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How Do We Go On?

I don't know how to write this essay.

Back in June of 2021, when I first thought about writing something about the COVID pandemic and how we theatre artists are making it through, I was going to title it “Re-Entry!” because truly, in that moment, it felt like we might be moving back into more normal times. We finally had the vaccine, and lots of folks were getting it. Masks were working pretty well. Theatre companies were developing procedures to keep us safe but let us work.

I should have written faster.

By the time I pitched this essay in August of 2021, I was calling it “Re-Entry?” with a question mark because the Delta variant had arrived, and the Covid numbers were bad again.

Now, in December, with the Omicron variant spreading around the world and whole countries locking down again, I think the most honest thing to title this essay is “How Do We Go On?” Everything feels so dark and impossible, doesn't it? A lot of theatres have closed. A lot of theatre artists are reconsidering whether or not they can continue in this profession. It's an existential moment. To be, or not to be, that is the question.

A small group of writers connected with Artists Repertory Theatre have been meeting every two weeks since the pandemic began, and I decided to reach out to them for help and advice. Maybe this essay could be about the strategies that all of us have come up with to survive this difficult time.

post card on a tree of a sartre quote.

A notecard with a quotation by Jean-Paul Sartre.

The group itself is a survival strategy, actually. Luan Schooler (the director of new works at Artists Rep), and Andrea Stolowitz and I (the two playwrights-in-residence) came up with the idea for the group together, soon after the pandemic had shut everything down and we began to realize how deep in the woods we were. “We're interested in building a playwrights community at Artists Rep,” we said in the invitation, “for mutual support, resource sharing, and great conversations with each other… Being a playwright is often a lonely endeavor, and with the pandemic throwing everything out the window, it's even worse. None of us know when/how/if theatre is coming back, or what it will look like when it does. Now more than ever, we need community, strength, and creativity.”

Now, more than ever.

Indeed.

The first thing my colleagues helped me do was articulate the problem.

“A big part of it is the unknowing.” Josie Seid said when I talked with her on the phone. “There's no expiration date to all this. It's hard, not knowing when we're going to be able to do all those things we did before.”

Yussef El Guindi shared, “Walking out into empty streets and shut-up stores was overwhelming at times. The enormity of what had happened—this thing that was happening to all of us—would hit me over and over again. ‘We’re in this, we’re really in this, and it’s everywhere,’ was a running thought, and for a long while there didn’t seem to be a way out.”

“I'm going to be honest,” Vin Shambry told me. “I don’t think our industry is coming back. Not like it was before. I feel like we're fooling ourselves, waiting for it.”

“I’m worried that the career I've been building for the last twenty years has gone away in eighteen months,” Andrea Stolowitz added. “I like it when we can talk about how we are all scared and uncertain, though.”

None of us know when/how/if theatre is coming back, or what it will look like when it does. Now more than ever, we need community, strength, and creativity.

We've come back to that topic frequently over the last year and a half. So much has happened, and terrifying, dramatic events continue to unfold. The plague, the drought, the hurricanes, the fires, the deep sociopolitical divide, the attempted coup, the continuing battle for (and against) voting access for all Americans, the dismantling and reconfiguring of all kinds of systems in an attempt to find greater equity and inclusiveness. It feels like we're stumbling toward a Great Reckoning.

Ten people on a Zoom call.

On a Zoom call, the group of writers associated with Artists Repertory Theatre convene. From top to bottom and left to right, they are Luan Schooler, Andrea Stolowitz, Sue Mach, Josie Seid, Susannah Mars, Vin Shambry, Lava Alpai, Yussef El Guindi, E.M. Lewis, and Dan Kitrosser.

I asked everyone for their personal strategies for making it through these strange, dark days.

“Our families and our pets!” most of us said.

“Long walks,” most of us also said, with several of our Pacific Northwest cohort adding “in nature” and Yussef adding “to bakeries!”

“Marijuana,” Dan Kitrosser said, which may be true but definitely made me laugh—a signature Dan move.

Vin and Josie both took up painting. Andrea swims now. Sue Mach takes an online dance class with her daughter.

“How about in our work?” I wondered. What have been our professional strategies for making it through? What is our responsibility as artists in this time? Are we all even still writing?

“I’m always going to tell stories,” Josie said. “That's who I am. I'm a storyteller.”

And that felt so right to me. Writing stories has always been my beautiful little boat that I use to steer myself across the great and terrible ocean of the world, and sometimes it has been my life jacket. Sometimes the sharing of those stories feels like the offer of a place beside me on the Story Boat—like maybe the story that saved me could save someone else, too, in some way.

We might have to get more creative with how we tell stories, though. We've all been doing a lot of that during the pandemic. Vin, Josie, Yussef, Susannah Mars, and Lava Alapai have all been making movies. Andrea and I both adapted plays into audio formats, and Susannah and Vin have been doing tons of voice work. Everyone has made peace with Zoom and used it to keep connected, keep working, and sometimes share work. It has the advantage of bringing us together when we can’t be together. It breaks some things, like the power of being in the room with each other, but it fixes things like geography and access (as long as you have a strong internet connection and a computer). All of us have kept working a lot. And from what I've heard from other theatre folks, they have, too. Any way we can.

Susannah insists the pandemic has pushed us in some really exciting directions. “[It's pushed us] to innovate the heck out of how to make and share art.... I think that artists all over the world will continue to share their authentic stories and connect us more deeply than ever before…”

Vin added, “I’ve had the exciting opportunity to always work as an artist. But the pandemic stopped me in my tracks and made me realize I had to write my own stories. I had to take the time to deal with myself, and now I'm gathering the fruit from that. I actually needed the pandemic to blossom myself creatively.”

Writing stories has always been my beautiful little boat that I use to steer myself across the great and terrible ocean of the world, and sometimes it has been my life jacket.

The pandemic pushed most of us to spend some time figuring out what really matters as humans and artists.

Dan said, “Don't worry so much if this version of your life is the one you should be living....”

Lava said that the pandemic has helped her realize that “I just want to be working in a room with a small group of people, searching for truth together, and having fun. I want to make them feel safe.” Sue added, “I tell my students that like it or not we are living at a turning point in history. It may feel like it completely sucks, but unfortunately the only way out is through. And even if you’re not writing a play or a poem or a piece of fiction, document this time. It’s so important, and one day you will look through all that you’re recording and something will pop out that will be the seed for an authentic, important piece of writing. You have to be patient, trust your instinct, and wait for it.”

A paper boat floating in water.

A paper "story boat" staying afloat.

“Keep making art,” Luan agreed. And Josie added, “Everything you need is inside of you.”

Clearly, there isn't just one answer to the question “How do we go on?” If I didn't know that before I asked my colleagues advice, they've convinced me now!

They've certainly helped me clarify my own answer to the question. I'm a storyteller. So I will keep telling stories.

Every time I put pen to paper, I feel whole and calm and happy, in spite of everything. Even writing this essay in community with my friends and colleagues made me feel better.

Is all art-making fiddling on a sinking ship? Like the musicians on the deck of the Titanic? Perhaps. They were making music to help people through the terror of what was happening, and maybe that's what we're doing—which seems like a worthy endeavor to me.

The poet Mary Oliver—a “fiddler” of great renown—asked in one of her most famous poems, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Ultimately, the question of how to spend our briefly-burning-candle lives is the same question of how to spend this pandemic/drought/fire/hurricane/climate change end of the world. We could lie down and die, or we could fill the darkening sky with words and music, gifted with generous hearts and all the talent we can muster to our fellow passengers.

How do you want to go on?

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Well done Ellen. Tt was nice to see your words and hear your voice. “Sometimes one day changes everything; sometimes years change nothing.” — Irish Proverb