BURN OUT AND APATHY AND THE CASE OF THE MISSING MOJO

Content warning: this post includes discussion of sexual assault, though not in detail.

Oh where oh where did my mojo go?

I remember a time when I would work all day and all night, sometimes because I had to, but mostly because I wanted to. Thinking and talking about improv was pretty much all I wanted to do. Building communities and planning events and pushing myself to do things that scared me. Writing on this blog, even!

But since moving to Vancouver, I have needed to slow down. To sleep more, to say no to more opportunities, to shut my mouth to save my own neck. My brain has been occupied in a way like never before, by issues that are not inspiring little creative challenges but are deep, complex, all-consuming problems. It’s been three years of growth and learning. It’s been humbling, and its been painful.

I moved to Vancouver on January 1st, 2016. The Ghomeshi trial started February 1st.

Most areas of my life have been pretty stable since moving. I am lucky enough have a very supportive partner, a semi-steady contract teaching improv, an apartment in Vancouver that I haven’t been evicted from. All of this is to say, based on the enormous heaviness I feel, I can’t imagine the pain that other folks are carrying around with them.

In the last three years, over ten men that I know personally have been accused of misconduct. About half of sexual assault, and the rest for some variety of shitty behaviour including but not limited to: abuse of power, using the stage as an excuse to grope or degrade women, and a myriad of Aziz Ansari-type garbage.

It feels like every time a celebrity is accused of sexual misconduct, someone in my artistic community is too. I can track it on a timeline over the past several years.

As in Hollywood, the scope and scale of these abuses are varied: some appear to be one-time incidents, others habitual patterns. Some are purposely malicious, others subconscious, societally-trained fuck ups, others mental health issues. Very little has been or can be proven, most organizations are scared to take action, and most of these men continue to work in the industry.

Photography by Ryan Parker, 2018. https://ryanparkerphotography.com/

Over the last few years, I’ve received a lot of phone calls from men – some accused, some wondering if they will be accused, all very scared. All of them wanting a woman to tell them that they didn’t do anything wrong, that they never did anything to me, that it’ll be ok.

And here’s the deal: statistically, it is likely they all did what they were accused of.

So, how does one grapple with the fact that an accusation will likely never be proven, that a man who was once a friend maintains his innocence, that an organization claims they cannot take action, that a community is divided, and oh, did we lose track that there is a human being, a woman, has been violently harmed not only by the original act, but by the pushing and pulling of this “process”? It overwhelms me.

And then there are the men I know who have not been accused per se, but you hear rumours, or your intuition tingles at the back of your neck. How many times in the past three years, about to get on stage, have I asked myself,  “But how much of a creep is he, really?”

I have read over 20 Anti-Harassment Policies and Codes of Conduct this year, served on a few committees, and spent countless hours talking about them. Most discussions come down to a few key discussion points: Anonymous reporting or not? Who builds the investigation panel? Plain language or legalese?

And really to me, the question is: who are you trying to protect? The people in your organization, or the organization itself?

For example: a policy that places the organization’s director automatically on the investigation panel is good for the organization because it allows the director to know in detail everything that is going on, but it may prevent complainants from coming forward if the director is the source of the complaint, or if they appear to be aligned with the interests of certain people in the organization. To me, good policy accounts for every worse case scenario. What if the complaint is about the organization’s board? Its leaders? A volunteer? How can you do your very best to ensure a fair investigation, that protects the complainant?

Sidebar: this lecture by Sarah Ahmed captures the stresses of the complaints process, how it is important as an act of resistance, and can over time lead to positive change in institutions. 

This past summer, as the Kavanaugh nomination dominated the media, I started to feel deeply apathetic. Several people told me to just keep my head down and protect myself, so I was trying. Trying to not let it affect me. But then, around the time of the Kavanaugh hearings in September, I reached a breaking point. I felt so far away from myself. I am an emotional person, to a fault sometimes, but it is not in my nature to just tune out my feelings. I realized that I needed to stop being complacent, stop rationalizing, and listen to my gut. My gut is telling me to get far away from these accused people, because when I am near them, I am supporting them.

To be clear, I am not looking for sympathy here. I share this with you so that if you are feeling this way, you know that I am too. Because I have made mistakes in the past, and downplayed forms of misogyny both on stage and off. Because I have unwittingly supported abusers for too long, with my energy, my skills, and my willful ignorance. I share this with you in the hopes that you will feel inspired to make change in your community.

How as a society do we deal with these accused men? I think that is an important topic, and one that is surfacing, and will continue to surface, for years to come. I sincerely don’t know the answer. I do believe in apologies, rehabilitation and recovery some day. But right now, most of all, I believe we should all be taking real action to support survivors.

I don’t have the answers, but I have learned this: an organization’s policy and company culture deeply impacts how safe an organization is for women, trans* and gender non-binary people. If company culture is healthy, but there is no policy, then a complaint processes will be dealt with in an ad hoc way which may, in turn, may damage the culture. If company culture is unhealthy, and you have a strong policy, it will not be implemented because there is not a willingness to change, learn or grow. Ultimately, company culture and policy work together to build healthier spaces.

Policy is indeed a good place to start, but there is also some awesome, additional work to be done in improv communities. Clear guidelines around debriefing shows, pre- and post-show check-ins (where people can speak plainly and don’t have to make jokes to feel safe), ensemble discussions about physical and content boundaries, intimacy training, anti-oppression training, creating shows and workshops centred around identity, and facilitated dialogues on these topics can help every single improvisor improve and grow.

I think sometimes when people meet me, they are surprised I am a “comedian”, because I am so serious. I am serious when I don’t find something funny. And I am deeply serious about making our creative spaces safer.

Just a hot reminder: making jokes about rape at a meeting about a Code of Conduct policy is not funny.

So, anyway, I guess that’s why I haven’t been writing on my blog.

Back to School!

Photograph by Ryan Parker for Work of Arts Magazine. Pictured with Adam Rozenhart.

The leaves are changing colour. The air is crisp. Time to buy some new sneakers, sparkly duotangs, and get back to class!

For me, for the first time in nearly 10 years, I am returning to the classroom this week to start a certificate program at Simon Fraser University in Dialogue & Civic Engagement. I have been looking for a way to marry my love of applied improv, and my experience as an engaged (possibly too-engaged) citizen.

I am hoping that this program will push me to further understand how the philosophies behind improvisation can be applied to communication, problem solving, and community leadership. Already, I am loving the readings for the course, which emphasize listening and collaboration, as the way to truly make change.

Over the next two years, I will also be doing a practicum related to community engagement. Right now, I have no idea what that will look like, but I can assure you, it will involve getting people excited about sharing ideas using improv techniques! Wish me luck!

Photograph by Ryan Parker (http://pkphotograph.smugmug.com/), for The University of Alberta’s Work of Arts Magazine. Article: “Arts Leaders in a City of Champions” by Justin Bell.

Living in the Moment is Ageless

Performance at Creative Age Festival, 2011.

“I’m too old for that” is a statement I wish we could cut out of everyone’s vocabulary, including mine. As someone who essentially plays for a living, when I hear anyone say those words, I try to convince them otherwise.

You think you’re too old to take an improv class? Well, I can tell you from first hand experience, some of the most fearless improvisors I have ever worked with are in their 80s.

As you’re probably aware, the arts are being talked about more frequently as a way to improve the overall quality of life of older people. Taking part in a creative pursuit can by improve mood, memory, and physical health in our senior citizens. Plus, I believe art-making may be one of the best solutions out there for bringing generations together.

I began working with seniors through improv workshops put on by Edmonton’s GeriActors, Festival of Edmonton Seniors Theatre, and The Creative Age Festival. David Barnet, who was my professor at The University of Alberta, and is involved with these organizations, was a big part of why I got involved, and I am so thankful I did. He’s said to me in the past that it takes a certain type of person to work with seniors; someone with openness and flexibility, someone who can really  to really let the performers’ voices shine through. He certainly achieves this in his work.

Leading workshops for senior citizens is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my career as an artist. Sure, there are challenges, like memory or mobility, but overall, leading a workshop for older people is just like leading one for any other age group. In fact, in some ways, it’s easier. Many of the seniors I met are in the enviable position of just not giving a fuck. They have lived so much life that the panic most people feel when doing improv for the first time just isn’t there. Like kids, they can just let go and be surprised. It is thrilling to watch a 90-year old woman do something unexpected.

Inspired by these workshops, I started collaborating on projects with my grandfather (my ‘Dido’), Nick Shostak, Senior. Well, maybe less collaborating, and more coercing him to help me. Through these projects, I have experienced different sides of him that I had never seen before, and watched him take creative risks.

In 2011, we did a piece called My Dido The Orator , as part of Latitude 53’s IN/STALL/ED. We recreated my Dido’s living room in a parking stall in the McCauley neighbourhood, and passersby stopped by to chat and hear his stories. My Dido was an absolute showman, laughing and engaging folks all day. One of the most impactful parts of the project was that the more stories Dido told, the more stories the audience started telling. At one point there were 10 or 15 people, sitting cross-legged on the ground of a parking lot, exchanging stories about coming to Canada, about politics, about the neighbourhood.

Then there was The Slow Flash Mob, which I put together in 2013. The focus of the event was to enliven a lovely, but often empty, park in Edmonton with intergenerational activities. This project was also an experiment for me, to explore the challenges a citizen might face trying to put on an event, as part of my work with Make Something Edmonton

My Dido was the spokesperson for The Slow Flash Mob, and my friend Mike Robertson kindly helped us make a video to promote and raise funds for the event.


We also got to do an interview on TV. Dido seemed so excited to be at the station. He was curious about everything that was going on, talking to people who walked through the waiting area, and it was a rare moment where he seemed nervous. During our interview he seemed emotional, and made a great impression.

Slow Flash Mob SquareThe Slow Flash Mob event itself came with its challenges; attendance was lower than I had hoped, the weather was spotty, and I received some feedback that the park I chose was too inaccessible for many senior citizens. But despite these issues, the people who did attend expressed how important the event was, and how much they appreciated it.

Most significantly to me though, my Dido showed up right on time. He had a nametag that he made for himself, that proudly said NICK. I watched him walk excitedly down the many wooden steps to the park. This was his party, and he was genuinely in his element. And god, that made me happy. To see someone in his 80s trying improv, tai chi, playing board games. His attitude is certainly the one I hope to have in my golden years.

All of these projects serve as a reminder that seniors find all the same things exciting as you and I (sex jokes, physical humour, flirting, donuts), and they are eager to engage, just like us. They are vibrant, funny, fierce individuals. More importantly, these experiences helped me articulate that there is a gap between our generations that we can close through collaboration, and this benefits anyone at any age in life.

If you’re looking for someone to jam on an idea, or are looking for volunteers or instructors to work with seniors, please get in touch! Improvisation for senior citizens is something I think every community should explore.