What is there to talk about these days?
My thought was to write about the gremlins that stop us from working better; how we know we should work with intention and mindfulness, with an eye on protecting the environment and keeping ourselves whole and (relatively) balanced as people, by inspecting what stops us from doing better.
Theatre is arguably the most indulgent, wasteful art form there is. Particularly in its modern form, we spend thousands (millions, in some cases) on shows that will ultimately only run a few weeks before landing in the dumpster or pieced out into closets and storage. Some of those pieces may be reused and recycled, sure, but what percentage? Maybe 30%? The sustainability of what we do is typically not considered in the cost of creating it. This is true of both the materials and labor required to construct these stunning, impermanent monuments. For the last several years, I feel like I can’t have a conversation with anyone in the industry without one or both of us talking about how burnt out we are, how the expectations are higher than ever, but the practicalities have remained the same.
And then the world stopped.
Well, that’s pretty dramatic. On March 15, I sat at the table I’d been working at as overhire for nearly 3 months and listened as my TD explained that the show we had already begun loading-in was going to be cancelled. No, he didn’t know when or if it would go up at all. The trucks that were already at the venue were being loaded back up and taken to storage, in hopes that the show would be put in a future season. Everything that was possible was being done to protect the jobs of the people for whom this was a full time position for as long as could be sustained, but that layoffs and furlough were on the horizon. Overhire was dismissed immediately.
The governor would speak that day and announced that Minnesota was going into a state of emergency. Schools would probably be canceled. Restaurants, closed. And certainly any public place where large numbers of people gathered would be closed until this silent, creeping monster in our midst could be contained, hopefully before ravaging the most vulnerable in our society.
Everyone I know has a story like this. They tell me about how they hopefully kept meeting, first in small groups, and then as a shelter in place order came from the state, via Zoom and Meet online, but our calendars cleared. Quietly, sadly. Some were postponements, some cancellations entirely. Directions were given on how those of us who aren’t employees could obtain unemployment. The loud, busy machine of our industry slowed and went still, while we dispersed to our homes – to isolation.
My isolation has been… rocky. Attempting to be mindful of the things I have, I have a simple schedule, where I try to achieve some small version of work each day. Some days I can only read email. Some days, a script. Some days I can make some masks, though never on a scale that is useful to donating to those that need it. Some days I can get myself to a place where I can present a face in a digital meeting, but I often find myself distracted and incapable of adding much to the conversation. Many days I struggle to do anything at all, beyond the basics of taking care of my family. I feel dull, like a shadow of who I was only 6 weeks ago, when I could churn art out of my hands and brain with speed and general alacrity. Where did that person go?
But while I stare at the wall, I think a lot about why it’s so hard to do better.
Time. Space. Money.
Predictability. Value of the final product. It’s the old joke of Good, Fast, Cheap: pick 2, if you’re lucky. What are these elements, and why are they so hard to overcome?
Time. How do we create interesting, engaging art in a timely manner? How do we respect the artists creating it, and be responsive to the rehearsal process and societal expectations of what we’re creating?
Space. Where does this art get created, and where does it go when it’s time on stage is through? Can it be reused? Where will this transformation take place?
Money. How do we create a product that doesn’t break the bank while using materials that are responsibly sourced?
Predictability. It’s all fine and good to say we can build out of whatever we can find, but this often means we sacrifice the predictability of new materials.
Value of the final product. No one wants to make something that looks like crap. (Unless that’s part of the design.) Each show demands a specific reality that is ours to create, and disruptions to the fantasy of that world because the shortcomings of their creation are hard to stomach.
These elements are about to become even harder to balance. When we come back, producers will be asking us more than ever before to pare down on these essentials, and understandably so. We’ve all been rocked by the sudden closure of our vocations. Deemed “non-essential” early in the process, our industry will be one of the last to recover. We will never be the same.
But maybe we shouldn’t strive to go back to “where we were.” There were deep, cultural issues in the “business as usual” manner of how we used to work. The expectations of both our society about how frivolous our jobs are and within our industry about how disposable the people who create what goes onstage (both as technicians and performers) are wrong. And we deserve better.
Maybe this is a moment when we can consider how to be better to our people. Maybe we can finally find the time to figure out how to make art using environmentally responsible materials. Maybe we can figure out how to tell a story more simply – with love and admiration for what each person has to contribute. Maybe we can find each other while we’re alone.