As of this writing, the days of shelter-in-place may be starting to wane, with lots of work-from-home folks getting briefed about a return to their workplaces and restaurants beginning to open in a (one hopes) cautious, responsible way. For theatre companies, however, a return to “business as usual” is still a long way off. Some wonder, in fact, if a return to the former (I dislike the word traditional) interactions of theatre and audience may be forever altered.
In the meantime, theatre companies and theatre artists cope, or try to. They brainstorm alternative programming and explore the creative possibilities of Zoom. They adapt. They hope. And they wonder what’s next.
As trying a time as this is for established artists and companies, it is especially discombobulating for students, who are either adjusting to a new manner of instruction or graduating to find a different landscape than they had envisioned for themselves.
But, if the subject of today’s interview is any indication, I think there’s hope yet for theatre to evolve and come back strong.
The first time I actually met Tafadzwa Diener, in rehearsal for the Station Theatre’s production of The Christians, I was already a fan. I had seen her in multiple local plays and musicals, including Parkland College Theatre’s productions of Noises Off and Anything Goes, and I was impressed not just with her incredible voice but with her comic timing and strong stage presence. What I didn’t realize, until this interview, was how new to acting she was in those performances.
In the short amount of time since she began acting, she has built up an impressive list of credits, including a terrific performance in Illinois Theatre’s production of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves. (For more information about her credits, at UIUC and elsewhere, check out her website.)
I was happy to chat with Diener, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois, about how she got into theatre, how the recent quarantine measures have impacted her studies, and what’s next.
Smile Politely: What was your first exposure to seeing live theatre? What was your response to it?
Tafadzwa Diener: I’m sure I had seen a full-fledged production before, but the first one I vividly remember was probably the one I saw on Broadway. My dad, my aunt, and I took an impromptu trip from my grandma’s house in Maryland to the Big Apple! This is actually one of my favorite stories because it’s really what gave me the courage to start performing. AlI I wanted to do was go to Times Square and see a Broadway play, and instead they made me walk all around the city, mainly Harlem. We eventually stopped at the Apollo Theater and got there right as a tour was beginning—one being led by Billy “Mr.Apollo” Mitchell. They were kind enough to just let us crash it. But, little did I know I was going to Pay. My. Dues.
After an extremely inspiring tour we ended up in the main theatre and Billy decided it was time for a talent show. Each family had to volunteer a family member to go up. Naturally my dad, after a lot of back-and-forth, forced me up there. I had never sung in front of people before. I vividly remember my dad saying, “I hear you in the shower, Tafadzwa, you should go.” So I whipped up the courage and sang a rendition of a hit at the time, “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. Everyone’s reaction was unreal. I got such positive feedback. Two guys came up to me after and told me I should keep singing. They were actors in Stomp on Broadway. I wish I still remembered their names. I was starstruck. I took it as a sign and decided that moment I was going to audition for the school play. Naturally, you gotta do some research. Long story a bit shorter, the first play I remember seeing was Chicago The Musical on Broadway. And I went home and auditioned for my school’s production not even a week later, if I remember correctly. I got cast as Go-To-Hell Kitty. I was thrilled.
SP: What do you remember about doing your first production?
Diener: So yeah, Chicago was my first play! It was so challenging. I remember we did lots of conditioning. It was so great because I had always been involved with the Drama Club, helping backstage and stuff, but I remember just feeling like I was supposed to be there and like I belonged, as cheesy as it sounds. I auditioned for it as a junior in high school, and I remember in my Thespian induction ceremony my teacher, Tim Broeker, said that I got hit a little bit late by the theatre bug but it bit hard. I knew I was gonna make sure I could do it the rest of my life, no matter what it took. Like I truly felt like I had finally figured out my purpose.
Image: Photo of Tafadzwa Diener (center) and the Illinois Theatre cast of The Wolves. Photo by Darrell Hoemann.
SP: I was trying to count the number of times I’ve seen you on stage, and it’s a lot. I'm so glad I got to see you in The Wolves before everything got shut down due to the pandemic and quarantine. What springs to mind when you think about that show?
Diener: Oh that’s awesome! That was my last show as a UIUC student. It meant a lot. Now that I think about it, it reminds me a lot of my first show. It was so physically demanding. That show really tested my determination and resilience, and that’s really what it was about: pushing through hard times, empathy, fate, vulnerability, change, all of it. Being in a show with all women is an indescribable experience. Those girls have my heart forever. We were really in the trenches and experienced so much together. One of my favorite shows I’ve ever done, and most challenging.
SP: Do you remember where you were and how you were told about the shelter-in-place and resulting cancellations? What were you working on at the time?
Diener: Oh man, I don’t remember where I was. I remember it being a bit of a slow burn. I remember in my Acting for the Camera class we were doing a joint project with the Cinema Studies department. We were filming scenes from a movie called The Invitation, and we recreated what an actual film set would be like. It was crazy. I would wake up at 6am and get camera ready, then as a class we got chauffeured to our professor’s house and filmed for a few hours. One day we went to class as usual, but after we were about 20 minutes late to the set we realized something was wrong. Our professors informed us that the project was canceled and, soon after that, classes, too. Me and my classmates were very stressed. Most of them were in their final shows as students, and those were canceled. Every year the seniors take a showcase to Chicago to perform for agents, and that moved online. We also only got partial stage combat training/certification, unfortunately.
SP: There was a great article in The Hollywood Reporter that mentioned the showcase. For some areas of study, pivoting to online learning might be frustrating but not impossible. How difficult was it to transition to Theatre coursework in quarantine?
Diener: I was blessed to have professors that were just as devastated as my class and I were. This made for a lot of effort on their hands to make up for what they could. I must say, the showcase in particular was really hard for us to lose. My professor, Aaron Munoz, did everything in his power to make it as worthwhile as possible, and it resulted in so much opportunity for our class. I’m really grateful for the professors at UIUC. It was challenging, of course, but the amount of empathy and effort we received made it a lot easier. That being said, I’m so sad my time with my classmates was cut short. I really hope the incoming seniors don’t have to go through what we did, but we did learn a lot.
SP: Everybody's learning to adapt right now. Theatre as a business—as a form—is learning to adapt, to survive. And it will. Right now, though, I find myself being slightly less concerned with folks who have established careers in the arts and more so with emerging artists like yourself. I have to ask, and I'm genuinely curious: What do you do now? What are your plans now, and how have they changed?
Diener: At first, I was really really scared. But the response I received from our online showcase kind of helped a lot. I got calls from people in LA, Chicago, and New York. Though my plans are on a bit of a halt right now, it kind of made me look on the positive side. People who would have never seen our showcase got to see it. We pushed our showcase. I mean we sent probably a thousand emails to random theatre makers all over the world. I decided to move forward and sign with Big Mouth Talent in Chicago. Though I’m not sure exactly when I’ll be in the city, I’m really excited and feeling so driven and ready to make my goals happen. That’s one thing I’d want whoever is reading this to get out of my personal experience AND what’s happening in this world. Everything is what you make it. Yes, I’m absolutely terrified of what’s next, but I can’t let things that are out of control ruin my trajectory. My goals are still my goals. They haven’t changed. I plan on persevering and I hope whatever you are battling, you do, too. My favorite quote to come out of this so far is “Intermission is only temporary.” So yeah, my plans are on hold. But they haven’t changed.