Guest Post: Nadia Bowers of LIFE SUCKS, on Vulnerability, and the Meaning of Life
by Nadia Bowers
Last summer I stayed at a friend's place and there was a magazine in their house called New Beauty. It's a magazine for women that, from what I can tell, unabashedly discusses all possibilities for a woman to look her youngest, from products to fillers to surgery. It's undercurrent seems to be, "Here's the latest juice cleanse craze, but let's be honest, if you really want to win this game, here are all the products that can't be skipped, and the surgery you will definitely need to turn back time. The price tags are high and so is the expectation that if you're really a woman committed to your "new" beauty, you will start saving to literally save face.
In the issue at my friend's house, there was a segment on meditation, a great way to naturally get rid of your bitchy resting face. After discussing a rise in people interested in meditation and its benefits, there was a quote from a woman who opened up a meditation studio in Manhattan. Commenting on her studio's success she said, "Vulnerability is trending."
I wanted to gouge my eyes out. Then I think I dry heaved. I can't really remember because I blacked out for a moment.
When I came to, I just felt sad. Sad that this thing, vulnerability, this essential, delicate state of being, was being commodified. That its value was being measured through the lens of likes. Then I got angry. Angry that the outwardly focused, result- oriented comment this woman made seemed to completely negate everything vulnerability is about. How if you are outside of yourself, watching yourself try to be vulnerable just to make sure you are on trend, there is no way you are going to actually allow yourself to be vulnerable. It got me thinking about how with social media, we perform vulnerability all the time. But is not the same as actually feeling it, actually putting ourselves in the position of not knowing, of possible imperfection, or acknowledging our lack of control. We post about personal things, we play at revealing ourselves, but our output is curated and studied.
I think we are missing something here with all our different platforms and screens. We are missing actual other human beings without whom vulnerability has no real resonance or meaning. Vulnerability without other humans is empty. It's unreliable. Not real. Like a trend.
I am currently performing in a play called LIFE SUCKS at The Acorn Theater, produced by The Wheelhouse Theater Company. It's Aaron Posner's modern adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. There is a lot of direct address to the audience and things happen every night due to that interaction that are not scripted. We never know who will walk through our theater doors, so every night is different. At the top of the play, a character, Babs, says, "We are the actors and you are the audience." Another character, Pickles, continues, "We couldn't do this without you." And there it is. We make ourselves vulnerable to every living being in that room. We need you. We acknowledge it. That sets the tone for the night and we're off.
In Aaron's adaptation every character has a journey through our own particular crisis. Throughout the play, we are required and allowed as actors to keep opening up, exposing ourselves in heroic moments, but also in deeply flawed ones. As one character Aster says early on, "We are none of us perfect." As the actors in this play, we have to summon the courage to show up for these characters in all of their glorious imperfections. One could argue that acting in any play is an exercise in vulnerability, but this one, in my experience, demands it more than most. Aaron Posner said to us early on in rehearsal, "This play will hold as much truth as you can give it." We all take that very seriously and to heart.
At the end of the play... and sure, you can stop reading here as this will be a spoiler if you haven't seen it yet. But, honestly, the night you come will be its own experience, so I think you'll be fine. So, at the end of the play, we ask the audience what they think life is. We have spent the last couple of hours trying to figure out if life sucks and if it does, how badly. And we need help. So we turn to the other people in the room: the audience. The people we need.
Then, this remarkable thing starts to happen. They start to talk back. We have shown our hearts to them and in return, they open theirs to us. They allow themselves to become vulnerable. Sometimes they speak softly, or a voice cracks, but this room of strangers starts to say what they think about life which can only be informed by the unique story of their own. The air shifts and there we all are in a room together, breathing the same overly air conditioned air, sharing things we might not even say to our loved ones.
Here are some of the things our audience members have said:
You have to keep going.
Howling into the whirlwind.
Belief.. in, oh don't make me say it... love.
My parents died... that's... but life is sitting in a theater having a communal experience.
A roller coaster.
What you make it.
All we've got.
Breath, the inhale and the exhale, right now.
When your friend's kid drowns, it sucks.
There are no miracles. You have to make your own.
Accepting that not everyone is going to like you.
Masturbation- you wake up, head out, come home, it's the same thing every day.
Getting your period on a Friday night.
A shit sandwich.
You can change your life any time. You just have to make the decision.
Full of love.
A fountain it goes round and round and with each cycle it gets renewed, refreshed.
A woman who looked like she was in her 80s beamed a smile and said:
I don't want it to end.
There was one night when two women said at the exact same time:
On the fourth anniversary of my sister's death, we had a two show day. I was struggling. At the end of the second show, a man said something I needed to hear:
Don't stop questioning. Don't stop living.
It is what it is.
Moments suck. Sometimes people suck but life doesn't.
Maybe life isn't about the Mercedes Benz, but it's about experiences, traveling, and that's the Great Upload at the end of your life when it flashes before you. It's just your experiences.
A circle. Where does it end?
Then there was that night someone in the audience just said, "Fuck it." It seemed to resonate so at our curtain call I said, "Ok everyone, on the count of three: One! Two! Three!" And our entire audience yelled, "Fuck it!" with nihilistic rapture. The buzz in the room afterwards felt something like hope.
Life feels pretty topsy turvy right now. And often scary. Our play isn't heavily political, nor does it deal intensely with issues of our social ills. It does deal with the difficultly of being human. It lets us laugh at ourselves, and cry too. It lets us be vulnerable. In an actual room. Together. And because of that, who knows, maybe there are some small revolutions of the heart that are happening, some openings that can lead to greater compassion for others and ourselves. I speak to people afterwards, we see their faces at curtain call and in the lobby. We see people who have come back multiple times. I think they are the faces of people feeling seen. I think it's the relief of knowing you can be exposed, vulnerable, and flawed and still worthy of love and respect. That we want you in the room. We need you. It's the relief of knowing you are not alone. That over the course of two hours, you got to feel close to a room of people you never met. I would posit that people are hungry for this. I had a hunch, but I'm overwhelmed to see how starved we actually are. We are tired of posting. In a world that often presents guises of connecting, we can feel increasingly lonely. The need for theater has existed since cave people acted out the hunt for the day. We still need to do it and see it today because we need to feel connected in a real room, to celebrate being our imperfect, vulnerable human selves. To feel we belong despite our flaws and even because of them. This is not a trend, nor the latest thing. It's really the most ancient one.
One audience member also said: Life doesn't suck with theater like this.
So come be vulnerable with us. We're trending.
The cast of Life Sucks. features Kevin Isola as Vanya, Nadia Bowers as Ella, Kimberly Chatterjee as Sonia, Barbara Kingsley as Babs, Stacey Linnartz as Pickles, Tony Award nominee Austin Pendleton as The Professor, and Michael Schantz as Dr. Aster.
It's Chekhov without the birch trees. After taking aim at The Seagull with his "explosive" Stupid F*cking Bird, Aaron Posner is back with an irreverent contemporary remix of Uncle Vanya. Egos clash, hearts hunger, and souls cry out for meaning in this raw and hilarious reimagining of Chekhov's timeless classic, which received its New York premiere by the red-hot Wheelhouse Theater Company (Happy Birthday, Wanda June). Life staggers. Life confounds. Life is beautiful. And Life Sucks.
Tickets for the Off-Broadway production are now available by calling Telecharge at 800-447-7400, online at https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Life-Sucks/Overview or in person at the Theatre Row box office.
Bowers' Broadway credits include The Farnsworth Invention, Doubt, and Metamorphoses. Off Broadway: many shows, most recently Rajiv Joseph's Obie award winning Describe the Night (Atlantic Theater), Mona Mansour's The Way West (Labyrinth), Church and State (New World Stages). TV: Orange is the New Black, Quantico, The Strain, NCIS, every incarnation of Law and Order. Film: upcoming: The Outside Story, Unintended, Josie and Jack, The Drummer. As a writer, her piece "Dear Dealer" was featured on This American Life and a shorter version in TIME online. She's working on a memoir about her sister with the same title and a project based on a book her father wrote. BA: Dartmouth College, Sociology and French. MFA: Tisch, NYU's Graduate Acting Program. www.nadiabowers.com