The theatre artist’s duty in times of crisis

Opinion: A reflection on receptivity and responsiveness as creators

Photo Credit: Daniel Cholette

As theatres go dark across cities and nations amid unprecedented crisis, it is the mind of the quarantined artist that now seeks its own metaphorical ghost light to navigate haunting existential obscurity and the following questioning of purpose: “what is my duty as an artist at this time?”

In the temporary assault of their core functions of acting, designing, or writing, it is the wringer that many creatives are grappling with as our activities have been deemed, by exclusion, “non-essential” in the coronavirus pandemic’s procession to take the world’s centre stage.

Among the greater conversations circulating the digital sphere on the roles and responsibilities of sidelined theatre practitioners is the debate of whether the moment is auspicious or astute for creation and performance as it pertains to our craft. On one side of the spectrum is the argument that now is not the time to be making theatre – soothing words to validate the sentiments and behaviours of those who, admittedly like myself, are far from being in peak form to hustle and guilt-ridden by the inability to drive new content forward in seemingly conducive circumstances of seclusion.

On the opposing end of discourse is the perspective that now is a vital time to (virtually) gather, devise, and present – whether as a necessary respiratory outlet of sorts for individual or collective expression, or as a critical device for market survival and adaptation in what is an already unforgiving industry of limited employment opportunities even in fair economic weather.

Critics of the latter school of thought point to the trait of “desperation” in the scrambling publication of impromptu online play readings, archival screenings, and self-taped soliloquies – hastily fashioned conceptions that are claimed to disregard the very elements that distinguish the stage arts from its screen counterparts: live-in-person, ephemeral performance.

One might then defend that urgent times most appropriately call for urgent measures, and it is not for peers to arbitrate creative attempts – whatever the creators’ intents. There are far more destructive coping strategies than keeping busy with play.  

There is tremendous validity in both views and in the in-between. And the integrated perspective I offer comes not from a call for diplomacy, but for compassion.

Furthermore, I propose a shift in the scrutiny of our theatre artists’ productivity rates towards a more holistic examination of the intertwined measures of receptivity and responsiveness. The crucial question when probing for a sense of duty is thus not when we should be making, but how, and the notion of an acceptable time frame varies for as many artists as there can be counted.

“The crucial question when probing for a sense of duty is thus not when we should be making, but how.”

Receptivity is the opening for the incoming thread of essential connectivity with our environments, our communities, and ourselves. It requires from us a certain stillness – which is not to imply idle passiveness – for an easier flow and absorption of input. It is the mature composure to observe, the quiet humility to learn, and the characteristic willingness to engage.

What that can mean in concrete terms for the artist is a refined atunement to external and internal stimuli: greater sensitivity to the aesthetics of one’s surroundings, increased attentiveness to the needs of the other and the self, and an overall heightened awareness of life on the micro and macro scales.

Responsiveness, in its turn, is the retributing extension of that thread – the point at which we can purposefully give.

“To act is to react”, the voice of many a drama teacher reverberates, and authentically so in the most affecting of interpersonal exchanges. For several of us, the bedlam of global events has given us meditated pause; for some, the impact has spurred visceral emotional release. Negotiating the nuances of anticipation with delay in responding may or may not be a conscious process – but what is most important is that whatever we’re doing in counteraction to an experience feels connected, relevant, and genuine.

In other words, is the art we’re putting out any at given instant true to the moment, to others, and to ourselves? If so, the timing will inherently be right.

Oft attached to responsiveness is the aspect of quickness, but it should be looked at here in relation to different spans of time as well as in terms of effectiveness. There are makers and movers who have been agile in spawning meaningful new interdisciplinary or hybrid theatrical explorations through this occasion, to the point of readiness for public presentation. In another example, certain immediate initiatives have taken on more of a social utility, bringing communities together through collaborative artistic expression for the fundamental sake of human contact (here at Montreal Theatre Hub we are highlighting many of these local projects through our #RiseMTL series.) These endeavours are often raw and unprocessed, yes, but they can resonate in the current context of the vulnerable exposure of our mortalities, the stripping of our veneers, and the anxious dwindling of our resources. 

Then, there will be wordsmiths who, in several years, will also be laying bare evocative scripts in a new era of the stage arts as the outcome of patient incubation. I see both efforts as being wholly responsive contributions to the canon of performative works. We equally need vigilant artists who can speak to and in the now, at what might coincidentally be the very apex of their creative spark, and artists who will synthesize ahead, when the light of insight and inspiration for them is then reignited.

“What is most important is that what we’re creating in counteraction to an experience feels connected, relevant, and genuine.”

All this perhaps provokes the following question: should we even be putting ideas out right now when it’s already so loud? In the two-way channel or cycle of reception and response, it should be remarked that it is the intensity of focus and clarity of direction that will penetrate through noise. The internet is crowded today with digital livestreams, but I suspect artistic offer will also be heavy later on as postponed and new theatrical programming converge and overlap across seasons. However, I am of the conviction that there is always an audience for messaging that hits home hard. Remarkable innovators are on their own space-time continuum. And, on such a plane of non-comparable existence where we find trust in our own processes and joy in our personal journeys, we cannot “get ahead” of our peers if we so find ourselves with the appetite to produce, nor can we “fall behind” in the spirit of support and celebration of those who are successfully creating at this time. 

Consider, next, that artistic creation is not even a consequence of motivation, but of privilege. If you have the physical/mental health, hours, infrastructure, finances – let alone the impetus to build theatre amid collapse – without discrediting your efforts, you are an extraordinarily advantaged minority. 

On that note, responsiveness may perhaps mean a temporary shift of direct focus on our craft altogether towards activities of support, relief, advocacy, and recovery – for our sector, our families, our neighbours, our seniors, our frontline workers, ourselves. Can we find empathy in their struggles? Could it be that creativity and self-healing could be kindled by turning our attention outward? What stories and narratives are we witnessing or experiencing that we can give embodied voice to now or upon our eventual return to the stage?

What is being asked of all artists at this time – regardless of when or how our output is ultimately framed – is our absolute presence. Are we detached or distracted? I reckon thus, respectfully, that it is not the “art of assembly” that has been forgotten, but perhaps that of listening.

“What is being asked of all artists at this time – regardless of when or how our output is ultimately framed – is our absolute presence.”

“Art is organized chaos”, and so we are primely conditioned to bring beauty and order to upheaval. Let us not romanticize the process, however, but authentically engage in making sense of what we intimately observe.

Release the pressure to produce in a collective breath – our most precious commodity at this time. Allow the capacity to wholeheartedly receive and respond to who and what is around us at this very moment be our duty as we #staythefuckhome. The artistic legacy will then take care of itself.

Camila Fitzgibbon

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