Danny Saretsky and Regina Rios perform a scene from Unity 1918 during the Canadian College of Performing Arts production last November. (Andrew Barrett Photo/CCPA)

Life mimics art for Island students who performed play about Spanish flu pandemic

Performing arts students see parallels between story from Unity 1918 and current health crisis

As a pair of Vancouver Island performing arts students sit on the couch of a rented suite in isolation, they can’t help but think of similarities between the current COVID-19 pandemic and the subject matter in a play they acted in last fall.

Danny Saretsky, 22, and Regina Rios, 23, moved here to study 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.

During a Zoom chat this week, Canadian College of Performing Arts students Danny Saretsky and Regina Rios talked with Oak Bay News reporter Travis Paterson about the similarites between the COVID-19 scenario and the story weaving through Unity 1918, in which they played lead roles last fall. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)

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

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 50 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 cancelled 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 staged its final performance of 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 cancelled [early],” she said.

Saretsky was in the middle of a vacation tour with his father to the United States and Europe when they were forced to change their plans.

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

Saretsky is scheduled to head to Vancouver this summer to intern at the annual Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival. Organizers plan to give an update April 6 on the status of the festival.

For now the two young actors 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,” added Rios.

reporter@oakbaynews.com



editor@mondaymag.com

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