For the past 10 years, The Public Theater has staged Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama, a series of plays—set in the playwright’s Hudson Valley hometown—in which families gather for spirited discussions on life, art, and politics. While each different, what the The Apple Family Plays, The Gabriels, and The Michaels all have in common is that they open on the night they are set. Meaning that in 2016, November 8 was both election night for the audience and for the characters at the heart of The Gabriels.
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Nelson found himself making notes for the next play in the series: the second installment of The Michaels. Set to premiere next season, the characters in the play will have now experienced—or still be in the midst of experiencing—a major global pandemic. It was while making these notes and edits that another thought came to him: Why why not reunite the cast and characters of an earlier play, and have them be in the process of actively navigating the coronavirus outbreak and its impacts?
Before going to The Public’s Oskar Eustis with the idea, Nelson approached the cast of The Apple Family plays—last seen onstage at The Public in 2014—to gauge their interest. After all, if one of the company wasn’t available, then he wouldn’t write that character into the script. The entire cast was not only available, but excited about the idea of gathering around the table once more as the Apples. Except this time, in accordance with self-isolation and stay-at-home orders, the “table” would be a Zoom video conference call.
On April 29 at 7:30 PM ET, The Public will live stream Nelson’s newest work in the Rhinebeck Panorama, What Do We Need To Talk About? Conversations on Zoom, for free via YouTube Live and on the theatre’s website with an option to donate to the theatre. So as to remain accessible to viewers around the world, the performance will remain available for some time after the live stream, too. Reuniting the entire original cast of The Apples, the online work will feature Jon DeVries, Stephen Kunken, Sally Murphy, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins, and Jay O. Sanders, all performing from their respective quarantine locations.
The performing-from-home set-up provided some fun challenges for Nelson, who also directs. For example, Murphy and Kunken play a married couple in The Apples; however they do not live together in real life. In What Do We Need To Talk About?, the characters video conference on Zoom from different rooms in “the house” and occasionally shout to each other through walls. While it’s been a joy to reunite with these characters and the original company, Nelson says the impetus behind writing What Do We Need To Talk About? was “a real desire to connect”—on a global level. “Almost everyone in the world is going through this,” says Nelson. “[There’s a] need to talk to each other and the need to be together, when you can’t be together.”
With one of The Apples working in the theatre, the play also looks at the impacts—both economic and emotional—on an industry that is currently on hiatus, and asks urgent questions about its future. “When will people feel comfortable coming together again? That’s a serious question. For the theatre but also for our society,” says Nelson. “Theatre is a moment when people come together, in the same place and at the same time, and share this experience. That’s a very human, very important part of what a society is. To not be able to engage in it for a while is very hard.”
“My play won’t have any answers,” says Nelson. “You’ll just see people talking and questioning and being together. Hopefully their own situations reflect some of what other people are going through. Just to have that articulated might be something good to hear right now.”
What Do We Need To Talk About? runs approximately 70 minutes without intermission. The play was commissioned by The Public and will be performed as a benefit. The live stream kicks off at 7:30 PM ET. You can view it here.