A bald middle-aged man sits in a merogold aphostlered chair wearing a tee shirt and thin glasses, holding a potted plant and green glassware.

“As a theatre teacher and artist, I produce six shows in a typical year: three at Sayre School (where I teach theatre to grades 7-12) and three with AthensWest Theatre Company. The pandemic struck one of these productions on Friday the 13th (of March) with Sayre Upper School’s The Addams Family Musical of all things. We were set to open that night, but it was not to be. All school events were shuttered. The following Monday was to be the first rehearsal for AthensWest’s production of Maple and Vine, but that too would be halted—before it even began.

I don’t have much in the way of ‘free time.’ I hop from show to show, project to project, catching sleep and food and ‘life’ when I can. There are some weeks when I don’t have time to pick up dry cleaning or unload the dishwasher or return an email. That’s just my reality. Or was, rather. Suddenly that strange fuel (inertia? momentum? habit?) that propelled me was gone and the undertakings that defined my month, my semester, my year, me, had vanished. And my comforts—those things I would do when I did get time to enjoy myself—like seeing a play or hanging out in a coffee shop or going to a movie or the gym…well, those were gone too.

Some people are defined by who they are, and others by what they do. I had always fancied myself the former, but seemed to realize, in this moment of global desperation, that I was the latter. Which begs the question, of course, when I can no longer do what I do: who the hell am I?

I fancied myself as someone who would use lots and lots and lots of extra time to be super-productive. Surely I would write a play. Or three. Or really fix my adorable apartment up to look as awesome as I know it can with a little effort. Or clean my closets out. Or alphabetize my books. Or anything. I didn’t do much of anything, though. I spent a lot of time with my television. At first I thought it would be fun to watch disaster movies—being in the middle of one and all. So I set out to do that, with one every day. After three weeks I tired of living and watching disasters, with lots of bad dreams to boot. Pro-tip: you can probably watch the pandemic movie Outbreak and not get spooked by real life parallels (it’s too silly for that), but if you watch the more realistic Contagion, you might not sleep well. So, in the spirit of 2020 and its most useful new word, I pivoted. I watched all 271 episodes of Cheers in 7 weeks. Sometimes six or eight episodes a day. I watched until I was numb to the comedy, but oh-so-grateful to spend time in a place where everybody knew my name. Before, I could go anywhere—Kroger, the coffee shop (any coffee shop), the hardware store, Rite Aid—and somebody would know my name. And now, in the comfort (or confinement) of my home, I was still confronted by the question: who the hell am I?

One morning, I went to take a shower and noticed a large, black ant in my bathtub. I don’t like the small ants, which seem to move about mindlessly, but the larger ones seem more thoughtful somehow. More interesting. I got a plastic cup from the kitchen, caught the ant, and let it go outside. The next day: two ants. I caught and released them, one at a time. The next day: another ant. Was it one of the ants from before? A new one? I didn’t know and lack the entomological savvy to tell them apart. But what I did know was that I had a new routine, a new ‘something I do.’ I catch and release ants. Sometimes they were docile and just walked right into the cup I caught them with, and some required chasing. I never knowingly hurt an ant, and this is a point of pride. I was careful. Always. This happened every day, just about. Sometimes once, sometimes twice. Once there were three ants, but usually there was just one or two. One day there were no ants, and I worried. Are they okay? Was it something I said? But the next day, there was an ant in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. Whew!  Crisis averted.

You know, I could just call pest control or get a spray, and that would take care of the ant issue. But in the great vacuum of inactivity, in the void of purpose, and in the silence and quiet of being single and living alone during the isolation of a pandemic, it meant something to me to care for these ants. I didn’t want them in the house, but I didn’t want them to die either. And the focus and gentleness required to catch them and move them outside without hurting them allowed me to move outside of my own aloneness, even for just a moment here and a moment there. These relocations were not theatrical productions, but they were the biggest shows I could produce given the resources, even though I was the only audience member (unless there were two ants, which was—of course—very exciting).

Life is a little more back to normal. School is back in session, and Sayre is teaching in-person—so I go in to school and see students every day, though with lots of adjustments. AthensWest is figuring out how to (ahem) pivot and create theatre virtually, while looking hopefully to a future of live, in-the-theatre productions again. I go to the gym, but only to swim (foregoing equipment that others touch and spaces where others breathe). I haven’t seen any ants in a few days. I’m guessing it’s the cold weather. But is it maybe something I said? I should probably stop worrying about that. I hope they’re okay.”

Audio Transcript

The America I want believes that it’s best days are ahead and not behind. It believe that everyone is equal even if they don’t come from equal circumstances. It believes in education, in science, in cooperation, and in kindness. Its doors are open to those in need of sanctuary.

The America I want is filled with opportunity, guaranteeing a great education for every student and clearing the path to prosperity for everyone who will work hard.

In this America those who fall victim to illness or poverty or addiction are afforded care and dignity.

In this America those who make and enforce our laws know that there can never be peace without justice or order without equality.

The America I want is humble, even as it leads. It values traditions but only those that bring us together and lift us up. It never forgets its history and never abandons its integrity and ideals.

I want an America that is better than great. I want an America that is good.

Lexington in the Time of COVID-19 is an artwork about people practicing social distancing at a time of a deadly virus. And also offering kindness.

Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova capture photographs at the periphery of American culture, where drag queens, discarded couches, and abandoned motel signs exist.