We are a community whose motto is “the show must go on,” but eighty-five percent of the five million Americans working in the arts and culture sector are currently unemployed. In March 2020, The Broadway League sent an email to members asking them to use the social media message #OnlyIntermission; six months later, the request was to use #SOS. The Broadway and live entertainment industry as we knew it is GONE. The uncertainty of what the performing arts will look like when it returns, and if they still have a place in it, has left millions of us experiencing grief over multiple losses, including the types called ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief.
Death is the worst kind of loss, but funeral customs and religious rituals are in place to say goodbye to the deceased and help ease the grief of the survivors. Friends and family can understand and support through social gestures of love and caring with flowers, cards, food, and a good ear, if the mourning person wants one. Death is final and there are traditions to recognize this loss and help the living move forward, even if no one was prepared to deal with so much death all around us in this global pandemic.
Rituals and social structure are not in place to assist with ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief. Theatre professionals may not even recognize they’re suffering from symptoms of grief, which can include changes in appetite, sleepless nights, nightmares, unexplained feelings of anger, hopelessness, or depression to name a few.
Ambiguous loss leaves unanswered questions because of a lack of finality. How do you mourn for a lifestyle or an industry that isn’t really dead, but may come back totally transformed? Even as we join rallying cries that live theater will be back stronger than ever we may face housing, food insecurity and other stresses of unemployment. Disenfranchised grief is socially invalidated or minimized, which affects a person’s ability to acknowledge and process it. People can lose their sense of purpose and identity with a job loss. Add in political and social unrest, and fear of a second wave of this deadly virus as we head into colder weather and the holidays, and it’s a recipe for the mental health crisis we’re in, both within and outside the theatre.
We have rarely been confronted with so many different kinds of loss, over such an extended period of time. Loss of jobs, income, revenue, adjacent businesses, and ancillary revenue. Loss of hugs and kisses. Loss of smiling faces. Loss of polite political disagreements and civil discourse. Loss of classrooms. Loss of job security, loss of housing security, loss of food security. Loss of life.
Broadway, unlike other industries, refers to colleagues and business associates as “family” and “community”. This sense of community was never more clear than the loss of Nick Cordero. As we watched the tragedy unfold in the media, theatermakers gathered to send thoughts, prayers, hope, and strength to his wife. He was a loss of life with so much potential. He was one of us and could have been us. His death resonated with many people as if he were the loss of a close friend or family member, even to those who never meet him. We are a community experiencing tremendous loss and looking for a sense of hope and some advice on getting through the day.
At a loss as to what guidance to give to my community, I reached out to a fellow theatermaker, Fran Dorf. Fran is a novelist and playwright, and a psychotherapist (LCSW) who specializes in bereavement and works with creatives. Fran gave me some thoughts and an actionable list that is making me feel better already.
“For theatremakers,” Fran said, “the Covid pandemic represents multiple losses of all different types. Perhaps you haven’t experienced the actual death of a loved one, but you fear losing one. Let’s call this loss of safety. Perhaps you lost your job and had to move in with your family. This is loss of autonomy, with difficult family dynamics possibly resurfacing. Perhaps you finally got your big break, only to have the show cancelled. I had a reading cancelled, then won a contest for a different play, but there won’t be a production. Loss of opportunity. Yes, this pandemic is a catastrophe and the losses can pile up, forcing you to reckon with the emotional rollercoaster of grief, but don’t make it worse by allowing yourself to spiral into despair.”
Here is some of Fran’s advice to help yourself:
1. Accept that what you’re experiencing is loss and normal grief. None of us have lived through a life-altering pandemic before and we’re all in survival mode. Give yourself permission to have good and bad days, to feel and express whatever feelings you have. Remember that pain and joy can coexist and are not mutually exclusive.
2. Practice holistic self care: eat healthy, hydrate, get enough sleep, structure your day, exercise, follow the Covid guidelines, wear a mask, social distance.
3. Self-soothe and cultivate coping skills: take a walk; run a bath, keep your sense of humor; meditate; journal; do Zentangle; write if you’re a writer, or might aspire to be; find new ways to express your art or a new creative hobby (I’ve taken up painting); join a support group, especially one with creatives; join a zoom theatre group to maintain practice of your craft. Don’t abuse alcohol or drugs.
4. Maintain your friendships and support system. Stay in touch through text, email, Facetime, Zoom, or phone calls. Quick check-ins might be all that’s needed. Or have a picnic in the park to share your pain and receive support for your grief—socially distanced, of course. Giving compassion feels good, too, so be willing to also sit with your friend’s grief by listening well, and not saying anything that avoids or minimizes their suffering, delegitimizes their losses, or compares yours to theirs.
5. Learn to observe and accept your own emotions. For example; this morning I have anger, sadness, fear, and anxiety. Emotions are temporary. They are there to serve you, accept them as they come and go.
6. Develop a practice (at least once a day for 10 minutes or more) of mindfulness meditation, which I define as: Willingness to return again and again to an object of focus. Breathing normally, focus on your breath—the inhale, the exhale. Notice without judgment when a thought or feeling comes into your awareness. Send that thought down an imagined flowing river, and return to your focus—your breath. Don’t worry if you’re doing it right, just return again and again to your focus.
7. Live in the present moment. Don’t fear the future and the negative things that might happen. You are alive, you are ok, you are healthy. Allow yourself to enjoy, and even savor all the good things you have now.
8. Accepting the reality of today does not mean you’re giving up hope. You identify as an actor but you need to pay the rent so you take a job working for Amazon; that is not failure, that is moving forward. You will always be the actor that you identify as, but you are responsible and living with your present reality.
9. If you begin to have disturbing manifestations of grief, seek professional support. Teletherapists are available to help you deal with physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, or insomnia; emotional symptoms such as shame, guilt, fear, depression, panic, or thoughts of suicide; social symptoms such as isolating or excessive shopping, and spiritual symptoms such as loss of hope, or anger toward life.
I agree with Fran, this is a catastrophe but it will end. We can accept our feelings and emotions and we can bring our minds back to positive thoughts. For help, there’s The Actors Fund (www.actorsfund.org), therapists like Fran Dorf (www.frandorf.com and www.frandorf.ink), and other teletherapy resources.
Broadway is not going to be reopening soon. Socially distanced and masked audiences will see scaled-down (in size of cast and crew) productions slowly reopen off-broadway and in the touring and regional theaters. It will look and feel different. In this downtime, Broadway is taking the long overdue and necessary steps for the changes needed in the industry in terms of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) both in front of and behind the curtain.
Theatermakers have always had to argue the importance of the arts and their place in society. Theater and live performance feeds the soul, and tells inspirational and aspirational stories. Communities with strong arts institutions have greater success rates in schools; students are more likely to achieve higher levels of literacy, score better in math, and are more likely to volunteer, graduate and vote. Cities with strong arts programs find residents more likely to contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and make communities feel safer. But no one is coming to bail out the arts because of all the social good and because art makes them feel all the feels. They will come to the rescue because according to the latest data from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts and culture sector added over 800 billion dollars to the National GDP in 2016 (Click here for the full report from NEA). The contribution of the arts has instrumental and intrinsic value AND it can and has been quantified in dollars. If you are an arts worker, or theatermaker, know that what you do has value. In the meantime stay safe and take care of each other, like the community that we are.