Editor’s note: This essay series is by and for the theater community, and hopes to offer regenerative, communal thinking in the face of industry changes. We are providing a brave space for artists and administrators to focus on creating present and future solutions out of, or beyond our past [perceived] failures. This series builds upon Annalisa Dias’ essay Decomposition Instead of Collapse: Dear Theater Leaders Be Like Soil, originally curated and published by Rescripted and Nothing for the Group. To mirror the mycelial intent of this series, we decided to expand our collaboration and partner with 3Views, amplifying this content on multiple platforms. All editing for this series is done on a voluntary basis, and we offer a small honorarium to our writers for their perspectives. We encourage you to support/donate to our platforms so we can continue this important work. Thank you to Stephanie Ybarra, Lauren Halvorsen, and Annalisa Dias for being originating thought partners in this work. [This series is published in a commons with 3Views on Theater, Rescripted and Nothing for the Group, and you can read this content on any of our platforms for maximum amplification.]
“By every account, we are standing at a moment of necessary change the seduction of contraction to do things we have always done to settle into the stale and oppressive belief and behaviors, to be lauded by the familiarness of fear is to miss what is the awkward mess of loving change that is our due…Will you change? Will you do what the world asks of you?” —Prentis Hemphill
As a poly-disciplinary artist manager, transition acompañamiente (doula), intimacy coach and ordained oracle, I have seen that the fear of death is a well-documented phenomenon that has shaped or, at minimum, influenced everyone’s civic, private, and spiritual life alike. Theatre, like most rituals, is often a deliberate reflection of culture. I consider many of the storylines on American stages as proof positive that decomposition, when feared, turns life into an act of meaningless consumption.
Humanity focuses on what we can extract before we perish. Hoarding like magpies, nervously consumptive of each object we collect, presumably because we, like the magpie, perceive objects as novel trinkets that could prove dangerous if unkempt. Our narratives tell us that when something is no longer animated, it is no longer deserving of autonomy and sovereignty, nor is it serviceable to the collective. These narratives manipulate the definition of life or alive in service of the things we see fit to survive. Humanity (kinda), liberty (kinda), justice (kinda)—These humanist platitudes inspire the collective choice to dispose of, consume, and pillage the inanimate and non-human, making it more palatable to the everyday person.
There are many examples of this in the ecological kingdom. One of my favorite species that defies the pillaging of the non-sentient, is the black-backed woodpecker. This particular bird flocks to decomposing trees, often rotting after a devastating fire. The woodpecker spends long periods of time in its chosen perch finding sustainable sustenance from the larvae inside of the tree. The cavities that they whittle while feeding play a key part in repopulating ecosystems after fires.
What would happen if we faced the inevitability that ALL things become inanimate, but few things ever have an unserviceable death?
Would we then have the energy to let our imaginations intentionally create our decomposition? Could we quiet the external conditions beyond our control to influence the decisions that craft our tomorrows?
What comes forward when we are teeming with abundance? What grows when we don’t feed the systems that are leading to our extinction but instead feed each other?
Could the American Theatre see that the individual makes up the institution? See the artistry in the administration? The grace in dying?
“In a world without grace you can only have punishment.” —sonya renee taylor
I spent the latter-half of lock-down in hermitage studying transitions, primary birthing and dying with Birthing Doula Advocacy Training and Going with Grace, while beginning my gender and relationship politic transition in earnest. The artistic curiosity and the soft skills I cultivated as an arts worker were the foundational tools for my impetus to transition to doula work. That, and the fact that I have yearned to see my labor tangibly affect communal conditions. There isn’t a more tangible way to accompany instantaneous change than to care for and advocate for those ushering life into and out of this world.
In death school, we had to do assignments to reimagine dying. We were asked to go outside, note what is dying and then to journal about our “good death.” This was in 2021. One side of this thought exercise felt almost selfish to me and the other felt brutal and blatant. I couldn’t get past the upset to see the benefits. Fixated on everything that I couldn’t control, and ashamed that I was able to dream of good death, while others were stacked on top of each other in hospitals.
Until one day, after Weaving Earth’s the auspices watching of birds course — an experiential program rooted in ecological practice with the earthscapes and biomes — introduced me to my idol of revitalization, the black-backed woodpecker. It was only when I heard its song and story that I realized that I was limiting my own imagination. It clicked that starving myself certainly wouldn’t correct the unjust conditions, ecological or anthropocentric alike. It wouldn’t even dent the system that grew these conditions. I saw what a good death could mean to me because I imagined what an illustrious death could look like for all.
I have never had to imagine the theatre’s good death; I have been present to it. I entered the industry knowing it was dying. Everyone, elders and contemporaries, in the storefront theatre scene flat out told me when I started in the industry in 2009: “theatre is dying, it has been for hundreds of years.” The goth fourteen-year-old I was then, adored that theatre had been decomposing for centuries but refused to truly fade away. Instead, it defied its own genre to find resilience and adoration, while exalting humanity generation after generation. It is still one of my favorite equips about the form.
I have imagined the death of the American Theatrical-Industrial complex, and the gross systems that uphold it—cis-hetro-patriarchy, white supremacy, fatphobia, ableism, poverty, punishment, violence … too many nuances to name—many times before. It is utterly glorious. For me, this practice opens into something beyond form. When I see this death, I can envision the ripple that theatre as a dying thing could make. The death of theatre could demonstrate to humanity a world without the constructed systems that divide us into animate and inmate pawns. Capitalism in art could crumble under the weight of a collective imagination dreaming past it. This decomposition is filled with land repatriation to back indigenous sovereignty. It’s accented by Trans child choirs, elder dance troupes, puppetry, accessible programming, queer health fairs, genderless restrooms, giggles and cease fires.
“Without new visions. We don’t know what to build. Only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.” —Robin D. G. Kelley
When I asked a beloved WOE and producing partner for feedback she questioned “what do you want people to take away from this?” At first draft, I said I want witness, but as I crafted my final thoughts my dear reader, I realized: I want so much from you.
I want you to realize that you can shake this system from all sides with joy and justice. I want you to call for a ceasefire. I want you to ask all executive leaders to turn over the deeds of every theater to their indigenous peoples. I want you to advocate for ease for the planet and yourselves. I want you to work at this reality daily. I want you to envision the next world by seeing the good deaths of this world.
It matters less what I want, and all depends on what you are willing to do, what you are willing to think, and what you are ready to embody.
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On estrellita beatriz: At thirty estrellita beatriz (starr/e) will have facilitated over 250 theatrical productions, and live events with humans of all generations. starr is a full spectrum artist, doula, facilitator and ritual maker. Born and raised in the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico, e started acting and practicing mixed media arts in 2006 at fox working class room; e debuted in “A Hole in the Wall”, a devised political commentary on the Bush Administration and immigration based on The Wizard of Oz, as Dorothy. e has worked nationwide in New Mexico, New Orleans, Chicago and Washington DC. Starr is also a proud alumni of the Steppenwolf Leadership program and USITT Stage Management Mentorship program. bea’s work as a theatrical artist, mixed with starr’s politic and ancestral healing practice has led e to work at the praxis of death, reproductive justice, and gender as an accompaniment (doula) and somatic embodied dramaturg and Intimacy Designer. Currently, starr is the New Work and Civic Programs manager at Baltimore Center Stage. In e’s spare time, starr is oracularly crafting a book about Relationship Gardening: an ecosexual look at polyamory, playwriting, and seeding trans liberation wherever bea goes.