During a Zoom chat this week, performers Danny Saretsky and Regina Rios recollected the similarites they experienced as lead roles in Unity 1918, a play about a pandemic that was staged five months ago. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)

Life mimics art for actors in play about pandemic

Performers from Oak Bay theatre school see parallels with recent play based on 1918 Spanish flu

As a pair of Victoria-based performers sit on the couch of a rented suite in isolation this week, they can’t help but think of all the similarities they’re seeing in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Danny Saretsky, 22, and Regina Rios, 23, moved here to study the theatre program at the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Oak Bay. In November, they performed lead roles in the stage production of Unity 1918, a play by Kevin Kerr in which the Spanish flu disrupts the small community of Unity, Sask.

“There’s a lot of similarities,” said Saretsky, who played Stan, a new father who is recovering after his wife died in childbirth. “It’s disturbingly parallel.”

Performers Danny Saretsky and Regina Rios during a Zoom chat this week. The two starred in Unity 1918, a movie set in the 1918 flu pandemic, and are now finding it a bit uncanny that they are under self-isolation just a few months later. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)

READ ALSO: Love and humour shine during a time of death in Unity, 1918

In particular, it’s society’s reaction to the virus that stands out. The nation was still grieving the 56,638 Canadian military members who died in the First World War. To this day the number of people killed by the Spanish influenza ranges in estimate from 20 to 100 million people worldwide, about 55,000 people in Canada and 650,000 in the U.S.

“[It’s kind of the same as] how people were [recently] exaggerating, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad,’ while others stocked up on toilet paper,” said Rios, who played Sunna, a young Icelandic woman who becomes the town mortician.

Amid the chaos of death, in which there aren’t enough coffins for the dead, Sunna and Stan find romance.

In Unity, as it was back then, things were typically slower. But with the flu, things changed quickly day-to-day.

The schools are closed. Physical contact is forbidden and there is a town curfew.

“Basically, all fun things were canceled then too,” Saretsky said. “The town people were quarreling with one another, not because of illness, but because of fear of illness.”

The actors even played out the same responses we’re seeing now, especially mistrust of people who travelled internationally.

“Even though people sought a human connection, travellers were met with a ‘please get away from me,’ vibe,” Saretsky said.

“They didn’t really understand the flu,” Rios said. “The flu hit Regina [Sask.], so they knew it was coming in, but they didn’t know how it spread, they thought being downwind would spread it. It was being spread with the soldiers coming home from the war.”

READ ALSO: Celebrities urge Canadians to take COVID-19 seriously

There were mass graves and misinformation.

When CCPA last staged Unity 1918 on Dec. 1 there was no sign of a global pandemic unfolding.

The two graduated in February and went their separate ways. Rios joined local troupe Story Theatre and was touring preschools with the show The Very First Circus.

“Of course, going school to school was not ideal, so that was canceled [early],” Rios said.

Saretsky was in the middle of a vacation tour with his father to the United States and Europe.

“We were in Boston when we made the decision to follow recommendations and come home,” Saretsky said.

If it goes ahead as planned, Saretsky is headed to Vancouver this summer to intern at the annual Bard & the Beach Shakespeare Festival in Vancouver.

Now the two are stuck, together at least, in an Airbnb suite, until things change.

“We did jazzercise today, a ’90s jazzercise funk workout on YouTube,” Saretsky said.

“Support artists if you can, it’s a tough time for all of us,” Rios said.

reporter@oakbaynews.com


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