Playing Against the Fear

Last night I watched a documentary about children with cancer. One of the things that struck me was the humor: the parents and siblings with their steady stream of comments that wouldn’t make sense in a transcript but conveyed such complex experiences- their purposeful weaving of lightness with darkness to make the experience more complex. To create meaning in every moment.

But another thing that struck me so many times was the gathering of families for birthday parties, for funerals: the blowing-out of candles, the hugging.

The touching.

I thought a lot about touching at the beginning of all this. But how quickly things become habitual. How quickly a culture can change. When a nurse on the tv screen reaches over to comfort another nurse with a hug: my body responds by tightening, “No!”

I wondered what this documentary would look like had it been filmed this past year. If the one doctor, with his arms tightly crossed over his chest while he talk to the family about end-of-life decisions would seem… unremarkable?


This week I have been thinking about how much I miss mentoring. I miss my job. Since March, my role has changed drastically. The physical distance has created a kind of objectivity and hands-off mentality that I get no pleasure from. I can count on one hand how many times I have been able to sit in a room with students and work on a scene – jumping up and down from the floor to interrupt, to find a new perspective, to coach: “Take it again, from your upstage cross” – when I’ve been able to see the learning process – or see that I need to come at it from another angle.

The conscious physical restraint has restrained me creatively.

It feels like I’m trying to teach a child to swim while sitting on the bleachers. I can’t explain why. Objectively, I don’t think much has changed in terms of my actual behavior. I wonder what one would observe comparing film clips of my work before and after the Corona restrictions. If I would seem “normal” now. In the classroom, in the conference room: now sitting across the table and down one seat to measure out a meter.

The students come into the room single file now, and we spray their hands with anti-bac. They leave the same way, and we mop the floor after every class. There’s no logical reason my relationships with the students should be different because of these little rituals. But they are different. I have a whole new understanding of what makes a “safe space” in a rehearsal room: where I am allowed to touch a finger lightly to a sternum and say: “Move from here,” reminding the student that the theater is where the imagination creates an alternative and shared reality through our physical presence. Our physical energy. Our physicalized intentions – whether or not they are followed through – whether or not they are played against.

Fear is a wild creature, that doesn’t respect boundaries or arguments. Fear is a great, gaping mouth that latches onto whatever it can to feed.

I try to get a student’s attention in the hallway. I lightly touch my finger to her down jacket and everyone’s heads whip around: shame.

In the rehearsal room, the students can touch one another. It has to do with the subject’s egenart, it’s specific nature. We’re still unsure whether instructors are allowed to touch the students. The logic evades us all.

A distraught student comes to me in tears. I find the appropriate telephone numbers, write the emails, help him make a plan to get through the next day or two. I reach out to touch his arm… isn’t this the specific nature of the moment?

My role?

Some habits are hard to break, and any acting teacher knows that playing against the impulse heightens the emotion of the moment.

Adds complexity – which seems to be the specific nature of human nature.

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  1. Touching base. Yep Ren, that’s what I’m doing here. Figurative I know, but even without the viral thing, Norway is far far away from me.

    I am glad-hearted that your thirst to touch has found more presence. Don’t-touch aside, an eager heart and hand is always good company. How you feel, touching, or not, has a way of being expressed in the whole of you. That is what I feel reading you. Implicit counts, it does! I testify.

    Since the pandemic came to roost I’ve wondered how long it would take us to recover “touch” were the flags to fly and say it’s all done. Don’t think I’d hesitate, except for the fact, my rules are not ordinary with an immune system the size of a mouse.

    Truth is I suspect, we will continue being exactly who we already are. Some folks are loving and ready for physical connection. Some folks are not. That’s always disturbed me. We oft seem to insist on some form of loneliness. One of my missions in life has been to nudge open that door – for all of us. How I’m doing, I don’t know.

    How’s this? So if touch is problematic now, then use our gift for language. Not the same. Of course. But take it away and it’s the bright warm sun going behind a cloud. As a species, isn’t language is our gift – and worth exercising?

    I’ve long admired one of Wm. Stafford’s notions. If right there, is the perfect poem you’ve longed to find and write, but the only route is first to go here, then there (a matter of willingness) because – that – is the path. Does language know what we think and feel? Is that part of the play?

    I’m still working on paying attention.

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