For nearly all of my adult life, I have identified myself as an artist. I’m pretty sure that I identified as an artist before I had really created anything. It’s just how I think about myself.
I’m a theatre director. I’m a playwright. I’m a teacher.
I’m a theatre artist.
But who am I today? Separated from the very means of my artistic practice, who, or what, is left?
I am by no means the only person asking this question. The current pandemic has upended so many lives and led to so many unanswerable questions that it sometimes feels like the world is in a kind of existential paralysis. But my own experience is at once terrifying, liberating and unlike anything else I have ever experienced, and I am trying to learn from it.
At the core of this experience is this deeply upsetting question: in this new reality, am I less than I once was? If I can’t bring artists together, if I can’t engage an audience, of what use, exactly, am I to the world?
I only realize now, in the face of so many shocking developments, how heavily I have leaned on my identity as an artist as being the paramount reason for my existence. When I am creating something, I can get away with this. But when I am not? The fundamental things I may have neglected rush in to fill the void. I am forced, in an unprecedented way, to look inward. And there, I find questions that demand answers.
My job these days largely consists of bearing witness to grief, as an untold number of my colleagues de-construct their professional lives. That’s a harder job than building them in the first place. My world is one of artistic triage, with no immediate end in sight. I am also witnessing many of my colleagues shifting gears to sew hospital gowns, feed the hungry, and engage the public online with education and entertainment. It’s incredible to see how generous the artistic community has been at a time when it has never been in more danger. As I watch seasons, plans, and careers put on hold and our artistic leaders begin looking to an uncertain future, I am asking myself:
What kind of citizen am I?
What kind of husband?
What kind of father?
What kind of leader?
What kind of friend?
What kind of neighbour am I?
These questions, quite distinct from the struggles that my artistic practice is experiencing, are the ones that are giving me the hope I need to imagine the future. Because one day, when my fellow artists and I come together to create something again, none of us will be the same. And the questions that I am forced to reckon with now, separated from the armour of my job title, will be the reason the theatre I create with my colleagues will matter.
If I concentrate, today, on being a husband, father, neighbour, citizen, friend and, with any luck, a good leader- I can approach my work as an artist- and that time will come- with a new sense of why it matters in the first place.