Grief of the Grounded Gig Artist

By Dianna Garten

Written: Monday, March 30, 2020 (quarantine day 10… or 17… or 63… I’m not sure anymore)

This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. To view other blogs in the series, please click here.

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I was so excited for March and April. Twenty-nineteen had been a rough year for me; dealing with health issues had made many other things in my life take a back seat. It wasn’t all bad, but I was eager to start 2020 with a fresh outlook and attitude, and by late February, 2020 was going great! I was working on several student shows and had another contract lined up to start  soon, I was in the process of producing my first short film that was set to shoot at the end of March, I was training for my first half-marathon, I was prepping for a large gala, and I had just locked in a plan to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe! I was feeling immensely hopeful about 2020 and was ready to hustle as hard as I could going into the spring to see all these things to fruition. It felt like I was taking my life back. I was following the news and hearing the updates about Coronavirus, but it seemed far away and possibly many months down the road. By the end of February, it felt closer, but still not imminent.

Then, the week of March 9th, everything changed very quickly.

March 8th: I had finished my last long run, clocking 11 miles and feeling excited for the half- marathon the following Sunday. I joked on social media with another runner about the race getting cancelled, but still felt certain that it wouldn’t happen.
March 10th: Then on Tuesday it did. And the wave of cancellations began.
March 11th: On Wednesday the gala I was prepping for was cancelled.
March 12th: On Thursday the church I attend cancelled services through the end of April, and the bombshell announcement: Broadway closed.
March 13th: Friday. I was working in a school and could sense the uneasiness in the air; the adults were doing the best they could, but everyone was wearing gloves and recoiling from the five-year-olds when they coughed.
I received emails from every off-Broadway theater I had ever attended announcing early closures.
March 14th: Saturday. Many of my friends discussed leaving the city indefinitely.
March 15th: Sunday. Public school closed.

I had been saying all week “If schools are open I have work”, and then suddenly they weren’t and my financial footing became very uncertain.

I quickly began working for a family that reached out to me for help with the kids since private schools were closed and very frank about being unlikely to reopen. This lasted for just a week as the following Friday, March 20th , the limitations on movements of non-essential workers was announced. I had spent a week commuting in a ghost town, struggling to come to terms with being primarily a child care provider again and by the end of the week I didn’t even have that.

One of my many jobs, the one that I have loved the most and poured the most into, had announced early in that week that they wouldn’t be able to pay out contracts with the school closure, the company had lost too much revenue, so all Teaching Artists were out of work a month and half early. Another company promised to pay out accrued sick pay and sent us links and guides to file for unemployment. I was reeling. One of my best friends expressed gratitude for the chance to slow down. In contrast, I was not grateful for any of it. I felt like everything good I had planned and worked towards had been ripped from my hands in a matter of days (the Edinburgh cancellation didn’t come until later, but the end of March brought that too). I had been taking back my life, and it felt like my life had been taken from me instead.

Despite my immense feeling of loss, betrayal, and frustration, I was, and still am, taking this crisis very seriously. I do not doubt any of the measures being taken and after a few days for each cancellation respectively I knew the decision was right. However, I still was deeply disheartened; saddened by all that had changed in a matter of days and uncertain what the next months ahead would hold.

“I had a voice in my head saying that creative inspiration often comes out of trials, so why wasn’t I feeling inspired? Why did my creativity feel sapped?”

Every time I went to social media or my news app I would see a variety of amazing stories about people finding exciting and creative ways to deal with the closures next to analyses and reports that would completely terrify me. I had a voice in my head saying that creative inspiration often comes out of trials, so why wasn’t I feeling inspired? Why did my creativity feel sapped? I was seeing others seemingly using the time to sit down and write, or draw, or sing, or read, or in some other way create what could come to be their magnum opus. Why couldn’t I start?

Despite the feelings of internal and external pressure, I know I am not the only one who has lost something. Many people are facing much more serious losses than me right now. I count myself lucky to have a warm safe home, a family that doesn’t have to go to the front lines, and devices that can keep me connected while inside. Still, I feel the pain of my community around me; closed shows, cancelled residencies, delayed shoot dates, lost jobs. The impact on the arts community has been profound and the future remains uncertain. When your art form is all about bringing people together in a space, what does it mean when gatherings are prohibited? What is theater in the solitary? And what is community when we lack the space to commune? Now, after one full week of working from home, hustling to transform my side chess tutoring job into a more substantial one edging on my main source of income, engaging in zoom call after zoom call, watching the people who held by financial fate in their hands get defensive about questions, I am less inspired than when the crises started. Each day seems to bring new bad news, fears, and disappointments and the time stretches out before us for time unknown.

Yet, I have come to accept one thing which has helped immensely: I do not need to force productivity.

I will continue to work and try tp find ways to keep income coming in, but I needn’t immediately have creative inspiration or feel like a failure. Inspiration is different for everyone. For some these first two weeks may have been the perfect opportunity to get your creativity going. For others like me, it is ok to take time and grieve the things that have been lost whether they were opportunities, plans, shows, or anything else.

It’s ok to be sad and feel the hurt of the dreams that were becoming tangible and now cannot.
You can feel this and still be fully committed to #flattenthecurve.
It is ok to rest and breathe and be wherever you are.
As an artist, I trust that as I adapt to the new temporary normal the creativity will come back.
The theater community and the arts-ed community are adaptive, it’s what we do.
We are only human and our hurt is part of our humanity; we don’t have to worship at the idol of productivity.
This stop has been forced upon us, creativity will not inherently come back when exerted on with that same force.
Be gentle with yourself, give yourself what you need, feel the pain and fear and grief; you are still an artist and your spark will come back. (And if you know any young children who might be interested in chess, put me in touch with their parents, it’s my main gig now.)

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Dianna Garten is an NYC based theater director and teaching artist. Her directing credits include The Divorcee ShowerBossa Nova and BeesA FatimaSpinoza’s Ethics, Who am I? and I am Cecil, among many additional staged readings. She has assistant directed Not A GiftPainting His WingsAbortion: A Race Redux, and Skin Deep. Dianna specializes in devising with students and she has partnered with students to create over twenty original plays. She is deeply committed to lifting students’ voices through the vehicle of theater. Her theatrical experience also includes performing and stage-managing. She has worked with youth throughout New York City and internationally in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Kigali, Rwanda. She earned her BFA in Drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and my MA in Applied Theatre from CUNY’s School of Professional Studies. diannagarten.com

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