Green Shirt Studio

Overcoming Our Collective Grief

“Together we organize the world for ourselves, or at least we organize our understanding of it; we reflect it, refract it, criticize it, grieve over its savagery; and we help each other to discern, amidst the gathering dark, paths of resistance, pockets of peace, and places from whence hope may be plausibly expected. Marx was right: the smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs. And also plays.” –Tony Kushner

Some weeks just knock the wind out of you. This was one of those weeks. The revelations regarding a culture of violence and abuse at a lauded Chicago theater and the unimaginable barbarity of a lone gunman in Orlando have left many of us full of sorrow and anger. This week has left me angry, ashamed, heartbroken, feeling hopeless. And right now I want everyone to leave me the hell alone. I want to be left alone and to not have to listen to another word about anything. I want to give up. I don’t want to write this. Not now. All I want is to put my head down on a pillow, turn up a podcast and forget. I want to go to sleep and forget.

In moments of pain, in moments of vulnerability, I have to fight this urge to withdraw and disconnect. I have to fight the depression that waits patiently on the doorstep, watching for the right moment to pull me into its darkness. I have to fight the urge to disconnect because I know it can kill me. The abyss is real and when I’m staring into it, I need something to remind me that I’m not alone. As unhip as it is to say, for me that something has always been acting and it has always been theater.

The last week of October 2014 was the worst week of my life. My brother was in hospice care dying of cancer at age 37. I was stuck in Chicago because I had to move out of my apartment, but I’d just found out that our new place wouldn’t be ready for another 10 days, so we were effectively going to be homeless. I was also closing a show I’d produced, and most of the end-of-run logistics were up to me to handle. All I wanted was to be with my brother, but I just couldn’t leave town. And I felt so unbearably guilty and disgusted with myself to be in that position. The only solace I had was the hope that, if I worked hard enough, I could maybe get everything finished and moved and done in time to get to Wisconsin and say goodbye.

The call that Nate had died came in as I was parking a U-haul outside the theater. I sat there, in an empty van that wasn’t mine, and screamed and cried. The world as I understood it was gone. Nate was a force of nature to me, the guy I grew up hoping to be, and he was gone. I have never felt more alone. My thoughts flashed between my brother, my sister-in-law, my sister, my parents, all of whom I knew were in pain at that moment in their own unique ways. I have never wanted to disappear or numb out more. I sat in that van for an hour and from behind the glass I watched the smokers duck out to have a quick cigarette between the acts of the show I’d written. A few of them noticed me sitting in the van and looked away. I’m sure they thought I was crazy and I’m sure I looked crazy. After a while, I saw the intermission lights flicker and watched as everyone stepped back into the theater to watch the second act of my show. I knew it was time I had to go inside.

Walking into the lobby, I saw the face of my friend Molly who was working box office. Seeing me and realizing that I’d been crying, she asked what was wrong. I told her and she immediately rushed out from behind the counter and hugged me tight and cried with me for what must’ve been 15 minutes. She didn’t try to tell me it would be ok because she knew that things weren’t going to ever be the same. She didn’t try to tell me to calm down, she just stayed with me. And in that moment, through the pain, I remembered that I wasn’t alone, that I was still connected, that what I was feeling didn’t need to be hidden away and that there were people in this world willing to share it with me. That night, Molly and Tim and Manuela and Anson came over to help Sommer and I pack up our home, the shelves of plays and theater books. We cried and sat in silence, together in a dawning world. They gave me space and tenderness and they gave me their openness. That’s the kind of place that theater is and the kind of people who inhabit it.

It’s easy to forget as we stare into the abyss that we are never out of relationship. We are never truly isolated. We go to the theater to remember what is possible in our lives, in the world around us and in each other. We act because it binds us together in the midst of insurmountable odds to the truth of our human nature. It wakes us up to the miracle of our moments together. In these days of pain, we have to acknowledge that we’ve been hurt but not give our power away to bullies and madmen. That power flows from our interconnectedness. We will experience pain in the world, an inevitable facet of being alive. Grief is the price we pay for letting ourselves love. As we wrestle with the things we need to wrestle with, let’s remember that the pain we are feeling is connected to the joy we’ve felt. I’m grateful for the people that acting and theater have put in my life. You’re the whole point.