Get In Where You Fit In: Showing Up for the World Through Our Work
By Leigh Hendrix
“Art is large and it enlarges you and me. To a shrunk up world its vistas are shocking. Art is the burning bush that both shelters and makes visible our profounder longings.”
Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects
There were over 750 marches across the country on June 30 in response to the terrible separation of children from their families at the Mexico/US border. I joined members of my community in Indiana, PA to walk downtown along Philadelphia Street, winding past the farmer’s market and the library and the coffee shop to the courthouse, with our signs protesting separation and deportation prompting cars to honk in solidarity. The week prior, I donated to RAICES, the organization in Texas that provides legal services and bail support for immigrants and refugees at the border. I have written letters to lawmakers, made phone calls to their offices too. I have shown up for people in my life and supported my students as they face a precarious and hostile world. I was engaged with the fight far before the 2016 election and I will keep doing the work in the world.
But I am not telling you this in search of pats on the back. I am well aware that real and lasting change is not coming over night, that we are building on the work done by folks who have come before. We are attempting to lay the groundwork for future generations to build upon.
It’s tough. We keep facing assault from all sides. It seems every day holds a new disaster. Sometimes I wonder how I am supposed to keep doing my job, living my daily life, and also engaging in resistance and seeking a better world. While there has always been more to fight for and change to be demanded, there is a particular urgency under this administration.
But I realized that the goal of the chaos being sewn right now is to break us all open so far, pull our attention and outrage in a thousand different directions, exhaust us as a public. It makes us feel limited and small. And sure, some of that sense of hopelessness is going to be there, the feeling that you cannot do enough. The impulse to give it all up in the face of that feeling, however, is one we have to resist. We have the capacity to care about more than one thing at a time, to make phone calls or show up to volunteer. We can put different kinds of resources in different places. Use our talents and skills where they are most useful.
Fundraising for The Syndicate during the height of awareness around the crisis of family separation created by this administration was a real challenge; wondering how to ask folks to consider anything else in that moment, or if I even should. But I am excited about the project we were able to raise funds to support – Syndicated, our month-long residency at IRT in New York. We are producing two pieces that we’ve been developing as a company, as well as First Read, a week of readings of plays by queer, trans, and nonbinary theater artists that are not members of The Syndicate. As a company, we have spent a lot of time and energy working to not only make space to tell stories we create, but also to make space for other artists.
Over our first four years together, we’ve grown a lot. Part of that growth has been taking an honest look at what it really means to be a queer and feminist company that wants to advocate for diversity in whose stories we tell. We realized that for our company, part of what that looks like is not simply creating work together that has roles for a wider variety of humans (though that IS part of it), but utilizing the resources in our orbit to help folks bring their own stories to audiences. First Read playwrights are a diverse crew of artists whose work is also unique in form and content. They are already creating work that we are excited to support.
The more I listen to stories out in the world, whether they come from one voice seated across from me in a coffee shop or a film I’m streaming at home on my laptop or a play I see or a podcast that plays while I drive through rural Pennsylvania, the more I am certain that allowing space for people to tell their stories has power.
I saw a production of Seussical Jr. that was one of the culminating performances of Footlights, a youth theater program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The twenty kids between the ages of 6 and 11 (two of whom, full disclosure, are my partner’s sweet children that I love) sang and danced and told the story of Horton the Elephant working to keep the Whos of Whoville safe, reminding us that, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Look, I am not suggesting theater is inherently a world changing form or that simply by being a theater artist I am somehow engaged in radical change making in the world. You can make theater that reinforces oppressive power structures and we are certainly well aware of how people are excluded and exploited in our field. Is Suessical Jr. the most radical piece of theater? Maybe not. But those young people practiced making a world together, sharing a story with their community, and making their bodies visible and their voices heard.
I do believe that the immediacy of live performance, the living breathing bodies on the stage in front of living breathing bodies in the audience, is a form that offers a lot of potential to influence culture and increase people’s capacity for empathy. Since the theater is where I’ve spent my life and energy, the place that I’ve been honing my capacity as an artist, this is the arena in which I am best suited to contribute to the work of liberation. I think that is something each of us can do; show up for the world from right where we are, every day. I’m glad I get to do that with The Syndicate.
Don’t give up. I’m not.