During the height of the statewide shutdown in 2020, brought on by the need to curtail the spread of the deadly coronavirus, actor, director and writer, Steve Greenstein, like many others, was subjected to long periods of boredom.
Lack of work in New York City’s normally thriving entertainment industry prompted him to begin taking walks around the Bronx’s Kingsbridge neighborhood, where he took the time to observe how the pandemic was affecting his community.
His thoughts on this prompted Greenstein to begin writing the web show series, “COVID Ditty,” fulfilling a dual need in the actor to stay creative during a time of uncertainty, while also channeling the historic nature of the moment through his storytelling.
“I look for the nooks and crannies in life, and that’s why I like to write about what is outside my door,” he said. “If you can find art in that, if you can create meaning in that, then you’ve got something. I knew when I was making this, and seeing what was happening outside my door, that was the impetus to write the episodes.”
The story focuses on Phil, played by Greenstein, and his son Charlie, played by Andrew Terranova, as they navigate life during the pandemic. While the series is fictional, the characters deal with pertinent, real-life topics such as the role of essential workers, the impact of the closure of local businesses, and the racism directed at the Asian community.
Greenstein describes the series as historical fiction because of the way it captures real life situations in a fictional setting. It was shot at local businesses in the Bronx and in the New York City area. Greenstein said he always looks for interesting stories first, then finds a local setting in which to tell them.
For example, episode three presented a storyline about discrimination against the owner of a Chinese restaurant, prompting Greenstein to find such a restaurant in which to film. All business owners whose locations were used during production were compensated by Greenstein and thanked in the closing credits of the relevant episode.
“That was a really important thing of our little productions, giving back to the neighborhood,” said Greenstein. “Just, as if a big, Hollywood production comes into a neighborhood, they pay,” he added.
Greenstein is a Bronxite who spent a large part of his early years in Kingsbridge with his grandparents, even after he moved further upstate at a later stage of his childhood.
Before the pandemic hit, Greenstein had been a working actor, landing roles in various productions, including TV shows and plays. Prior to “COVID Ditty,” he most recently appeared in Pose (2019), Iron Fist (2017), and The Detour (2017). He said he has experience as a character editor, and together with the character work he gained over his acting career, it helped him develop the characters for “COVID Ditty.”
His professional experience also helped him navigate the jobs of director and producer. “I really do love directing,” he said. “I do love the whole process, because I realize I’m not just an actor. I’m an actor, director, producer. I think if you want something to be done, you got to just do it.”
It was also important to Greenstein that the “COVID Ditty” production had Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) approval, and that the production was protected by the union. After getting approved by SAG, the series started production in the summer of 2020, and he said every person involved was paid a union wage.
When it came to keeping everyone safe, Jennifer Plotzke, line producer on the show, said the Screen Actors Guild made everyone get COVID tests 48 hours before showing up on set, and reports were shared with headquarters in Los Angeles.
“It was difficult at first, especially because we were working during the summer of 2020, before vaccinations, when we were still in the height of the pandemic,” Plotzke said. “But eventually, we got the hang of it. Luckily, we were working with a small cast and crew and shooting mostly outside or in businesses that weren’t open at the time, so that made it easier to distance ourselves on set and gave us space to work safely. It was great to get back to work at that time,” she added.
Greenstein found his cast and crew by calling around to people he knew from the industry and by searching online. Monica Delgado who plays a nurse in the series, said Greenstein found her through the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) and asked her to audition for her role.
Delgado said the show was a great way to showcase the reality of New Yorkers during the pandemic. “I also think that, you know, 20 years from now, it will be like a little historical series for people to watch, because it has stayed very true to our reality,” she said.
Delgado’s character, Maria, being an essential worker, is seen working on the front lines of the pandemic. In episode five of the series, Maria tells Phil how exhausting it is to work through the pandemic, and how she has taken on much more responsibility in her job since the crisis began.
“To me, it’s my favorite episode, just because of what she goes through, and how she speaks about it,” said Delgado. “I always think, if only certain people that are still so against science would watch this episode and listen to her, but who knows if even her words would change their minds?” she said.
“Covid Ditty” has been recognized by both local and international film festivals over the last year. Greenstein said he decided to sign up for a film class at New York University (NYU), and his professor urged the students in the class to submit their projects to various film festivals. Greenstein took the professor’s advice, and his series has since been nominated, and has even won some film festival awards.
Among others, the series was recognized in the Best Shorts Competition, won a Talent of the Year award at the Amsterdam International Film Festival, won a Bronze Award at the Independent Shorts Awards in Los Angeles, received an Honorable Mention at the New York Movie Awards, and won Best Web/TV Series at the Florence Film Awards.
Delgado describes “Covid Ditty” as “the little engine that could,” explaining how remarkable it is that the series has received the kind of recognition that it has.
“It’s amazing, and it feels like it’s so worthwhile and so, I keep telling people, you know, it’s only eight minutes an episode! Give it a chance; I think you’ll enjoy it! So, hopefully we’ll keep going for a little bit, especially since the pandemic is not going anywhere yet, and see if we can keep reaching out to other people out there,” she said.
Plotzke agreed that it was great that the series was being recognized. “Steve and the entire cast and crew have poured a lot of love into this, and they deserve the accolades,” Plotzke said. “The series really highlights local life during the pandemic and is a great love letter to The Bronx. I’m glad so many people are seeing it,” she added.
Plotzke said she thinks the series could keep going as long as the pandemic lasts, and even beyond. “There will always be stories to tell in The Bronx, and these characters will still face interesting challenges and have good times, whether there’s a pandemic or not,” she said.
While Greenstein’s current goal is to get picked up by a streaming service, he said, ultimately, he hopes the series brings people together by showcasing their shared experiences.
The series is available to watch on YouTube and Greenstein is still making new episodes. There will be a screening party of the latest episode on Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at An Béal Bocht Café, located at 445 West 238th Street in Fieldston.
“COVID Ditty” is also heading to the New York Movie Awards as part of a live screening which is open to the public on Sunday, Sept. 26, at the Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street in the East Village in Manhattan. Doors open at 8 p.m., with the screening starting at 8:30 p.m. For tickets, visit www.figid.nyc/events/nyma.
As for the future of the web series, Greenstein said he could see himself doing more episodes, especially if he receives financial support for the series. At this time, he’s pulling from his savings to produce the show, but he hopes someone will give his team the financial backing needed to keep it going.
“I just hope that they’re (the viewers) touched by the human experience of regular people that have been living through this, not the politicians, not the mouthpiece we see on the nightly news, the talking heads, the CNN commentators,” he said. “As an artist, as a writer, I think I’ve given an insight into just regular people who go to work every day, trying to make it better for themselves and their kids, to get by another day in The Bronx.”
*Síle Moloney contributed to this story.