‘The Catastrophist’ tracks virologist who tried to warn us about global pandemic

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Catastrophist' (Part 1)

He tried to warn the world against a looming global pandemic, but no one listened.

Now, his story hits the streaming stage in the timely new play “The Catastrophist,” which makes its virtual world premiere Tuesday courtesy of Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland as a co-production with Marin Theatre Company in San Francisco.

“It alludes to COVID,” actor William DeMeritt told WTOP. “It is about how we got here.”

Written by Lauren Gunderson, the play follows her real-life husband, virologist Nathan Wolfe, named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for tracking Ebola and swine flu, while proposing pandemic insurance years before COVID-19 exploded.

“He’s been predicting this for years and not enough people listened,” DeMeritt said. “He’s been trying to predict pandemics in order to prepare for them and also convert the world to the idea of pandemic insurance, so that if the economy shut down for a year, we’d actually be prepared for it.”

Not only does the hero tackle global crises, but he also battles personal demons.

“He’s like a superhero trying to save the world, but he’s blinded to things he might need to save himself from,” DeMerrit said. “How someone whose job is preparing for disaster can sometimes be a bit oblivious to the disasters in his own life.”

How was it filmed virtually with the safety of social distancing?

“We rehearsed remotely in two phases for about three weeks,” DeMerrit said. “I [Zoomed] in a studio apartment in Manhattan … Then I flew out to San Francisco and rehearsed. … Then we had one week in the theater. … It was me, [Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis], the cameraman and Liz Matos, our COVID compliance officer.”

It’s basically a one-man show, which brought its own challenges.

“I’ve never done a one-man show that I did not write,” DeMerrit said. “Three weeks is not a lot of time to learn a 38-page script where you have all the dialogue and there’s no co-star to bail you out if you skip a line. … We filmed it chronologically but in chunks, like we’d do Scene 1 three or four times from different camera angles.”

Regardless of the medium, it’s providing artists both employment and a creative outlet.

“This whole slow-motion apocalypse we’ve been going through, people in my industry have been trying to figure out how to still make work and be employed and get health insurance and put food on the table, but also we creative folks … need to be creative.”

The show does not simply look back, it provides warnings for the future.

“This isn’t even the big one, according to him,” DeMerrit said.

What can you do to help? Wear a mask and stop the spread of anti-intellectualism.

“We’ve gotten to this place where we think our own personal knowledge is as valid as someone who’s been studying a given topic for two decades,” DeMerrit said. “You talk to ding-dongs on Facebook, ‘I’ve done my own research, I don’t think COVID is that serious,’ but how many degrees in science or medicine do you have? Experts are OK.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Catastrophist' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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