As Told To
Stories about the way the world works, in the words of people living in it.
Jemma Kahn is a 37-year-old writer, director, and theater performer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She spoke with The Outline as part of “As Told To,” our ongoing series about how the coronavirus is reordering peoples’ lives. This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
The most recent play Kahn was working on before the pandemic is titled Cellist with Rabies, whose virus-related subject matter Kahn described as unfortunately “apt.” You can find more of Kahn’s work and performances at her website.
From January to February, I was in Australia with a co-star doing these small shows. The coronavirus — we heard about it so much that we were giggling about it when we were tested with the heat sensors at the airport. But thank God I wasn’t stuck in fucking Australia. You know, we did only miss those travel bans by a couple weeks. But it became real very, very fast.
It was clear as day [when the pandemic hit Australia]. I think it was around March 17, we were all at this theater festival in Stellenbosch, which is a kind of wealthy wine country outside of Cape Town. Everyone I know was presenting shows at the festival, and we started hearing about all these other festivals dropping. The one in April dropped, the one in June dropped and then the one in July dropped, and we were all together when we heard about that. And then the awards ceremony of the festival in Stellenbosch that night was canceled, because they thought it would kind of be improper to have a celebratory night at the end of a festival when everyone else was grinding to a halt.
The COVID threat and the action in South Africa seemed to happen simultaneously. After that Sunday at the festival, I think it was the following Thursday that our president made the first announcement of the measures he’d put in place and a couple days later was announcement of the lockdown, which started at midnight last night.
[The pandemic] has put a hold on everything. For me and everyone know, everyone's work has evaporated. Rosa [Lyster] told you about the production of Hamlet [I am in] that might happen in June, and I’m still ignorantly believing that it will, but I don’t think it really will.
I was curating a small 40-person theater for the first half of this year, and between the Sunday announcement from our president and the one the following week, we had thought the small theater would stay open because it was so small that it didn’t count as a large gathering of people. There was one day where we kind of naively thought we could pick up slack from other places, but then that just seemed incredibly irresponsible.
The world that I live in is kind of this bubble that lives off American and European news and culture, and white middle-class South Africa was shitting themselves before the rest of the country. We have the privilege of some disposable income, so that we can hunker down and be compliant and what have you. I can only assume that beyond that, it’s a nation of people living hand to mouth and who were quite skeptical at first, because even though [COVID-19] will hit them the hardest, it was imported by German tourists, you know what I mean? It was initially a disease that you got in South Africa if you were drinking on a wine farm with Europeans.
We, and by we I mean this tiny little bubble that I live in, we kind of thought of it as…. I think now, because we dont know how many people are COVID-positive but the draconian measures have come in earlier, people are thinking, “fuck, I hope it doesn’t get into poorer communities and townships with tuberculosis and AIDS. Then we are fucked.” It’s probably too late, but if we can keep it among the wealthy and middle classes then maybe we can survive this thing.
My boyfriend [who is an actor] and I are having such a nice time. We are used to having uncertainty in our jobs, so we’re financially okay for the next two months. We know a bit what it feels like, and a lot of people around me are panicking and freaking out. If one more person tells me to start a web channel, I’m going to fuckin’ kill them. There’s been this explosion of mediocre rubbish coming out online, like everyone playing the ukulele on Instagram.
Maybe when we come out of this people will realize that they don’t want theater anymore.
It seems like there's this competitive thing, where people think “oh, we’re all creative, and we need to show how we are going to use this time to create great work.” And it’s like no! Use this time to read a book and garden and relax. It also seems like a way for people to get us to do what we do for free, and I’m not going to do that. Which might be cutting off my nose to spite my face.
I’ve been thinking that if things get serious, that I might do something else, if I can. Like, I don’t know, drive a delivery truck or something. It would break my heart to put any kind of theatrical experience online because that’s not what it’s made for. It’s not like being in the hall, and you know that [the Metropolitan Opera stream], they have the budget to do it properly. If i put my little play on the internet, it’s going to really ruin it. Having the infrastructure to do it properly is the only way to rescue it from being awful, and it’s still not a great option in my opinion. It’s depressing [laughs]. I joke and I tell people, maybe when we come out of this people will realize that they don’t want theater anymore. That they’re quite relieved that it’s now dead forever.