As 2020 draws to a close, it’s pretty standard to reflect on the year that’s behind us. And at this point, writing anything that is specifically about 2020—let alone something specifically about COVID-19—feels like beating a very dead horse.
But you just can’t think about 2020 without thinking about coronavirus, and it’s a gross understatement to say that it has drastically affected literally everybody. Mostly negatively (obviously); but, there have been wildly important lessons, too. Truths that were always here, that now we’re forced to see. For me, it helps a lot to consider those. It reminds me that no time is wasted time unless I choose to define it that way. Even if 2020 was a holding pattern of uncertainty and, often, despair—even if time stretched and wobbled like a very confused rubber band and the days seemed to repeat themselves—even if life felt like it had been violently kicked out of its previous orbit, and everything that was on the horizon before was suddenly nowhere to be seen—in spite of these things and because of these things, 2020 demanded that I look at truths that, before, I didn’t have to see. I hid from them within my routines, within my goals and plans, within the hustle. Finally seeing them forced me to change. This may have been the most stagnant year I can remember, but it sure did make me grow.
If nothing else, I’ve gained a clearer sense of what I can and cannot control. And in both cases, it’s not what I’d previously thought.
The Best Laid Plans…
For example, Wandering Theatre had plans for 2020. At first, it seemed like we were on a good track to meet those goals. We developed our shadow-puppet building workshop! We had performances and workshops scheduled at the Please Touch Museum in Center City Philly in the spring, as well as a handful of summer camp performances were slated for June.
We bought a car, rendering The Dragon and the Wanderer much more easily mobile. The goal was to pick up momentum in 2020—enough momentum that soon, maybe even by 2021, we could be living on the road, touring the show around the U.S. to schools and camps and festivals.
Then came March, and the cancellation of everything. And of course we were disappointed, but safety had to be the top priority. It still does, of course. Over 9 months in, though, we are all having to constantly alter our calculations in order to balance physical safety with financial safety with mental health. A whole host of considerations come with living in the world of COVID-19 long-term.
Thus began the coronavirus adventures, which were many, and not especially fun. Overall, we were extremely lucky. We had a roof over our heads, for one thing. After returning to the States, we stayed with my parents for a bit, and then returned to Philly and couchsurfed with some friends for a while. Eventually we found a room in a West Philadelphia house that had sane roommates, space in the basement to store our show, a washer and dryer, a front porch and backyard, and functional internet—all of which would soon become even more essential as quarantine began. And then at the end of August, we moved in with some wonderful old friends and fellow puppeteers (and also 3 cats!), so now we live in “Puppet House”: a pretty perfect fit!
As we all know, though, life amidst a global pandemic never makes for a smooth road.
Money Makes the World Go ‘Round
A rundown of our bureaucratic nightmares:
Two days before shelter-in-place started, we learned that our healthcare renewal with Medicaid had been rejected. By late March, we’d officially lost all work we’d had lined up for the spring and summer—every last gig. After a whole lot of confusion in applying, I managed to get on unemployment after two contradictory financial determinations (“You don’t qualify at all!” “Just kidding, you qualify for $98 per week!” Thank goodness for that extra $600/week in Pandemic Unemployment Benefits, let me tell you…). I qualified through the loss of one of my part-time-as-needed W2 jobs (which had been my greatest source of income at the beginning of 2020), with Wandering Theatre acknowledged as my sideline business. Unfortunately, Aaron couldn’t qualify this way, because he hadn’t been working for a long enough time at his primary W2 job (substitute teaching) before all the schools closed down. So once the CARES Act was passed, we waited months for the freelance workers’ application to go up through the Pennsylvania government’s website. The instructions on the website were very specific. Freelancers should not apply through the normal application. They must wait for this separate website with a separate application to go live. And when it finally did…that application redirected us back to the traditional unemployment application, with the message “You may qualify for regular unemployment,” and would not let us continue any further. We never did manage to work that situation out.
Those concerns made it difficult to focus on other things. It also made me feel pretty stupid a lot of the time: Were we doing something wrong? Was that why this was so hard? Were we being screwed by the system, or taking unfair advantage of it when others need assistance more? Either way, what exactly could we do about it?
We did manage to get health insurance through the Marketplace, so at least if we got COVID and needed to be hospitalized, we wouldn’t be turned away for being uninsured (my biggest fear, especially at the beginning of the pandemic when there weren’t any structures in place to deal with it). The deductible is through the roof, so the hospital bills would still probably be life-ruiners, but at least maybe not a death sentence? And my unemployment payments finally started coming in, too. True, they came at completely unpredictable times. And except for the extra Pandemic Unemployment, which came in two concurrent payments of $1200 each month, they came in utterly inexplicable amounts. ($29 this month! Now $24! Why? Who knows.) Still, we started to feel okay financially. After all, we were no longer spending money on anything but groceries (and we were doing that as infrequently as possible).
So there was plenty to be thankful for. We were okay. We were safe. Unlike the millions of essential workers out there, we were not forced to put our lives and our families’ lives on the line every day, all too often without appropriate protective equipment or hazard pay. We were lucky.
When Survival is Not a Guarantee
Again: hello, privilege. Not everyone has the luxury of taking it for granted that they’ll live to see the morning, or next month, or the end of the year. Of course, this is another example of a truth that was always there, but was easy to ignore: technically, no one can rightfully take that for granted—we never actually know that we’ll live to see another day. But I’ve had the privilege of going through virtually my whole life under the assumption that my basic needs for survival will be met today, and if I die, it’s purely accidental, a matter of chance. What’s more, I’ve had the privilege of assuming that everyone I love will also have their basic needs met today. True, there have been periodic exceptions to both of these things. I’ve lost loved ones, and feared losing loved ones when they were sick or injured or facing mental illness and suicidal thoughts. I’ve feared for my own life, too: When I first started having panic attacks, I thought I might be dying; when I was at the height of my struggle with an eating disorder, my body was basically starving to death, and I knew I wasn’t on a road that I could keep going down.
Still, these fears felt specific. Directed. And they did not pervade my every action. This year, as hospitals grew overwhelmed and so many people were unable to say goodbye to their loved ones, the fear was suddenly in the air everywhere I turned. Death has always been unpredictable, but it didn’t always throw me constant reminders that it could lurk around every corner. And for many of us this year, we were no longer assured that we had all possible tools at our disposal to face what may come. Income, insurance, housing security, job security, the availability of food, the knowledge that going to the hospital was a viable option if necessary, and that I could travel to my loved ones’ sides if need be: all of these things became precarious. And hey, I don’t need to tell you that. We’re all here, so obviously you already know this. It’s been interesting, though, to observe how actually knowing these things changed my behavior. It changed the questions I ask myself every time I act. What do I want and what do I need? How much am I willing to risk? How much am I willing to put other people at risk? And once I’ve drawn a line in the sand, am I honest with myself about where it is, and whether or not I’ve crossed it?
Existential Identity Crisis
Inevitably, the circumstances led me to ask the age-old hard-hitter: What am I doing with my life? It does take a toll to have all of your work ripped away from you and to have it referred to as inessential, particularly when that work is not just your way of supporting yourself but your passion, the thing you’ve dedicated your life to, the thing you use to define who you are. And in terms of live theatre, it was obvious very quickly that those types of events would be the very last things to come back if and when “the old world” finally resumed. Of course, we all know that “the old world” is gone; that we are coming back to a new normal. But we sure couldn’t count on sustaining constant travel through live performances any time soon.
This is a double-edged sword, too, because again: privilege. Not being “essential” kept me safe. Is it hard not to feel helpless and useless? Sure. But nobody was forcing me to put life at risk, so, that was kind of nice. Was it stressful to have no income? Understatement, obviously. But we had some savings to fall back on; and we don’t have other people to financially support, whose well-being rests on our shoulders (and it’s worth noting that our whiteness is a major player here; all of this is able to be the case because previous generations of our families were not barred from accruing wealth while their labor was stolen). So, we were able to wait it out until unemployment eventually came through (for me, anyway. It never came through for Aaron). And that brought to light still more broader issues that I don’t think I can even begin to address (like what a mixed bag it was when I started virtually teaching English as a second language to students in China; suddenly, because I had gone back to work, Aaron and I were trying to live off of $150 per month, instead of the $600 per week we’d been getting when neither of us was working. Can we please stop treating capitalism like it’s a god?).
And while essential workers—health care workers and sanitation workers are just the first two categories that come to mind—were working to meet the needs of all of the rest of us as well as themselves, I found myself desperate to do something to contribute. Even though sheltering-in-place was and is a direct way that we all contributed to keeping our communities safer, it sure doesn’t feel active. This meant that even though sitting at home was the best thing we could do, I often felt not just useless, but like I might be an actual burden on the world. What did I have to give, really? On the one hand, I cannot and do not want to deny that entertainment—stories, books, movies, TV, podcasts, radio, music—was an integral part of everyone’s survival this year. And that’s what I strive for as an artist, isn’t it? In my wildest and most self-indulgent hopes, it is my desire that I can help create something that not only makes me feel alive, but that reminds other people that life is worth living, because life is more than just surviving it.
However, it can be pretty easy to slip down the doom spiral, and to believe that the voice in your head is perfectly logical when it says, There’s no way you could ever create something that changes the world. That’s just delusions of grandeur—and selfish delusions at that. You could’ve pursued something materially useful, like being a nurse, even though you never had any desire to be a nurse and you clearly don’t handle death or even sickness very well. Still, you could have put aside everything you were passionate about and become a nurse, and then you’d actually be helping people instead of stewing in your own self-absorption. Of course, the fact is that I would make a terrible nurse (I’m certain I’d buckle under that sort of pressure). So would I really be helping anybody by offering them sub-par service and making myself miserable in the process? I can accept the fact that pursuing the arts as a career is in some ways a selfish choice. I chose my dreams, simply because they’re my dreams. I can be okay with that. It’s equally as self-absorbed to think that I’m such a prodigious talent that the world is missing something because I didn’t choose some other path in the name of self-sacrifice.
Besides, being an “inessential” worker is not synonymous with “this world would be the same with or without your contribution to it.” It just means that your community isn’t put in danger by your not being physically present at a certain place at a certain time. Just because our society undervalues the arts doesn’t mean it’s right to.
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
I also found it very telling which things I was desperately missing, and which things I was doing just fine without. And it turns out, performing (and attending live performances as an audience member) was and is one of the things I often find myself utterly longing for.
It isn’t exactly pleasant: not having access to something you love, and knowing that it’s not even out there in the world right now—at least, not in the same way that you’re wishing for it. But it’s also really nice to know that I miss it this much. Before Wandering Theatre’s trip to Europe, I was so burnt out on “the hustle” that is life as a freelance actor, I was no longer certain that I loved it anymore. It was a heart-wrenching thought; my love of theatre has been my primary way of defining who I am since basically before I can remember. To think that love had died felt like I needed to mourn a part of myself.
That’s the thing about love, though. It can change, and that doesn’t mean it’s dead. Time away from theatre and performance allowed me to be intentional about what I want to pursue, and why. Missing the theatre helped me find that spark of love again—it hadn’t died, it was just stifled beneath old habits and expectations that I’d outgrown. And that need for what I do to mean something gave me the opportunity to examine what kinds of stories I actually want to be a part of telling.
So despite the doubts, I found that I want to push onward, whether or not it’s easy. Knowing that more often than not, it’s not easy. Especially as the landscape keeps changing beneath our feet.
We discovered some very real problems with trying to make The Dragon and the Wanderer virtual. Namely, we can’t just set up a camera and press record, or join a Zoom meeting and then perform our show. Because we switch back and forth between live action and shadow puppets, the camera’s focus has to shift. The shadow puppets are backlit by nature. So unless the camera is specifically focused on the shadow puppets, you cannot see them at all. Not even a fuzzy outline of them. It’s just a bright, washed-out nothing on the shadow screen. And even if we set the focus to the screen at the beginning, the moment we come out front, the focus automatically shifts to us. Plus, if it didn’t, we would be blurry. All of this is to say, there is no virtual performance of The Dragon and the Wanderer without an active camera operator. Since all of our roommates were still working (mostly from home, but still), this was rarely an option. Plus, we couldn’t pay them for their work.
We began some preliminary work in the creation of our next show. But despite the newfound time on our hands, self-motivated creativity proved pretty difficult. We are living in an altered world; and without an end to the pandemic in sight, who knows when (if ever) we’d be able to give this new work to an audience? In some ways, not having a deadline is freeing. We can take our time and enjoy the creation process. But largely, it makes working on the project feel, if not pointless, then at least naive and self-indulgent. There’s nothing wrong with creating art only for yourself. In fact, I believe some of the most powerful art gets made that way. But every time we started working, I found myself thinking, What is theatre without an audience? Are we just wasting our time? I knew, of course, that wasn’t the whole picture. But it could be discouraging.
The Value of Doing Nothing
On the flip side, the shutdown reiterated for me a lesson that I’d started learning in 2019, while traveling: I don’t need to fill my every hour with productivity in order to feel like my life is worthwhile. There is definitely a balance—doing nothing at all can prove harder than trying to do everything. But I can certainly take it slower and easier than I had been before the pandemic, take more time for myself, and still feel fulfilled. Maybe even more fulfilled than when I’m piling my work up and up and up, because now there’s actually time to see it and feel it. I like sitting on the deck and staring up at the sky. I like who I am when I just sit on the deck and stare up the sky. When I manage to chill out for a hot second, I actually enjoy my own company.
My work doesn’t have to be the only thing that defines me. We are more than our roles—more than just actor or writer, even more than sibling or child or parent or partner or friend. Those things are part of us. Not all of us.
It’s a hopeful thing, and also a scary one. Because without those easy labels, who am I? What does define me? Is it nothing? Or is it everything—every action no matter how innocuous? Do thoughts and intentions matter? Do they pale in comparison to action? Do they matter only if we act on them? Or does our inner life have its own weight? Does it even matter? I don’t think one can exist without the other, either way.
There’s something that gives me deep comfort moving forward: I don’t have to know the answers to these questions. It’s enough to just keep on living, and strive to get a little closer to understanding all the time. And as obsessed as I am with telling a story that says something—that means something—even that doesn’t have to have answers. I think all the best stories aren’t about dictating an answer. They help us ask ourselves questions. That may not always feel like enough; but hey, that’s a part of it, too.
We made it through 2020. And 2021 likely won’t be much different—especially not at first. Still, surviving this year is certainly worth celebrating. And as difficult as it’s been, I’ve learned. A lot. I’m really not sure how hopeful to be; but I’ve definitely gotten better at sitting with uncertainty. And that’s not nothing.