What Are You Working On?

Somewhere in Queens // 2015

My palms sweat. My mind races. I rip through my list of started-but-unfinished burlesque personas, performance projects, and poetry chapbooks. I drop in the “recently” and “upcoming” lines of my resume. I add that I’m looking forward to Friday, when I hear back from this residency, or this publisher, or this director, or, or, or…

Look. I go down the rabbit hole, even now.

It’s the question that gets the guts churning in any artist trying to start fresh. I’ve heard it on the lips of my long-legged chorus girl friends, poetry classmates from college, older collaborators who are excited for me to step out on my own, my family… and then it slips out of my own mouth. A reasonable, well-meaning question carries so much weight these days.

Theatre is a brutally competitive field. I’ve heard it a million times. Now I know. I watch other young artists whip into panic mode with the question of what’s next. So much of the time, “what are you working on?” feels tinged with competition rather than curiosity. I’m trying to change my automatic response to this question.

I’m working on myself.

If I trust that my creative work is as valid as anyone else’s, what happens when I prioritize self care in conversations with other artists? Swallowing the impulse to rattle off upcoming projects, I’ll tell you I’m putting an equal amount of work into learning new coping mechanisms for depression and anxiety. I’ll tell you my proudest work in the past few months has been working through the long-ignored ramifications of a toxic relationship. Then, maybe we can talk about how wonderful it feels to AD for a friend’s new play. Then, maybe we can talk about how interesting outer space is, and how we want to make art about that. How persona is a performance-making strategy that we’re curious about. How he feels about his new podcast. How she doesn’t want to act anymore, and can I show you this poem I wrote? Would you like to hear the song I’ve been working on? Can you help me with these sides?

By asserting that taking care of my mental and physical health is imperative to my artistic work, I’ve found myself in the conversations I want to be having about playmaking. It steers the conversation away from the #BookedIt mentality and taps into the creativity, curiosity, and vulnerability that got us into the game at the start. It has led me to more clarity in the theatre I want to make and how to make it happen. And most importantly, it has built my worth beyond what I make. I used to feel that if it wasn’t explicitly in service of the play, the poem, the book, the song… it did not matter.

I matter. And you matter. And next time I see you, I’ll ask how you’re doing. I promise to listen if you’ll promise your truth.

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