25 minute read
SDC JOURNAL PREVIEW
When the Way Is Lost: Making Believe in the Badlands
BY SARA HOLDREN
Here’s much to do with hate but more with love.
—ROMEO AND JULIET
Harper: In your experience of the world. How do people change?
Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.
Harper: And then up you get. And walk around.
Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending.
Harper: That’s how people change.
—ANGELS IN AMERICA
On the 21st of August, in year one of our global pandemic, my partner and I dragged two fully loaded bicycles across the sand at Virginia Beach, down to the water, where my mother snapped pictures as we teetered around in the surf, barefoot, giddy, and, for a moment, mask-less and smiling.
We were dipping our back wheels in the Atlantic—a tradition for cross-country cyclists. A few months before, we had finally called off our wedding celebration, slated for the fall, and in the same moment had decided, “Let’s bicycle across the country instead.” (We called it “the ultimate social distancing project,” but really, it had more to do with maintaining some sense of passion and purpose, some feeling of movement through the uncertain dark.) We did the research, we scraped together the gear, and on August 11 we went to the courthouse in Charlottesville, Virginia. Under a magnolia tree we put titanium rings on each other’s fingers; they seemed able to survive anything, and we could afford them. Ten days after that, we were riding westward, front wheels aimed vaguely at the Pacific.
Eighty-three days, 3,865 miles, six Mount Everests worth of climbing, two absentee ballots, innumerable flats, one injured knee, one injured neck, and roughly 17 billion jars of peanut butter later, we reached the Oregon coast. There, we explored the sand dunes and the wet, windy cliffs, and gathered our first chanterelles with my uncle, a marine biologist and enthusiastic amateur mycologist. In the months that followed, hunting for mushrooms would get us through some very hard times indeed.
But that’s another story.
What do mushrooms and bicycles have to do with theatre?
It’s autumn, in year two of our global pandemic, and the profession that I am at least theoretically a part of—that of getting together in dark rooms under hot lights to play pretend—is part-tiptoeing, partpontificating its way back into life. Broadway is “back.” Regional theatres are announcing and rehearsing in-person seasons. Artistic directors are turning over like iPhone models, and subscribers are getting emails full of anxious surveys (“Would you be more or less likely to attend an event at Such-And-Such Playhouse if you were required to show your vaccine card?”), along with effusive, familiar promises of magic, urgency, and relevance.
For the most part, we—and the institutions we’ve built—really do care about Doing the Right Thing. We also want to do it first, best, loudest, and, preferably, with applause.
There are new promises, too—Bidenesque assurances of building back better, reams of anti-racism statements and land acknowledgements, pledges to do away with six-day work weeks and 10-out-of-12s, new commitments to equity and transparency. A funny thing about theatre people is that we’re able to combine ferocious earnestness with degrees of performativity that are simultaneously unsurprising and appalling. (It’s about time we had an adjective for that particular combination.) For the most part, we—and the institutions we’ve built—really do care about Doing the Right Thing. We also want to do it first, best, loudest, and, preferably, with applause. Sometimes, our pageants have real substance. You can feel the breath within—the immense and complex cooperation, the ethos of mutual aid, the generosity, goodwill, vision, vitality, and shared delight that have conjured this thing, this story, this little gap of time, this empty space, into magnificent life.
Often, though, the show is, to some degree, hollow. Often, it’s hard to breathe. Lines have been memorized, blocking learned, money invested, and tickets sold. A play happens, and perhaps parts of it are even “good.” But somewhere along the way, the soul has been lost. This kind of theatre—this kind of art—is everywhere. How could it not be in a country that considers art just another opportunity for ownership and profit, a kind of hoity-toity theme park—or, god help us, a non-fungible token? It is the theatre James Baldwin was talking about when he wrote, in the introduction to his 1964 play BLUES FOR MISTER CHARLIE (which he had long wrestled over writing at all), “I did not then, and don’t now, have much respect for what goes on in the American Theatre. I am not convinced that it is a Theatre; it seems to me a series, merely, of commercial speculations, stale, repetitious, and timid.”
Theatres may once again be open for business—and it’s never been clearer that it’s all, perforce, business—and theatre people may have learned a whole script full of new lines and new choreography, and learned it with the very best, the most ferociously earnest of intentions—but something about the great season of reopening feels dispiriting, hollow. We long to make meaningful change, but we’re trapped in the cogs of the machines we’ve built, and those are grinding again at a rate we know is unsustainable, with settings we know are dehumanizing, toward a product we know is mediocre, and yet…
We—theatre folk, artists, Americans, human beings—are not well. Vaccinated or not, we remain surrounded by sickness and we are sick at heart—frightened, enraged, and exhausted. Constantly, furiously paddling to keep our heads above the churning swells of apocalyptic thinking that are far more profitable to the mighty than our art is. Taking frenzied shots at each other from the padded hunting blinds of our social media accounts. Quick to accuse, rabidly defensive; our stores of grace depleted.
Many of us were without work, without purpose, for over a year. The lucky ones weathered it—are weathering it—somehow. We baked, we gardened, we exercised (or didn’t), we moved out of The City (or didn’t), we “pivoted,” we lived with parents, we missed friends, we had our opinions about Zoom Theatre, we got new pets, we went for walks (or very, very long bike rides), we had babies, we watched BRIDGERTON, we screamed into pillows until our throats were ragged—and every day we worked to convert grief into philosophy, aching loss and uncertainty into positive thought, which is the preparation for right action.
Now, here we are, caught in the gears. Our desire for change at odds with the excruciatingly slow and imperfect reality of actually changing; our grooming for productivity biting us in the ass; our desperation for rent money and health insurance taking the wheel on a car that has no gas in it. No wonder things feel hollow, no wonder we still feel sick, when in this late pandemic autumn the lucky ones among us are stepping back into routines that feel eerily familiar, and yet…
In 1978 the British playwright Peter Barnes wrote a play that—if there were more right action in the world—would be in performance on every stage and in every field right now. RED NOSES is the story of a troupe of clowns facing the bubonic plague. They go from entertainers to radicals, from easing the suffering of the plague-stricken to denouncing the system that profits from that suffering—and when the powers that be sniff the shift in the air, they come for blood.
“The plague left them trembling but free,” says Barnes’s Pope Clement VI, “But man is too wicked to be free…
Now I summon back the great engines of authority,
Rack, stake and gallows, palaces, courts and counting houses…
The plague was a time of tearful innocence,
Now a greater darkness falls
For we return to normal.
It’s dark out there. You can’t find a therapist or a veterinarian; they’re all booked solid. In less bourgeois news, we’re still flirting with fascism, helping Jeff Bezos take over outer space, and setting fire to the planet.
But the darkness is not—is never—all. “And,” wrote E. M. Forster, from within the particular and fearsome shadows of 1938, “one can, at all events, show one’s own little light here, one’s own poor little trembling flame, with the knowledge that it is not the only light that is shining in the darkness, and not the only one which the darkness does not comprehend.” In the same essay, he also wrote, “One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life.”
Perhaps here is something—something humble, humane, and deceptively simple, as was dear E. M.’s wont—to put into practice. Here is a thought for theatremakers: Our ability to trust, and to be fond of each other—to care for each other in every sense—is an indispensable part of our work, of our essence as artists. But it has been critically wounded, and we must revive it. Our ability to make art depends on it. Our survival does, too.
Theatre is an absurd art form. It asks—and attaches the highest stakes to—questions like, “What do I do with my hands?”; “Can you both stand eight more inches downstage when you gouge his eyes out?”; “Do we need gobos for the dream ballet?”; and “The fairy wings are still on backorder and we open in two days—what the FUCK do you expect us to do?!”
It also asks no less of us than life does: Every moment it offers us the opportunity to practice, consciously, being a human being among other human beings. It asks us to make little societies and govern them well. It asks us to talk to each other, constantly. It asks us for the continuous exercise of attention, moral courage, good faith, and care. Despite our best efforts to turn it into just another Disney World (for those who consume it) or just another day job (for those who create it), it stubbornly refuses to forget its ancient, sacred, undomesticated essence. It’s like a cat that way.
In an exquisite essay on the contradictions and possibilities of utopia, called “A Non- Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be,” Ursula Le Guin quotes Lao Tzu: “When the Way is lost, there is benevolence. When benevolence is lost there is justice. When justice is lost there are the rites. The rites are the end of loyalty and good faith, the beginning of disorder.”
All the lists of regulations in the world won’t save us. Our bureaucracies—no matter the goodness of their intentions—won’t save us. Our unions—notwithstanding their efforts in the face of other, more terrible machines we’ve built—won’t save us. We cannot policy our way back to the light. Much has been broken, innumerable hurts inflicted, and it makes perfect sense that, when we’ve been hurt, we human beings try to create structures to prevent it from happening again. Perhaps we even create new, necessary, and better structures each time around. All the while, Dionysus laughs at our attempts to heal ourselves with yet more rules.
Did you go to summer camp as a child? There was something overwhelming and a little frightening about it—it seemed to be all of life compressed into three or four weeks. You had no choice but to make friends quickly. You had to open your little heart and say, “Hi, I’m Sara, do you want to go and braid lanyards at the art building?” These were your people, your whole world, for a long little while, and you had to dig in, be brave, love as much as you could in a short time, and then let it all go.
Trust and hope are sisters. Bright, tough girls who will spend their lives being brutally, repeatedly disappointed. But the temptation to abandon benevolence in our pain, to seize upon the rites as our salvation, is a trick of the devil.
In her play TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992, Anna Deavere Smith takes on the words of Cornel West. “Hope and optimism are different,” says West, through Smith:
Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there that
allows us to think things are going to be better
much more rational
looks at the evidence and says
it doesn’t look good at all!....
We gonna make a leap of
faith beyond the evidence
to attempt to create
new possibilities based
on visions that
become contagious so
people can engage in heroic
against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.
“It is required you do awake your faith,” says Paulina in THE WINTER'S TALE. It is required— and yet, these days, we have little faith in each other. It’s one thing to lose faith in institutions, in governments, in countries; it’s quite another to lose it in people. The pandemic didn’t begin its sibling plague of dislike and distrust, but it has gravely exacerbated our national status quo. Last winter, I started to notice how easily, how quickly I was apt to get angry at strangers. I’d see someone maskless in the grocery store, or someone would elbow by on the street well within the six-foot radius—and I could feel my chest tighten with rage. Rage?
We had already been primed to hate half of the country (we with our “Hate has no place here” signs), but in this new and anxious world, after months of isolation and millions of avoidable deaths, there suddenly seemed to be visual markers for morality, in both our physical and virtual spheres. Mask, good. No mask, bad. Repost this square, good. Don’t repost that square, bad…. JUST KIDDING, reverse that! KEEP UP, CAN’T YOU?
This kind of simplistic, automatic fury is disastrous training for the psyche. Judgment, indignation, resentment—these things are muscles, just like patience, generosity, and tenderness. The pandemic has taken us to the gym of suspicion and outrage every single day. It has left our better muscles atrophied. Social distancing, a necessity for our bodies, has trapped our souls in the lonely, loveless boxes of our devices, where, at best, we are arch and memeable; at worst, we’re frothing and flailing in a kind of road rage, howling curses at people we’d treat with equanimity in person, desperately seeking some feeling of control in the widening gyre. (I can’t help thinking of more ancient plagues, and how our lack of medical knowledge meant that, while our losses were even greater, we probably held each other closer.)
Control, of course, is one of the great lies. Again, Baldwin speaks out across time— here during a 1962 talk at New York City’s Community Church:
“[This is] a time…when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. Conrad told us a long time ago… 'Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.' Henry James said, 'Live, live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.' And Shakespeare said—and this is what I take to be the truth about everybody’s life all of the time—'Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.' Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion.”
The hollowness of our current theatre practice is the hollowness of fear—of frantic action based predominantly on optics, shame, and an anguished scrabbling for safety. We seem to believe that if we check enough of the right boxes, everyone will be less angry, less hurt: safe. We seem ready to work on numbers, to hire more [fill in the blank: people of color, trans people, women…], and hesitant to re-address process—the day-to-day ways we actually go about making theatre—in a radical, imaginative way. We are proud to participate in the Big-C “Conversation” but are afraid of having small-c conversations with real people. We act like there is such a thing as a “safe space,” when we know in our marrow that every human relationship brings risk, that we must be vulnerable in order to make anything in the world—that we cannot trust a friend, a lover, or a collaborator without the possibility of pain. And punishment will not cure the pain. And the pain does not absolve us of the task of trying, of trusting, again.
“I’m thinking about how sometimes, when we look at our history, we have a visceral response of shame,” said the poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama in a conference with the On Being Project in 2018. “And it’s no wonder we don’t want to look at it. And shame begins in the body…. And then we put language around it, and then we put protections around it, and then curricula and policy and elections around shame.” (This is true on both the right and the left.) “But it begins in the individual language of the body. And it’s understandable that it is so seizing of us. It is like being arrested by something. I mean, it does stop you. And I was trying to think, for a long time, what’s a counterpoint, not a challenge, but what’s a counterpoint to shame? And I think it’s trust.”
Shame folds us in on ourselves. Unacknowledged, it brings along the demons of paranoia and sanctimony. It curdles our efforts at better policymaking and turns us into boring, bad artists. It’s also inevitable: “All art is faced with starving children and apocalyptic politics. All art is ashamed and angry and desolate because of its impotence in the face of reality,” said Peter Schumann in 1985. Then he went back to building giant puppets and feeding people bread.
We must be joyful exorcists of shame. Theatre—real theatre, not the business of putting on plays—can only happen when hearts are open, when faith is awakened, when joy is present. Happiness can come and go but joy is imperative. Conflict and struggle are inevitable. Bravery, honesty, generosity, and discernment are all indispensable, and joy above all. “We must risk delight,” wrote the poet Jack Gilbert:
We can do without pleasure
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
So many theatremakers have become embittered victims of Robert Frost’s ideal—an almost impossible dream in the capitalist marketplace—of uniting one’s avocation and vocation, as “two eyes make one in sight.” The vocation part takes hold: for the vast majority of us, there’s no such thing as a living wage in the theatre. We scrape for rent and health insurance, we take on side hustles and “survival jobs,” we pour our souls into artist’s statements begging for grants and fellowships that don’t amount to the cost of a sofa on the Upper East Side. Meanwhile, we are inundated with the world’s ongoing horrors, and we start to feel like it’s our ethical and creative duty to be responding to all of them, all of the time. (Another recipe for bad art.) We take ourselves as seriously as morticians. Terrified to put a syllable wrong, we browbeat and plead with our audiences as if we’re coaxing them to attend a temperance rally.
When will we remember that we’re actually inviting them to a feast, a carnival, a wake?
What are we making theatre for? From what wells in us does it spring? Why did we want to dress in funny clothes and tell each other stories in the first place? Surely it had something to do with love.
There’s a Russian word: obraz. Translated simply, it means “image.” But more accurately it refers to an icon or a sacred image, an image replete with figurative meaning and visceral power. It’s more than a symbol— obraz is an instant that contains the cosmos. In a piece of theatre, it’s that sudden, shocking alchemy of elements—the radiant convergence of what you see, what you hear, and what you feel into a psychophysical fusion bomb that bursts inside you, revealing to you the whole play—sometimes, it seems, the whole world—in a single gesture. Dmitri Krymov, the director who taught me the word, defined it as “an image, but an image of God.”
We are in pursuit of nothing less. Or we should be. Anyone who cares about theatre has felt it—makers, writers, audience members. Isn’t it why so many of us have stuck around this nutty traveling circus? With its commercialism and its bureaucracy, its lack of security and its scarcity culture, its self-righteousness and its neuroses and its many, many, many institutional failings? We’re here because at some point, we’ve seen God.
Theatre—real theatre, not the business of putting on plays—can only happen when hearts are open, when faith is awakened, when joy is present. Happiness can come and go but joy is imperative.
I am being a bad Marxist. Talking about God. Not talking enough about theatre folk as workers, as members of an industry that, despite riding a sea of rolling reckonings, has yet to get its act together as a sustainable profession.
Last December, the chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton gave an interview in the wake of her New York Times editorial, “My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore?” If you’re a theatre human, reading her conversation with Resy’s Ben Leventhal can feel uncanny: Wait, she’s talking about restaurants, not art, right?
“I do find myself wondering a lot about the kind of heroic classification of [our] nearly athletic pivoting, scrambling to stay alive,” says Hamilton. “I think we get lost in admiring that kind of hustle, but I do wonder if it might not be more heroic to actually figure out a way to harness all that energy and spread that out among everybody and make radical, substantive change across the whole industry.” The questions of how to maintain integrity, creativity, and a feeling of contribution, of how to put something beautiful and substantive into the world while also paying rent “haven’t been answered for any of us,” says Hamilton. “Industrywide, there has been no answer to how will we all make a legitimate living.”
I’ve been prone to talking about how, as an art form, theatre is unique. Nothing else can do what it does, how it does it, when we really invite the gods into the room. But as a profession, it’s hardly special. We share our ills with plenty of other methods of trying to survive under American capitalism in 2021. Many of us live with one foot in the service industry and one in the arts—getting by on whatever amount of blood we manage to squeeze from two different stones.
I don’t know the cure. I don’t know where the money to let us sustain lives and sustain our souls is going to come from, since the ones that have it seem committed to turning it into yachts, spaceships, and ammunition. It’s a cruel riddle, and I don’t know the answer.
But perhaps I know a few important things. Perhaps we all do. Le Guin writes: “If utopia is a place that does not exist, then surely (as Lao Tzu would say) the way to get there is by the way that is not a way. And in the same vein, the nature of the utopia I am trying to describe is such that if it is to come, it must exist already.”
I know that the world doesn’t need more mediocre, compromised art.
I know that we can reduce harm all we want, but the gods won’t show their faces until we rediscover joy.
I know that, whilst we stand demanding change, we are already and always changing. And the process is painful, frustratingly unspectacular, and full of shadows. It’s never the brilliant metamorphosis we want it to be, and it has no grand finale.
I know that the only way through the shadows is to care for each other. To stay interested, delighted, amused. To be fond and to trust. To protect our little trembling flames.
I know that mushrooms have patience and perseverance—and that the individual fruiting bodies arise from vast networks of underground mycelium, that they are all part of a single living organism.
I know that this country is wide and broken and ugly and beautiful, and that there are human beings in it who are irretrievably buried in fury and fear, and that there are human beings in it who will pick up two shivering, wind-beaten cyclists sitting in despair on the Wyoming roadside and drive them 100 miles through the badlands, and eat lunch with them, and wish them luck.
I know that being a human takes practice. It takes falling short and then doing better: It takes rehearsal.
And I know—because I like looking these things up—that “rehearsal” comes from the Old French for repeatedly raking, or harrowing, the ground. The hears that gives us harrow and rehearsal is the same as the hearse that still carries us to the cemetery. The original root word referred both to a rake and then, eventually, to the rake-shaped frame for candles that used to be hung over coffins.
Somehow we have this word, this word that we use to describe the process of making believe together, and it means harvest and life and repetition and death. It means to go over, again and again. We enter an empty space, imagine that it’s the vasty fields of France or a sitting room in provincial Russia, and then we practice walking and talking and living and dying. We practice love and grief and justice and forgiveness. Hardest of all, we practice change. We figure out how to survive with our guts in tatters. How to keep loving with broken hearts. How to sew with bloody hands.
The plagues are not over. Perhaps they will never be. But here we are. Together in the dark, in search of a land that may not exist, but on a road that’s real enough, its every pebble, crest, and curve concrete beneath our feet. Here we are, still walking—still learning to listen, to take care, to reimagine the world.
November 10, 2021, Richmond, VA
This is for Beau and for Josephine
Sara Holdren is a director, teacher, and writer-about-theatre. She lives in Richmond, VA, with her partner Beau (a writer), their cat companion Masha, several bikes, a boatload of books, and a sourdough starter named Serafina Pekkala.
I wrote this essay in November of 2021. Now, it’s nearly March. One might say only three months have passed, but in that “only”—as has been the way with time for a good stretch of it now—what a long, cold winter. In that “only,” what tumult, what continued ripples and ravages, what flows of grief.
Here, in my small and relatively sheltered and fortunate corner of the world, I’m writing this note three hours after losing my cat to cancer, six weeks after crossing the line that brings me closer to 40 than 30, and two months since the show I was in the process of directing became a casualty of Omicron. (Postponed, not canceled, but still, like so many others, we left our rehearsal room unable to touch each other and uncertain of when or how or if we’ll all be able to return.) It’s a play I’ve been dreaming of for over a decade, a play from a place whose mad dictator has finally started a new war. It’s about frustrated hopes, existential grief, and vast uncertainty—about people trying to figure out how to live in a country that’s vast and lonely and unjust and fucked up and dangerous and ashamed and aggressive and full of suffering and full of joy and susceptible to fascistic hubris and capable of immense, astonishing beauty.
Being a theatremaker in November felt fraught with the infuriating shortcomings of a partial return to the status quo—especially after a long period with nothing to devote ourselves to but the dream. (We’d all been Vershinins for 18 months, philosophizing towards a brighter future, only to return to a version of “normal” with more sanctimony and fewer resources.) But being a theatremaker now feels, once again, chaotic, laden with soul-ache, and embattled to the point of near-impossibility. “How are we going to survive our lives?” says Masha to Irina. “What is going to become of us?”
Who’s to say? And who can say whether this piece of writing feels, at this point, a bit like a time capsule. Perhaps, perhaps not. But whatever the case, I offer it as a letter from a moment not so long ago to anyone who might have use for it in the hard, protean now. As Olga says: “We’re not done yet, my loves. We’re alive now, and we’re going to keep on living.”
February 25, 2022