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Time-Travel Through the Pandemic With Low Orbit's Blackout: Time Passes

Denver playwright Ellen K. Graham.EXPAND
Denver playwright Ellen K. Graham.
Ellen K. Graham
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Josh Mattison’s Low Orbit podcast has been a favorite in town for years. The show won a Best of Denver award in 2017, not long after we profiled Mattison himself on the project and his work. Low Orbit tends to take on some of the most interesting audio projects in the Denver literary scene. Case in point: playwright Ellen K. Graham’s COVID-journal narrative Blackout: Time Passes.

Mattison describes Low Orbit as “kind of like a print magazine you put in your ears.” It is that — and more. The nuance of sound as a narrative element is a powerful thing, one that print can’t touch. Westword caught up with both Mattison and Graham over email to find out more about their five-part podcast and why we should take time to remember an era so many just want to forget. 

Westword: Can you each tell us how you came to the idea of Blackout: Time Passes? Ellen, how did the idea strike you to keep a journal and turn it into this audio series?

Ellen K. Graham: Though I have kept a journal in one form or another for 35-plus years, I was never one to write every day…or even every week. In March 2020, however, it became apparent that something historic was unfolding around us, and I started keeping a daily record, just for myself. I don’t think it would've occurred to me to do an audio project but for the fact that I had contributed a couple of stories to Low Orbit in January 2020, and Josh invited me to contact him if I ever had an idea for another collaboration. I remembered that invitation in the fall sometime and reached out to him. 

Josh, how did you learn about Ellen's project?

Josh Mattison: I saw Ellen perform at The Narrators one night and thought she had a great writing style and voice. I invited her to tell some stories on Low Orbit, which worked out well. I always try to extend an open invitation to the people I've featured to come back whenever they want. Ellen was one of my favorite storytellers I've featured on the show, so when she reached out, I said yes right away. I knew she would have something good. 

How did you decide that it was the right time to do something on the pandemic? We're definitely in a new stage, but it's also still an ongoing matter, right? 

Graham: I think we had a vague notion that we would time it to roughly coincide with the one-year anniversary of the shutdown, but you're absolutely right: The Earth continues to go around the sun and the pandemic goes on, and I continue to document it. Maybe we wanted to get the material out there before listeners' memories of last year had faded too much. Another problem was deciding when to end the series. Josh had the idea to end it with me getting vaccinated. The series ends on the eve of my second shot. 

There's so much in this project that marks things we might have forgotten. For example, I'd completely forgotten the nightly howling — that evening reminder that we're all still here. Ellen, what's the value, do you think, of these sorts of reminders?

Graham: I’ve thought a lot about human resilience this year — how we can become totally accustomed to things almost overnight. The howl is a great example of this. At the very beginning, it was amazing, just revelatory: a communal rite of catharsis unfolding across the city every single night. By about two weeks in, it had become a pleasant routine. We'd be watching a movie in the basement and hear our neighbors howling and banging on pots and pans and think, "Ah, it's 8 o'clock." Then, one night in June, I realized it had ended. Just spontaneously sucked back out of existence, as though it had never happened. I really wanted to track these fluctuations in our sense of normalcy; it seems important to remember how fluid "normalcy" is. 

It's remarkable, right? Josh, is that one of the reasons behind what you set out to do with Low Orbit?

Mattison: Low Orbit is a place where Denver creative types — anyone with an interesting idea or story, really —can showcase their work in a way that they haven't done before through audio storytelling or art. In this way, Low Orbit also becomes a documentary of sorts, a sort of marker of where the city is at that moment. And as you can imagine, it was a lot harder to get material for the show during the pandemic, so for me, Blackout: Time Passes is also a way to make up for lost time.

One of the most poetic sections of episode one starts with a recollection of the joy of playing badminton two nights in a row, but then says, "Death and mayhem do lurk, they do, and they permeate everything...," and continues to talk about all the horrors of our era — the acts of aggression, the worry about more coming, the declarations that it's the greatest challenge to humanity since World War II. "The red, pulsing heat of the virus map creeps inward from the coasts, outward from the little nucleus that is Denver." A litany of 2020 anxiety. But you return unapologetically and without transition to the joy: "The sun shines; the grass turns green; the birds sing and sing." It's such a lovely and compact way to talk about the complexity of COVID, almost like a piece of flash non-fiction. Is it fair to consider it an encapsulation of what this project seeks to reveal?

Graham: Yes, I think so. For those of use who were able to work from home, last spring almost felt like an enchantment: the streets empty, the skies clear, the birds and the foxes taking over the neighborhood. There was something magical about it despite the human suffering that had brought the shutdown about. And nature just kept going. I find this vision of indifferent nature carrying on — seasons passing, birds singing, viruses mutating, fires burning — weirdly clarifying. It knocks humanity off its pedestal. Josh's sound design at that point in the podcast is my favorite part of episode one: that crescendo of birdsong that's almost frightening in its intensity by the end. There's beauty and horror in it. 

Mattison: One of the things I remember from last year was that spring was kind of robbed of a little of its joy, the sense of new beginnings. So I wanted to use sound design to remind people that things had gone sideways, almost frozen.

Low Orbit's Josh Mattison getting those sweet, sweet bird sounds.EXPAND
Low Orbit's Josh Mattison getting those sweet, sweet bird sounds.
Josh Mattison

Speaking of birds, they play a major role here in terms of details: the aforementioned singing, the budgie perching on one shoulder and then another, and so on. What was the purpose of the inclusion of those birds, do you think? Or was that a happy thematic accident?

Graham: The birds are omnipresent, aren't they? They're like the Greek chorus. I love the way Josh weaves birdsong throughout the episode. Birds became a primary source of entertainment for those of us who suddenly found ourselves sitting in our backyards much more than usual, and I think the fact that the shutdown occurred right at the very beginning of spring — just when the birds were returning in force — was a factor as well. Meeting Brendan the budgie was 100 percent a happy accident.

Seasons likewise play a major role, at least in the navigation and division of the composite parts of the COVID era. Spring full circle to spring again. Was that a choice made of art or function, mainly?

Graham: I think it was both. The podcast documents the time frame from March 2020 to early May 2021. That time period neatly organizes itself into thematic sections that correspond quite well with the seasons: spring = lockdown; summer = racial justice protests (and fire); fall = election (and fire); winter = the darkest point of the pandemic and the insurrection; spring = re-emergence. It just felt intuitively right to organize it that way.

Ellen, you ask the question in the middle of episode one: "What meaning will it all have eventually?" I suppose that question could be asked of many things: the pandemic itself; our national response to it; America's socio-political turmoil that fostered a worsening of both. Do either of you have an answer to that? Or at least a guess?

Graham: We are in a delicate stage right now. It seems like a lesson of this year is that we are all intimately connected and interdependent on each other. The well-being of a person on the other side of the globe is linked to my own well-being; how human beings treat other living creatures — including bats and pangolins — could affect our own survival. Whether we as a country internalize this "lesson" and embody change is a huge question. There are a lot of people — a lot — who have used the pandemic to double down on the “every-man-for-himself” ethos. I think we are teetering on the knife's edge right now. I do think the pandemic will ultimately have a transformational effect on America, but I am still totally unsure what we will end up transforming into.

Mattison: I'm sorry to say that I'm a little pessimistic about our political future. There was a brief moment, right at the beginning, where I thought we might pull together as a country, but the reaction of a lot of people to masks and vaccines and that kind of thing put an end to that thought. It's hard to think that that kind of division will go away. It feels very much like we are living in two separate realities, and I hope, through documentation and reflection using audio storytelling, we can begin to bridge the gap of perception vs. reality.

In terms of our local reality, one of the great things about this project is its innate Denver-ness. How do you think the Mile High City did during the pandemic? What could we have done differently?

Graham: I think Denver did pretty well to shut down early, particularly since Eagle County was a hot spot early on. My biggest frustration was the focus — also reflected nationally — on keeping bars and restaurants open. Schools should've had priority, in my view. The conditions in the jails were deplorable. I also thought that the state's rush to reopen at times undermined efforts to keep community spread under control in Denver. Generally, Denverites did right by each other, though. My husband and I often reflected on how lucky we were to be in Denver when the whole thing went down.

Mattison: I don't like to try to second-guess what we could have done. There was so much we didn't know at the beginning about the virus and how we should deal with it. I think Denver did about as well as could have been done. But I do think that if the federal response had been better, we wouldn't have had to put as many people at risk just to keep the economy going.

What's the thing you each hope listeners take from this project?

Mattison: We have a tendency to move past trauma as fast as we can. This project, the pacing and length of it, is contemplative, and it's also vulnerable and intimate. It's meant to be listened to on headphones when you have space and time to do so. And as Ellen said, this is just about one person's experience, but hopefully this story can help the people listening reflect on what we just went through.

Graham: I really envisioned this project as an exercise in collective memory. This series is not meant to be universal — it reflects the experience of one middle-aged, middle-class white woman — but I hope as people listen, they engage with their own memories of these extremely eventful times and reflect on what it all meant to them. It just feels so important that we remember.

Listen to Blackout: Time Passes at Denver Orbit.

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