An Endless Shift, a documentary theater production about nurses during the pandemic, is a powerful experience. The show is a collage of verbatim interviews conveyed by one performer—Gloria Alcalá—to introduce an often overlooked perspective on the impact of the pandemic. That nuance, combined with the coziness of ArtsWest’s theater, makes for an even more personal experience.
Even before the play starts, the theater space is impressive. The two-tiered stage is close to the seating area, the proximity creating familiarity between the audience and the production. There is blue ambient lighting, and fog lingering in the air. Props are minimal: five chairs are set up at slightly different angles spanning the stage, and a handful of banners accompany them.
The show starts with Alcalá coming center stage to introduce themselves and the theater. “Who has been to ArtsWest before?” they ask, and nearly half the audience raised their hand the night I saw the show. In addition, when they asked the returning audience to share how they would describe the work ArtsWest did, one word stood out: “provocative.”
When I asked Alcalá what drew them to ArtsWest in an interview, they responded similarly: “I have always been interested in the kind of work that they do: community-minded, imaginative, very bold. It is not always my instinct, but in order to make a dent in a world where there is just so much information flying around, it is really important to be those things.”
The play centers around five voices: four Nurses and one Respiratory Therapist. The script was entirely formed from individual interviews, with questions “designed to spark conversation” that broke down the overarching theme, “How did the pandemic change you?”.
When asked why the accounts were kept verbatim, Alcalá responded, “I really think there is a power to knowing that words are real. There is something [particularly] effective about just knowing those words were spoken by real people and that it happened to a human being, you know. There is a human being behind everything that’s being spoken.”
Alcalá almost seamlessly transitions between performing each person, each of the five chairs onstage representing a different interviewee. They assumed distinct mannerisms and dialects per person and truly acquainted the audience with these people despite their voices coming from the same face. Using their whole body, Alcalá showed their individual personalities. Some interviewees were funnier than others, but that was simply due to each person naturally having different senses of humor.
An Endless Shift starts with the professionals describing themselves and their journeys into the medical field. One way or another, they all have the same goal to help or uplift others; whether it be through bringing voice to the vastly racially underrepresented field or as an escape from the world around them, all the nurses wanted to show compassion.
Alcalá echoed this sentiment when asked what takeaways they wanted the audience to have, saying, “I hope people come away with a better appreciation and a little bit of a call to action to be better supporters of our healthcare workers, and I also hope that people learn from them the kind of compassion we are all capable of if we choose it.”
An Endless Shift has a very dark but very grounded tone. The medical professionals dealt with not only external conflicts but internal ones as well. Patients often blamed nurses for their worsening sickness whilst denying the existence of COVID-19, fighting the people who just wanted to help them. Support wasn’t given by unions nor the hospital structure. Instead of eating lunch, a nurse described, she’d stay on shift because it felt inhuman to eat when someone was dying. That’s what made the patients who fought back all the worse, especially while people suffered without even the chance to get a hospital bed.
Alcalá repeated this idea when discussing the importance of the production concerning the pandemic. “It was really easy for me to be in my own world and there were so many people who were going through much more. For a lot of people, they consumed media that wasn’t necessarily accurate to the events transpiring in hospitals. Ideally, it’s helpful for folks to hear a very direct perspective without the concern of media bias.”
The audience was incredibly receptive, nodding in acknowledgment and reacting to the events of the show. Feeling strapped into my seat, I was immersed in the story and narrative around me, which just goes to show how engaging of a performer Alcalá was, as well as the strength of the interviews conducted and structured by Alcalá and the devising team. Overall, An Endless Shift is a raw, honest performance that instills greater care for medical professionals in audiences. It left me wondering, “How did the pandemic change us?”.
An Endless Shift took place at ArtsWest on January 26 - February 19, 2023. For more information see here.