Finding strength in vulnerability
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” – Dr. Brené Brown
The first time I watched it, Dr. Brown’s TEDxHouston talk blew my mind because she proved through research what I had often sensed while I was creating theater. Namely, that if we lean into our discomfort, if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we pave the path towards feeling great joy and human connection.
The way I see it, vulnerability in the creative process shows up in at least two places.
The first is during the act of creation itself - digging deep into ourselves to get at the thing we want to talk about. This always feels a little intense and a little icky. Honesty, even when it is not strictly autobiographical, always feels scary.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light." - Dr. Brené Brown
The second is when we share our creation with the world – when I am no longer alone in my apartment writing, when the script is finished and actors have to read through it, I want to die. Then, again, on opening night, I want the earth to split open and swallow me whole so that I don’t have to share this play with this room full of strangers. And yet I can’t stop doing it.
Let me tell you a story. In early 2011 I started writing something insane. I normally write naturalistic-ish dramas with moments of humor. I like heightened language, I like a smart fight, I like stubborn characters, I like laughing at the absurdities of life. But that winter I was at the end of a relationship with an alcoholic. Being with an alcoholic is like being with someone who is constantly cheating on you. With booze. I hated vodka the way I would a rival.
So I started writing this thing. It was a play, I guess? It was a long monologue from a woman who has slept with her friend’s husband. I wanted to understand that Other Woman. I wrote this thing, and though it wasn’t “true” it was very personal, and it wasn’t easy to write, and it wasn’t easy to read, and I thought I was losing my mind. I gave the “script” (10 pages of rambling thoughts on drunk sex and power trips) to my friend Amanda White Thietje to look at. And then somehow she was on board to direct it. And I said, “I have to play Grace.” And she said, “What if the couple is in the play, too. What if we see them alongside you as you talk about how you ruined their lives.” And then I spent months re-writing, and it had a title – Even Yours – and we cast two amazing actors, Erin Sheppard and John Bennett, but the whole time I knew that an audience would never, ever, ever, ever want to watch something as batshit crazy as this thing I had written.
And then we did it for Fringe 2012. And people came. And they didn’t throw things at us, or tell us we were insane. And I didn’t puke on stage from nervousness. And people approached me afterwards and told me their stories, about how in college they’d slept with their roommate’s boyfriend. About how their brother had run away with his kids’ piano teacher. About how sex and love are weird and complicated and everyone has a story that makes no sense.
At the same time, my dear friend Isabel Nelson – a woman with whom I am so close that I consider her to be family – and her husband Diogo Lopes, and their theater company, Transatlantic Love Affair, also had a show in the Fringe.
Transatlantic Love Affair does beautiful, physical, ensemble-based performance rooted in the LeCoq school of theater. An ensemble of performers on a bare stage creates a world with just their bodies. It’s visceral, it’s emotional, it’s imaginative. Their previous two Fringe shows, Ballad of the Pale Fisherman and Red Resurrected, had both sold really well, and Ballad has gone on to have a couple more productions.
This summer, their show was called Ash Land. You may remember Ash Land as the show that sold the fuck out of the Rarig Thrust. I’m not talking about they had to open the balcony, I’m talking about there were no more fucking seats. That’s something like 450 tickets. And they did it more than once.
So I’m ripping my entrails out of my body and stringing them up for an audience at Theatre in the Round, and Isabel and her theater company are miming water pumps and screen doors and selling out the Rarig just down the street. This was my reward for taking the hugest risk I had ever taken in my creative life, to watch my best friend blow everyone’s mind.
I know I sound petty and jealous and dismissive of my friend’s art. I was. I ran into Isabel at Fringe Central after they had sold out their show, and I told her I felt jealous and under-appreciated. She said she felt overwhelmed by the amount of attention the show was getting. We looked at each other. We hugged. We drank whiskey. That was it.
I think the point is, I made myself vulnerable to the creative process, and nothing huge happened. I didn’t die of shame and embarrassment, and I didn’t sell a million tickets and get asked to encore the show in the Dowling Studio. But it’s not that nothing changed. It’s that creativity is a constantly-evolving process, and vulnerability is central to that process. We are always learning from, and being humbled by, our creativity.
The reason that artists create art is, I think, to connect with other people, and also to understand ourselves better. We are deeply mysterious creatures, we humans. And making art is a way to excavate our deepest mysteries, and then share them with a wider community in hopes that that community finds meaning there too. There is one last quote I want to share with you, from Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön:
"To stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior."
Go forth. Be warriors.