So, at about this time last year, I wrote a Thanksgiving post vaguely inspired by my participation in New City Players City Speaks storytelling event (don’t bother looking at it now, though—this one is long and winding enough!) The post ended up being more properly about stories and gratefulness in a larger sense, and it also ended up being one of the most terrifyingly vulnerable pieces of writing I’ve ever shared publicly.
In said previous piece, I discussed the fact that I have attempted to write a memoir that has as one of its major themes the fallibility of stories themselves. So I will begin today’s mediation by putting forth a quote from this memoir that touches on both stories and on Thanksgiving:
“This story I am writing is not a straightforward story. Every named cause is only approximate, every meaning will be questioned, every symbol transformed. What we should be grateful for isn’t always obvious; what dooms us, sometimes, the least apparent thing. For example, my 5th grade teacher included the ex-husband that she was now on bitterest terms with on a Thanksgiving round-up of things she was grateful for because their union had produced her beloved son. I took this logic a step further, and, bafflingly to my parents, declared that I was thankful for evil itself.
As dainty and picturesque were the princesses, as dashing were the heroes, the villains of my favorite stories always had more character than these heroes, more flair, and often better musical numbers. Their world-ending plots were indeed so intricate, so admirably concocted, that I couldn’t help but feel a certain sympathy when those plots were inevitably foiled. Without villains, without conflict, there could be no movies, no books, no stories, no stages, and then where on earth would I hide?”
It’s certainly an interesting passage to think about. It’s an interesting passage to think about when the biggest thing “dooming” us these days is a virus that’s invisible, and when so many of us “theatre people” have been robbed of our artistic outlets, the stages on which we routinely “hide.” It was from mostly an outsider’s perspective that I watched the shattering effect that COVID had on the South Florida theatre world; but I was also an outsider who knew a lot of insiders, who was closely following goings-on, and who, thanks to my own theatrical background, was all too aware of the heartbreak that would be left in the wake of every cancelled play.
We are storytellers, us theatre people, well-versed in the art of narrative and foreshadowing, but this was a twist that not one of us could foresee. This was mass devastation on an international scale intersecting with mass devastation to our community intersecting with whatever personal devastations the pandemic brought to each of us. It was as if the down-to-earth Serio comedy we were living in had suddenly transformed into a horror film, a total upending of all we thought we knew.
And yet, the chaos at hand did not entirely extinguish our show-must-go-on-spirit. Starting with early efforts like Theatre Lab’s Original Online Monologue Festival, the scene exploded into an array of virtual productions and events, events we took much solace in even as we recognized their insufficiency. Theatre was alive and well, I tried to claim in my round-up of some of these offerings, but perhaps I should have instead said theatre was alive and on a ventilator, not gone for good but suspended indefinitely in some infuriating in-between. Our stage lights had after all been pared down to paltry ghost lights, and we had been reduced in each other’s eyes to washed out Zoom screen apparitions, as if ghosts of our pre-COVID selves.
(See, I am talking about the same company I was talking about last year! Bow down before my ability to manufacture narrative consistency!)
In all seriousness, though, I’ve been a fan of NCP’s since I stumbled upon their production of my all-time favorite play, The Glass Menagerie, on the way back from a Hilary Clinton rally about a million years ago in 2016. A move to New York and boomerang home later, I then ended up attending their production of Falling in September of 2019.
Falling explored the day to day life of a family dealing with a son who was on the lower-functioning end of the autism spectrum — and while I didn’t particularly “relate” as someone much higher functioning, it was refreshing to see a theatre company that was concerned with autism at all. Their commitment to exploring the issue didn’t stop with what was onstage, either; NCP also hosted several surrounding community engagement events and nightly talkbacks with experts during the show’s run.
My insatiable hunger for all things theatre also saw me as an occasional attendee at their NCP Lab back when it was an in-person event. But this open gathering for artists to commune and share work has taken on another character entirely since the advent of the pandemic. For one thing, attendance has grown exponentially since participants have been able to log in from all over the state and even country, and, thanks to quarantine, it’s frankly not as if most of us have much else to do on any given Monday night. At this week’s Thanksgiving themed lab, many attendees professed their gratefulness to have had this much-needed oasis of connection and impetus to create given that it seemed everything else was in upheaval.
The tapestry of pieces written during each two-week period also began to serve as multifaceted “time capsules” of the fraught moment. The speed at which things warped during this hurricane of a year meant that something produced during the early days of the pandemic could even a few weeks later be a “period piece.” Not that everything we wrote has been about COVID either; subject matter on offer has run the gamut from alien abductions to imprisoned murderers to most everything in between.
A few of these lab experiments were performed as “Zoom plays,” for a virtual event this May, including one written by me. This play, Easter Miracle, is set on Easter 2020… during a conversation amongst volunteers at the call center for a suicide hotline. Which, you know, mood. Since then I’ve been able to expand this sketchy trifle into a super-rough full-length draft. Which surprised even me, since I had no earthly idea what I was doing when I started it and had been stuck staring blankly at my early scrawling’s for quite a while until I finally managed to trick myself into finishing just 8 pages for lab.
Sometimes I begin writing a piece with a deliberate mission and relatively preordained plot; other times it’s more like stumbling down a dark hallway with a flashlight, slowly piecing a whole together from a mass of disparate parts. So the only explanation of why I wrote it that I could initially give was that I seem to be drawn to the darkest aspects imaginable of any given situation, which is itself probably a side effect of my misanthropic, depressive tendencies and formative experiences of being the autistic odd one out in a mostly neurotypical world.
Yet, oddly enough, though it seems as if our collective mental health has taken a major nosedive this year, I’ve found 2020 thus far surprisingly… bearable. There were points at which the intensity-of-it-all has even translated into periods of manic creative enthusiasm, though these bursts of energy were inevitably juxtaposed with periods of listless burnout.
But now, when I was in an up, all the more impressive to be thriving, and when I was in a down, well, who wouldn’t be? When I was in a down, easy to find reasons I was down besides the fact that I was just a lazy, horrible person. Suddenly it didn’t feel like my fault that I’d wasted an entire day watching the news and scrolling social media; I could just blame President Trump!
And for once, what I was seeing and hearing from those around me echoed the dismal worldview that I had to some extent always held. Suddenly, it was easy to find company for my misery, so it seemed as if my sadness was no longer mine alone. I felt, finally, less like an outcast looking longingly in at all the shiny happy people than like one of many tossed to the seas in some great shipwreck, nobly managing to stay somehow afloat.
So while I can now look back on much of my early work as driven by a desperation to make everyone else suffer with me, this year I found that much of my writing was instead driven by a desire to somehow “pay forward” my intimate knowledge of ~the darkness.~ If we take as a given that I am at least occasionally crazy, maybe my voice would be particularly resonant now that everything was going crazy; now that we were all woebegone and isolated, then I, a seasoned expert in woebegone isolation, would perhaps be able to create something that would truly speak to people.
My eagerness to find something good in this damn mess also translated into what has probably been the biggest non-theatre influence on my life over the past few months: my involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. To say that I “didn’t care” about racism until everything boiled over this May would definitely be inaccurate; but to say that I never made it a priority to care probably would be. As white-privileged-bubble as I know this sounds, I don’t think it even occurred to me that I should make it a priority to care. Not that this constitutes any real excuse, but I think I was so preoccupied by the metaphorical wars going on inside my own head to truly see the flesh and blood battles that others were fighting for their lives.
But in 2020 things had slowed down to the extent that I actually had the emotional energy to engage with the suffering of others, and the media frenzy that followed George Floyd’s death made it impossible to stay oblivious to it. The more I began to learn about the scale and nature of the systemic oppression faced by people of color, the more impossible it became to stay neutral. Soon, I was breaking what had by then been months of almost total quarantine to take to the streets, outlasting the wave of initial furor to participate in a multitude of protests and demonstrations.
Much in the way that this little blogging project served as an anchor to me throughout the latter half of 2019, marching and shouting for justice eventually began to give a continuity to my seemingly endless 2020 days, one that offered me a more visceral and more immediate sense of purpose than writing did. Before, my consistency had been the theatre; but now my consistency was rebellion. Anger. Outrage, at this broken world.
Protesting wasn’t the only surprising touchstone I found in 2020. Starting in late August, I have spent every Saturday besides this last one volunteering to distribute groceries to those in need with an organization called Hospitality Helping Hands. I found being able to help prevent families from going hungry a particularly resonant mission as juxtaposed with my history of disordered eating, which I rambled on at length about in last year’s post (told you that piece was vulnerable!) This year, though, I am attempting try to relegate it to a mere aside, because I really don’t believe the matter to be worthy of more than a mere aside.
Lately, with most non-virtual socialization out of the question, how much I weighed has simply become so much less important to me than it had seemed before our apocalypse. Appearance was simply not at issue during the two events I did regularly leave the house for; all that mattered about my body now was whether I was strong enough to withstand an eight mile march for justice or endure a 3 hour marathon of lifting groceries into cars. And here in 2020, there were plenty of far scarier things to worry about than gaining a few pounds. Like, you know, Donald Trump?
So I’m not sure if any of you were aware of this, but our country had a little election recently. And right up until the polls closed on November 3rd, I was doing all I reasonably could to ensure that the outcome of this election was the one less likely to send our nation spiraling further into catastrophe. But after having been caught entirely off guard by the results of the 2016 election, I was all too uncertain of what would come to pass.
Since then, it seemed as if Trump’s rabid fanbase had only expanded and grown more vocal. I passed corner after corner overtaken by angry mobs of supporters carrying Blue Lives Matter flags and “FUCK YOUR FEELINGS” signs; I spied Trump flags proudly displayed in my own neighborhood and a MAGA cap on the head of my own uncle. Watching these Trumpers and MAGAts carelessly traipse around maskless denying the increasingly obvious wrongdoings of their leader hadn’t exactly restored my faith in humanity, so this time I was prepared for the worst.
Meanwhile, on the night before the election, I was lucky enough to receive a letter from New City Players inviting me to become a member of their artistic ensemble. Now, I hadn’t been intending to receive this invitation, exactly. But I had at some point begun a bit of a quest to see how thoroughly I could emotionally dominate lab with my frequently highly charged pieces, and having my efforts and talents recognized by a group that I already respected so highly felt a bit like the artistic version of finding out that your crush is recruited.
Which is how I ended up in a ridiculously good mood on a night on which I was also at least 70 percent convinced that my country was about to erupt into a civil war. Whatever chaos was about to go down, at least I could fall back on the knowledge that I was no longer a theatre outsider but once more a-part-of-it-all, and thus on one of the only things I have consistently found to be true; the theatre always saves me.
Anyhow, as we all now aware, my worst fears about our political situation were not realized, and I am amazingly enthusiastic about New City Players’ next project. They’ll be staying at the socially relevant cutting edge with an original outdoor co-production with Art Prevails Project called A Love Like This. This totally contactless experience will feature world premiere short plays and poetry that explore and celebrate relationships and ritual through the lens of Black creatives.
Since it became less “trendy,” I have seen so many organizations and individuals slide back towards the status quo when it comes to putting in the effort to be actively antiracist; but NCP is obviously not one of them. They are currently fundraising for this project with a Giving Tuesday campaign, and while I don’t want this megalopolis to devolve into a plea for funds, I would urge you to at least consider donating if you’re in a position where you can consider it.
Now, I say this less because I am now a company member than because of all of the things that made me choose to become a company member, the myriad evidence I have that the hearts of all those involved are actually in the right place. Evidence like the fact that they produced a hundred-episode Instagram live show as a fundraiser not solely for themselves, but for the South Florida Theatre League’s emergency relief fund and thus for our community as a whole.
And I trust that NCP will continue to care about combatting racism long after the lights go down on A Love Like This, just as they have continued to care about the autistic community long after the curtains closed on Falling; by hosting a digital City Speaks event for autism awareness month and commissioning me to write an original short play featuring two characters on the spectrum this past May.
In a post about A Love Like This, NCP referenced a quote from Jamil Zaki’s book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, which I am now totally going to steal.
“We find it easier to empathize with single individuals—whose faces and cries haunt us—than the suffering of many. In laboratory studies, people express more empathy for one victim of tragedy than they do for eight, ten, or hundreds…With the right treatments—including unlikely friendships, art, and community building—we can grow a more muscular kind of empathy, and broaden our kindness along the way.”
This is a phenomenon that I’m sure many of us have experienced first-hand. I, for instance, found my resolve to stay committed to fighting for black lives strengthened by learning the story of Jade Kothe, whose death of a preventable overdose due to police negligence I eventually ended up writing about in another of my most vulnerable pieces thus far (Cool, the entire internet knows that I did drugs now…).
Whether you read my take on it or not, I encourage you to learn Jade’s story too, even as I warn you that some of its disgusting details may hurt to read about; they certainly hurt to write about. Because sometimes it hurts to care. It hurts to realize just how badly others are victimized by a system that you yourself may have implicitly condoned with your oblivious passivity. It hurts to care in a world where almost half the country wanted to reelect a president who doesn’t care about anyone but himself and “fuck your feelings” is the order of the day. And it hurts to care about people at all in the middle of a pandemic that has killed 250,000 people and counting and severely afflicted countless more.
Empathy is not easy, and neither is honesty. Of course, I won’t deny that there is also an aspect of attention-seeking and even masochism to some of my more dramatic public confessions, a lingering touch of the actors’ “look at me.” But sometimes it really is about the principle of the thing, or at least about both, and the fact that I am willing to throw myself under the bus to say what I believe must be said is one of the few things about myself I’m ever genuinely proud of.
Which means that I guess I have to talk about the actual coronavirus now. Fuck, how do I get myself into these things?
Ok, here goes: the reason I was not out at Hospitality Helping Hands this past Saturday is because I have been on total quarantine since early last week. I have been on total quarantine since early last week because my father, who I live with, began showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. After days of frustrating delays, he eventually received a positive test result this past Saturday. Luckily, his proved to be a relatively mild case, overwhelmingly unpleasant but never truly serious or life-threatening. And though we are not entirely out of the danger zone yet, all evidence thus far seems to suggest that both my mother and I have somehow avoided infection ourselves.
But I was briefly in a situation where I had pretty damn good reason to suspect that I could indeed be harboring the virus, which wasn’t even the scary part. The scary part was that a full fifty percent of coronavirus cases are thought to be spread by people experiencing no symptoms at all, and that I had interacted in person with people from outside of my household shortly before my father’s symptoms appeared.
Which brings us conveniently back to the idea of empathy, and to the idea of empathy for individuals being far easier for our puny little brains to grasp than empathy for the masses. It’s not as if I’d been intellectually unaware how dangerous COVID-19 was, but the abstract notion of spreading a virus to “people” being a bad thing to do was not in fact sufficient to instill in me the appropriate level of fear. However, the idea of having potentially spread said virus to specific people who I’d kind of planned on enjoying being alive with after the dust of 2020 had settled was absolutely devastating.
Meanwhile, while my family hadn’t planned on a large gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday, my sister had planned on driving down from Orlando to convene with us and one other “pod” of close relatives, which will obviously not be happening now. So at first, the timing of this little scare also seemed particularly unfortunate, especially as it coincided with my greater realization that this entire holiday season is likely to be an exercise in denial, depression, and despair as we stare down what looks to be the pandemic’s darkest days. Since I was lucky enough to have not really been in the middle of anything when COVID hit, in a way the usual festivities of the holiday season are one of the biggest things that I’ve “lost” thus far.
Upon reflection, though, I can only see the fact that events unfolded precisely as they did and precisely when they did as yet another strike of miraculous good fortune. What if we had gathered today, and what if it had been today that my dad had been invisibly incubating the virus, with all of us unmasked for at least long enough to share a meal? Move anything a few days forward or a few days back, and the results could have been utterly disastrous. Take one wrong turn in COVID’s perilous forest, and you risk ending up in unimaginable sorrow; move one pawn the wrong way on the chessboard and you might permanently alter the outcome of the game.
So maybe this is my wake up call to the fact that while it will certainly hurt to isolate for as long as COVID demands, the potential pain I — or any of us — could cause by not isolating is of a far greater measure. Because even though “caring” will likely mean enduring a long, lonely winter, we have no choice but to care about each other, because COVID will not. COVID is a Trump supporter with a “Fuck your feelings” sign, the ingenious cartoon villain who foresees your every move. COVID will not care why you took the risk of interaction, or how pure were your intentions; COVID will not make an exception for you.
So better to stay six feet apart; because we also must remember that we are all only separated by six degrees of separation. Even if you somehow think it’s “ok” to risk the health of strangers, what happens if one of those strangers comes into contact with someone who comes into contact with someone who comes into contact with the elderly relative that you’ve been responsibly avoiding for months? There’s nothing to stop any germs you send out in the world from boomeranging back towards someone you love.
This is simply not the time to be playing Russian roulette with our own physical health and that of those around us, especially not when a vaccine may only be mere months away and the oasis of a happy ending truly in sight. All else that can be said about time, it does tend to pass; and while periods of extended involuntary solitude are certainly not fun, they do tend to be technically survivable. As your resident expert in woebegone isolation, I would know. And year from now, will it really matter whether you met up with your friends and family in person or online for the 2020 holidays? Or will it only matter who is missing from the table, forever lost to the irreversible thrall of death?
So, um, happy Thanksgiving?
Well. I certainly did not know that this is the way I would be ending this story last week, let alone last year. But things do seem to have a way of coalescing into narrative; sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to pages, pages to the sort of star stuff that fills books. When we tell stories, we take stock; we look at where we are, and how we got there, and where we’re going. And when I take the time to contemplate the random, winding roads that led me to the life that I lead today and everything that I value about that life, I often find myself awed by the fact that everything could be different if near anything had happened in any other manner than the peculiar way that it did. In this, I am beginning to realize the futility of regret — even as I do still regret. But I have also begun to look back on things with the thought, to quote from near the end of my aforementioned draft of Easter Miracle:
“Maybe that doesn’t mean that what happened “should’ve” happened. But the world doesn’t work in should. We don’t live in should. We live in “is.” And sometimes we just have to accept the good in ‘is.’ Even though that doesn’t erase all the bad.”
So, does any of this mean that I, in any good conscious, can say that I am in any sense thankful for the pandemic itself when it has brought so much sorrow to the world? I’m not sure, but I’m also not sure it actually matters, because I didn’t choose it, and I cannot stop it, and it is certainly going to be here either way. In such situations, all we can do is cling to the faint silver linings, from more time with family to unexpected virtual connections to end-of-the-world sales at Forever 21. Or maybe we do not merely cling to these glimmers; maybe we use them to spin yarns.
For, even in a pandemic, and perhaps especially in a pandemic; no artist should abandon their mission to find beauty in whatever ways present themselves, big or small. Maybe some days that means dedicating yourself to large-scale creative projects, but some days it could be as simple as choosing a mask that makes a fashion statement or whipping out your iPhone for an impromptu photoshoot. Some days you may indeed give up, and watch too much Netflix, or eat too much ice cream, or get totally wasted and make a fool of yourself on Zoom; but so it goes. This is no time to judge anyone, including ourselves, for whatever safe indulgences it takes us to get through the days, the months, the year. So long as we never lose sight of the fact that none of us will ever know what anything foreshadows; and thus that there will always be reason to hope.
Ilana Jael earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in Writing and Psychology from Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College. She also served as co-founder of the student theatre troupe “Theatre in the Raw.” She has been dabbling in both playwriting and acting since high school. A few favorite roles include Rebel in Columbinus (Bob Carter’s Actor’s Rep), The Fearful One in The Cave (G-Star School of The Arts), and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (Theatre In The Raw). Her one-act plays Goodbye, Karma’s A Bitch, Certainly Not About Him, and Open Heart have also been previously performed at Actor’s Rep and/or at Florida Atlantic University. More recently, Ilana appeared in and created the original musical ZeeZou’s Stardust Extravaganza with Area Stage’s Miami Queer Theatre Collective. Her short plays have been produced virtually by New City Players, Theatre Lab, and Femuscripts. She is also a current company member of New City Players, and you can check out her theatre blog at ilanaintheatreland.com!