The malaise of a generation

As written in response to a class assignment (three-page directing manifesto) in the MFA directing program at Brown/Trinity Rep.


I have no idea how to write this manifesto because I have no idea what I want to say anymore. These days, it feels like I don’t want to say anything at all. One month ago, I wrote a different draft of this manifesto that asked whether it was possible to balance personal relationships with the pursuit of professional success in the theatre industry. I’m not ready to share that now. I’m sure that somewhere in there was a sufficiently interesting discussion about how the industry is structured to favor individuals who are willing to work punishing hours for negligible pay, on top of other invisible costs. But that version of my manifesto doesn’t fully account for the choices I’ve made — and if nothing else, the past two weeks have shown me that I may not have thought my priorities through, well before all this shit started hitting the fan, and now I have to confront the life I’ve actually been making, the life that’s left after work has been stripped away.

Which leaves me in the uncomfortable position of having to write three whole new pages in the time of coronavirus, aka the peak of my unproductivity. And believe me, I have been hella unproductive. For starters, I’ve developed a new morning routine. When I wake up, I immediately reach for my phone, where I now almost always have unread texts because I may sleep at 3am but my friends live in totally different timezones. Then I start catching up on the latest memes shared to the unholy number of social media apps I now have installed, an activity that takes well over two hours, which means that I’ve developed the pretty unpleasant habit of ignoring my body’s signals that it needs to either eat or pee. Self-care? I hardly know her!

There’s an article that names the discomfort we’re all feeling right now as grief. I’d seen it shared a few times on Facebook, but I knew I was really in it when my friend sent it directly to me after seeing me share an existential meme for the gazillionth time to my Instagram story. Amongst other things, the article discusses this idea of anticipatory grief, which is the feeling of not knowing what the future might hold because something bad is happening in the present.

This whole coronavirus situation has turned our lives upside down in a lot of different ways, and one of the biggest things I’ve lost is a sense of anticipation about the immediate future. This is partly because I’m afraid to make any more predictions, now that I know I couldn’t have been more wrong about how the immediate future was going to pan out. Sometimes I think back to where I was this time last year (a better place, that’s where) and then I want to laugh because 2019 Cat was an incredibly anxious person who foresaw many potential earth-decimating catastrophes, from a third world war to our imminent heat deaths via climate change — basically everything except a global pandemic. My anxiety was useless then and it’s useless now.

But describing this new collective moment as grief feels so right in so many ways. Everyone I know has lost something and we should be allowed to mourn in equal measure, no matter where that loss falls on the scale of frivolous to serious. After all, nothing feels assured anymore. According to the endless news cycle, the situation is radically changing every other hour, and there’s something disquieting about our newfound inability to predict anything beyond the day we’re currently living. This is especially noticeable in my casual catch-ups with friends, where our conversations keep dully circling, hampered by a lack of new experiences; we’re either discussing the coronavirus or shared memories. It is very hard to look forward now.

For the luckiest of us, life under quarantine can feel like it’s standing still. With social distancing as the new normal, there’s suddenly nothing to do: no professional projects to pursue, no new people to meet, no gatherings to attend. This stasis has proved more difficult to navigate than I expected, and I think it’s because people like me — crudely, people who have derived a sense of self and self-worth from being ambitious overachievers — are constantly looking for the next thing to keep ourselves impossibly busy. I got used to always having a packed schedule, always being the person with a prior commitment, always having somewhere to be other than my bed. So it was jarring, to say the least, to find myself confined to my apartment — a place where I had never before invested much thought, and consequently a place that never before seemed capable of holding all of my mental energy.

Then again, if I were truly interested in continuing to work in this time, I wouldn’t have been short on ideas. The internet is filled with lists discussing the innumerable ways that a person can productively pass the time in self-isolation, just as the internet is also filled with thinkpieces pushing back against the pressure to be productive. Not that I needed any encouragement on the latter front. I actually don’t feel any pressure. I just feel a little bit empty, like whatever drive I used to possess sputtered out the same day that Brown University decided to stop holding in-person classes. I suppose this is, indeed, a kind of grief — a refusal to face up to my losses because I can’t abide loss itself. For all the media I have passively consumed over the past two weeks, the one medium I have avoided at all costs is the theatre. I read stuff, but not play scripts or performance theory. I watch stuff, but not prerecorded shows.

I guess that’s where I am now: I’ve run out of smart things to say about the industry I thought I wanted a career in. Now the only thing I can say that I’ve wanted, with clarity, is to feel less alone. I’ve spent an unprecedented amount of time on video chats lately, which has resulted in the paradox of feeling at once highly connected yet highly disconnected. There have been a bunch of people, mostly from the startup world, who are eagerly asking if remote work will be the way of the future. Probably, to some degree, and almost certainly as a reasonable accommodation, though I don’t know any more than anyone else. All I know is that we were not built to live like this. Which is perhaps my greatest hope for the future of the theatre, in spite of such great economic upheaval: that eventually we will want to return to some kind of shared experience, in real time and in real space, surrounded by people we already love or will some day come to love. Eventually.

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