Early Days – Stories of the Pandemic, a 15-minute digital play produced by Metro Theater Company, illustrates a birthday celebration over a Zoom call with familiar situations woven into the scene on screen: stating “you’re still on mute,” pausing a conversation while someone tends to a crying child, discussing the dread of a virtual funeral and relaying new plans for a backyard wedding.
Since March, Metro Theater Company’s COVID-19 Memory Project and the Missouri Historical Society’s St. Louis “Stories of the Pandemic” digital archive, now in collaboration, have encouraged area residents to contribute relevant stories, photos and other mementos to their respective initiatives.
“As soon as the pandemic reached St. Louis, the Missouri Historical Society knew that we had to play a big part in documenting and preserving a record of what happened,” says Amy Miller, the society’s teen and theater programs manager.
Materials collected by the theater company and historical society between mid-March and April 10 – more than 200 stories – served as inspiration for Early Days, written by playwright John Wolbers and directed by MTC artistic director Julia Flood.
“From the beginning, collecting stories of the pandemic has had multiple goals,” Flood reflects in a written statement. “We are storytellers living in extraordinary times, so collecting the real-life memories of all who are living through these times with us was of paramount importance so these moments would not be lost.
“We also wanted to give our audiences, particularly young people and those who are caring for them, a way to process and reflect on the experience as it is happening … From the beginning, we realized that we were living through a historical moment that would require us to get to the other side of it before we could really understand it.”
Local historians know well that original handwritten letters, business ledgers, diaries and other types of documentation help researchers understand the past. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many have reflected on the area’s response to the 1918 “Spanish influenza” epidemic and 1849 cholera epidemic – how experts worked tirelessly to find a solution and how quarantine efforts mitigated the effects.
In an online blog, Missouri Historical Society archivist Molly Kodner describes her role in collecting materials for the archives and how she decides what to accept: “I usually think about how well the documents provide information about a historic event or the everyday lives of ordinary people. Occasionally, I think about what to collect about the present or a more recent event for researchers in the future.”
The Missouri Historical Society encourages people to journal about their day-to-day lives during the pandemic, and those diaries could become primary sources that future historians use to study this time period.
“In my opinion, the best resources for future historians will be the diaries and journals that people of all ages in the St. Louis metropolitan area keep now as they are living through this present crisis,” Kodner says in her blog. “Some of you may already be posting information about your daily life on social media or blogs, but I’m encouraging people to sit down with an old-school notebook and a pen and write down your experiences by hand. The physical act of writing can be therapeutic and relaxing in these turbulent times.”
Last fall, teens participating in the Missouri Historical Society’s Teens Make History program researched and wrote scripts inspired by the events of 2020. Teaching artists from Metro Theater Company provided feedback on scripts, and co-directed and produced all three plays ahead of the virtual performances.
Flood describes the stories that the Metro Theater Company and Missouri Historical Society have collected as “powerful and moving” and expects some might be portrayed on stage when regular in-person performances resume.
The Missouri Historical Society plans to share stories from its digital archive on its website and on social media, and in the future, those submissions might become part of permanent collections, according to the society’s website. Those interested in sharing their own pandemic stories can learn more and submit materials at mohistory.org/stories-of-the-pandemic.