The painful clarity of loss

It’s an oddly wonderful time to experience art. In this post election fog, truth and deception are in stark contrast onstage.

I don’t know if you’ve ever lost someone close to you. If you have, you know in the moment immediately after the loss the world comes into painfully sharp focus. The things that are worthless seem disgustingly so. Friends who weren’t really friends become almost nauseating. Hollow, empty gestures hurt.It feels, for a period, as if you could look directly into people’s souls.The world almost divides in two betweenthose you don’t need and those who are essential to your ability to get up in the morning. As painful as the careless lie becomes, the simple honest gesture (a smile from a stranger, a heartfelt hug, a kind word) takes on immeasurable value.  What’s striking is two people can say the very same words and you can instantly tell who means it and who is simply going through the motions.

My time in the theater since this jarring election has been like that: polarized with clarity.

Of course, losing an election doesn’t carry the personal weight of a loved one’s death – compared to that pain, the electoral college is a triviality. Yet, there is a strange reprieve in solitary grief. While you are astounded the rest of the world has the audacity to go about its daily business as if nothing has happened, your world lies in shards around you. There is a strange comfort in grieving alone.

With this electoral loss, there is no privacy. All is public. Even in our protective, blue, Californian bubble, it’s hard to find a moment when we are not reminded of the crass lies and base ugliness that are assuming power over our fragile, liberal democracy.  Everywhere we turn, every conversation we overhear, every tweet that passes by is a reminder, a slap in the face waking us from our political slumber.

Sitting in a theater right now, for me, is either absolutely essential or utterly pointless. There is an urgency to my theatrical need, a painful awake-ness, I can only liken to the moments following profound loss.  In the same way I felt I could see the integrity of people’s souls in the moments after my loved one’s deaths, I feel as if the integrity of the art onstage lies there naked, exposed. The theatrical world, for me, has parted into the essential and the painfully dishonest.

Two recent shows made this clear.

“Letter to a Man,” Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s piece that plumbs the depths of  Nijinsky’s psychosis had me mesmerized. Listening to Arvo Part’s haunted notes echo through Royce Hall while Baryshnikov wrestled with the destructive fame of another Russian dancer made present both the integrity of art and the extremity of loss.  In the audience, the feeling was both profoundly communal and utterly inescapable. Essential.

By contrast, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at the Mark Taper Forum felt more remote than this foreign import should. The accents spoke to a distance not only of origin but also purpose.  The thoughts I couldn’t banish from my brain “Why am I sitting here? What does this have to do with our world – NOW?” Pointless.

I’m reminded of the words of the Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, “There is no such thing as good acting or bad acting, only varying degrees of profundity for the actor’s reason for being onstage.”These words extend to artistic directors in this sad moment. Why this play? Why now?

This is, of course, fiercely subjective. Yet, I’m not alone.

As you read through (and you should) the artistic responses to this election on American Theater’s website from some of our nation’s finest playwrights and artistic directors , you can hear this same urgency, this same need, this same loss.

Even in their words you can, I imagine, sense both the honest and the hollow. You can feel those artists who are struck by this election with a force that will awaken great art. Also, you can hear those whose agendas are more perfunctory than profound. . . varying degrees of profundity.

Like the grieving after death, I wonder how long will this moment last. Surely not four years (or, god forbid, eight)? How long will this sense of urgency, this precious clarity consume us? Inside theater? Out? How long will we feel this way? How long will we be awake?