On my recent visit to Bridget to check out the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern, I noticed a phrase I think of as mostly mine popping up here and there.

I overheard a stage manager say, “Thank you for your work” to an actor as she emerged from the theater door after a show. The next night, the person working the box office said to a volunteer, “Thank you for your work.” An actor said it to the kitchen staff as he was heading out for the night.

It felt…eery, hearing that phrase over and over, in the mouths of strangers. I’m glad that people were sharing their gratitude. It felt good to know that every day, people were hearing that they had made a difference in someone’s process, that they were valued. But also odd–it was like hearing someone introduce herself with my name.

I have said, “Thank you for your work” to every cast, crew, designer, and everyone else I’ve worked on a show with for nearly twenty years. Every night, either to an individual or a group or everybody, I offer gratitude for their work.

Because I say it all the time, I think that many of the actors I work with regularly hear it as rote, Oh, it’s just this thing Aili says. But I mean it, every time. I think about who I’m going to say it to and when and why. I value people’s work, and I’m especially aware of the rehearsals when it’s extra hard for them or when they’ve shown up in a bigger way or when they’re struggling with something outside of the room and outside of my control. The one time my son acted for me (he subbed for the little boy when we staged a Duchess scene to film it), I felt incredibly emotional when I had the chance to say to him, “Thank you for your work, Silas.”

I know that I take myself and my work much to seriously, so sometimes this phrase is the base of a joke at my own expense–during Richard III, Roxy the Corgi sat in on our readthru, and she was the one I thanked that night. I still think that play would be better if it had a bit with a dog.

Eleemosynary, Hiram College Theater, 2002. Alice Toriello, Robin Behlow, Meghan Zuver, Mike Metzger, and me, wearing the wings.

It began with Eleemosynary, which I directed in my second year as a student at Hiram College. One night at the end of a rehearsal, I said, spontaneously, “Thank you for your work, everybody.” One of the actors–although at this remove, I don’t remember which one–said, “A director has never thanked me for my work before.”

I’m sure other directors thank actors; maybe she just hadn’t encountered them. We were all not that far removed from high school theater, and at least in my high school, the director never told us that she valued us at all. Maybe this actor came from a similar “education by trauma” drama program. It broke my heart to hear that, though. Actors are my favorite piece of the process. Without their work, I can’t do my work. Why wouldn’t I thank them?

Acting is, in many ways, thankless work. Most people don’t have any idea how hard it is to build a character and put a show together. Unlike playing a musical instrument or painting, acting is one of those things that most people think they could do if only they weren’t nervous about being in front of a crowd–it’s just talking, right? Most of us have been talking since we were toddlers. But we who do this work know how many hours of training go into a performance. We know the years of perseverance required to make anything approaching a living at it.

Getting the work is painfully difficult. I’m on a Facebook group for women in theater and I see posts daily of actors obsessing about their headshot, their “type,” their monologue selection, the audition where they didn’t get a callback–and I know, from the other side of the table, that it likely wasn’t any factor in the actors’ control, but some other thing they could never guess. The process is, by design, disempowering and painful.

Talking, and getting over a fear of being in front of a crowd, and learning all those lines is just the tiniest piece of it. I’m so grateful to actors for continuing to show up, to expose themselves to the rejection and the dismissal and the vulnerability of doing the work.

This is true, I think, in every part of the theater. Being a designer is a struggle–when are you going to take that artistic talent and go into marketing or something? Stage managers hear over and over that they aren’t artists, that they’re professional killjoys. Too many people ignore house managers, ushers, box office employees, PR folks. Crew members often don’t get the respect they deserve from within the company. But if anyone isn’t doing their work, the whole project flounders.

So I promised myself that nobody I work with will ever not know that I see and appreciate their work. It’s a tiny act of justice, to say, “I see you. I need what you bring. I’m grateful for you.”

Before you ask, yes, I find a reason to be grateful for every actor, even the rare one whom I have trouble connecting with. If I can’t see the work they are bringing, it’s almost always my own myopia. Asking myself, When and how will I thank this actor? tunes me into their work and gives me something to do to push past my irritation with whatever is creating a barrier between us. Seeking a pretext for gratitude has salvaged more projects than I care to count.

“Thank you for your work” summarizes why I do theater. I love my collaborators. I think my work is more actor-focused than many other directors’–not that other directors don’t love the actors or collaborate well with them, but when I ask other directors about their work, it’s rare that I meet someone who starts with talking about actors or collaboration. Most people start with some other piece of it–storytelling, or creating beautiful and powerful images, or exploring text. I do all those things, too–and they love their actors, too (most of them, anyway)–but actors are at the top of my list. When I’m daydreaming about work, my mind starts with actors, and then combinations of actors + characters + story + space + audience.

Before I’ve assembled the team, I can’t really work. My prework for shows consists of reading the script repeatedly and writing down questions I hope the actors will help me answer. Sometimes, I write about where I think the story is; usually, when I’m with actors or designers, I learn it was a bit left of where I thought. I assemble images to share with designers, but never in a, Make it look like this way. More like, I think it feels like this. Everything feels foggy and indistinct until I’m with other people, working together, and then many questions are answered quickly and clearly–not by me, and not by them, but by how I name what appears in the space between us.

After a couple days in Atlanta, I had to ask Bridget why I was hearing this phrase all over the Tavern. “Was it already here when you came, or did you bring it with you?” I had heard her saying it to people when I visited her at Elm Shakespeare last summer, so I knew that she likely was responsible for it–but I wanted to know for sure.

“I brought it with me,” she said. “You said it to me, and I loved how it was a perfect little package to express my appreciation to people. So I started saying it, and now lots of people here have picked it up. Probably ten or fifteen times every day, someone at the Tavern thanks someone for their work.”

I love that. I love to imagine that actors I’ve been grateful to are turning around and showing other people their own gratitude for their work. I love to imagine this centering practice spreading through theaters all over the place, from my heart all through the landscape.

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