In the current near-cessation of live theater due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sally Rose Zuckert ’19 believes that there is a chance for a reckoning: the invitation to reimagine the institution and question its history. Through her performance in the University of Chicago production of Diana Oh’s “My H8 Letter to the Gr8 American Theater,” Zuckert challenges theater as a cultural reflection and explores inequities that have always existed in the theater industry.
“This play is not about me or people like me—this play is not about people who have enjoyed privilege in the traditional sense [or] people who have long benefited from it,” said Zuckert in a phone interview with the Orient. “Oftentimes as actors, we’re so concerned with getting our bodies in shows on stage, we don’t stop to think about the systems that have historically privileged some bodies over others and made it impossible for many, many people to access the theater in the same way.”
“My H8 Letter to the Gr8 American Theater” premiered at the Public Theater in 2019. The play confronts the oppressive systems that govern the structure and the art of American theater as it exists today. The University made the production available for streaming from February 18 to 20.
“It’s a chaotic, wonderful amalgamation of everything we love about the theater and everything we don’t love about it,” said Zuckert. “In brutal honesty, it contends with what has made the American Theatre [truly] American—what does that really mean? And what has made it great—what does that mean?”
Zuckert graduated from Bowdoin with an interdisciplinary major in theater and English and a minor in gender, sexuality and women’s studies. She cites her involvement in theater as a pivotal part of the beginning of her Bowdoin experience.
“I was starstruck and in love. I kid you not—from day one, the theater was where I wanted to be. And it’s certainly where I made my home,” Zuckert said.
She also cites the Bowdoin theater department as having greatly influenced the trajectory of her postgraduate life—not only in her academic work but also in her daily interactions with the real world.
“[The theater department] professors, they’re always like, ‘ask questions, don’t just take information in—contend with it,’” said Zuckert. “That’s what I strive to do every day.”
The year after she graduated from Bowdoin, Zuckert worked consistently as an actor in Connecticut and New York. As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, however, she decided to continue her study of theater through the Master of Arts track in the University of Chicago Theater and Performance Studies program.
Zuckert auditioned for the production of ‘H8 Letter’ in the fall, when the play was still set to be performed in person. With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing after the winter holidays, however, the production team had to pivot to a nearly completely virtual format.
Zuckert appreciated the tenacity those involved with the production showed in continuing even in the face of extreme reimagining.
“I think it is such an unlikely gift to be reminded of what is possible when you try. COVID[-19] is intimidating and the stakes of COVID[-19] are intimidating, but there’s a bravery that comes with theater—it takes guts,” Zuckert said. “It feels like a grand experiment, I think.”
In the end, the performance consisted of about 85 percent pre-recorded material, Zuckert estimated. The remaining portion of it was filmed live and incorporated during the streaming. The University’s performance combined an assortment of media types—Zoom, TikTok, Memoji and others—to create a patchwork of narrative and commentary that interrogates the concept of the American theater.
She pointed to a line from the show to underscore this point.
“This play came out like vomit and it can be performed and staged like vomit,” reads a line from the show. “All art is organized vomit.”
This combination of seemingly disparate performance elements, however, seems to work with the complex and conflicting messages that the play holds in conversation, Zuckert noted.
“The idea of doing something like this with King Lear is more frightening; that strikes fear in my gut. But because [Oh]’s work is new—and it is purposefully dangerous—the ability to work with it virtually actually makes a lot of sense,” Zuckert said.
She explained that although the production is over, she’s still meditating on the meaning of the play.
“[‘H8 Letter’] is a call to mindfulness, first, and then it’s a call to action,” said Zuckert. “This is an uneasy piece of theater—if it were easy, that would be wrong.”
Zuckert highlighted another line of the play—one that insists that the audience should not question what the play is about because the audience knows what it is about. She explained the power of participating in an ensemble seeking to find and communicate this meaning.
“It was really nice to be a member of a cast that was actively seeking answers to questions—big questions; important, scary questions. The show made space for that in the world that we’re occupying,” said Zuckert. “It’s so hard to commune with people right now because it feels like we’re pulled apart more than ever, and I don’t just mean physically; I also mean ideologically. The play forces us to work against that.”