By KATE ALBRIGHT
For Montclair playwright and actor Nadine Bernard, plays are meant to entertain, to raise awareness and to heal.
Her new web drama, “Cells of Quarantine” — a collection of 10-minute-long episodes — was released on Jan. 31 on YouTube and Vimeo. The series, directed by Betsy True, follows two sisters, Rosalyn and Sarah, and their beekeeping sister-in-law, Eleanor, as they meet weekly for drinks on Zoom during a pandemic (the series never describes it as the coronavirus pandemic, but the inspiration and parallels are clear).
Rosalyn, played by Bernard, is a biomedical researcher living in Westchester, New York. Her sister, Sarah, lives in Palo Alto, Calif., and is played by Liz Samuel of Montclair, star and creator of the award-winning web series “Momtress.” Wendy Baron of Bloomfield, who recently starred in the Saint James Players production of “Julius Caesar” as Brutus, plays Eleanor.
The sisters, Rosalyn and Sarah, have not been close over the years. After Rosalyn’s son has an online bar mitzvah about six weeks into the pandemic, they decide to reconnect and meet weekly on Zoom, inviting their sister-in-law Eleanor. Coincidentally, Samuel was in the middle of planning her own son’s online bar mitzvah during the filming.
Over the course of the series, the plot takes twists and turns. Secrets are revealed. Matters of vulnerability, parenting a special needs child and caring for aging parents are touched upon.
Zoom Seder inspires
Bernard knew early in the pandemic that she wanted to create a piece to reflect the difficulties of these times, and to offer glimmers of hope. It was during a family Seder held on Zoom in April 2020 that Bernard’s vision took more shape, and she decided the action would take place entirely on Zoom. The play addresses how this new form of communication affects family bonds and how people navigate relationships while being physically apart.
The writing came quickly. Bernard wrote the first three episodes over the course of a month. After contacting director True with the script in May and receiving positive feedback, she took another three months to complete the remaining five episodes. Bernard, accustomed to many revisions, said that the experience of writing “Cells of Quarantine” was different.
“Sometimes when you write about something that you’re experiencing right in the moment, and especially when it’s something a little bit difficult, it kind of just spills out of you easier,” she said.
Drawing on her life
Bernard took bits and pieces from her own experiences while creating the characters. Her father is a physical chemistry professor at Cornell. When she learned that his lab worked on the molecular structure of coronaviruses and had done research on SARS, she used the info to help write Rosalyn’s character.
Bernard has always loved acting. Growing up in Ithaca, N.Y., she acted in plays and at camps, but it was during her time as an acting student at Sarah Lawrence, when her first son was 2 years old, that she started writing plays. The multidisciplinary program not only developed her acting skills but also taught her to direct and write.
In 2005, she wrote “In the Shadow of my Son” as her senior project, a play that aimed to raise awareness about postpartum depression. Having experienced some postpartum depression herself, she wished to help reduce the stigma around it.
At the time, she could find only three books written about postpartum depression. The production received funding and was performed in hospitals throughout North Jersey. Smith and Kraus published a monologue from it in “The Best Women’s Stage Monologues of 2008.”
This was the first time any of the participants worked entirely over Zoom, and it took some adjustment. They learned quickly to replace inadequate cameras, microphones and lighting. Poor internet connections sometimes cut their sessions short. A few of the glitches were left in to give the series a realistic feel.
True directed and recorded from her computer. She helped the actors settle into a natural rhythm of working through screens, directing them where to look.
She suggested turning off the self-view feature — helping the actors to focus on a more natural portrayal by preventing them from seeing their own performances in real time.
Healing and hope
“I think I’ve always had a healer in me that comes out in my writing,” Bernard said.
She hopes that the series will lift viewers up during a time of social distancing, remind them of the importance of being there for each other, and offer a chance to laugh at their own situations.
“My hope right now is just a lot of people get to see it,” Bernard said.
With a lot of families in close quarters — managing kids, jobs and marriages through the pandemic — the series could be very relatable, she said.
“Hopefully they will watch it and recognize that they haven’t been alone,” Bernard said.
She also hopes that her “Cells of Quarantine” colleagues will soon meet in person. Although Bernard has known True, Samuel and Baron each individually, none of the others has met outside of their screens. They look forward to getting together for drinks when it’s safe again.