Op-Ed: Creativity in quarantine
On the day that I write this, my calendar says “‘Titus Andronicus’ Opening Night.” Before Washington University moved classes online and closed campus, a move that, by extension, canceled any student group events that were scheduled to happen following spring break, I had been directing a show. I had been directing Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” with my student group, Thyrsus, a group that specializes in experimental, site-specific and nontraditional theater. I had a cast of 13 people and a production team of 13 more. We had been working on how to take this production and place it in an off-campus basement, incorporating costumes, lighting, sound and a whole lot of stage blood into a final product that we were all proud of. We had taken our publicity photos, headshots of all of the actors in costume with their faces dripping with blood. We were stressed, we were worried and we were excited about the finished product we were about to create. And then we received an email that changed all of that.
Everyone I know at Wash. U. has a similar story—one of plans, of hopes, of projects ended by the COVID-19 pandemic. I am sure everyone in the world has a similar story—but I, myself, can only speak to the specific pain that I feel, and that is the pain of an artist whose art has been halted, has been forbidden to continue, has lost the people and resources and support necessary to go on. And I am not alone in this. All of my actors, my designers and the other student groups at Wash. U. with similar goals for this semester—all of them, I am sure, feel some aspect of the same pain that I felt reading the email that told us we could not continue. And no matter how necessary that loss is in the face of a global pandemic—and it is, urgently, desperately and actively necessary—it is still a loss that we mourn. It is easy to imagine that our entire planet is in a state of mourning.
Out of that mourning, some urge us, we must continue to create. Personally, I am reminded almost daily that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” and “The Winter’s Tale” while he was in quarantine, and I once again feel the urge to punch someone in the face (an option that I no longer have, quarantined as I am myself in my apartment). Yes, of course, one option that people have, alone at home with no other outlet, is creativity. Yes, amazing things can come out of hardship, and we have seen unimaginable masterpieces come out of unspeakable tragedy. But the next time someone tells me that it took the AIDS epidemic for Tony Kushner to write “Angels in America,” I will tell them that I would rather the 770,000 people who have died of HIV/AIDS still be alive today.
When tragedy leads people to call on the creative impulse, I want to give equal energy to the fact that for some, the best response to tragedy is simply mourning. I am in mourning for the production of “Titus Andronicus” that almost was. I am in mourning for all of my friends’ hard work that I will not be able to see. I am in mourning for the end of my senior year of college, even as I know in my heart that quarantine and social distancing and loss are what we need to ensure the safety of our loved ones and ourselves. And trust me, I want to come out of this period of time with something to show for it, but maybe that something will just be the fact that after all of this heartache, I made it out alive.
Still, I understand the urge to create. I understand the urge to make something positive out of all of this. I want to acknowledge that any creative work that comes out of this time doesn’t have to be great, doesn’t have to be the next “King Lear” or “Angels in America” or anything else. In a time where American society is hopefully becoming aware of the meaningless social constructs that run our lives—our ideas of what labor is worthwhile or essential, concepts of what work can or should be done online, the entire stock market (sorry!)—I am hopeful that we can also start to dismantle the things that are supposed to define quality, worth and success. I honestly don’t care if anyone writes something that changes the world. But if you write something that makes you feel better, if only for 10 minutes, then that is an incredible victory.
When I think of the future that was lost for my production, I have tried to frame my thinking in another way. Instead of loss, I try and think of what we did have, of what was created in the rehearsal space and in our production meetings—even if that creativity existed only in the minds of my designers, only in the words that were spoken when we dreamed of what this production could look like. However hokey it sounds, I try and think of the artistic impulse as a kind of energy. This energy flows into the world whenever anyone dreams of putting something into the universe that was not there before—whenever we change the blocking of a scene, whenever a projection designer thinks of a new image to add to our staging, whenever someone writes a poem or a story or a play about what quarantine means to them. Or about rabbits, or something.
I believe that no creative energy is ever wasted. The first law of thermodynamics, the one about energy never being created or destroyed, probably applies here, but I don’t want to get called out by physics students so don’t quote me there. I believe that the artistic energy that went into my canceled production has value. I believe that the artistic energy that will flow through anyone in quarantine just trying to pass the time has value. I believe that whatever is produced from creativity matters less than the fact that so often, humanity, when pushed to the brink, decides not to succumb to tragedy but to create. In a time when so much feels lost, when so much opportunity and hope feels replaced by empty space, I am amazed by how quickly we move to fill that space with what never existed before. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be beautiful, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. But the fact that something is there that wasn’t there before is miraculous and worth celebrating.
I want to make space in this new weird world for mourning and for abundance. I want to acknowledge the pain that we feel in losing the work that we’ve done for a different future than the one that we’re in now, while we also try to make the best of the present world that we’ve been given. I’m sure we all wish that things were different. Right now, I know I would rather be celebrating the opening night of my show than writing the next great American novel. But just because we put creative energy into a future that no longer exists doesn’t mean that energy is gone. Any time someone wakes up and thinks “Maybe I will create something,” there is value in that impulse. There is nothing more human than that impulse. There is space in this world for loss and for beauty. And if the most beautiful thing you do for these next few months is stay alive, then that’s enough.