Or was the question for me this week. I've been considering a tattoo of my favorite Shakespeare quote for over two years now. "O brave new world, that has such people in't!" is a quote from The Tempest, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, that one of my professors at Emerson had used my first year in the graduate program.
We were taking about having high expectations for students in regards to taking on challenging texts and ideas that we often assume are "over their heads". He was sharing a story about directing fifth graders in an adaptation of The Tempest, describing how new Shakespeare can sound coming from elementary school aged actors. He spoke, with tears in his eyes, about the power of hearing the line, "O brave new world, that has such people in't!" come out of the mouth of a fifth grade student, and how Shakespeare's words becomes even more poignant when spoken aloud by someone so young and relatively new to the world themselves. I got tears in my eyes as well and will never forget that moment.
For me, this phrase has grown close to my heart. It speaks to my steady belief in people, especially the new people I met when we took the plunge and moved to Boston, a big city of my dreams, and I discovered teachers, mentors, and friends that I had no idea existed in the world. To me, this phrase represents the perpetual hope of the future, because whatever it may hold, surely there are kindred spirits to be met and new worlds to discover.
The idea to have these words permanently tattooed on my body struck me so suddenly that I had no choice but to pay attention. I decided to mull it over for awhile, to make sure I was making the best decision for me, and I was continually surprised that the idea of getting the tattoo didn't go away. It faded in and out of my thoughts, but when I did consider it time and time again, I found I still felt strongly about the idea, the phrase, what it meant to me.
After two and a half years of thinking about it, I finally made an appointment this week to consult with a tattoo artist in Boston. I was ready to go from potential idea to permanent art.
Some thoughts on permanence. Now, I'm a theatre artist. And theatre is essentially impermanent. Tattoos and theatre seem to be on different ends of the permanence spectrum for me. Sure, you can take production photos or wear a cast t-short after the play closes, but it's not the same, is it?
Have you ever watched a video recorded version of a play? Don't get me wrong, they are wonderful records to have, but the recording of a show feels empty somehow. When we sit in the audience of a theatre, we feel the palpable energy in the space, crackling between the actors onstage, the audience members seated closely together, and actors and the audience. It's full. It's electric. But a recording feels hollow and tame.
This idea of my life's work feeling so impermanent and fleeting used to bother me. A lot. It would scratch at my soul, as I obsessed over what it would feel like to die someday, and not have anything tangible to leave behind. Some people make families that live on after they are gone--I don't know if I ever want children. Some people paint and their canvases are proof that they were here, that they made something. But a play happens and then it's finished, like a whirling dervish of emotion and insight and energy that suddenly just evaporates into thin air. Where was the proof of what I've spent my life making?
It's ability to transfix and then be gone is one of the things I most love about the theatre. I can't keep a live company of actors in my apartment as a souvenir from a show that moved me, but their performances make permanent imprints on my heart and the questions they stir up in my soul never quite settle down in the same way as before. There is something so delicate and subtle and penetrating about this kind of effect.
Yesterday, the day of the consultation, I got out of bed and thought about the possible tattoo. A little voice in my head suddenly asked me "WHY do you want a tattoo?" I recalled the reason that I had genuinely felt strongly about more than two years ago, when the idea first struck me.
"Because I love Shakespeare. Because I love words, I love theatre, and I am proud of my love for these things. I want to let others know."
Another voice in this internal play spoke up. "What does it matter if everyone else, ANYONE else knows?" Of course, tattoos are incredibly personal and I know so many thoughtful people who have tattoos that mean the world to them, that they wanted , that they love, that matter deeply to them. But in this case, my case, we aren't talking about other people. We are talking about my body. So, I have to ask, does a tattoo matter to me?
If I got my Shakespeare tattoo, would it increase my joy of reciting lines of Shakespeare any time I wanted to? If I didn't get the tattoo, would it detract from my ability to take pleasure in seeing a production of The Tempest? Would a lack of ink on my skin cause my creative connections to fizzle and fade away, leaving me feeling alone?
The floodgates had opened. I started to ask myself if that specific line of Shakespeare was the one I really wanted. Should I choose something else from The Tempest? From another play entirely? What was the BEST line? Did it really sum up my philosophy on life? If I could say Shakespeare's words any time I wanted to, why did I also feel like I needed his words on me?
The doubts I felt about needing a permanent symbol of my love for Shakespeare and theatre, and ultimately the power of the human spirit, made me realize that this isn't something I need, or for that matter, want to do. And it's bigger than the tattoo and having something permanent. It digs at something deeper for me, about impermanence.
I surprised myself with realizing that I have come to a place of more peace about making a life in the theatre, where nearly nothing is permanent. This same kind of magic plays in The Tempest. At the end of the play, Prospero, who many believe is speaking for Shakespeare himself, talks about the impermanence of a play, and ultimately of life itself:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Isn't that one of the best things you have ever heard? I love knowing that this kind of impermanence was part of life for Shakespeare, and it's part of of my life now, just as it will be for people 500 years into the future. There is something comforting and magical and elegant about this process. Appearance and disappearance. Hold and release. Speaking and silence.
I went to the tattoo consultation last night because I wanted to give myself the opportunity to be sure. I'm glad I went. When I left, I felt at peace about the fact that I am not going to get my long thought about tattoo. At least not right now. Right now, it's not for me.
I am excited about playing with impermanence some more. Cultivating the joy that comes from conjuring a world onstage and then releasing it into the ether at the end of a curtain call. About embracing the impermanence of the art I love and treasuring the everlasting marks they have left on my life. It's a paradox, and for me, I'm just starting to get the hang of it. I'm sure it'll knock me off my feet a thousand times over. Unpredictability and impermanence tend to play together.
Do I still want others to know about my love for the stage, this life long dance I plan to do with stories? I would love to share this with people, but I don't want to feel like I need to prove it to anyone anymore. I will know what it feels like. I will know how deeply this love runs, and in the end, I will be transformed by it, and that kind of marking will be enough for me.
Epilogue: I did, in fact, order some gorgeous custom Shakespeare temporary tattoos online and am so excited to try them out! Here's a few sites where you can explore and embrace your love of expressing yourself in a less permanent way: