The Finite Animal

13P's End Days

Since before our implosion commenced with the closing night of Melancholy Play by Sarah Ruhl (p#13), the staff and playwrights of 13P have been fully engaged in the company having a kind of conscious death. We talk at length about what will be left behind, what information we should share, and what pieces of our history we each individually want to keep. We even refer to our new website archive that will launch this October as our "digital tombstone." Planning for the end of this company has been a preoccupation of mine for years now. It is important to me that the company make active choices about everything having to do with our implosion. It has made me seriously examine what endings mean for all of us, as theater makers and as human beings.

From the beginning, it was always a finite, 13-play project. Our theater company lasted for nine years. Some companies last for one production. Others, like The Public Theater in New York City, are still going strong after fifty-five years. All these models are valid; the life span of a company should be determined by what the company sets out to do. 

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The 13P Logo. Photo by 13 Playwrights Inc. 

As the finish line of 13P finally approached, I started to educate myself about dying. As with all creative projects that affect us deeply, I started to see the world through the prism of the end of 13P, and to see the end of things all around me. I noticed the unfamiliar markers that signified my parents were steadily moving into old age as my colleagues and friends were visiting their own parents in various elder-care facilities around the country. I started to pay attention to the feelings that arose on the closing nights of productions that I had worked on—feelings often bittersweet or triumphant, sometimes even accompanied by relief. I also signed up for a workshop at the New York Open Center to become an "End of Life Doula." I had heard of birthing doulas before—nonprofessionals, usually women, who help deliver babies into this world. This workshop had borrowed the word "doula" to mean volunteers, usually at a hospice, who were trained to help people leave this world. End of Life Doulas help carry out the last wishes of the terminally ill and provide support and stability for primary caregivers at the time of a loved one's death. The class was filled with nurses, social workers, and hospice workers. I avoided telling anyone what my career was... I felt like a trespasser, and theater just didn't seem all that important. That said, I couldn't help but connect the teachings I was learning to what I do.

Most of what an End of Life Doula does is to create rituals for the dying and their family, and it was surprisingly easy to connect that to my world. Theater is a mortal form; here was mortality straight on. The End of Life Doula starts working with the patient and her family about six months to a year before the end. Obviously the end of one's life can be hard to predict, but the idea is to be able to reach terminally ill persons while they can still make decisions about how they would like to die. Together, patient and doula create a vigil plan that includes specific instructions for what pictures the patient wants to see when she opens her eyes, what smells (as the sense of smell is often one of the last senses to go), what books to be read—all in the spirit of creating the most comfortable and peaceful environment for the patient as she passes.

It is the Doula's job to watch for the signs of death and then help the primary caregiver implement the patient's vigil plan. We looked at actual vigil plans. A woman who loved westerns had a TV parked at the foot of her bed so that every episode of Bonanza and Rawhide could play in the last forty-eight hours of her life. A man who was losing his ability to swallow asked for Q-tips dipped in mango juice to be put in his mouth so that he could still taste sweetness. A woman asked for the window to stay open by her bed so that when she left her soul would have a place to go. Comparing the end of a theater company to the death of a terminally ill patient may seem ludicrous, even offensive. But I want to explain how freeing and important it felt to me to know that 13P had its own life cycle, that we would try to accomplish our mission and then put the company to rest.

Planning for 13P's end has been a driving force of the company—our success lives in having done what we set out to do, not the individual success of any one of our productions. From the beginning, it was always a finite, 13-play project. Our theater company lasted for nine years. Some companies last for one production. Others, like The Public Theater in New York City, are still going strong after fitfy-five years. All these models are valid; the life span of a company should be determined by what the company sets out to do. And to figure out what the arc of that life span should be, it feels useful to divide theater companies into two groups:  animals and habitats. 13P was an animal. It had one singular idea and approached it with blinders on, blocking out everything else.

The first meeting determined exactly what the life span would be, as soon as the playwrights all picked the order in which their plays would be produced. We clearly outlined what success would look like for 13P—producing these 13 plays and mapping a rough timeline of when it would be over. We talked about the ending of 13P all the time. The idea of getting to the finish line propelled the all-volunteer staff to meet at an ungodly hour of the morning every week before our regular jobs to get the project done, and as each production passed, we felt closer and closer to our goal. Starting the company again with, say, another round of playwrights, would be antithetical to this organism. It is not meant to keep going. It was never conceived with that possibility. It was always a mortal idea.

Some theater companies, however, are habitats. Their mission is about creating an environment for animals to live within, or for certain animal-to-animal interactions to take place. For example, at The Public's core is Free Shakespeare in the Park. Success can only be achieved if that contract continues to be fulfilled, i.e. if high-quality American Shakespeare is given free to the people of the City of New York every summer. It's hard to think about how that mission could be finite. Its success is partly measured by its longevity. Should some theater companies be more like animals? Acknowledge their finite life cycle, plan for it, and use it as a propelling force to accomplish their missions? Or at least think about a version of success for the company in which the company itself is not needed anymore? Or should some smaller companies try to create more habitats, which can embrace outside influences and outlast their founding members?

In the theater, we have so much practice at ending. Productions open and close all the time. Does a theater company always have to think about survival? Or is it worth thinking about what an end would or could look like? An End of Life Doula helps a person acknowledge the inevitable, plans for it, and allows patients to make active choices so that they can die on their own terms. Before starting a theater company, maybe ask yourself if you are making an animal or a habitat. And if it is an animal, then use that mortality to your advantage. Plan for it. Put on blinders and see that finish line. 13P is one of the most fulfilling accomplishments of my professional career. The experiences will live with me forever, and when I forget the specifics of each process or production in my old age, I will always remember our implosion.

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Maria - So well said and very moving. This way of thinking is so needed, of seeing companies and organizations as part of a cycle of life that includes death. The comparison with your Doula training is incredibly apt - all things must die when the time is right - and its far better to prepare for implosion with love and ritual, than to deny that the end is nigh. In all your work with 13P, have you come across any other organizations that have "doulaed" their own deaths?

Wonderful piece...as the co-founder of a Habitat style company, I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing.

Maria.

I have admired the handful of 13P productions I saw while criss-crossing to New York from grad school in LA. I admired them for their individual quality. But it wasn't until recently--until its death--that I realized its true genius and true potential of this state of mind.

What you say applies to theater, but I would like to offer that it applies to social movements, and art movements, too. I co-run a theater company called The Assembly with (a former assistant of yours, Jess Chayes). Our recent show, HOME/SICK, is about a group of radicals called The Weather Underground, who tried to overthrow the US Government in the 1970s. They were an out-growth of the student movement that was the heart and soul of the Anti-Vietnam protests. But they took their ideas farther than what the rest of America was willing to handle, and effectively ended the "The Sixties" as we knew it. Not only did they signal the end of the student movement, but they created a general antipathy towards movements in general, that after decades of apathy we are only beginning to overcome.

As we studied the Weathermen (I also wrote an MA thesis about them at CalArts), I found myself wondering: What would happen if the student movement was aware that it had a finite lifespan, that total revolution probably isn't possible in the US? What would happen if it killed itself before it chose violence? Would other emancipatory movements have had a chance to flourish in a more amenable climate?

Or: What would have happened if Occupy declared its own end before the decline in press coverage? What if it was tied specifically to public, 24-hour demonstration, and ended after the evictions? Would it occupy a more favorable spot in our collective memories today?

In both instances, each group misjudged their ability to make change, and ended up crushing a number of peoples' hopes and aspirations in the process. What if those hopes were left in tact for future efforts, and future incremental victories?

Thank you for articulating this important perspective, Maria. I think we should all think about the inevitability of death more often. Thank you for reminding us that our mistakes tend usually to stem from the hubris of immortality.

Yours,Nick Benacerraf

I realize I don't have a choice in the matter of when and where and how, but I'd like you to be my end of life doula. In the meantime, it's a privilege to see you navigate the world. I didn't want 13p to end, but this is the first time I completely understood the argument for mortality. I wondered why we didn't pass it on to the next thirteen playwrights. It was never just about the playwright, it was about the bones--and those bones were a corps of people who labored on our behalf. What generosity of spirit of those steadfast volunteers. It was never just about the playwright or even the plays--the community created by 13p internally--the people who kept the motor running is so clearly influenced by your leadership. The fact that there is so thoughtful an archive of what 13p did and how it can be replicated and/or built upon is an act of foresight and generosity. You may train to be an end of life doula, and that will stand next to your role as a midwife of theater and ideas. Your breadth of vision is inspiring. Thank you for your leadership. Please stay in touch so I can find you when it's end of life doula time. On second thought, just stay in touch, I'm not ready to miss the light you bring. One tip for readers: if Maria asks you to collaborate on anything, just say yes, leadership and integrity are hard to come by.