“The Catastrophist” Tells a Pre-Pandemic Story for a Mid-Pandemic World


William DeMeritt in “The Catastrophist.” Photo courtesy of Marin Theatre Company.

“The Catastrophist” is a story for the times. Set in 2016, before anybody knew that 2020 would bring a global pandemic, the self-aware one-man show tells the true story of virologist Nathan Wolfe, whose pandemic predictions and warnings were widely ignored.

Wolfe, played by William DeMeritt (HBO’s “The Normal Heart”), has all the answers for a worldwide catastrophe, but is underprepared for the catastrophes of his own life. “The Catastrophist,” written by playwright Lauren Gunderson, who is married to Wolfe, premieres on January 26 in a collaboration between Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland and Marin Theatre in Mill Valley, California. 

Gunderson often writes plays about scientific and historical figures, but writing about her husband was a new experience. Throughout the writing process, Wolfe served as a primary source for both scientific information and biographical details of his own life. Through interviews over dinner and drinks, Gunderson was able to piece together the science, experiences and emotions to form an accurate retelling of Wolfe’s life so far.

But the play focuses on more than just science and Wolfe’s career. His relationship with family, especially with his father, is at the center of the play, and the audience sees Wolfe go from a man adventuring across Africa to one who realizes his story is part of a bigger one.

“Yes, it’s science, and yes, it’s a metatheatrical rollercoaster, but it’s also about that human journey we all go through,” Gunderson says.

DeMeritt adds that this story is about a man whose job is to plan for catastrophe.

“But he’s so busy trying to save the world that he neglects the fact he might have to save himself and plan for his own catastrophe, which is something we all do,” he says. 

Gunderson wrote the true story of Wolfe, rather than the story of a fictional character based on him, for multiple reasons. Because the play is set in the past, the audience’s experiences of living in a pandemic and knowing what happens next add to the story. Gunderson also believes Wolfe’s true story holds more weight than one of a fictional character.

“The main character doesn’t know what Covid-19 is, but we do,” she says. “In a way, that is part of the completion of the story. To ask the audience to bring their truth, I needed to set the play up with truth as well. Also, I think there is something uniquely potent and a bit brave about telling a true story with this intimacy. I think people get chills knowing it’s true.”

“The Catastrophist” was conceptualized, written and produced during the pandemic. Rehearsals were held remotely for the first three weeks, and once in the theater, a Covid compliance officer made sure that DeMeritt and the production crew kept their distance and were healthy while filming.

While the show will premiere as a prerecorded show available for streaming, Gunderson wrote “The Catastrophist” with the idea that it could be performed in person when theaters open post-pandemic. Her writing process remained the same as when writing other plays, and the script maintains the coherence of a normal stage production. 

According to DeMeritt, the biggest difference between a play for live audiences and a play for streaming is in the acting. DeMeritt has acted both onstage and on television, and described acting for a filmed theatre production as a combination of the two styles.

“There were times when the cameras were in the back, so I had to perform like it was theatre,” DeMeritt explains. “But the majority of the time, when you do that on camera, it doesn’t look great. I was able to bring things to a much smaller place and just play to the camera, or just one imaginary person.”

Gunderson adds, “It is amazing to see the pivot. [DeMeritt] is really quite dynamic. [The play uses] a blend of forms.”

The theatre industry as a whole has been hit hard by Covid, and Gunderson wanted to make sure her play could help others in the industry who have been less fortunate. To benefit other theatre workers, a portion of ticket sales will be donated to others in the industry whose livelihood has been impacted by the pandemic. 

“The Catastrophist” will be available to stream on demand for $30 from January 26 to February 28. Purchase tickets for “The Catastrophist” here, and pick up a copy of the script here. To learn more about Round House Theatre, visit their website or follow them on Instagram @roundhousetheatre. Keep up with Gunderson’s projects on her website or on Instagram @lalatellsastory, and follow DeMeritt on Instagram @demeritt.

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