GUEST POST BY STELLA DUFFY: On Being Thankful in the Arts
Happy Thanksgiving, fellow Green Roomers!
Please welcome guest poster Stella Duffy to the blog today. I chose to schedule her post on a major holiday (which is usually against Green Room tradition) because it’s so relevant to the ideas of today.
I approached Stella to guest post for us after stumbling across this beautiful post she wrote on women in theatre via a friend’s Facebook link. Stella is a talented London-based writer, director, teacher, and sometimes actor, and we are honored to have her here sharing her thoughts on being thankful for each moment.
I turn fifty next year, and for the past year or so I have been revelling in being ‘middle aged’. It’s not what it was when my Mum was young. It may not even be what it was when I was young. But this is what it feels like to me – a place to step up, to step into what power/strength/fortitude/resilience I have learned in the past 30 years of making theatre and of writing. A place to lean back on the work I’ve made – good and ‘bad’ (the mistakes and the failures that have always resulted in some kind of magic, if only I’ve looked hard enough, welcomed them in warmly enough), and to consider what next.
I’m not sure what next might be. I write novels, I direct theatre, I sometimes write theatre, I still work as an improviser, I very occasionally still work as an actor, I sometimes teach all of these things – usually the combination that is Writing for Improvisers or Improvising for Writers.
In my 20s it was all about the acting, the theatre, as a performer, as a stand-up, as an improviser. In my late 20s it moved into writing and has stayed there ever since. I also tried directing in my mid 20s, ran from it (partly because, back then, directing was most definitely more for the boys, and partly because I didn’t – yet – have the skills I felt I needed to make a good enough job of it). In my 30s it was much more about the writing, writing novels especially. Then in my 40s it came back to directing, which feels – to me – the perfect synthesis of what I know about storytelling from writing novels, and what I know about acting from being an actor, from writing and making scripted, devised and improvised theatre.
Back when I was 25, half my life ago, I thought it was about doing just one thing. I think we often think that when we’re younger. And even though I wasn’t doing just one thing, not even then (I was already writing, already also directing) I still felt a huge pressure – from the world, from myself – to be on some kind of career trajectory.
But working in the arts rarely has a career trajectory, and seeing oneself as an artist has it even less, and yes, still today, being a woman and being an artist has even less of a path. Especially if we want (or try and try and fail, as I did) to have children. There is no path that supports us. We are – as performers, actors, writers, directors – in a profession that until just the last century was very much about a few star women and many men. A profession that in its very founding (Greeks) banned women from the stage. A profession that has only begun to realise the potential of the women writers and directors ready to step up, jump in, and that still doesn’t always, doesn’t quite, know how to receive our work.
We’re getting there, we’re not there yet.
And so, as a gift to you, my young American women friends, at Thanksgiving – here’s a suggestion:
Try being thankful for the moments.
Not the job that might lead to another job, but for the job itself.
Not the meeting that might lead to more work, but for the meeting itself.
Not the audition that might land the one big job, but for the audition itself.
Not the review that might lead to more work, but for the review itself.
Not the great day in rehearsal that might lead to an amazing show, but for the great day itself.
Not the great piece of writing that today’s work is going to turn into, but the fact that there is time, and space, and energy to sit down, even for half an hour, and do that writing now.
Try putting less pressure on every damn moment, and just letting the moment be the thing it is, joyful and precious and fortunate, in and of itself.
Basically, this just boils down to be now, not some imagined time in the future. Because we cannot be anywhere else. All that dreaming into the future is pointless if we can’t also find some joy in the present.
I’m no more skilled at this than anyone else, but I understand most of the readers of this blog are a little younger than me, and I understand this to be something that I have only fully begun to embrace as I become older. (I hope to be brilliant at it by the time I’m 85.) That it is the moment that matters. Just as we know on stage, there is no point thinking our character ahead to the end of the play, we need to be in the play, in that moment, in the scene, for itself. Then we’re better actors because we are there – in the moment.
And we can take that into life. We can be moment to moment in life. In our work. For those of us who love our work, even when it is making us exhausted and a little crazy, then it might as well be our life. My life is my work because I made every hobby or interest I ever had into my work. I make no apology for that. I love what I do – even when I’m hating it.
We can push ourselves less to create the perfect product and more to create the best moment possible, each moment, daily, weekly. Of course, I truly believe this DOES create a better ‘product’ – show, book, play, whatever – but by giving the process priority over the product, we allow ourselves more moments of ‘failure’. Those apparently painful mistake times when, actually, we learn more, we grow more. Being thankful for ALL the moments.
That saying about how “life isn’t a dress rehearsal”? No, it’s really not. It’s a workshop, a week early on in the process where all you’re doing is finding out and exploring and trying things and making mistakes and risking and going for it and feeling brave and feeling scared and making an idiot of yourself and knowing you can do it because you’re being taken care of, taking care of yourself, and because everyone is in the moment of finding the moments. Life is not slick, tidy, polished, fixed, ordered, sorted, arranged, underscored, beautifully lit, perfectly designed, or choreographed. It’s most certainly not an opening night of something that’s been all fixed (or not!) in preview. It’s an individual moment that, very simply, leads to the next individual moment. Be thankful for the moments.