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.

What is your scene saying?

Photograph by the amazing Patty Varasano.

A couple years ago, a long-time fan came up to me after an improv show and said she noticed a pattern of behaviour in the stories we were telling. She observed that “being an orphan” was often used as a punchline in our scenes. She then, very gently, suggested that this was problematic because there were likely people with different family structures in the audience, and it was unfair to constantly use orphaned children as the brunt of jokes. I politely listened to her speak, but the whole time I was thinking to myself, “I guess we do mention orphans a lot, but we are clearly talking about orphans in the archetypical Dickensian sense! We aren’t commenting on what it must like to actually be an orphan!”

RED FLAG! My emotional reaction to this legitimate observation was absolute garbage, and it exposed in me the defensive feeling that so many people in positions of power must be feeling these days. Instead of listening empathetically, acknowledging my role in the narrative I was a part of, and working to change it, my gut reaction was to pay lip service to the complaint, while actually dismissing it.

And this is a big problem. After all, there are a lot of words other than “orphan” you could substitute into this all-too-familiar story.

Given the recent events in America, and the fierce ripples being felt here in Canada, I think, as artists, we all must reflect on what our work means. Some people are saying this week’s #BoycottHamilton controversy is a distraction from the real issues happening in the States, but to me, it is a strong reminder of my crucial role as an artist.

The deeper messages of the stories we tell on stage have lasting impact, and therefore we are responsible for them. We make meaning when we improvise, when we make art, when we communicate. Improvisation is part of a dialogue about our world, about ourselves, and about each other.

14859824_10208015107561139_508137106643817155_o

Photograph by Patty Varasano.

Improvisors Joe Bill and Mark Sutton from Chicago, talk about how the scene isn’t about fixing a bike, or painting a fence, or taming a lion. The scene is about relationships; it’s about humanity. Kevin MacDonald, from Kids in the Hall, calls this “The About About”. Scenes aren’t about scouts on a camping trip, or businesspeople out for lunch, scenes are commentary on youthful independence, or ruthless corporate culture.

At Rapid Fire Theatre, we talk about “punching up” or “punching down” in our scene work. Punching down is poking fun at a person with little or no societal power (ie. making jokes about homeless people), while punching up is satirizing a person in a position of power (skewering an ignorant dictator, satirizing a billionaire, mocking the patriarchy). Punching up opens a dialogue about an issue and questions the inherent power dynamic in our society, punching down is a cruel, privileged, lazy way to shock people. You can improvise a scene about any topic; it’s what you say about the topic that matters.

Are your scenes about the courage of a child who is silenced, the bravery of a woman protagonist, or how to embrace a different way of life other than your own? Or do your scenes lean on cultural stereotypes, shrug at rape culture, or back away from saying anything important at all?

When I get off stage, I hope that the audience better understand my joys, fears, and curiosities about the world. It’s true that some stories are hyper-political, and others are less-so, but as long as we bring self-awareness to our work, we will tell stories that are deeply important to us.

If we are complacent, safe, and choose to say that theatre is “just for entertainment”, I think we are doing a disservice to our rights and freedoms. We are silencing ourselves from doing work that matters, and we are taking away the audiences’ ability to see themselves reflected on stage.

Our world is in too much danger to perpetuate ignorance. We have to stop making excuses for scenes that punch down, and scenes that reinforce dangerous patterns of behaviour with no consequence. Artistic Directors, instructors, and fellow performers, in a time where the arts may be faced with more censorship than ever before, I urge you to use your voice for good. Inspire. Provoke. Share your passion.

Photographs of the Würzburger Improtheaterfestival by Patty Varasano. “An Artist’s Duty” video with Nina Simone released by her estate.

Saying “Yes” And Owning It

Photograph by Meryl Smith Lawton. http://merylsmithlawton.com/

The following is an article that I wrote in 2013 for the professional journal alt.theatre for an edition called Gender & Theatre at The Margins. Special thanks to Nikki Shaffeullah, who is a rad improvisor, and the Editor-in-Chief for the magazine. She encouraged me to start writing about my experiences in improv, and she also inspired me to dress better.

Read it below or download the PDF directly.