CUNY’S Grad Center Continues with Virtual “Segal Talks”

The Segal Center Director Frank Hentschker and Swiss theatre director Milo Rau discussing life in “Time of Corona.”/ Gabriela Flores

 Globally, coronavirus has forced many theatres to close its doors in observance of self-isolation. Nonetheless, Martin E. Segal Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center has remained virtually open with its web series SEGAL TALKS. In these near-daily live streams, the theatre’s Executive Director Frank Hentschker invites local and international artists to share anecdotes of their life in the “Time of Corona.” Through their reflections, guests share their hopes and worries about the approaching new “Weltzustand,” or State of the World. 

     “If art ever has meaning, it is now in the most significant time of a crisis. And if it doesn’t have meaning now, when will it ever have,” said Hentschker. 

     Since 2001, Hentschker has played key roles in bridging CUNY’s academia with international and American theatre. Through his founding of events and organizations like CUNY-Performing Arts Consortium, Hentschker transformed the Segal Center into the nation’s leading public forum for theatre studies. Overtime, Hentschker’s performing center built a vast network of playwrights, theatre creators, and academics from around the world. Shortly after CUNY’s closing, Hentschker felt it was necessary to reach out to these artists as an act of “global solidarity” during a time where politics and logistics overshadow their voices.

     “We should care about our fellow artists who represent their countries and tell us the truth because they are not working for someone who tells them to do something or for their own ego,” said Hentschker. “No, they really do have a larger vision of humankind and have been that way for hundreds of years. Now is the moment where we need to hear from them. Most of the time, if not always, they are right.”

     This past Friday, April  CUNY Graduate Center alum and renowned Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón shared the continuation of pre-existing problems in Chile with Hentschker. Currently, Calderón lives in the capital Santiago, where protests against neoliberalism were violently suppressed by the Chilean military shortly before the pandemic. To Calderón and other Chileans, their government’s response resembled the terrorizing military junta of former president Augusto Pinochet.  

      “This was really a nightmare come true. The police began behaving in sort of a criminal way, shooting the protestors and killing dozens, also taking eyes out of people’s faces,” said Calderón during the live stream. 

     As of February, the Chilean military has reportedly detained 28,000 protestors, injured the eyes of 445 people, and caused 36 deaths. 

     In the wake of coronavirus, all theatres in Chile have closed. As Calderón reveals, this change has not severely impacted Chilean artists. Often, stage professionals could not make theatre their full-time vocation as wages were incredibly low. With a lack of government funding and inexpensive ticket costs, many artists “worked under the poverty line.”

     Similarly, in India’s Kathputli colony, approximately 1,800 families of puppeteers, musicians, magicians, and other marginalized creatives have struggled financially. As reported by Delhi-born puppeteer Anurupa Roy, about 800 of these families are currently facing food shortages amidst the country’s COVID-19 lockdown. Nationally, over 600,000 people walked across the capital Delhi in the hopes of returning to their villages and to avoid starvation. In response, New Delhi residents created numerous kitchens to help feed migrants during their travels. However, once borders were closed off many migrants were forced to turn back. 

     “On one level, we are saying that anyone who is stepping out is potentially risking themself and society. On the other hand, if you don’t step out, there is a clearness just present—people are going to starve before they die of the virus. It’s really that simple,” said Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar during a live stream. 

      Through these times of uncertainty, many interviewed artists have taken self-isolation as an opportunity to slow down and think. For German-based Swiss theatre director Milo Rau, his change in routine and the loss of theatre’s presence has led him to re-explore “tragic knowledge.” Through his rereadings of plays like Oedipus Rex, a story of a Thebian king who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, Rau has been able to better understand our real-time tragedy: COVID-19. 

     “I think you can live with the biggest disruptions and not see it in human history and just avoid seeing it— this is extremely dangerous,” said Rau over a live stream. “We should really use our knowledge. If it’s journalistic knowledge, scientific knowledge, or knowledge as an artist— it’s a call we should take to hear. We shouldn’t avoid it.”

      In many ways, coronavirus has stripped away the structure and stability of our day-to-day lives. Nonetheless, as The Segal Center and Director Hentschker have demonstrated through their global web platform, it is important that we all remain connected to all that the coronavirus pandemic entails.

     “The mission for mankind I would say is to experience life. No one says it’s only good, experiences can also be deeply disturbing ones but, you are connected in a moment of crisis,” said Hentschker. “You are deeply experiencing moments of presence and you can engage with it in a deeper way, though you may not have made sense of it yet, you might be closer to a truth which is not understandable, which is not known.”