Have you ever come up with an idea for a project and immediately wondered “Who are you to tell this story?”
I do. Often.
Ironically, the more life experience I gain, the greater the inability to have a definitive opinion about anything. Think that there is a situation in which I could never ever sympathize with, BAM, life circumstance that totally proves me wrong. Assume I hate something with a passion, BOOM, someone finds a way to make it interesting. Believe I’ll always want this particular thing, POW, it twists in a way and suddenly is no longer desirable.
Additionally, I’ve made it something of a project as a director to work hard at empathizing. It sounds silly saying it that way, but it’s true. I have made an effort in my rehearsal spaces to listen in as deep a way as I can. And increasingly, in my life I’ve found it an interesting challenge to try and imagine the perspective I am instinctively least inclined to side with. Human emotions naturally being a somewhat foreign substance to me, I have compensated by creating this project of trying to imagine how a person could hold an opinion that seems thoroughly odious. And more and more it seems to me that no one intends to be evil, even when they seem that way to me, but that cruelty is a function of laziness and acclimation to circumstance. If you change your focus on the overall picture, it’s easy to change the interpretation.
Right about now you’re probably saying “Duh.”
It shouldn’t be so surprising that it’s possible. It’s what I ask of my actors all the time. And every time I try to really play the devil’s advocate on an issue, I can’t help but feel a little piece of that reasoning stick. Enough that any time I hear myself make a blanket statement, I find a little piece of my brain wondering if there’s a way to argue the opposite.
One consequence of this tendency is a constantly shrinking number of things that I feel like I can claim expertise on. I am ever made aware of the number of things that any number of people will know more about than I do. It doesn’t really upset me. The truth is, I am fine with the conscious simultaneity of an increase in knowledge resulting in a realization of how little I know. On a Zen level (a concept I know nothing about) this makes a kind of intuitive sense. Or perhaps its more a consequence of a world full of data: the more you consume, the more you realize is out there for consumption.
But it has made for some trouble in my generative work. It’s made me wonder what kind of stories I can claim enough ownership of to really tell. In truth, there’s not a huge variety of experience in my life. The number of places I have lived, ones in which I feel like I have any authority to speak about, is incredibly small. I am struck often that even here in Philadelphia, the place I have spent my adult life, there are large portions of this city that I can safely say I know next to nothing about. I have grown up middle class with an emphasis on education. I went to a nice college and therefore, even if my earnings are low, I enjoy a kind of liberal cocoon that doesn’t force me to interact with harsher realities of life too terribly often.
I am not a person of color. I am not a person who has experienced disability. I have not known the stresses of fame. I am a female, but one who for the most part has had an incredible wealth of opportunity to feel empowered regardless of my gender. I’m not terribly poor or terribly wealthy and as such have not traveled to distant lands or seen the worst that my city has to offer me. I do not know a person in the military. I don’t have undue amounts of power over any group of people. I have had the luxury of experiencing relatively little violence and, up to this point, have been blessedly untouched by deep tragedy. In short, there are not many extreme circumstances that I have had to confront.
This list of attributes is not the sum of potential experience, of course. I have felt extreme joy and passion in a variety of outlets vastly different from each other. I have had close experience with addiction, mental health issues, and dysfunction in my circles of family and friends. I do not mean to denigrate the life I live. I enjoy it and seek out ways to expand the world through knowledge and experience wherever possible. But mine is a life of certain kinds of privilege and many kinds of shelter.
And increasingly often when I sit down to imagine a piece, like I have been recently for my upcoming work THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL, I think, “Who are you to tell this story?”
It’s hard to compare the struggles I’ve had – asshole bosses at coffee shops, long hours for little pay, menial tasks that could bore one out their skull – with those that I see on the page. On a pretty fundamental level, it’s a life I’ve chosen. I could leave the arts and could likely get a much better paying job. I could apply to graduate school in Chemistry. I could parlay a college education into a much better job. So when I put up with crap, it’s because there’s enough about my life that HAS felt worth it to keep going.
What would the feeling of truly being trapped feel like? Of having no family, no support network, no back-up plan to turn to? What if I was confronted with a cause I might have to give up my life to support? What if I was faced with death? What if I truly did have to live life in the way that these laborers I read about did? I don’t know.
When I first made the piece, I didn’t know enough to realize how little of this worldview I might have no ability to conceive. And ironically, I now know just enough more to know how much I didn’t then. I want to be a responsible author and creator. I don’t want to lay claim to experiences that are not my own.
But the truth is that I’m more and more interested in stories unlike my own. I think the theater I see today is one filled with people that are mostly like me. There are so many plays of people and their relationships and college educated debates and beige couches. I am tired of watching it. I want to examine the very ecstatic and debased world of which I know much less. Because if I wanted beige couches I’ll go home and sit on mine (though, full disclosure it’s a darker, chocolate, brown).
So the best I can do is try and imagine myself in those other circumstances and hope that all that listening will help me imagine a reality I cannot personally know. And hopefully the projection of myself into that other life is based on enough experience to be meaningful. And if it isn’t…
If it isn’t… I’m not sure. I guess I just keep listening. Try harder. Invite people who do know enough to help me tell it.
What else is there to do?