“When the going gets weird, the weird turn professional.”
– Hunter S. Thompson
The pandemic has generated waves of anxiety and depression, but it has also been a boom to creativity. I’ve known both. I’ve felt isolated and alone, and I have also written and published a great deal that has been warmly received. For all those reasons and also because he’s a neighbor, I was delighted to sit down and talk to a San Francisco actor and playwright named Jeremy Julian Greco.
Greco, who is also a husband and a father as well as an actor and playwright, thought he might lose it and go crazy at the height of the pandemic. When he looked around him at Other Avenues, the coop grocery where he works and co-owns, he saw customers “snapping.”
Indeed, they snapped at him and at the other workers who tried to enforce the city’s rules and regulations about health, safety and sanitation that came down from Mayor London Breed’s office in Civic Center. Shoppers wanted their produce and they wanted it now. They often didn’t seem to care very much about masks, gloves and safety. Health be damned.
“I almost snapped,” Greco told me. His near-melt down led him to create ‘The Big Snap,’ a book published by HuskyBoyPress, and to do much more. The Big Snap is also the name of Greco’s one-man show that maps the pandemic in San Francisco. It also traces human responses to it, especially at Ocean Beach at the edge of The City, which can feel far removed from skyscrapers and big box stores. Sealevel, a gallery on Irving Street, hosts Greco’s one-man show in September.
Greco told me that while he was stressed at work, he was also stressed at his home in the Outer Sunset, where he lives with his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law who suffers from dementia and who has never understood the pandemic, the need to wear a mask and the concept of quarantine.
At no time during the pandemic did Greco actually snap. Instead, he did what gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, urged his friends and followers to do when they faced difficult times. “When the going gets weird,” Thompson said, “the weird turn professional.” I think that means they keep a level head.
The pandemic has definitely been weird for most humans, no matter what continent they inhabit, and the weirdness isn’t over yet, not with the latest surge. Singer Songwriter, Billy Ocean, tweaked Thompson’s rallying cry and sang “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
During the pandemic, tough-guy, kind-hearted Greco aimed to heal his own soul and to help heal his own community that has been hit hard by social distancing and isolation. Greco didn’t see a shrink or take mind-altering drugs to help him cope. Rather, he reached for a camera, a tape recorder, notepads and pencils and went into the unknown, uncharted jungle created by the pandemic.
His journey took him across San Francisco, to places very near—he even interviewed his own daughters at home— and via Zoom to far away places, including Ireland.
“It was kinda boring because you had to stay inside for a long time,” his daughter Iris told him. Juliana Greco, his other daughter, expressed a common sentiment of the young: “I’m just a kid and I can’t make decisions by myself, because your parents decide everything.”
Greco took 365 photos—one a day for a year—and interviewed 14 people in depth. He transcribed all the interviews and selected the best parts which he brings to his one-man show. The people who survived and even thrived inspired him in much the same way that plagues have inspired writers throughout the ages, such as Daniel Defoe, the author of A Journal of a Plague Year (1722), and Albert Camus, the author of The Plague (1947). The COVID-19 lockdown figures in Ann Patcgett’s new novel, Tom Lake (2023).
Greco’s newly published book, The Big Snap, isthe size and shape of a coffee table book. It boasts color photos of Ocean Beach, the Pacific, spectacular sunsets, big fluffy clouds, sand dunes, walkers, runners, fishermen and the Golden Gate Bridge.
The book also includes a few photos of the author himself —wearing a mask. At the front of the book, Greco writes, “I’m a co-owner of a collective, not your stereotypical Burning-Man-loving, tofu-eating individual. I don’t like crowds and drum circles (especially in a desert). I choose to eat meat and I drive a fossil fuel usage car.”
Greco has also created a theater piece directed by Mark Kenward. Like the book, it’s called The Big Snap. Greco will perform it in September at the cozy Sealevel gallery. While major venues in The City have folded because of the pandemic, intimate venues like Sealevel on Irving Street have blossomed.
Jeana Loraine, the owner and operator of Sealevel, has turned her gallery and workspace into a community center and a lively space. On weekends, it’s used by painters, poets, musicians and playwrights, including Greco, a veteran of the stage who has performed solo shows—— inspired in part by the work of Anna Deavere Smith—in San Francisco, Marin County, Dallas, and elsewhere.
Loraine was born in Sacramento but spent most of her life in Switzerland. She and her Swiss husband settled in the Sunset District in San Francisco a decade ago. “One of the main ideas about Sealevel is to bring people together and strengthen the ties in the community,” she said. “Greco is a perfect fit.”
Like Anna Deavere Smith, Greco embraces what’s known as “documentary theater.” Like Smith, he crafts characters based on the interviews he conducts with real people. He uses body language, facial expressions and the rhythms of speech to bring them to life.
As Greco discovered, the pandemic is in some ways ready made for the stage. It offers dramatic moments, gut-wrenching scenes and colorful individuals, including San Francisco’s Republican Party mainstay, John Dennis, and Tony Cyprien, a storyteller par excellence and an advocate for social justice. Cyprien, who is Black, served time behind bars. He told Greco that life in San Francisco during COVID, under London Breed’s administration, reminded him of life in prison.
John Dennis, Tony Cyprien, plus six other real individuals, via the alchemy of Greco’s imagination, appear on stage as characters in The Big Snap. To watch Greco before a live audience is to witness the enduring magic of theater that not even a global pandemic has been able to stop. The show, as they say, must go on.
(For more information contact Sealevel, 4331 Irving Street, (415) 848-9026 and firstname.lastname@example.org.)