Thoughts from our Associate Artistic Director Christie Vela.
There is a Canadian TV show from the early 2000’s called Slings And Arrows very popular among theatre-making folks. It centers around a fictional theater company, The New Burbage Theatre Festival. The main character is an actor who rises to the Artistic Directorship via crazy circumstances, and finds himself leading a behemoth of a theater towards certain ruin. His first assignment, to direct Hamlet; the play that drove him literally mad several years prior. He constantly says, ‘I am ill-equipped to direct Hamlet right now’. The TV show is fictional, but too too real in a hilariously painful way for those of us who have chosen the road of professional theatre. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard in dressing rooms, green rooms, rehearsal halls, wings, bars, “Have you watched Slings And Arrows? Oh you have to.”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said those very words. In fact someone still has my complete box set. Thankfully it’s available on Prime (if you have Acorn TV) and I re-watch it often, sometimes just to laugh at the absurdity of my profession and sometimes just to confirm that I am not insane. There are one or two people out there with whom I occasionally exchange a quote from the show via text when we find ourselves going nuts. The series ends in the third season with all the characters and the theater undergoing massive change, and a few unanswered questions. It is the ending that is inevitable and yet absolutely surprising. Like all good plays.
The title of the show is of course taken from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy,
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.
Never have Hamlet’s words hit so close to home than right now. Since this all went down, I’ve kicked those thoughts around in my head more than once. Whoa, hold on, Hamlet is talking about ending his own life, I am talking about theater with a capital T, theater as an institution. Histrionic? Well, I’m an actor; sue me, but I feel the analogy is apt. Should we suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Is it noble to fight? Is it worth fighting to keep alive an artform that is soooo difficult to keep alive even when people CAN leave their homes? Everyone seems to be fighting the good fight right now; scrambling to figure out how to go forward, from producing zoom plays, to radio plays, to silly videos, to streaming plays, and the ideas and the plans keep coming, every day it’s a new plan. A new idea. A new exchange with Equity. And zoom meeting after zoom meeting after zoom meeting. It’s exhausting. It’s enough to make one take arms against a sea of troubles! So, then, what? Do I just end the heartache and thousand natural shocks that theatre is heir to? Some days, IT IS TOTALLY A CONSUMMATION DEVOUTLY TO BE WISH’D, Y’ALL.
Because I live in a lovely theater bubble, everyone I know has been affected by the virus in various and terrible ways. If theater has taught me anything, it’s that everyone is fighting a battle you cannot see. That, and proper breath. So I take a step back, breathe, and I remind myself that we’re all dealing with an insane situation in a variety of ways: some people have to scramble and plan and some people have to sit back and think, others have to sing showtunes or recite monologues on Facebook, still others have to rant politically. I mean, actors/theatres in their non-pandemic natural state, are already fighting everyday to prove that they’re essential. So can you imagine? Me? I’ve been cooking a lot. Like a lot. I’ve been revisiting old recipes handed down by my mom, new recipes I’ve found online, or even just trying to figure out a dish from photos posted by other quarantine chefs. In fact, I haven’t eaten this well in years. When I’m working, I’m lucky if I get to sit down and eat a meal like a normal person one day in a week. I don’t feel guilty in the least saying that this time has given me a tremendous amount of down-time to really think about the thing I do for a living, and what an incredible privilege it is that I get to do it. That I have worked hard to reach a point in my career where making theater is all I do. I get to make plays, and not only that, I get to teach young theater makers HOW to make plays, that is a true privilege, and I take it very seriously. But. Right now; it’s not essential. Nurses and doctors are essential. Teachers, sanitation workers, people who build ventilators, the delivery workers who bring us the things to our doorstep are essential; these are the people who I should be figuring out how to help immediately. Not how do I turn a live performance medium into a digital one overnight. If I wanted to do TV, I would have gone to L.A. decades ago. What we do requires everyone to be in a room together. The beauty of it and the magic is that the performer and the audience make a pact that in this dark room we will commune over a totally made up story and for the next two hours accept it as real. Everybody’s got to do what they gotta do to survive but, for me, personally, no zoom play, or radio show, no matter how clever or how famous the actor is, can ever replace the live experience. Commune. And we just can’t do that right now. And we absolutely should not. For many, it is a matter of life and death.
Now, calm down theatre people, I’m not saying we’re not important as theater-makers. When this is all over, and it will be over, we are going to be essential again, our communities and our cities, our regions our whole country are going to need us to tell them the story of us. How we got through it, the friendships that ended, the ones that started, the losses and the loves. ALL THE BABIES we’re going to meet 9 months from now. We’re going to be SO ESSENTIAL. The scary part of that is we might look different on the other side. We might not be the same organizations that we were going into it. But we must not be afraid to face that. In fact, we should embrace it! These past few weeks have taught me that if I moisturize, all I need is a good concealer, mascara and lip-balm. This is our chance, when we get back into the room, to do the same with our work; get back to basics, re-learn that if we take care of the story, we need very little else. This is our chance to stop trying to be something we’re not; something we cannot be because we lack funding, or a space, or whatever. This is our chance to become the theaters we’ve always dreamed of, and to throw away old models, old ideas of THIS IS HOW WE’VE ALWAYS DONE IT.
This situation has served to remind all of us, what a precarious and unbelievable thing we do; financially and esoterically. I am choosing to embrace whatever change this will bring for all of us as an artform. I am excited about what incredible projects are going to spring from Danielle Georgious’s beautiful head, What visceral and hilarious words is Jonathan Norton going to put on paper? What crazy time-traveling hero is Michael Federico going to come up with next? What the hell kind of gut-wrenching story is Blake Hackler going to come up with during a pandemic? What is Joel Ferrell’s pared down Music Man going to look like? Because believe me, these things will happen. They have to. They always have. From the beginning of time, as soon as there was food and shelter and community, someone got up and told a joke, then sang a song, then danced a dance then that someone turned to another someone and said “get up, help me tell this story” and it started, “Hey everybody, remember when…?” I am living right now for the remember when. Breathe.
I am trying to be comfortable in my relative discomfort right now, that is, my uncertainty about the future. Breathe. I am using all of my actor breathing exercises. Breath is everything I tell my students and it’s true. Connect with your breath, and your instrument tells you what it needs/wants to do. And because it’s your breath, unique to you, whatever follows, can’t be wrong. Breathe.
There is a great scene in Shakespeare In Love, where Mr. Henslow (the theater proprietor) is explaining to tough-guy-turned-producer Mr. Fennyman the nature of theater; it goes something like this:
Henslow: The Natural condition (of the theatre) is one of unsurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Believe me, to be closed by the plague is the bagatelle in the ups and downs of owning a theater.
Fennyman: So what do we do?
Henslow: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Henslow: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
I love this exchange. Every other theater person I know loves this exchange because it’s absolutely true. We all know it’s true. It’s so true, it makes my heart jump every time I hear it. I remember it every time I’m in a difficult tech. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to work. It doesn’t mean it will be pretty or at all what we expected, but it will be exactly what it needs to be. I am a pretty jaded character, ask anyone, but I do believe in that mystery.
So for right now, class, just breathe.