Zach Steel with a lemon

Sour town: a faculty dispatch by Zach Steel

Zach Steel with a lemon (Photo courtesy Zach Steel)

In light of recent circumstances, the USC School of Dramatic Arts has asked our faculty to share honestly with our community, about difficult discoveries, small victories, silver linings, and more. As we learn and grow as a community, staying connected is very important to us, and we hope you will find these dispatches comforting in uncertain times. Our third letter comes from Zach Steel, Assistant Professor of Theatre Practice in Medical Clowning and Head of Comedy. Steel has also recently adapted the Institute for Theatre and Social Change’s Medical Clowning program to a virtual meeting format; click here to meet the virtual clowns.

We have all been told what to do when life hands us lemons. And recently, we are reminded maybe too often that this is one of those situations where we have to make lemonade as if we needed more to stress about. We not only have to survive a plague by never leaving our house and never touching our mouths (this is very hard for me as my lips are extremely soft), but we also have to be productive.

This is especially triggering for me as I happen to have an actual lemon tree in my backyard — very on-trend in Altadena these days — and this particular lemon tree has decided that now is the perfect time for it to bear upwards of eight-hundred actual lemons. I touched them the other day to see if they were merely metaphorical and they’re not. I regret watering this tree. Read the room, bro! What am I going to do with upwards of eight-hundred lemons in a quarantine? There is only so much curd my family of four can slurp. And my dog HATES the stuff. She told me straight up. HATES.

I can’t even do the neighborly thing and leave them in a woven gingham-lined basket — very on-trend in Altadena these days — on my porch with a sign that says “take these please.” Even if I specified that they were “glove-picked” and that I sanitized each individual fruit while singing Happy Birthday, I don’t think I’d get many takers. So I’m left with them. And I refuse to make actual lemonade, a) because it’s too on the nose and b) because when my daughter has that much sugar, I don’t like her. I still love her (#blessed) but I don’t like her. I could use the zest to make twists for a post dinner gin martini, but everyone knows professors don’t like to drink that much.

I could use a lemon for a sense memory exercise in one of the theatre classes I’ve been conducting over Zoom to see if my students can smell a lemon just by looking at one. Of course, I can because I am a professor but my students probably can’t…because they’re not professors. Boy, do they have a lot to learn. And even if they said they did smell the lemon, how do I know they’re not just trying to get a good grade? Maybe I will purchase a plastic lemon to show them and if they say they smell something, I’ll know they’re liars. Oh, listen to me! I already have upwards of eight-hundred lemons and I am thinking about buying more lemons?!

Ooh, maybe if I write a poem about lemons, and have my students “act out” the poem (ooh with gestures!), that might be considered a good use of lemons and then I can just throw them all away as a sort of Dyonesian sacrifice. Yes? Yes. Dyonesian sacrifice? Yes:

A Lemon Via Zoom
By Theatre Professor Zach
(To be spoken via Zoom, for theatre exercises, with gestures)

When you look at a lemon via zoom, can you smell it?
Do you need to touch it to smell it?
Can you touch via Zoom?
Or do you need to smell it to smell it?
If so, you don’t belong in the theatre
Do you need to smell it to taste it?
If so, you have tongue issues.
Because this ain’t no Grover’s Corners, kid.
This is Sour Town.

I admit I am no Wordsworth but at least I wrote something. Hey, maybe that’s lemonade? If we lower the bar? A lot?

If you’re a faculty member and would like to share, please submit your dispatch letter to