I’d been teasing this blog out of my head for about a week now when something occurred to me. I needed to give myself permission to write it. As a leader of sorts, the public facing side of me always looks for the positive spin. The credible leaders I now look to in this pandemic have shed that pretense. I want truth and common sense. So…I give myself permission to not look for the silver lining. Who knows? There might be one. I won’t know till I finish the blog.
I’ve been thinking a lot about breaking points. We all have one I suppose. Many of us have reached them. Many of us have yet to encounter one or even comprehend what could or would break a person. Just to be clear. I’m not talking about the kind of break caused by your roommate never doing the dishes, although, I guess that could be the final straw. It’s pretty amazing what we as humans can endure. My friends who have endured the loss of spouses and partners come to mind and, of course, those suffering the indignity of internment or the horrors of war.
We as theater makers do have experience with this. We’re in the business of reenacting the breaking points of others and that, at least, requires empathy and understanding. Blanche Dubois in Streetcar, Tonya in King Hedley II, Willy Loman in Salesman, all of Chekhov, Othello, Ophelia. Hamlet tiptoes to the edge but finds his purpose. The next show of our season, The Elephant Man, was set to start previews this week but has been postponed. We can’t rehearse it, and no one can come see it. Jospeh Merrick, the elephant man, is fascinating isn’t he? He endured unimaginable hardships and cruelties, but he never broke. In fact, he met it with a grace I’m sure I’ll never attain. At least that’s what the existing literature tells us about him. With those who seem to have a limitless supply of strength and optimism, I do wonder what the dead of night brings when their only company is doubt and darkness. I know it’s not my best time.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who’s a small business owner. He was trying to avail himself of what the CARES act promises to provide. He wasn’t in the best of moods. I mentioned that I’ve noticed lately that the stress was taking a toll on him and that I was sorry he was having to navigate this ever changing crisis. He thanked me, but was quick to acknowledge my burden as well as everyone’s. “Sure,” I said without really thinking about it. “But it’s different for me.” I went on to say that it’s different, because so many non-profits live on this edge that Hamlet so deftly walks. I’m three and a half years into being Artistic Director and there hasn’t been a week that has gone by that didn’t include some sort of existential threat; no exaggeration. Often (almost always) it’s money. If it’s not directly about money it’s probably indirectly about money. This is the way for non-profits arts groups that aren’t Goliaths or pet projects. I also have the weight of 2 founders along with their achievements and indiscretions sitting on my shoulders (not to mention life outside of work). We’ve danced together many a late night till they push my back right onto the tip of that breaking point. This all used to be sharp pains and now it’s dull aches.
So, yeah, it’s different for me. The enormity of what we face as an institution is clear. Will it break me? I don’t think so? This past season something started to happen. With each crisis I would sort of sink into some kind of neutral space. I’m willing to bet many of you know what I’m talking about. It’s not necessarily comfortable, but it doesn’t have the prickly sensation that intense anxiety has either. Is it armor? A cocoon? Delusion? Indifference? Wisdom? I dunno. It does allow me to think clearly and rationally, so that’s good. Also, I think it puts some space between me and my breaking point, at least at the beginning of the day.
How that space shrinks in a single day is also fascinating to me, as well as the affect the dark of night has on my mental state. A few years back, I co-wrote an adaptation of Faust. That’s a guy who had to see, do and feel a whole hell of lot before he reached his breaking point. In it, I wrote the line I’m most proud of ever having put on paper. It was said by Phil the futuristic taxi driver and was modeled on Goethe’s character of Philemon whose contentment with life infuriated Faust. In our adaptation, Faust catches a ride in Phil’s taxi and is admonished to “Take care of yourself. The night is filled with self-loathing.” Incidentally, the actor who was to play Joseph Merrick also played Phil. Hmmmm. Sometimes, from early morning to the dead of night I seem to beeline for my breaking point. The wisdom of Phil get’s me through to the sunrise. ‘night Mother by Marsha Norman, there’s a character with a breaking point! Or, did she just slip into her neutral space, allowing her to calmly and rationally end her life? It’s the latter, right?
Please, don’t read this blog as a cry for help. It’s quite the opposite. It’s just that I have more time to think on ONE subject, as I’m sure many of you do. In the pre-Covid days of yore, I rarely had time to spend more than a few minutes thinking about one thing before it was on to the next theater emergency. Oh, how about Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis!? Quixote and Sancho, there are two men who seem to relish flirting with their breaking points. I don’t know. Maybe the concept of the breaking point is only useful in literature and the evening news. We just endure each tragedy and move on or not.
It’s OK to think about these things. I’m sure the aforementioned playwrights did. They probably dwelled on them. There’s the silver lining! Take the time to ruminate on your existence. If Samuel Beckett was the head of the World Health Organization that’s what he’d say. The Irish know a thing or two about isolation and resolve and whiskey. There you go! We’ve got a double silver lining. This quarantine and tragic loss of life give Americans more street cred as brooding literary types.
Addendum: The whole time I was writing this I had to resist the urge to reference the classic American film Point Break. Good stuff. Special Agent Johnny Utah = Modern Day Hamlet? I think I’ll ruminate on that today.