I have been wanting to write a post about the ongoing terror attacks since mid-November, but couldn't focus my thoughts. For the first time since living in a large city, I felt afraid of crowds, not comforted by them. My stomach tied itself in knots walking onto the subway train, once a convenience, now a seemingly frightening place. We all kept going to work, but as is so often the case when tragedies occur, we might ask ourselves "What's the point? Does anything matter anymore?"
I took my lunch break one day not long after the Paris attacks by Boston Harbor. I didn't eat, but sat looking at the water, at the ducks who seemed oblivious to what felt like a tidal wave of violence threatening to sweep all of us away in its wake. Trucks drove by on the bridge above me, airplanes flew overhead, and people walked and talked on the path where I sat. It all looked like business as usual.
I was anything but business as usual. On the surface, I was commuting, and answering emails and returning phone calls and preparing for auditions, but on the inside I felt terrified. Why was all of this happening? What could I do to stop it? When would I feel better? What would it take to feel better?For no particular reason, I found myself putting on my earbuds as I sat by the water and playing the Beatles "Let It Be". I cried so hard listening to the words. It was the first time I had let myself cry about all that was happening. "There will be an answer--let it be." At times like these, I sometimes wish I was a soldier, a Peace Corps volunteer, or an ambassador; someone, anyone, whom I perceive has true influence on the world and her suffering people. But I'm not any of these things. I'm an artist. I'm a storyteller. What can I do? And why did I choose to wrestle with my grief by listening to music?
I knew the answer right away--because music, much like theatre, dance, literature, and art- is powerful, and we all have a story of how our favorite song or movie can sooth us during a troubled time. To experience art is to feel its power, and to be an artist is to get a chance to wield that power for good. Art is alchemy.
As artists, we are also storytellers. We are part of the ranks of ancient peoples who told stories around the fire and under the stars to explain the world around them. Stories have been around as long as human beings have and are a vital part of who we are. Stories teach, comfort, provoke curiosity, and give us a way of understanding the world in which we live.
But how can art and storytelling prevent violence and promote peace? I realized I had already begun to answer this question as I sat by the water: stories and art allow us to understand the world in which we live. Isn't understanding one of the cornerstones of human connection? Understanding is what allows us to move through conflicts and come out on the other side a bigger, more compassionate person. We need this now more than ever.
When we hear and share stories, we deal with specificity. When we accept blanket statements or generalizations from the media and our politicians, we risk overlooking the humanity in each and every one of us. We start to group people as black and white, Muslim and Christian, native born citizens and immigrants. We shrink our world until it becomes too small to accommodate anyone who doesn't look like us or believe they same things we do. We give in to fear and often make dangerous decisions based on this fear.
But we are not all the same and our differences should be explored and celebrated; we have much to learn from our collective, different experiences. If documentary theatre has taught me anything, it is that every single person has a unique story and not one of us fits into a neat little box. Every time I listen to someone's story in an interview, I am blown away by how truly singular their experience is. I have talked to incredible people who defy every kind of stereotype you can imagine--cultural, gender, political, age. We all deserve to get to share our stories and to have them heard by others.
Witnessing stories allows us to develop compassion towards one another. When we have compassion, we find it harder to stereotype and point fingers. When we put the practice of specificity into action, we start to look at each human being as just that: a single, unique human being with his or her own point of view and experience. Larger political, cultural and social issues become personal, in the best way. I'm not from a military family, but ever since I interviewed military wives a few years ago, I cannot hear news of deployments without thinking of individual specific women with which I had the honor to speak. Suddenly that community is not one group with uniform experiences, but a community with an array of different perspectives. When I hear backlash against the Muslim American community, I think of the individual Muslim Americans I had the privilege to talk with last year for my new play. To discriminate against that community is to deny each one of those people I met of the rights that should be all of ours to enjoy.
Artists are a community that defies the barriers of language, culture, geography, and tradition. We often discount art as ineffective, but when cities and countries are taken possession of by regimes that mean to cause harm and exert control over the citizens there, why are theatres, libraries, museums, and concert halls some of the first institutions to close? Why are artists considered dangerous?
Storytelling is an act of defiance. If terrorists seek to destroy cities and tenuous treaties aim to keep peace across the globe, then as storytellers and artists, we aim to build something new, to create where there was destruction. We invent the very existence we want to live and enjoy. We become the Phoenix that rises from the ashes. If we can model a way of life on the stage, paint the kinds of feelings we wish to experience, write the book that will uncover injustice and foster healing, then what is the limit to what we can contribute to a better world?
Here's to an empowering 2016, a year in which you pick up your pen, paintbrush, or dancing shoes and give the world what it so desperately needs. As soon as you dive in, there's no telling who might be inspired by you to do the same with their life and their gifts.