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BWW Blog: When Art Can't Be the Outlet

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The shutdown of Broadway and most/all theatrical activity this summer hit me hard.

BWW Blog: When Art Can't Be the Outlet

I discovered theatre at age four. When I saw my first show, it was so early in my life that I can't even fully remember the experience. All I can remember is the warmth I felt in my heart when the stage lights came up, the way my breath caught in the back of my throat as the music swelled, and the joy that overcame me as I leapt to my feet to give a standing ovation during bows. From then on, I was in love. Obsessed. I couldn't believe that something so gorgeous, so communal and connected, existed in this world. I was four years old and so early in life, I was able to see that the world was a glorious place to be in - a place full of art and music and costumes and flashing lights and dancing. I began auditioning for community theatre immediately. I memorized a full script before I learned how to read. I watched movie musicals, searched plays online, and carefully studied videos of choreography sequences on YouTube. Growing up, attending over twenty Broadway shows before I even attended middle school, theatre quickly became a major part of my world: at times, it was my whole world.

No matter how my life might have changed, theatre was always there for me. When I struggled to make friends at school, I had a community of friends from the shows I participated in. When I disliked most sports and felt unathletic, theatre opened my eyes to dancing and movement technique. When academics felt stressful and draining, memorizing my lines for shows and making dramatic choices made me feel empowered, intelligent, and capable. When I felt uncomfortable about myself or disliked myself, being at rehearsal reminded me that I had value and could contribute joy and beauty to a creative space. The practice of creating theatre - whether it be through acting, playwriting, directing, choreography, stage management, or design - has always given me a rush of energy, unlike any other activity or experience.

I'm a generally stressed-out person, but I always used to tell people, "I don't need therapy, because I have theatre!" "Theatre is my therapy!" "Theatre keeps me sane!" I would deal with any issue I encountered in my life through theatre. I learned not to address mental health struggles, because I felt that sitting with my unaddressed problems would be "good material to help me with acting." I thought that any pain I felt never needed to be dealt with, because it would help me create better, richer art. What I didn't foresee, saying those things in high school (and even my early years of college), is that theatre is not a given. Art is not a given. Theatre is not a completely reliable force, and theatre might not always be there for me in the ways I once felt it would be. Theatre can't always be the outlet.

The shutdown of Broadway and most/all theatrical activity this summer hit me hard. I missed theatre, which is normal and healthy: after all, it's my career and my favorite hobby. But my pain extended beyond what is normal and healthy - there was a piece of my heart that shattered when American theatres closed their doors for the first time in all of the industry's history. The loss I experienced in March, April, May - months of trying to wrap my brain around the pandemic and the ways in which it has suffocated my form of art - felt like someone had ripped my own identity away from me. All of a sudden, if I was feeling anxious, I couldn't go see a show anymore. I couldn't go to rehearsal anymore. I couldn't direct anymore, or lead warm-ups for my actors, or meet with designers to dream up new ways of thinking for our shows. I felt trapped. Stuck. Deeply depressed. I couldn't get out of bed most mornings. It felt like my brain cells weren't working anymore. There was no longer anything in my life to remind me on a consistent basis that I was a worthy, valuable person.

And then I realized... Why do I need a "thing" to remind me that I'm a worthy, valuable person? I realized that, at some point in my life, my love for theatre had transformed into a heavy reliance. I was taking from theatre a level of love that I didn't feel the need to supply on my own for myself, since I always got it from this magical, miraculous, external source.

But this ideal was too good to be true. There is no such thing as a magic ANYTHING that will give you love for yourself when you don't already have it within you. Had the pandemic not hit our country this year, it may have taken me years to learn this. Maybe decades. Maybe I never would have realized it at all. I used to get four hours of sleep a night because I was up all night doing theatre work. I used to cancel on non-theatre social activities because I was so obsessed with spending my time on becoming a better artist. I saw all of these habits as admirable, but in reality, I was just sprinting through my theatre training to do more, more, more - to prove to myself my own worth through my ability to create. Having real love for something is incredible, and I still love theatre more than anything else in my life. But spending the summer without theatre has taught me to see the difference between the notion of "I love this" versus the notion of "I can't live without this." The first sentiment is energizing, empowering, healthy, and sustainable - whereas the second is a way to avoid real self love and self care. It's a mental trap, disguised as a socially acceptable form of work ethic and creativity. There must always be boundaries between basic mental wellbeing and your career, your passions, and the external factors in your life.

So I've begun to do all the things I was never willing to do, back when I used to use theatre as an excuse to avoid taking care of myself. I've started therapy. I've started journaling. I've developed a consistent exercise routine. I've become more honest with my family, and more open to support from my friends. When I'm sad or nervous or afraid, I refuse to let myself bottle up the feelings anymore. It's an instinct I learned from years of using art as an outlet, but it's an instinct I know I can break with mindfulness and time.

Moving forward, I still hope more than anything that theatre will come back to our country again, as soon as possible, in the way we once had it. I miss the lights of Broadway every day; I miss it like I miss a best friend who has moved across the country. But I'm okay. I'm okay to wait, to take care of myself, to know that I am a valid and well-rounded person - who possesses worth and a beautiful humanity, even when she's not standing in a rehearsal room. The absence of theatre in my life once felt like a worst-nightmare-come-true, but now it just feels like what it is: a sad inconvenience. Being creative is a wonderful way to supplement responsible self love and self care, but it is by no means a replacement. Art was never the outlet. Art never could be the outlet. Art is love, pure love, but it is not ever a way to exercise self-hatred.

I'm incredibly excited to see the way my art changes once I'm granted the resources and space to create it again. I'm excited to see how my energy for caring for myself and setting boundaries can enhance the theatre I make, and can enhance my general experience of life itself. I want to look in the mirror and feel the same way about myself that I felt when I was four years old, sitting in a theatre for the first time.

Wow. Look at this, this is so beautiful. The world is a better place because this exists.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Emily Hoffert