fact, been helping me weather the coldest nights of this Omicron winter. 

I’m still feeling the symptoms of my sickness. They’re more mild than they were back around Halloween, but I can’t quite shake them. I’m hopeful that, when we’re able to do the play again, the Assembly Theatre will still be operational. I’m hopeful that, any day now, we’ll all be able to take much-needed vacations from reality inside theatres across the city. And I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to start packing our bags sooner rather than later.



7 Responses to “The Apocalypse Onstage”

  1. This is a wonderful chronicle of what this whole pandemic has been like. Is there a link for Assembly Théâtre where one could make a donation to the future!

  2. The best thing about that niggling germ “hope” is that it is contagious. Hang in there beautiful theatre artists.,…we need you to get us out of our covid funk and back to feeling human again.

  3. Sounds like the bug you’d caught has a variant or two of its own. Keep it going, please. So the rest of us can catch it, too. And for the love of tropical resort experiences, make this play happen. It’s exactly what our tired little world needs.

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Written By

Michael is a playwright, producer, educator, and all-around theatre junkie. His plays have been performed in basements, bars, art galleries, conference rooms, universities, Zoom meetings, and traditional theatre spaces across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.