In March 2020, playwright Heather Chrisler was holding auditions for the world premiere of her first play: an adaptation of Little Women at First Folio Theatre, where she’s an artistic associate. Actor Heather Chrisler, meanwhile, was in tech for The Last Match at Writers Theatre. In both Oak Brook and Glencoe, she recalls, everyone had a gut sense of what was coming and nobody wanted it to be real.
“The day after Broadway shut down [March 12], the writing was on the wall, but we were still in rehearsal, pretending to be normal, behaving like there’d be an opening night,” Chrisler says. “We all knew though. We knew there was this tsunami coming for us. We knew there was no way we could safely continue.”
The tsunami arrived. After both Little Women and The Last Match were canceled due to COVID, Chrisler wouldn’t work for a year.
Now, she’s watching the waters wane. In March, Chrisler’s illustrated children’s podcast Don’t Stop for Monkeys went live with its first chapter in the tale of a mouse named Thimble and his quest to find his pet-mouse beloved. Starting this week, Writers will stream The Last Match, with all but one of the original cast members (Ryan Hallahan has taken over for Luigi Sottile). And on May 21, Theatre Cedar Rapids will stage Chrisler’s Little Women, al fresco.
All are a welcome departure from the toxic triumvirate of anger, depression, and guilt that Chrisler speaks of, with the caveat that “My grief wasn’t special. It happened to everyone.”
“A lot of my relatives were unfazed by the pandemic. Their industries continued. I became the person in the family whose life had been destroyed. So that was—it was hard,” she says.
“Over the summer, I didn’t want to engage with theater at all—and theater is my entire life,” Chrisler says. “I was asked to participate in some Zoom plays, but I couldn’t do it. And I couldn’t watch anyone’s streaming plays. It was just too painful—seeing this thing that was meant to be live and bright and in person—to see it on only a screen? I love to work on film, but I think it’s a totally different art form.
“A live audience creates this electric current. You feed from it. It’s a collective effort. Putting theater on film in some ways takes away that—the most important ingredient. The concept of filming theater was devastating to me. There were times I thought I didn’t want to be an artist anymore. I was just that brokenhearted—all of us were,” she says.
“There was this guilt too, because I knew—I know—so many people had things so much worse than I did. For 11 months I lived in pajamas. And then, this March, all of a sudden, things got busy.”
First among the “things” that got busy: Chrisler herself. Initially, she found solace in Thimble. The tale of the tiny bewhiskered hero is a study in grief and resilience, voiced by some of Chicago’s finest actors and accompanied by Chrisler’s own marvelously whimsical (but decidedly not twee) drawings. (One of those performers is Chrisler’s husband Mark Chrisler, a playwright and creator of the popular podcast The Constant.)
The love story of Chickpea and Thimble began backstage at Writers, after director Keira Fromm restarted The Last Match rehearsals in February. When the cast reunited, the atmosphere was a world away from where it left off some 11 months earlier.
“Our last rehearsal before canceling, we were in tech,” Chrisler says. “We were told the League [of Chicago Theatres] would be issuing some sort of official guidance soon, and it would likely mean the opening was off. The question we had as a cast was did we want to keep working until that announcement or did we want to go home right then.
“There was a split in the room—some were like, ‘If we can work another four hours, we need to keep working,’ some were, ‘No. We need to go get groceries and be with our families,'” Chrisler recalls.
The latter decision prevailed. Chrisler was in the grocery store parking lot when First Folio called. “I kept thinking all day that I didn’t want Little Women to close. But I understood that if it did close, there were way bigger things to worry about in society. People dying, public safety is always going to be more important than opening a show,” she says.
But understanding the grim context of the cancellations didn’t alleviate the sorrow or the anger. In March 2020, First Folio’s production of Little Women had been in development for two years. “It was an absolutely devastating day,” she says.
It was the first of many. Yet Chrisler had survived intense, incomprehensible loss before COVID-19. In 2002, Chrisler’s sister, 15, died by suicide.
“My work in general, it’s marked by loss,” she says. “I would give up all the joy of being an artist—I’d give it up in a second—to have my sister back. But her death in so many ways made me the artist I am. It was a cornerstone in my life.
“I started taking theater classes because I really just needed to be someone else. If I could take a character and share their circumstances, then what was happening to me would go away. At least for a little while,” she says.
When The Last Match rehearsals resumed in February, social distancing meant Chrisler had a cavernous dressing room to herself. That’s where Thimble and Chickpea began.
“I drew Thimble and wrote this little story as something to help me through my sadness,” she says. “A lot of the animals in it talk about wanting to escape their cages. They have this feeling of being taken from the world they’re supposed to be living in. It’s a sweet, calm, gentle story but I can’t divorce it from the way I felt in the early days of the pandemic.”
For Chrisler, the later days of the pandemic brought mixed emotions.
“For our first two weeks back at Last Match, it snowed and snowed and snowed. You looked outside and it was pure white out. Being at Writers—all those floor-to-ceiling windows—it was like living in this little glass oasis in the middle of a storm.
“There was a profound sense of isolation inside too. We were together, but we couldn’t hug each other. We wore masks. But it was also incredibly joyful because we were all so grateful to be in the room again,” Chrisler says.
“I think we’ve all gone through collective trauma at this point,” she adds. “But we’ve also had healing and growth—and those are all themes that run through The Last Match and Little Women and the podcast.”
For director Fromm, returning to rehearsal meant that Anna Ziegler‘s drama about tennis professionals took on additional meaning. Chrisler plays Galina in the production, girlfriend to an up-and-coming player stirring things up on the pro circuit.
“For a long time, I’ve thought of The Last Match primarily as a sports drama about the nature of ambition, and the lengths we go to feel relevant,” Fromm says. “Ever since the pandemic hit and theaters have been shut down, I’ve been especially focused on the theme of reckoning within the play, and how we address major shifts in our lives.
“Do we let them derail and destroy us, or do we use them as growth opportunities? At the heart of The Last Match is a reminder that we’re only alive for precious little time and must be thoughtful in how we spend that time.”
After The Last Match wraps, Chrisler will turn back to Little Women.
“I write out of a place of, I guess, expressing my own pain and trauma. But in a nice way. With mice. And Louisa May Alcott is my hero. I, like Jo in Little Women, am someone who really wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t even understand what that meant until my sister died.
“Ironically, I’m now finding that The Last Match has a lot of the same themes that Little Women does. It’s about realizing what life is, what you give up for ambition, and what you gain by reaching for your ambition.” v