I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this past semester, fall 2018, was one of the hardest periods of my life. Maybe the hardest. Personal tragedies were combined with a heavy workload and then the shooting at Tree of Life, a synagogue less than a mile away from my apartment in Pittsburgh. It has been a lot. It has been unbearable at times.
And yet this semester also presented me with great beauty and love. I worked on The Way Out West by Liza Birkenmeier, a play I have mentioned several times and adored. I wrote my own play that seems to have a life extending far beyond the class for which I initially wrote it. I saw more theatre, not just in the School of Drama, but around the university and in Pittsburgh itself. Most of all, I got closer to the people in my life, finding love and support among my classmates.
Clearly, theatre has been very much at the forefront of my life. Not surprising, given that I attend a theatre conservatory. But if one thing defined this semester, it has been the concept of irrevocable change.
This concept first came up in my directing class, as the notion that a scene or piece has an event where everything shifts entirely. For directing, this would be actualized in elements like tempo, distance, and volume, all showing how the world is now entirely distinct from what it was before that event.
And how many moments of irrevocable change my community and I have experienced in this past semester. Sudden, shocking events that pushed me into bereavement out of nowhere. Firsts both in projects and life experiences. New people arriving, known people leaving. So everything shifts entirely.
A/B Machines, a performance piece composed of and in homage to the work and life of Andy Warhol, recently ran at Carnegie Mellon. At the beginning of the show, audience members are invited to take selfies on one of three machines in front of a sparkling curtain. Five, four, three, two, one, FLASH! And then you head up to your seat.
The show, featuring three actors, several solo selections from the Velvet Underground, many many many costume changes (including into some of Andy Warhol's own clothes), live video footage, and homages to three famous women of the 1960s, is almost impossible to describe. But I would call it a journey from the self-obsessed to the collective.
The performance ends with those selfies from the beginning of the show projected onto the walls - except it's not just the static images, it is all five seconds of you and the rest of the audience preparing for that flash. I remember beaming when this happened. It was endearing, and beautiful, and complete.
When in a discussion with the dramaturg on the piece, he explained that initially that ending moment was supposed to be "oh, you worry about your appearance and are self-absorbed too, not just these characters." But, after Tree of Life, everything changed. It became about community - especially, as the dramaturg noted, because so many of those selfies featured groups of people. The journey from self to collective in the piece received a button in the form of everyone - audience, actors, crew - coming together.
This shift in A/B Machines, in my opinion, is the prime example of how things could change so completely and still have a positive effect on the world. It also goes to show how theatre can act as a response, a way to process tragedies, a means to bring people together.
The way things often happen at Carnegie Mellon, for better or for worse, is that after a tragedy we work. But that work is necessarily different for what we have been through. Whether it means we have to skip out on something or follow a whole new course, things change.
For me, I see those changes. I see the coming together, and the work amidst pain. I went to see a show along with a group of friends the day after Tree of Life. The play I was working on for one of my classes, which was initially meant to be about love, became a play about processing grief. And these things, one way or another, felt right.
I have done things I have never done before this semester. I have felt emotions and created thoughts that have never entered my mind before. I have heard the phrase "I don't want to recognize myself by the end of this school year" echoing in my mind.
In short, I have changed so much. So has my community, my city, my school, my friends. No matter how dearly I wish the suffering never had to happen, I am glad for the fact that we are not the same. The irrevocable changes are what guide us forward and together, through our art and our lives.
(Photo: The final moments of A/B Machines. Photo by Louis Stein.)