It was a mad scramble. In an email, two weeks out from Sept. 9, Professor Walsh, Chair of Classics at Loyola, wrote that campus conditions were “vexing.” He warned we might have to go with Zoom again due to sudden Delta variant rules. I already had my Southwest Airlines ticket. As always, I’d stay with my sister Lindsay outside Baltimore, drive to town the night of the show, perform the tale, and then go out to dinner with the profs.
For fifteen years I’d done this in September. I’d pack my 12-string and tell either The Odyssey or the Iliad: Book I for two hundred Classics and Honors students in a big performance space. 70-minute storytellings. Either psychodrama or high adventure.
But now there was an indoor mask mandate on campus, even if vaccinated. How could I perform with a mask on? That was patently impossible and so I wrote Professor Joe Walsh back with the suggestion that for the second year in a row, against our frustrated wishes, we could always Zoom from my studio in New Hampshire. I work with a brilliant digital engineer named Gavin Bodkin, who has helped his dad move online since the pandemic began. Yes, Gav was available to produce. Joe Walsh agreed. My Zoom studio on the third floor had sat unused during a summer of live shows.
The mad scramble began.
I tightened the twelve fresh strings on my Taylor from the floppy looseness I’d planned on for safe flying. I strung it up to the open tuning I use for The Odyssey. Gavin produced the Zoom invitation to be sent to the students from faculty. Five nice people from Loyola suddenly became involved and we exchanged a blizzard of emails. I provided an Odyssey logo.
And then I heard Martha was back from sabbatical and that she’d be the one to introduce me. Professor Martha Taylor is, I guess, now that she’s back, the Chair of Classics once again. It was she who, fifteen years ago, established the annual tradition of inviting me to perform to kick off each fall semester. It might be over Zoom, but it would be great to see her again after her two sabbatical years.
I started rehearsing the Odyssey musical score and on a drive to my son Jon’s house to return a pair of sandals I’d inadvertently swiped at a party there, I ran the movie of the story in my mind. Troy. The beach at Ismaros. The Lotus Eaters. The Cyclops. After a half hour out, and a half hour back, the story was rehearsed and ready.
Bless his heart, Gavin arrived at 4:30 for the 7 pm show, rested for an hour, and then we climbed the two flights of stairs to the studio. A jet black backdrop, a wooden chair, a quiet little fan, tried and true lighting, and the camera mounted in place two feet away from me. Last spring I conducted performances and full day residencies for elementary kids from that chair. I doubted I’d ever be back. The pandemic was over, right? Wrong, as we all now know.
By 6:35 Gavin was in his headphones watching the computer, seeing who was in the waiting room. Joe showed up on my screen and we talked until Martha, too, appeared. We chatted, lamented our lost profs’ dinner, and got ready for the show. More and more students were signing on.
Telling my version of The Odyssey is like entering a dream. The music is constant, and lofts the words and sounds along. Once it begins inside the Trojan Horse, it doesn’t end until the Cyclops is blinded, and Odysseus escapes with what’s left of his crew. During such shows, I lose all sense of time and awareness of my body. All that I’m aware of is my fingers running the frets of the guitar, and how the music is blending with the imagery. The characters all know what to say. Sometimes they surprise me, and say things I’ve never heard before.
This version ended up seventy-five minutes. Then came the questions. Suddenly, faces appeared in group mode on Zoom. Here were all these young people who’d just watched the show with me on full screen, only I could see them now. Groups of five or six on a couch, with masks on. Some alone in their dorm rooms. Hands went up. The questions? How did I memorize all that? Is the music all planned out? We went on for another fifteen minutes. They were enthusiastic and very nice.
I’m old. They’re young. Still, it worked.
Of course, the story is imagined, not memorized, and the music, like jazz, is spontaneous, moment to moment.
Even Martha loved it. She sent me a post-show email inviting me back for year sixteen.
So it looks as if until this plague really does end, I’m Zooming again.