Dive into work, drive the other way

So here’s a first: not only did a bug decided to make an overnight feast of me, and not only did it decide to go for the face, but it went right for the eye. It was my slightly smaller eye, too, so it was swollen almost completely shut. I spent all of Sunday looking like Quasimodo. Things were noticeably better the day after – still a little puffy, able to actually open all the way – which I’m honestly feeling a bit disappointed by, because I’d decided that if it didn’t get better, I would get myself an eyepatch and rock the pirate look because the Fight Club look really wasn’t doing it for me and also I don’t actually know how to do eye make-up for a monolid.

In other firsts, this past week, I substituted for a friend who was production stage managing the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production of Seven Spots on the Sun. I’ve subbed on deck before, but this was actually my first time substituting for calling a show. My friend offered me a free ticket to come see the show as an audience member before I started actually working it, and I, of course, agreed, both for a chance to see what the show was meant to look like from a professional point of view but also just to, you know, see the show.

It turned out that the show was about the effect of war, the type that has been endemic to Latin America, on the humanity of people on multiple sides of it.  It was pretty intense. It was very emotional. There was a lot packed into 75 minutes, and in a way that affected me strongly, combining intimate personal realism with poetic language and a story whose elements became as mythic and folkloric as the enormity of the experiences that these individuals endured.

Yes, I shed a few tears.

And I thought to myself afterward: oy vey, what a week I’ve gotten myself into.

I’ve worked on emotionally (and violently) intense shows in the past. It’s different, though, when you go through the full process of constructing a show. You know it, you control it. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but it does demystify the process. This is the scene that you rehearsed over and over again until you all wanted to scream. That’s the prop that was giving everyone nightmares until the props master’s cousin found the perfect item at an estate sale in White Plains. This was the moment where the lighting designer finally deleted that lighting cue because the actor could never land in the same position twice.

Coming in from the outside, I wouldn’t have that same perspective. I was honestly a little bit worried about what my experience would be that week.

And you know what? I was fine.

Which also gave me pause.

One of the characters in the play explicitly struggles with her desensitization to the suffering around her. In order to keep doing the good work that she can, she also has to sometimes tell her eyes not to see, her ears not to hear the pain that isn’t within her reach to heal – and, she says, her senses eventually start to obey.

I certainly was not enduring anything like the suffering being portrayed onstage, or endured in reality throughout the world, but I couldn’t help but acknowledge my professional emotional detachment from that which had driven me to tears mere days ago. Of course, one might say, what I was watching wasn’t real, so naturally, I shouldn’t react to it so strongly. But it was no more and no less real when I’d watched it from the audience and been so moved.

The story had not changed; I had changed.

It’s not any sort of new, brilliant epiphany to recognize how easily we can shut off our empathy, how easy it can be to just “do the job.” But I feel like I can’t have a point shoved so directly into my face without acknowledging it.

Detaching emotionally is not inherently a bad thing. Not for this specific show, but in another situation, people might actually be put in danger were my attention and focus to be. What if I mistimed an automation movement? What if I missed spotting a performer being in the wrong place and at risk of being hit by moving scenery as a result? At the very least, I would not be able to uphold the artistic integrity of the production if I were missing cues because I was distracted from my task at hand. The intentions of the creators would not be carried out, the performers would be hung out to dry, and the audience would not receive what they paid for.

And of course, I don’t know of any mere mortal who can remain emotionally engaged with every instance of suffering in the world without burning out. At some point, trying to pay attention to everything affects one’s ability to pay attention to anything.

It just comes down to self-awareness and taking yourself to task, I suppose. Not letting yourself run on auto-pilot. Being honest about what you’re doing and why. Checking in periodically to see if any of that is still true. Having to live with your own compromises. But better to have a place at the table of your own life and actively make those compromises with eyes wide open than to let the choice be made for you by a lie of your own creation.

I just started rehearsals for my summer show (also the reason that this posting comes a day late), which is a farcical comedy that is very much not about the ravages of war and the death of empathy. It is much more concerned, for instance, with throwing cottage cheese at people. I’m grateful for a brief period of just doing my job without having to discipline my heart, to say nothing of having the privilege of doing so with a team of delightful people. And I do genuinely admire the value of bringing joy into people’s lives.

But I know myself, to some degree, and while I prefer my entertainment light, for some reason, I prefer my work heavy. Is it a discipline thing? Do I derive satisfaction or validation from that? I’m deriving white hairs, at least. Whatever it is, there’s a reason that I’m drawn to this storytelling business, have been since I was a child. And if I’m going to take on the power of being a teller, then I have to take on the responsibility of how I’m being a listener.

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