There is no doubt that the last two weeks have been hard for those of us who oppose Trump’s presidency. We have spent the last year and a half watching politics devolve into a weird and scary conglomeration of posturing, fear-mongering, and hate. We’ve watched friends and family members retract into hardened shells of denial (“I’m not a racist, but…”). We’ve watched “truth” and “fact” give way to the loudest opinions. We’ve watched the nation lose its collective moral compass. And we’re scared.
We’re scared, justifiably. Even if the President-elect himself doesn’t believe a word that he himself has said and has no intentions of personally causing harm to minority groups and women, the people he is appointing and a small-but-loud-and-violent portion of his followers do.
I can’t tell you how to process that fear.
Some of you will find isolation and stillness to be helpful. Some will find protest, noise, and rebellion. Others will fall into sadness’ arms, while still others will find themselves with an overwhelming urge to go back to business as usual, in order to keep the world from feeling like it’s falling apart.
I can’t tell you how to process, nor can I tell you how long you’ll need for your particular kind of processing.
But I need to tell you this:
Yesterday, I flew across the country to perform in New York City. Two weeks before I did the same thing. Two weeks ago, before the election, the house was packed. Last night, I played to an empty room.
This is not a singular experience. Listening to producer friends, I’ve learned that ticket sales have been down in general since the election, and more artists than just me have been playing to tiny, quiet audiences and empty rooms.
Now is not the time to be abandoning the arts.
There is a reason why, in school, the arts are classified as part of the “Humanities”: Art is what makes us human. Art is what grounds us in experience. Art gives us the tools to process — whether by tuning in to our feelings and collective experiences or providing distraction and relief.
In ancient Greece, theatre was actually part of the political process. In that Democracy (a true Democracy, where the people’s votes counted — albeit, at the time, only white men were considered “people”), they held festivals that actually contributed to the continued functioning of society.
At the festivals, there were both comedies and tragedies — the comedies were meant to simulate sexual abandon, mischief, and bacchanal; the tragedies were meant to stir up the emotions of hate, fear, and angst — and both were meant to provide a catharsis at the end: A collective purging of those emotions.
When people connect with what they see, hear, or experience in the arts, they feel the feelings. In theatre, dance, and music, they live the story along with the artists, and, at the end, there is closure. A sense of having done.
When you present fear, hate, and angst on stage, when you represent depravity and excess, the audience lives it with you. And when you are done, they are done. They — and you — enact the desire, and then, at the end, you move on.
The audience and artist have a contract. The audience agrees to sit and experience; the artist agrees to create an experience that the audience can join.
It’s a contract that allows us to not only enact our own basic desires, but also experience the stories and emotions of others that we don’t have access to based on our everyday identities and life experiences.
When we sit and agree to live the experiences that artists represent on stage, through words, song, and dance, we agree to sympathize with the stories, even if we cannot fully empathize. But because we as audience members are “living” the experience and emotions along with the artists, we’re one step closer to empathy.
And empathy is what makes humans capable of living together, despite disparate experiences and identities. It allows us to put ourselves in others’ shoes, even if they’re not our shoe size. It’s what keeps societies from falling into cycles of hate and division. And when they do fall into cycles of hate and division, art lets us purge — catharsis — to get those feelings out.
In addition, the audience members create a contract with one another. They agree to sit, side by side, shoulder to shoulder with strangers. They agree to laugh and cry with one another. They agree to be amazed, confused, or scared. They agree to be vulnerable, even if that vulnerability happens in the darkness. You don’t need to see the person beside you to sense the way their body shakes with laugher or trepidation, to sense tears (and hear sniffles), to hear sighs of relief or gasps of horror. The audience has a contract to share those emotions and to not be afraid or ashamed of that sharing.
I believe that one of the major reasons why we have such divisiveness in our society is because art is no longer valued or shared. We take the arts out of our schools, and we don’t pay professional artists for their crafts. (How about some “experience” instead?) We devalue, and sometimes even demonize the arts. We make religious and political arguments against them. And, when we are afraid, we abandon them altogether.
Imagine, if the people painting swastikas and hanging black effigies from trees and grabbing hijabs had been able to purge their fears and their anger in an apolitical and productive way. Imagine if they could see the consequences of those actions in real time. Imagine if they could not only experience their own emotions, but see and feel the emotions of the people that their hatred affects.
I know that you are scared. I am scared. I am terrified, if truth be told. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Germany in 1932 around these parts, and I am only one generation removed from the Holocaust. I carry my grandparents’ trauma in my genes.
But I refuse to stop making art. I’m a doer. I have to keep my hands busy when I am anxious or else the anxiety sets in. You may not be ready to leave the house yet or be distracted by such petty things as parody and farce.
But please don’t stay home forever. Please remember that sharing laughter, storytelling, bawdiness, treachery, subterfuge, illusion, and amazement is what keep us human. Right now, we need more humanity. I know that the most hateful people in our society will ignore this plea, but please don’t succumb to the hate and poison yourself. Please don’t give up on the arts.
Please don’t give up.