And Nevertheless, She Persisted: Finding My Way Through an Existential Crisis
The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!
I had my plans for the night of the election finely calibrated. I stayed late at the Clinton headquarters in St. Louis to do last minute phone banking before leaving to make celebratory stops at several house parties. But when things began to take a terrible and unexpected turn, I drove at breakneck speed to get to the official campaign party at the Chase Park Plaza. I suddenly wanted to be in a crowd with fellow volunteers as if there might be safety in numbers. I especially wanted to be with some of my students, concerned for how they might be feeling. When I walked in, scanning the subdued crowd, several of them rushed to me. Megan, a college senior with whom I had also worked on Jason Kander’s race for the senate, threw her arms around me, sobbing.
“What happened, Joan,” she cried. “What will we do?”
I did my best to comfort her, to assure them we would figure out something productive. Privately, I was devastated. It was as if democracy had suddenly gone into cardiac arrest and I was in mourning for the heart and soul of the country.
Like many of us, I experienced an existential crisis after the stunning results of the election. I had volunteered for months, on both the Democratic Presidential and state races on top of working full time in the theater as an artistic director and an independent artist. Following what can best be described as a coup, in a collision of fake news, FBI and Russian interference, and gerrymandering against a background of racism and misogyny, I concentrated my efforts on immediate political action. Could we possibly flip the Electoral College and appeal to country over party?
No such luck.
But, as the now famous phrase goes, nevertheless, she persisted.
So, I emailed and posted notes and made phone calls and signed petitions over and over to try to oppose all of Trump’s cabinet nominees, each seemingly more compromised and less qualified than the last. Where once I might have started the day corresponding about our projects, writing notes for rehearsal or working on a play, now, I made a cup of dark roast and shared instructions about who to call and where, providing texts for suggested scripts for people to follow.
It was grim and exhausting, and I felt my sense of purpose, and my characteristic joie de vivre slipping away. I have been successful in the past in many things if I have stayed with them and worked hard. I had willed seemingly impossible projects into existence, like producing the first piece of LGBTQ theater in Missouri or founding one of the earliest ensembles of people with disabilities in the country when there was little or no funding for these projects. I had persisted and we created significant work that has had long standing ramifications and influence.
But this time, my will and efforts weren’t cutting it. And I still had a theater company to run and people who depended on me. I had to figure out how to move forward and yes, how to still go to the gym and visit my father in his nursing home and have dinner with friends.
I realized that at the same time I wanted to continue with direct political action, I also needed to reconnect with my essential self as a writer and director, as a teacher and performer who had things to say and wanted to help others. Were we going to allow this administration to steal or silence our voices at the same time it was detonating the country?
And so, I began to take part in a number of creative actions. I went to many gatherings of artists in New York, listening and talking about what we might do. I joined the inaugural working group for Artists Rise Up NY, organized by Jessica Litwak, and contributed to interviews for her Fear Project in which I also performed at La MaMa. Everyone in the collective interviewed people about their fears and then Jessica turned our findings into a script that also depicted a family with intense political differences.
Listening to my own physical distress—my growing inability to sleep or eat normally—and that of others, I wrote “My Eating Disorder, Donald Trump and Me: A Not Quite Comic Monologue of Weighty Proportions", about the ways women in particular are feeling betrayed by our current regime. I was asked to perform it at the Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles as part of the tremendous action called Bad & Nasty that Holly Hughes created with Lois Weaver on President’s Day, with 64 performances in four countries.
The piece is both funny and painful and after the show, several audience members wanted to talk with me about how they were feeling and about how helpful they found it to have their experience articulated out loud. I felt better that night than I had in weeks. And I thought, “Aha, I know this feeling. It is that feeling of agency and creative expression.”
I felt restored to myself. A little. I almost slept through the night.
But as satisfying as it felt to personally write or perform, I also realized that what I was really wanting was to connect more with students and to understand how they might be feeling, to share with them some of the techniques I have developed over the years to create work with different populations. Perhaps it is a function of getting older, but I increasingly feel the need to hear younger people, to mentor and encourage them, and to pass on what I know.
In the weeks that followed, I asked what I could offer students so hungry and nascent in their political and creative development. I have always loved teaching, including for non theater majors. I founded my company to put the principles of cultural diversity into innovative practice and to promote civic engagement. I believe that everyone can make meaningful work in the right circumstances and that it is life enhancing to do so.
As an educator, my interest is less in finding and promoting the next prodigy than it is in helping people to recognize their creative capacity and that of their classmates, in teaching and training young people to be engaged and responsible citizens of the world. The university is the ideal setting for this as it encourages intellectual inquiry, the safe possibility of failure and values other than the market place.
When I teach or do guest visits, we explore many forms of communication, personal writing, movement, working in pairs and in small groups. I generally leave the well-made play for someone else to teach. I want to teach individual creativity and group problem solving, to teach possibilities and new ways to think about ideas.
The election has undeniably affected the choices I am making as a visiting artist. Asked to return to Stanford University this spring by Jennifer DeVere Brody to work with undergraduates in a class on women and theater, we decided on the theme of bravery and fierceness. So many of the students I know say they are feeling frightened, it seemed like an urgent topic. And post-election, I am more focused on the urgent than before.
At Stanford, we defined what bravery and fierceness meant, identified people we considered exemplary in history, our personal lives, and the wider culture. We did image work in which small groups depicted what fear looked like as well as bravery, analyzed the images as a kind of pedagogy and added text. Not surprisingly, most of the images they created about fear showed individuals in isolation whereas the images of bravery often showed groups in solidarity. And as theatrically interesting as the images were, the deeper value was what they revealed about the possibilities for collective action.
As is often the case, in addition to a larger group conversation, I asked the students to write brief response papers about their experiences. And it is the simultaneity of responses that tells me we were on the right track and doing work that is urgently needed right now to restore confidence and well-being and creative thinking. "I remembered how much I love to act but don’t really do it since I am majoring in engineering," one student wrote. "I was inspired by my classmates and what they came up with," said another. "This is a welcome break from the kind of work we usually do in my other classes," said another. "It’s fun." And, "It is cool to make things together. We can find solutions," said one more.
I define that as success, especially as it has ramifications for our current political climate. The joy of creating. Appreciation for one’s peers. A different kind of learning. Group problem solving. This is the gift of devising. I would love to see more teachers devise work with students in the classroom around themes of tremendous topicality. Who doesn’t need to summon up bravery and fierceness in this moment?
It has been a busy spring. Asked to visit Towson University and Ithaca College for short residencies, I proposed using “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus as the basis for our work. I thought this iconic text that is embedded in the base of the Statue of Liberty would offer rich opportunities for exploring the history and promise of immigration and the tremendous challenges it faces today.
As I worked on this project with several different classes in different settings, I began to develop a succinct methodology for more workshops. Ithaca-based professor and dramaturg Walter Chon and I have begun writing about our discoveries including how to best structure this as a devising process to accommodate tight college schedules and I hope to adapt this for more settings.
I have long worked in the theater with concentration in the areas of disability, reproductive choice, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice. My work continues in those areas but still, something has shifted. I want to also speak to wider concerns, to address the fact we now have an even more pervasive culture of government sanctioned violence that has filtered down to daily life.
Our Playback Now! St. Louis ensemble that utilizes techniques developed by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas in a highly specialized form of Improvisation has focused increasingly on stories of discrimination as well as interventions and ally hood, both shared by audiences. And I am looking to do more outdoor free public events with a distinct political cast.
Recently, as part of Bad and Nasty, we hosted an unbirthday party on Flag Day, June 14, which happens to be Donald Trump’s 71st birthday. It included synchronized flag waving in collaboration with the Flag Project, cupcakes, vari-gendered Betsy Rosses, the reading of the Bill of Rights, an open mic, singing, and the collection of needed items for Immigrants, veterans, and people experiencing homelessness.
In initially thinking through the thematic frame for our event, our question was, what do you give the man who unfairly has everything?
You give to those in need and you theatrically call attention to what a travesty he and his administration are.
We also offered call stations with useful numbers and sample scripts to encourage attendees to call their elected representatives, especially those who have been missing in action or supporting legislation we oppose. Working with the local chapter of Indivisible, we decided that rather than an unbirthday party, this would be an uplifting celebratory birthday party for us, the resistance. We held it outside a well-known record store, Vintage Vinyl, on a highly traveled street, and both the leading local alternative press and top rated television station showed up. It is clear that public performance and theatrical actions can provide a much needed boost to more typical forms of protest like marching.
I am still not feeling well despite my heartened flurry of activity. This election has affected me on a cellular level. I feel stunned much of the time, wondering where and when the next hit will come.
I still think it is important to make phone calls, canvas, write letters, and protest on the street in real time. And I think focusing on the midterm 2018 elections is crucial. But, I also know that re-engaging with my creativity and helping others to engage with theirs has made a difference. It really has.