Crumbling Infrastructure

In our quest to peel back the layers of our social world, artists experience immense pushback.

People get rattled when they see someone express something they’ve repressed in themselves. Raw emotions can be particularly prevalent when watching theatre: an art form that reflects the intimate ways we interact with each other. It shows both internal processes as well as the external social order. Characters can speak to us as if speaking in their own heads, and that, coupled with how they behave in their environment, reveals profound truths about human nature.

In that way, theatre is political.

My previous post mentioned Sonya Renee Taylor’s interview on Brené Brown’s podcast “Unlocking Us”, and I’d like to bring in another element of that conversation. Taylor uses the image of a ladder to talk about systemic structures in society: deep-rooted expectations placed on and perpetuated by each of us. Systemic structures are always presenting obstacles that prevent us from radical self-love, in which we understand our innate divinity. We are all worthy of love but we are told in many different ways how we are not.

The structures in place that dictate what is “wrong” and what is “right”, what is worthy and what is not, are completely imaginary… Fabricated by those in power and continued by those who wish to climb to the top. But we each have this ladder inside of us and are constantly gauging our place on its rungs.

What happens when we recognize that the ladder is fictional? That our constant comparisons to others are perpetuating harmful hierarchies? What if we simply refused to follow the rules of this imaginary structure embedded in each of us?

The ladder disappears, and the systemic structures crumble.

That’s the true beauty of theatre. It can reveal where we are all placing ourselves in comparison to others and how futile that practice really is. It can show us where we “use” that ladder in our daily lives then take it away, causing revelations on how we wield power.

People become mentally untethered when they see that despite their best intentions, their actions are tied to something nonexistent. They cling to the belief that hierarchy is innate and that love is conditional. Discoveries of the truth can happen in the theatre and it can happen when the marginalized speak up: when they draw attention to the theatrical performances in our day-to-day. Gay people, for example, constantly have to place themselves on a lower rung than straight people. Any attempt to defy the ladder and refute its existence is blasphemous to the social order.

When queer folks recognize that the ladder people have been building their lives around for years actually doesn’t exist, they face immense backlash. Heaven forbid they upset a straight person: someone considered higher up on the ladder. When that structure’s taken away, people who find comfort in standing above others for so long begin falling, with nothing left to hold onto. Thus a queer person calling out the system that fails them sparks fear in everyone else who is just now realizing their social standing is actually a performance that perpetuates harm.

Continue calling out the ladders. It may cause chaos but it gets us closer to the truth: we are each innately worthy of deep and complicated love. Comparison to others simply builds self-worth upon an imaginary scaffolding that is bound to crumble.




The Inertia of Acceptance

Sonya Renee Taylor’s recent interview with Brené Brown has given me a lot to think about.

One point of discussion that stands out is the understanding of the phrase “I accept you” as inert. It doesn’t really do anything. Acceptance is like, meh. Almost insignificant. Isn’t it much better to be loved? Doesn’t love lead to real action and change?

I know I’ve been in environments where I feel accepted. People smile and nod and do all the things they’re supposed to do in order to remain civil. But there can still be an underlying tension preventing a true sense of belonging. A lack of understanding or a biased assumption pushing back against a full-hearted embrace of all of our differences. A clear hesitation to know me at a deeper level. A fear of what may be found.

Acceptance can act as a shield to protect us from true vulnerability. Let’s say you’re in a situation with others whom you don’t fully understand. The social expectation is to have good manners and not make a fuss. You accept them even though you can’t relate to them. But the moment something rubs you the wrong way you run away in fear because you never bothered to try to understand. Acceptance can make us complacent and prevent us from getting to know someone on a more intimate level: a level that’s more conducive to love.

We can love others even if they’re different from us. In fact, love can be stronger because of differences. But the socially accepted norm of doing the bare minimum and simply “accepting” people gets in the way of more complicated, nuanced relationships. And in my experience, even questioning or confronting the legitimacy of simplified “acceptance” can stir a lot of trouble. People get uncomfortable when they’re faced with their own biases and reluctance to give in to love.

Artists are inquisitive people. One would hope that we may be more inclined to get more curious and move past the first layer of acceptance, venturing into the more interesting and fulfilling layer of understanding and love.

Quiet

Hear that? That’s the sound of your heart and mind thanking you for taking a breather.

You would think that during a pandemic I would feel fine with spending days doing absolutely nothing. I definitely do not. I tend to get antsy and a bit hard on myself, thinking I should be using this time “wisely” and be productive in ways I never had been before.

But I have to remind myself that I am actually active and engaged. I work, for example, and I’m reading, and spending time with family, etc. You can look at reading as work, especially if you’re an artist or writer. Social time (within your bubbles, of course) is also productive as it is so healthy for you and for the others.

And outside of those moments, when I’m feeling that things are too “quiet”, I need to remember that quiet time is needed too. Recharge. Enjoy the fall weather. Settle in to the quiet.

Embrace the Flop

In clown training, a general rule of thumb is to “embrace the flop”, which in a nutshell means accept the inevitable failure. I’m reminding myself to his strategy lately, trying to let a certain darkness find its proper place.

When your mind is consumed by a inescapable cloud of worry or sadness it can be a bit tricky to find any sort of motivation to create. But perhaps the time suck isn’t actually the negative event, but the real estate you dedicate to it. It may get to a point where you think “This thing isn’t going away. So where shall I put it in order to continue doing my best?”

I’m always a proponent for facing problems head on and doing everything in one’s power to resolve it. But often these problems that can plague us are not entirely within our power to fix. Other people exist, unfortunately, and if we are willing to communicate and they are not, then we may get stuck with the issue for some time. I’m trying to figure out how to approach those specific problems in my own life… and what I’ve come up with so far is to simply accept it and move it out of my way.

Embrace the flop. Live with it for a bit. And when there is adequate effort from all parties, launch that sucker out the window.

Fake It

For as long as I can remember I’ve turned my nose up at anything that involves losing authenticity. “Fake it till you make it,” to me, has meant “don’t be yourself.” I would hear that and defy it as much as possible, turning up the volume on my opinions and fighting the status quo.

And yet…

Do you feel there is validity in faking it? At least in some rare cases?

As an artist I dig deep into the human condition, always getting curious about truthful experiences and reflecting my findings back to audiences. The reflection process can be a transformative process, leading to important realizations and real change. Hence my resistance to anything “fake”. I want to remain open to those glimpses of the genuine by being authentic myself.

There can, however, be times when we fake things on the outside and feel our truths on the inside. Sometimes it’s simply not worth our energy to reveal everything all at once. Some people can’t be trusted with our purest selves, and we therefore shouldn’t feel obliged to show it to them. Everyone deserves kindness and respect. Everyone is owed clarity and empathy. But not everyone needs to bear witness to all of the beauty contained within.

Even as I type this I wonder if it’s true… But perhaps it’s good advice for artists to learn when to get fully honest. It could be the case that if we are always seeking authenticity we may wear ourselves thin. Artists are so often searching for truth, and that quest can be reflected in how we carry ourselves. But it’s easy to get exhausted when we’re met with folks or situations who can’t embrace our honesty and all the exquisiteness that comes with it.

So I’m going to try fine tuning my instinct to be open and vulnerable to all the elements. Some people just deserve the basics, not the full, beautiful package.

Lean Into Awkwardness

Progress can’t happen without vulnerability. I believe that we have to get messy with hard conversations in order to affect positive change and improve our relationships. Hard conversations require vulnerability, and vulnerability comes with discomfort.

Figuring ourselves out and talking to others with different perspectives from our own can get really awkward. But the reward is great. Even in private processes of writing or creating we’ll rub up against ideas or obstacles that run counter to our current beliefs. It’s important to embrace the awkwardness and work with the thing in front of you. Avoiding it does nothing.

Some people will never want to have awkward conversations. In which case they’re not the right person for you. I love what Michelle Obama talks about in one of her recent podcast episodes. She compares finding the right partner to picking a teammate in basketball: you don’t want someone who will just dribble the ball and not take any shots. You want someone who is strong and will make you strong in return.

Strength is shown when we engage in situations that make us feel awkward.