“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” -Lao Tzu
Who’s excited to let go of 2020??
Okay, but really, is 2020 teaching you to let go, my surly merfolk? Because it’s been giving me the crash course in Dejunking My Life! I have let go of a tidy home, of dinners ready right at 6:00, and of consistent workouts. But! I have also let go of busywork, of micromanaging my children, and of unhealthy passivity. In essence, I am letting go of my illusions of life and making space for a messier, yes, but more authentic living.
I would like to see the same metamorphosis happen with American theatre. I miss it. Oh, how I miss it! I want theatres to reopen. I want to see it, create it, give hours and days and weeks of life to it! But I want it to emerge from this Covid cocoon a more vibrant version of itself. I hope theatre takes this moment to let go of the illusions of what it should be to become a messier (yes, messier!) and more authentic embodiment of what it is.
What illusions, you ask? Let’s start with Voices. Theatre, as I have stated before, is about the human connection. It’s about finding empathy for the Other (aka anyone that isn’t me). To learn empathy for the whole of human experience, I need to face experiences—voices—that aren’t mine. I need to recognize myself in dark skin, in a hijab, in a grass hut, in a refugee camp, on a respirator, and in a wheelchair. I want to come face-to-face with everyone that I am not, with their beautiful everyday stories, until all I see is all the ways we are each other. We need more voices. They are out there. We need to pass them the mic. The pen. The keys to the building.
And while we’re on the subject of representation, how about getting more diverse butts in the seats? We want to tell the story of the outsider and the oppressed, but so many theatre policies exclude the very same people. It should no longer be a closed system: the wealthy middle class entertaining the wealthy middle class. Where are the voices in that? Theatre is a live medium because performance art requires an audience, cannot exist without one. James Houghton, once the Director of the drama division at Juilliard School, said, “The audience are not passive consumers of theatre, it is a circular relationship. It is extremely important that an audience and a story become one. You often hear people describe the experience of ‘losing themselves‘ in the story; I- personally- would call it ‘finding yourself‘.”¹ If the circle is closed, where is there any room for finding oneself? We need to make the theatre experience affordable to everyone, including the nurse who works night shifts and the single mother of four kids on food stamps. One avenue has been largely expanded during the pandemic, namely, online streaming options. Jesse Green of the New York Times argues, “When live theater finally returns, the streamed kind, far from disappearing, must continue in parallel. Fairness alone demands it. The low-cost, high-impact, huge-reach format allows artists who could barely get past the gatekeepers before to establish themselves on a nearly equal footing with long-ensconced figures...Can we really dream of retracting that access?”² And maybe we can brainstorm some ways to make the live experience more accessible as well, huh?
And finally, I’d like to see the resurgence of interactive theatre...Or at least, of a more forgiving, less Victorian audience. The theatre experience is, for me (and so many of you), just that: An Experience. It moves us, doesn’t it? And shouldn’t it? What if we were given the freedom to respond to that? I like the playwright Dominique Morisseau’s approach, who told her audiences, “This can be church for some of us, and testifying is allowed.”³ I wish I could laugh or gasp without earning someone’s side-eyed glare. I wish I didn’t feel judged taking my younger children to a musical because—shock and awe—I want them to have cultural experiences that promote empathy. And I wish more stories had the courage to break the fourth wall. Obviously I’m not suggesting that every show end on a Victor Hugo note, with audiences rioting from their seats. But I hope that the American theatre has enough security to welcome their audience inside—not just to the seats, but to the storytelling as well.
Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground today. We’ve made a lot of changes this year. Let’s hope we have the courage to continue to change. That we, as creators and performers, and artistic decision makers, have the courage to let go of what we were to discover what we might become. That we create true stories told by all humans to all humans. That we let go of some of the control, and we let the messiness of life in. I mean, in the words of some wise stranger on the internet: “If you have to force it, leave it. Relationships. Yoga poses. Elitist Art. Perfect ponytails. Let that sh** go.”