Rogue preview: In ‘The Line,’ Fresno City College amplifies the voices of pandemic first responders
Fresno City College’s theater department is in the opening weekend of “The Line,” a ripped-from-the-headlines ensemble piece about New York first responders and frontline medical personnel grappling with the impact of the pandemic. The production plays for six streamed performances over two weekends. (It is considered an “Off-Rogue production” as part of the Rogue Festival.) With help from director Karina Balfour and cast member Katherine Maitre (pictured above), here are 10 Things to Know about the production:
It’s written in a documentary style based on anonymous interviews with workers battling Covid-19.
Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen are known for such shows as “The Exonerated” (about innocent men and women who emerged from death row) and “Aftermath” (about the U.S. invasion of Iraq) and “Coal Country” (about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia). They had originally intended to write a documentary-style monologue based on an anonymous interview with a nurse, but they soon found other healthcare workers who wanted to share their experiences.
“The Line” had its world premiere at The Public theater in New York in July 2020. More than 50,000 people in 40 countries viewed the production during its two-month virtual run. Fresno City College is on the cutting edge in being able to present such a topical subject less than a year after a New York premiere.
The show is pre-recorded and streaming.
“The way we have it set up is that you can reserve a free ticket for one of the six performances and you will be sent a private YouTube link for that date and time,” Balfour says. “That link will remain active from the performance dates through the end of the run on March 13. All active links will be taken down after the closing show.”
The title came later.
“We were fortunate enough to bring Jessica Blank in (via Zoom) to talk to the cast about the show and its creation,” Balfour says, “and this is one of the questions that I had for her.”
Blank told the cast that she and the Public had worked without a title for a while and considered variations on “Frontline,” but that felt too “on the nose.” However, the term “line” continually came up in their interviews under a variety of meanings: frontline workers, EKG lines, oxygen lines, lines of people working together to save patients, lines as a physical or emotional breaking point.
Blank said that the title ended up having multiple different resonances that connected with the themes of the show.
To help actors prep for their roles, local physicians talked to the cast about their experiences working with Covid patients in Fresno.
“They generously donated their time to talk to us about how the pandemic has affected both their professional and personal lives and answered questions from the cast,” Balfour says. “This was a very unique and incredibly beneficial character study opportunity for the actors.”
Student dramaturg Ricardo Temores Jr. researched many of the themes within the play. He provided the cast with first-responder interviews and informational articles and specific information relating to each of the characters.
One of those roles is Jennifer, a first year emergency medicine intern fresh out of medical school and dumped into a pandemic.
Jennifer is strong and tenacious woman, but also overwhelmed and frustrated with the system and the lack of support and resources she encounters.
Maitre, in her fourth and final semester at Fresno City, plays the role.
“She is a very intense person, very passionate about what she does,” Maitre says of her character. “In ‘The Line,’ she really just wants to shed light on what health-care workers and their patients have experienced over the course of this pandemic.”
Maitre was in FCC’s production of “The Humans.” She’s hoping to transfer to CSU Fullerton in the fall (“still waiting to hear back, fingers crossed!”).
Balfour is impressed with the depth of Maitre’s performance in “The Line.”
“Katherine has done a really nice job of finding the strength and drive in this character,” Balfour says. “She brings a nice balance of maturity and youthfulness of a young doctor trying to navigate the chaos that surrounds her.”
Audiences might be surprised to learn that medical personnel were told they couldn’t speak to the media about what was going on inside the hospitals.
Many of the people interviewed jumped at the chance to share their experiences in an anonymous way because they felt the stories needed to get out but feared professional repercussions if their names were made public, Balfour says.
An important theme in the play: Race and socio-economic status have been major factors in the pandemic.
“At the height of the pandemic, I saw a lot of marketing about Covid doesn’t pick and choose — everyone is at risk,” Balfour says. “Which is very true, but the reality is that some people are at significantly higher risk due to systemic issues within our society.”
She points to the fact that many so-called gig workers, such as folks working for Grubhub or DoorDash, tend to be Black and Brown people forced to put themselves at risk to maintain an income. People living in multigenerational households don’t have the luxury of quarantining away from their grandparents. These, in turn, tend to be people with less access to quality healthcare.
Putting a production together during a pandemic isn’t easy.
Auditions were done through video submissions and rehearsals were entirely over Zoom. During the week, Balfour would work one-on-one with the actors, and on Fridays the entire cast would work through the show as a group.
“It was definitely an unusual rehearsal process,” she says. “Once we wrapped up rehearsals the actors were responsible for self-taping their material on their phones. Adjunct film instructor Steven Chin, (who was our video editor) joined us for a few rehearsals to help give guidance on framing, lighting and best practices for self-taping. Ultimately, however, the actors had to play set/costume/lighting designer AND camera operator.”
Maitre says the virtual rehearsal process went smoother than expected.
“It was nice to see people and create something together, even if it was over a screen,” she says. “This was a great experience but I really do miss the thrill of live theatre.
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For the director, the material hits close to home.
Balfour’s husband is an interventional radiologist for ForeFront Radiology and works at several of the hospitals in Fresno. He works with Covid-positive patients daily. Among other things, he has been doing a lot of work to help revascularize limbs for Covid patients who get blood clots and are at risk of amputation.
“When I first read this script, I realized that these were exactly the same stories that he was coming home and telling me every night: the lack of PPE, the overflowing ERs, whole floors of the hospitals being repurposed as COVID ICU’s, patients dying before you could notify their family. The show hit really close to home.”
It’s real, folks.
Balfour notes that there has been a lot of pushback in the Central Valley against lockdown restrictions and mask mandates.
“If you haven’t seen the overflowing hospitals or personally experienced the virus yourself or through a family member it is easy to dismiss the devastating effect it has had on our country over the past year,” she says. “We are all tired of staying home and it is easy to let down your guard, but the U.S. still has 2,000 people a day dying from this. I hope that watching this show and hearing these stories will reinvigorate people to stay vigilant not only for their own sake but for the sake of the healthcare workers who put themselves and their families at risk to keep patients alive. Wear your mask, get the vaccine as soon as you can and stay safe.”