To play the watchman: An interview with Shotgun Players’ Patrick Dooley, Leigh Rondon-Davis

Shotgun Players/Courtesy

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Patrick Dooley has been experiencing the days in waves: sometimes they come in the form of acceptance, sometimes panic. To say the least, the founding artistic director of Shotgun Players, a Berkeley-based theater company, has had a lot on his plate. This time has been similarly stressful for Leigh Rondon-Davis, Shotgun Players’ Make a Difference program coordinator, Champagne Staged Reading Series co-coordinator and company member. In a Zoom interview with The Daily Californian, Dooley and Rondon-Davis discussed how their programming, company members and theater-making have all pivoted in the wake of COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus. 

In the midst of the pandemic, Dooley and his organization have been looking back at historical periods of theater and illness. Dooley described how, legend has it, William Shakespeare wrote many of his sonnets back when the Elizabethan theaters were shuttered because of the plague. Looking back even further, Dooley described how a longtime artistic collaborator even helped him revist a conversation about the ancient Greeks. These templates from the past have been guiding Shotgun Players as it moves through a deeply uncertain time. 

“She reminded me that when people were really ill, the Greeks would prescribe different plays for them to watch because of the cathartic, healing power of a comedy, or the need to process deep emotions through a tragedy,” Dooley said. 

Under the umbrella of “Art in the Time of Coronavirus,” Shotgun Players has been opening its archives and releasing never-before-seen footage of past productions. In terms of new content, Shotgun Players has also organized a two-minute theater festival, a podcast series and, perhaps most timely of all, a social media project centered around Shakespeare’s sonnets. 

The idea is a simple one: Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Since many actors are out of work, Shotgun Players has been paying a small stipend for performers to memorize and record a sonnet of their choosing. Each day a new sonnet is released on Shotgun Players’ social media platforms with the hope that the pandemic will end before the players run out of sonnets to perform. 

Rondon-Davis worked with their partner, Kenny Scott, to capture an intimate recitation of “Sonnet 61” on the balcony of their Oakland home. In the video, Rondon-Davis appears outside in pink panda pajamas, watering a bed of succulents. They worked on the project over the course of two days, and described how releasing the piece on social media allowed it to be shared with a wider audience, including extended family in Trinidad that would not have been able to see the work otherwise. 

While the sonnet itself is about sleepless love, it strikes a poignant note with the interpersonal struggles arising because of COVID-19. “Sonnet 61” ends with three lines that feel eerily applicable to the world of social distancing, where so much human connection is felt and witnessed from afar. 

“To play the watchman ever for thy sake:/ For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,/ From me far off, with others all too near,” the sonnet reads. These lines speak to commitment in the face of absence, something that holds true for many as they shelter in place. It is particularly true for Dooley and his staff. 

One of the biggest challenges facing Shotgun Players is how to continue supporting a diverse, resourceful theater community when its livelihood depends on ticket sales. Dooley and his wife, who is the director of Berkeley Playhouse, are concerned that organizations will begin to lose talent — not just performers, but also lighting technicians, set designers, people in management and budgeting — to other industries as the need for steady work intensifies. 

“At the end of the day, these people have families and mortgages and rent to pay,” Dooley said. “It’s not personal if they leave; they need to sustain their families.” 

In spite of this mounting anxiety, Dooley demonstrated a care for and insight into the bigger picture of COVID-19 that extends beyond the immediate scope of fundraising for the arts. 

“The arts are a critical component to a society,” Dooley said, “but if you’re a homeless person, now it’s even harder and scarier than it was before. Folks are rightfully demanding a lot of the resources that might have been available for the arts. So, it’s a delicate balance. You don’t want to be grabbing money that really needs to be calories to sustain people’s health.” 

This sense of community responsibility is echoed in the organization itself — there is a humility and a generosity that is unique to Shotgun Players. 

“(Shotgun Players) puts the artists and the collaborators at the heart of everything,” Rondon-Davis said, drawing from their experience as a company member. “Prior to quarantine, we saw every year (that) we got paid a little more, and now we’re being paid minimum wage … the organization has taken steps to support artists, especially in the Bay Area where it’s so expensive to live. And now, even in crisis and quarantine, I still see this coming from Shotgun, which makes me so proud to be a part of the experience.” 

Shotgun Players is more than just a theater company: It is a true Berkeley community. In the wake of such uncertainty, one can almost imagine Dooley looking after the company like the watchman in “Sonnet 61,” ever vigilant. 

“I will always come back to this organization because it’s like family,” Dooley said. “It’s woven into my physical body.”

This article is part of a series in which local artists and art organizations discuss how closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak are impacting them.
Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].