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When Art is Absent

Playwrights’ Corner
Three empty chairs in front of a red curtain.

“How was your day?”

I was standing by the stove in the small kitchen of our apartment in Bushwick. One of my roommates was sitting at the dining table having dinner as I was cooking. I turn around to look at her, trying to form an answer.

“It was good,” I nodded before turning back around.

“That’s good.”

We sat in silence for a while, but I couldn’t stop hearing the phrase “it was good” over and over again in my head- the automatic tone in which I said it ringing in my ears as if mocking me. Earlier that day, news of the GOP tax bill passing had gone out. On top of that, new cases of sexual assault were piling up my newsfeed. Meanwhile, I was still reeling from the passing of a beloved mentor. For weeks leading up to this moment, I had been distant- keeping my words short, disengaging in conversations, and distracting myself with work. Everything that was happening around me had swallowed me up, and instead of trying to kick my legs to get to the surface to breathe, I let go and allowed myself to sink into the depths. I was swirling in a pool of exhaustion, anxiety, fear, anger, disappointment, and grief.

I took a second to think about why everything was weighing so heavily on me. Sure, it had been a rough year, but for some reason, it was all building up inside- lodged deep in me to the point where I felt suffocated. Then, it hit me: all my emotions, everything I had stored within me, had no way of getting out. In the past, I channeled all my frustrations into my art- acting. A long day’s stress would burst out of me in a rehearsal room, releasing the cacophony of noises bouncing around my mind, emptying it until I was living in someone else’s shoes. Acting allowed me to feel, but not in a selfish way, it allowed me to feel beyond myself, to see through the world and what’s happening around it through somebody else’s eyes, but more than anything, it allowed me to connect That need for connection is what has fueled me as a theater artist. It’s been almost a year and a half since I’ve acted and without that medium, it almost feels like I don’t have a conduit to communicate with other people, or to deal with all the fucked up shit that surfaces from day to day. How does an artist deal with the era of Trump without access to their medium? What’s an artist without their art?    

I turned off the stove and sat across from my roommate.

“I’m stressed,” I admitted.

“What’s up?”

We spent the rest of the night talking- about our day, about the tax bill, about our fears, about our dreams, about a funny tweet, about what Ann Taylor Loft’s weekly horoscope had in store for us, about our need to watch
A Christmas Prince on Netflix. We connected. And I almost felt the same satisfaction I would have if we were in a rehearsal room- that sense of working towards a goal, a message, with a group of people without feeling the need to verbalize, because you’re sharing an unspoken language that reveals your values, which are in line with one another. Almost.

I’ve always thought that we view art through our own personal lens, but I’ve realized that there’s reciprocity in that relationship. How we view the world is apparent in the art we create. When I don’t have the words or when I can’t speak my thoughts coherently, I turn towards acting in the hopes that someone else might have the words, or I write it myself, no matter how messy it comes out, but what matters is that my thoughts are expressed.

I was going to write an uplifting piece about my new year’s resolution as an artist, but I struggled with the work, because it was becoming something I didn’t intend it to be. I battled with what it was “going to be” and what it’s become- an expression of fear about where my art stands to other people, to the world, and most importantly, to myself. But, while my art may be dormant, I still somehow know it isn’t gone completely, because you cannot remove your art from yourself, just as you cannot remove yourself from your art. Doing so would make it impersonal. I’m writing this in maybe not the most eloquent way, and you can maybe sense my frustrations and hear my fingers slam on the keyboard, but maybe that’s the point. It’s messy, but it’s there, and so are the feelings behind it And maybe that’s how we connect. Art is a source of light in such a dark time, and maybe the only way to deal with the grey clouds hanging over us is to admit that it’s there and to admit that we don’t know how to get rid of it. But our art will get us through it.

Despite not having acted in quite some time, the heaviness I carry with me, I’ll carry knowing I’ll never give up on my art. Even without my medium, I still very much identify as an actor. I still itch to be on stage whenever I go see a play, I watch every twitch on an actor’s face when I’m glued to the TV screen. So, instead of burdening myself with disappointment, I should look forward to the next time I get to act again, because the next time I’m in that rehearsal room, everything that’s been building up inside of me, I will bring with me, and it’s those things that will give my work more meaning.

Perhaps the medium we use to deal with the world can also change. I’ve avoided acting - even going to auditions - for nearly two years now partly out of fear of failure, but mostly out of hesitation. Months after graduating, I was sought out to audition for a role in an independent movie. The role was for an Indian character, which gave me a bit of pause, but I figured they opened the search to other south/southeast Asian actors. That is until I saw the words in the breakdown: “teenager with a mustache and a heavy Indian accent.” I thought about it for a while before deciding to email the casting director to tell them I was interested, but asked if it was necessary for me to do the accent. I never heard back from them. It was like a bucket of cold water. Gone was the delusion that I’d have a chance for a role that wasn’t based on stereotypes.

Since then, I’ve been nervous to put myself through that again, and looking at the stories being presented all over the city - the country - it’s hard to see myself in any media. Then, writing came to me -  not because I went searching for it, but out of necessity. I figured why not try to write myself into these narratives? Why not write down my thoughts as honestly as I could without fearing how it sounded to other people? When the opportunity for me to write a feature every month for The Lark newsletter came around, my emotions poured out of me, and I’ve been making a habit of writing ever since. And although I’ll always consider myself an actor (how can I not after all the time, money, effort I’ve spent on it and not to mention passion), maybe there are more ways to look at the world and deal with the harsh realities we’re facing, because when it comes down to it, an artist without their medium, is still an artist, because one way or another, they will find another avenue to express themselves. Art isn’t a call to action, it is the action, and that’s the one sure way we can deal with the darkness that’s trying to envelop us - to take action.