Join Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation in partnership with Jewish Family & Children’s Service on Sept. 22 for “Hunker Down,” a live theatrical event starring the legendary Ed Asner that will be broadcast online.
This upbeat, heartwarming tale about older adults coping with the COVID-19 pandemic stars Asner as Kevin, a confirmed recluse who has embraced “social distancing” for many years before the virus. Local actor Janet Arnold Rees co-stars as Bari, a woman desperate for in-person social contact while sheltering in place. Kevin reluctantly agrees to a video call after refusing a visit from Bari.
“I think the play will appeal to all audiences, but especially to older adults, as the characters are somewhat reluctantly having to socialize using computer technology,” said Laura Hales, curator of learning and innovation for Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation. “If you think about it, the realities of COVID-19 have thrown this population into the digital age, which has been a big change for many. The audience can relate to the characters, who are navigating these same issues.”
Hales noted that the idea of presenting live theater via online platforms like Zoom is particularly timely, given that most people have experienced online video conversations in some form during the past six months. The play also presented the opportunity to bring Asner — known for his work on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Pixar’s “Up,” among others — to the Scottsdale Arts audience.
Asner’s co-star, Rees, has known the multiple Emmy Award® winner for nearly two decades. They first collaborated when he visited Phoenix to help with a fundraiser for Rees’ Arizona Jewish Theatre Co. and worked together again in 2008 and 2011. Rees said the actor never charged for his appearances because he said they were for a good cause.
“We just bonded immediately,” said Rees, a Phoenix resident. “Getting to act opposite Ed was an amazing experience. I was blown away by him. It was so easy to relate to him, and he definitely brought out the best in my abilities.”
The play is only 30 minutes long, but the performance will be followed by a 15-minute question-and-answer session with New Mexico-based playwright Robert Benjamin, who also has connections to Arizona Jewish Theatre Co. Rees commissioned Benjamin to write a play for the company about 10 years ago, and the two have remained in touch.
In addition to her acting, Rees works as the creative aging coordinator for Jewish Family & Children’s Service, offering participatory art classes to people age 60 and older. In recent years, the organization has offered classes in voice, theater, dance and storytelling. The pandemic meant moving some of those classes to Zoom meetings. Others did not translate to the online format, so Rees began exploring different creative outlets.
Hales also coordinates creative aging programs for Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation, and she and Rees have collaborated to bring a variety of offerings to their combined communities. This production has benefited from that partnership, which pairs Rees’ strong connections to the theater world with Scottsdale Arts’ audience and production expertise.
“People are hungry for live theater, and this will be close,” Rees said. “It’s on a timely topic, and it will give folks a chance to get an up-close experience with an iconic actor.”
It also provides Rees with another opportunity to act alongside Asner, though this time the stage is a virtual one. She has acted and directed at various venues around the Valley since 1986.
The local production of “Hunker Down” will be directed by Meribeth Reeves, managing director of Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
The play will begin live on Zoom and other online formats at 3 pm Tuesday, Sept. 22. It is free to view, but donations are encouraged. All donations for this production will be split among Scottsdale Arts, Jewish Family & Children’s Service and The Ed Asner Family Center. For more information, visit ScottsdaleArtsLearning.org/event/hunker-down/.