by Deborah Grace Winer
I made the mistake of going on Facebook the other day. I was immediately hit with a post by a professional colleague with a personal problem. Not life-threatening or tragic, just something that begged for the 317 “I-feel-ya-hang-in-there”s in the comments. I started to write my own to add to the list. And then I stopped, suddenly overcome by an exhausting wave of…what was it? Then I knew: I didn’t care.
I deleted what I’d written, and logged off. And I thought, when the pandemic is over, this person is going to hire one of the 317 people who commented, not me. They used the chance to stay on his radar, and I didn’t. But I simply did not have the energy to override my not caring. If I’d cared about being alarmed, I would have been. I’m not an idiot. I know the pandemic will end. I know that eventually, we won’t all be sitting home in sweatpants figuring out what to eat next. I know that at some point, we’ll all be expected to dust off our personal brand, and get back out there to chase success. Chase it…and them. Our brand, shiny and up to date, is everything — without it, the gatekeepers won’t let us in. Except that suddenly I’ve lost my will to network. To position myself. Shine up to. Behave strategically with people, like we’re all taught we should, and have always done. I’m exhausted. So what will happen to me? When the world comes back will it allow for how after more than a year on ice, we’ve rethought our values and priorities ? Or will people like me have to go live in a van in the desert like Frances McDormand in Nomadland, where nobody has a brand?
First, I have to explain. Most of the world has taken the workplace home. I’m in the professional New York theater. We can’t do it at home. See, there is one, and only one point to the performing arts: These strangers sit together in a closed area and pay money to watch other people entwined onstage getting paid to deliver art and entertainment shouting, singing and breathing a lot. Dr. Fauci’s nightmare, with applause at the end. Since a year ago our industry has been decimated. One day, suddenly, a Thursday, and all at once. If it was a cheesy murder mystery, there would be a smashed watch with the time of death. And no certain idea of when it will start up again. That’s different than most everyone else in the world’s experience.
I’m a dramatist and theater artist who specializes in creating musical-theatrical projects with the extended family that is the Broadway community. But the black-and-white of suddenly, life with…nothing…makes for a really sharp perspective. What happens when your whole world comes to a screeching halt? All the machinery and infrastructure, everything you’ve spent your life going round on: the players, the power gatekeepers, the planned projects, the ego boosts, the camaraderie, and the work that defines your sense of self, and worth. At the moment at least, there is literally no “there” there — the whole ecosystem has almost completely ceased to exist.
If you wanted to do a social science experiment, we would be the perfect lab rats. We’re all on unemployment. Because for most theater artists, there simply is no work. Zero. And as I like to tell my real-world friends, I’m not talking about artsy bohemian deadbeats either, but well known, award-winning Broadway names with decades-long careers. A lot of people have lost, or are about to lose, their health insurance. Everyone I know is depressed, anxious, not sleeping, fearful about the future, and simultaneously gaining weight and baking — like the rest of the world. But one difference here, is that the people in the business who do the hiring are pretty much in the same boat as the ones who get hired.
If the only work is projects people create themselves, social media of course is how people are scrambling to keep current and relevant. I’ve been avoiding my social media. I can’t quite explain it except feeling bone-tired in the aftermath of all the relentless, overdrive effort that before the pandemic was a necessity to keep a career up — to curate how we’re perceived, build an ever-bigger following, and sell whatever it is we have to sell. For freelance artists, that pressure is enormous and never-ending. And it overwhelms and saps creating art. I like posing at stage doors in my Ray Bans as much as the next person — but when the pandemic stopped the necessity, I felt a wave of exhaustion for every post I’ve ever not felt like making, but had to. I admire my friends who right now are keeping it up for their future and to stay alive in the present. I want to hate more people than I actually do for all the art they’re making, projects they’re accomplishing and personal growth they can package and post selfies about. Because I’m one of those people you hear about who hasn’t been able to pour the pandemic into my art or use the time creatively or just get my brain out of the fog (although I did paint my apartment myself). My most acute moments of anxiety have not been Will COVID Kill Me Or My Loved Ones Soon, but looking at posts of what other people seem to be able to accomplish that I clearly can’t.
I’m guessing my almost-disappearance as a brand on Facebook and Instagram won’t help my future positioning. But a surly inner voice can’t get past the idea that jockeying in this climate toward some future gain is a little like sucking up on lay-away. It’s exhausting and you have to wait for the marshmallow. The same voice wonders when things start up again, how can it make sense to be hostage to that same strategic dance of pleasing, impressing, keeping up with, so we can advance — if we know perfectly well that everyone we polish our brand for was only recently sitting home on their couch eating Hagen Dazs out of the container obsessing over whether they’d ever have any business to go back to? What would Darwin say?
I’m certainly not alone in reevaluating everything in my life over the last year — finding, in the time-out, something of a relief. Or seeing so starkly that brands are facades, and facades tend to be hollow — and there’s nothing like mass human calamity to make you count what’s real and important to you. My “accomplishments” are mundane — every morning meeting my pal, a Tony-nominated Broadway stage actress missing a stage, and walking seven miles. Seeing people I care about (albeit mostly on Zoom). Not seeing people I don’t want to see. Working on my meditation practice. Helping a couple of older neighbors, who also help me. A few small writing gigs I didn’t try for but just happened. And I already mentioned that painting my apartment thing. (I did the ceiling too.)
Full disclosure — I came into the pandemic pre-loaded for change. My magnetic one-of-a-kind mom passed away unexpectedly right before the pandemic started. (Though the term “networking” fills me with dread, it was from her I inherited the right amount of charm that’s made people tell me I’ve been giving my brand some help without knowing it.) And for the duration, my most important focus has been caregiving for one of my dearest sisters of the heart, who was diagnosed with ALS a year ago and suffered unbelievably cruelly, until she was taken at Christmas. It’s only because all of us were thrown completely out of work that we could be there to care for Becca together, 24/7.
Online recently, I happened on a business article meant to help executives improve their brand for career success. It was written by a professional advising how to create separate brands for the personal you, the professional you and the leadership you, and how you should design each lens through which to have which part of you perceived, by which segment of people. This is interesting, because there are also professionals who specialize in stripping all of those things away. They’re called therapists. And they’re in such demand right now it’s easier to get an appointment for a vaccine. Just like many people are trying to keep up with the world in these left-behind times, so many have met the cataclysm with a fresh eye on the tyranny of the hamster wheel and feeling the full stop as a deeply exhausted moment to scrub everything except what’s most meaningfully real and true for them.
We’ve at once seen an explosion of meditation apps, and of out-of-control political spin, built on a brand, that led to an armed attempted overthrow of our democracy — only to be spun some more to rebrand all of it.
Coming out of this time is going to be like going to the allergist after getting a weird rash and they make you strip out everything in your diet: We’ll be putting things back into our lives one at a time. The trick will be, which things, how fast, and to stop before the toxic shrimp.
Last weekend I took a walk through the Broadway theater district, where I hadn’t been since the pandemic started. I was happy to walk along 44th Street which like the cliché, felt like an old friend. It wasn’t creepy, but it was empty. I walked past the closed restaurants and shops, with signs posted they’d be back and to stay safe: John’s Pizza…Sardi’s… The theater marquees hadn’t changed since Thursday March 12th, a year ago. The Majestic, and Phantom of the Opera. The St. James. The Helen Hayes, with posters for Take Me Out with a full length photo of an actor who many years ago sold me my Gwen Verdon refrigerator magnet when he worked behind the counter at the souvenir store I’d just passed. The Belasco, touting Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick in Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite — and the marquee blaring, “Previews begin March 13th.” (No, I don’t think so.)
The whole thing had the feeling of a dinner party where everyone had suddenly left in the middle, in a hurry, and never come back. Or been beamed up by aliens. Nobody it seems, has touched anything since. The realness and homeyness of the physical place was comforting, and a time bender — the stage doors and remembered evenings and dressing room hangouts, after-show drinks in the ‘hood or late sets at Birdland, and our show business stories. I have just as much fear about the future of the business, but being there made me hopeful.
I feel like we’ve all changed, and when it’s repopulated again, maybe enough people, including the power gatekeepers in every arena, will take some of that change back to how the world lets you roll. Like Florence, when the artists came creeping out after the black plague, and thrilled to be drinking wine with each other again, made the Renaissance.
Deborah Grace Winer is a dramatist, theater artist and author of several books; her articles have appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times.