Art as a Refuge

As I’ve made the transition from childhood to adulthood over the last five years, I’ve come to realize that ableism and well-meaning ignorance still stings. For a long time I viewed disabled experience as a marathon: if I just learned to pace myself and listen to my needs, then dealing with the world’s bullshit would be a skill I honed as time passed. Until eventually, I wouldn’t be upset by it anymore. Sounds nice, but “growing thicker skin” is an antiquated concept that gaslights the feelings of marginalized people. Such a mindset puts pressure on the individual to pull themselves out of negativity in a way that is neither realistic nor helpful. Despite having built emotional resiliency, one can only “bounce back” so many times. The key in coping for me, I’ve learned, is not bouncing back, but bouncing to something else entirely. If I can shift my focus to something structured enough that my attention is required, but open and abstract enough that there isn’t a wrong answer, the stress over heavy things like how the world perceives me or ability based barriers is abandoned in favor of this other option. My best ‘other option’ is art- specifically various forms of performing arts.

Now, if you’ve been in the performing arts world for a hot minute like myself, you are tired of hearing about the “transformative power of art” or how “the stage saves lives.” While such narratives can border or masturbatory, I have found that I have an expanded capacity for the tomfoolery of ableds- both interpersonally and systemically- when privileged with the time and resources to generate a work of theatre or dance. That’s escapism, I hear in the voice of a girl that constantly condescended at Arts School #1. My response from the vantage point of the end of Art’s School #2 is, maybe so. Is escaping from what brings me pain really bad, though? Is it really an escape at all if ableist behavior will inevitably find it’s way back to me? No, it’s not. There is no shunning of an experience that is inherently tied to me. There is only living with it, and my ongoing choice in how to live with it. During instances of extreme struggle both mentioned here and omitted, I don’t have the time or resources to be creating anything, and the difference in my wellness is acute. When navigating oppression, I am unable to focus on creating, and slip into a shell of myself going through the motions just enough so the piling barriers don’t actually kill me. As I come out of the other side of that, intentionally participating as an artist is how I choose to consciously interact with experiences of oppression without losing my mind or sense of self. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling particularly low right from waking up. I could hardly get myself dressed. All I could see in front of me was a day of ongoing micro- aggressions. But I put on my three pairs of shoes one piece at a time, and dragged my ass to a rehearsal for a piece I had plans to drop entirely. I was playing Ani, a newly quadriplegic Spinal Cord Injury survivor in the 2016 play Cost of Living by Martyna Majok. I had been recruited to do this for no other reason than because I am the only disabled actress at Arts School #2. Feeling tokenized and underwhelmed by the process while still simultaneously facing Big Ableism in real time, I already had one foot out the door. But then I went to rehearsal. And while the rehearsal itself was nothing particularly juicy, the opportunity to act: to make my own choices, to saying words on Disabled Feelings that I didn’t have to come up with, and momentarily trading my own drudgery for someone else’s, was cathartic. I left the room with the morning’s negative thoughts far away, and went on to have a fine day.

I further counter the escapism argument with the assurance that theatre, dance, and film training has equipped me with storytelling platforms to go through disability experience more actively, as opposed to turning away from it. In high school, I made a feature length film on disability not because I was an inspired filmmaker, but because I was a young disabled person who needed to engage someone about what I was going through. I set out to do this during one of the most emotionally desolate times of my life. I had been isolated and tormented by my peers in high school for three years, and struggled to see a life beyond. This project, which was supported by my school with allocated time and guidance, served as a literal refuge: I would lock myself in a room in the library for two hours a day and just edit and plan, edit and plan. I was nowhere near my tormentors; it was just me, my ideas, and iMovie. Maybe I was momentarily escaping, but I needed to in order to survive. And- I’m going to brag now- the result was a bigger and better confrontation of and commentary on my experiences than any altercation in the lunchroom could have been: The Souls of our Feet is a poignant and informative film that has been viewed by thousands across the United States. 

Now, four years later, I find myself in a similar position after experiencing a trauma at Arts School #2 that continues to manifest in strange and surprising ways. After living through several (~25) dorm fire alarms without the ability to evacuate, I had an idea of a movement sequence that simulates the experience of being trapped in a building that may or may not be burning. I recreated the sense of urgency and panic I felt without actually mimicking disability or an alarm. The story has a beginning, middle, and end, and I was eager to bring it to life. I began to reflect on moments in my life that had emotional poignancy for me, and translated them into movement phrases in my minds eye. I often picture dance to process, because as a person with limited movement, seeing movement on abled bodies allows me to go beyond my frame of reference, and is therefore most entertaining for me to dream up. Once I had three short stories choreographed, I realized that if I could generate just a little more, I’d have a show. I went for more abstract ideas: how could I represent my physical and sensory experience of having Cerebral Palsy? A dynamic group number featuring flocking against an overlapping drumbeat became a glimpse into overstimulation, and hard, jerking movements juxtaposed by the clean lines of a pas de deux paint a picture of spasticity. This Body’s Heart was born, and I committed to putting the production up as my undergraduate thesis. Now several months into directing the process, I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity; an opportunity that in actuality only revealed itself by way of the traumatic lack of evacuation. And when the school calls on me to continue cleaning up its mess, which is often, I can now draw a hard line and say “No, I can’t meet with you. I need to do my senior project.” When they push, and say it’s my responsibility, I push back and say “My responsibility here is to get a degree. The day I get paid to be here is the day that responsibility changes.”

At times it feels as though my life is a cycle of trauma and recovery: monumental ableism happens, be it personal or institutional, and then there is a brief period of rest where I am left to pick up the pieces, processing said monumental ableism before the next wave hits. That’s not a sustainable mindset, because it is fueled by fear. When I started creating again, I had new energy for my mental health. I made a commitment to myself that I would not immediately react the next time I’m wronged. My approach won’t actively change the wrongs themselves; ignorance is ignorance. The commitment is to believing that I really am not implicated in the actions of the ignorant. As a friend reminded me, “This is not ‘your shit’. This shit is happening to you.” Re: not getting paid, my therapist then added “You don’t have to respond [to the shit that’s happening to you.] You are not obligated to clean up the messes of others, even if you are at the center of that mess.” The truth of not having to do anything or be prepped and ready to respond, is liberating. Because art is primary to ‘fighting the fight’ only when I allow myself- force myself- to look away from the fight. 

The activists in my life reading this will say that there is a way in which the two can merge- that all good art is political. I agree that I can and should make political art. But navigating actual oppressive instances while making art (or otherwise feeding my joy) is impossible, logistically speaking. My abled, white, cis, wealthy, ‘liberal’ academic advisor at Arts School #1 saw my disabled, bright eyed bushy tailed freshman self, and was so enthusiastic about my making theatre of the oppressed (in small, non-profit settings) my entire career. She was only seeing my experience of oppression as a subject within storytelling, not a beast of responsibilities unto itself. Regardless of the subject matter of a production, producing art takes time and focus that I don’t have if I’m going through bureaucratic channels to achieve basic rights and freedoms. So if I want to do the former, I have to let go of the latter for a while. And why shouldn’t I? While I was working as a Case Manager serving folks with disabilities experiencing homelessness, returning to arts school was a choice I had in front of me. The other choice though, was to finish building the adult life I had started to create for myself; continue doing what so many had presumptuously called “God’s Work”; see my clients through to success; stay in my apartment; work my way up in my human services job with a regular salary, even if the work was squashing me. From the outside looking in, I was a perfect fit for the field. But I was not happy long term. I needed another option. 

I needed to give myself permission to let go of the strife in front of me and take the other option. So I left. I said ‘hello’ to Arts School #2, and (after some more instances of oppression), I’m learning how to pull myself away from the conference room with suits, away from the inbox full of carefully worded Emails, and instead find my way into a rehearsal room. It is radical to opt out of one’s own suffering, because in dire situations, there is no choice. But I reject the idea that constantly “fighting” is just my deck of cards. Come see This Body’s Heart in April to see the artist that was molded from advocacy, from the hard stuff and the “have to’s” – come see what I’m choosing instead.

 

Today, This is Where She Stands.

Sonya

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