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.
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.