I keep thinking about this article from the SDC Journal, by the brilliant Sara Holdren. It’s the genre of article we’ve all read a thousand times and are kind of sick of: “How does the theater look after pandemic?” kind of thing. But it’s smart, funny, compelling. It’s what all those other articles are trying to be, and not-being. You should read it.
But one part, in particular, keeps knocking on the doors of my mind:
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 keep thinking about it because the thing Sara identifies as scary, those “small-c conversations with real people” are the only thing I can manage. That work of “re-address[ing] process—the day-to-day ways we actually go about making theatre” is the only work I can find for moving forward. Seeing her describe that as the hard thing that isn’t happening makes me think.
For a long, long time, I have struggled with thinking that I don’t think big enough, and that this is a problem. So many of the people I admire are doing work that is big and systemic. It is important, hard work. I want to be the kind of person who does that work. But when it comes to the “Big-C ‘Conversation,'” as Sara says, I just get frustrated and alienated and bored. I believe(d?) that being that kind of big-picture person was the right and best and probably only way to solve the big problems.
Last winter, I had a conversation about this with Bridget McCarthy (she’s a genius, you should check her out, send her cookies, hire her for literally everything). Bridget is the kind of person who works at tremendous scale. She started the pandemic making lasagna for out-of-work actors and before she knew it, she was the founding executive director of the Atlanta Artists Relief Fund, with a case load of thousands of people. She’s extraordinary, and has this big-picture vision all day long.
I told her about how I feel overwhelmed when I think about the big picture, but I feel deeply invested in individuals. Once I’m on somebody’s team, they can always count on me, and they know it. I am pushing for equity by investing in specific people who haven’t always had access to spaces I’ve managed to get into, whether that’s because of their gender, sexuality, race, disability, parenting status, poverty. I’m invested in their hopes and dreams—not my dreams for them, but who they are and where they want to go. I’m hiring them when I can, I’m connecting them to opportunities, writing letters of recommendation, texting them with encouragement and check-ins. I’ve always done this. This is my natural way of moving through the world.
Bridget said, “It’s great that you do that, but how do you scale it?”
When she said that, I had an absolute epiphany. A long time ago, I made my team in a research lab at a tech company read The Empty Space, and a tech coworker asked this exact question. The answer I gave him applied here: “I don’t think you do scale it,” I said. “I can’t do scale. What I can do is specificity. There’s nothing wrong with scale—that’s important work. But it’s not my work.”
As I said this, in my head, I heard my spiritual director applauding; she’s always after me to get serious about knowing what is mine to do, and what is mine not to do. Maybe big, systemic work is simply not mine to do.
Bridget said, “That’s your superpower. You don’t have to work at scale, because other people are doing that. But the work you do with individuals is important. That matters, too. And not everybody can do that.”
When I read Sara’s article, that paragraph struck me as a little surprising, but just because I think of the thing I can do as easy, and therefore unimportant. Sara’s words reinforced what Bridget was trying to say. This little thing I can do, it counts as a superpower, in its own way.
I’ve just finished callbacks for Merry Wives at Quill Theatre. We’ll be announcing our cast list soon. An actor reached out to me to tell me that it was “a really, really fun callback.” I had fun too! I think it was because I gave myself permission to show up authentically. I’ve finally let go of whatever I thought a callback was supposed to be, and created a situation where I was just able to work with individuals in a grounded, honest, curious, grateful way. Embracing my superpower. Remembering that it is a superpower.