Anxiety. It’s a term we circus artists know well. Anxiety prior to a performance, before throwing a big trick, or before stepping foot into an audition. For these last twelve approaching thirteen months – oof Christ – one could say in a world of constant change and chaos that the only constant has been anxiety. Perhaps not those strong flapping butterflies that make you question whether you need to hurl, but more so a lone parasitic moth. Lazy little bugger just sitting there cocooned in the pit of your stomach. You feel the slight weight of the freeloader at all times, and you dread the moments where he’s pissed off enough to burst out and flap those big kahunas on his backside.
Today I want to write about that little jerk. If you’re thinking that by reading this you might discover some new coping strategies, I’m guessing that a) you won’t make it through this but if you do then b) you’ll be sorely disappointed. I prefer to call this an open bitch. Like an open mic for the slightly mentally disturbed that probably isn’t funny, may result in many a boo, but at least you got up and said the damn thing. There’s some comfort in that for me, and I hope that the acknowledgment of those feelings resonates with other people’s experiences.
These days I find myself mostly in Toronto. For an artist in pandemic times, I am actually very fortunate. I’ve been supported by the Canadian government throughout much of this time, and now I find myself with that oh so elusive thing in the live performance industry – a job. This open bitch is not about financial woes, although I want to briefly acknowledge the many people I know whose small businesses and financial situations that have been flipped over throughout the course of this shit show. Also, I completely stand with those who have been hit hardest: the various essential workers, medical personnel and those infected with Covid who have been very vocal about how we can improve the current approach.
So back to my little existential artist crisis. As I mentioned, I’m here in Toronto for a job, and that job is for a wonderful magic exhibition called the Illusionarium. While I’m not yet at liberty to go into detail about my position or share images from rehearsal, what I can mention is that my job entails a good deal of anxiety and the show poster might hint at why.
Given that safety is top priority here, and that we literally have the nicest and most supportive creative team ever, I can confidently say I get lovely Disney butterflies when it comes to this performance. Those winged agitators have turned slightly more nefarious as of yesterday, when the Ontario government announced yet another month-long lockdown of the province. Naturally, this means our opening has been pushed back once again, and we will continue to refine our show as we remain on standby.
Let me tell you a bit about being on standby. When I was performing with Cirque du Soleil, being told you were on standby was a rush. A brief moment when I was lying on my trapeze at the top of the chapiteau waiting to be lowered in, feeling like I was going to either explode with excitement at the prospect of performing my number or just plain old shit my tights. I never quite distinguished between those two feelings, but what I know is that it fueled me through my performance night after night. In the longer term however, being on constant standby is more than just an everlasting butt clench. Having a show to perform or a number to film, thinking you’ll have a chance to finally do it, and then having that chance taken away repeatedly is like being told the baby’s on its way out, but just kidding, we need to push it back in. “But I’ve created something and now it’s stuck inside. I need to get it out! Cut the cord! I need it to see the light of day and for it to live.” Allow this man his metaphorical dramatics, but you know things are bad when you watch the chest burster scene from Alien and think “Well, at least it got out”.
Now I’ve only been here since late February, so I can only imagine what the rest of the team has been feeling, as the opening was originally slated for December. But my generalized feeling of anxiety goes beyond this job, and as usual, I’m several paragraphs in and I feel like I’ve skirted around the bloody point. As artists, this last year and a bit has felt like one long standby call. Some of us have created new work, diversified our skill sets, or explored life beyond the scope of our artistic practice. But we’ve done so largely knowing in our core that we don’t just want to return to the stage…we need to.
Specifically as a circus artist, I feel like I’ve been living two lives. One life where you’re just trying to make ends meet, yet still clinging to the requirements that your artist life demands. It’s been immersion in dichotomy. To be a nomad at heart, but forced to be sedentary. Taking the time to finally rest your body, yet feeling all the pain from your old injuries come back. Accepting the glory of the muffin top, yet being told by employers in the industry “I’m sure you’re all staying in the best shape and would be ready to pop back on our stages at a moment’s notice”. (To Hell with that by the way…great food is one of the only reliable pleasures we have right now.) Then having the burning desire to get back into training, but being faced with the multiple issues or questions that present themselves. What am I making this piece for? How do I get back into decent shape with the gyms closed? How do I regain and maintain my apparatus-specific fitness with limited training spaces or high training fees? With each question comes an extra stab of anxiety.
Different cities have posed different challenges, but fighting an uphill battle has been consistent. It’s been equally amazing to see some individuals and companies thriving during this time and overcoming obstacles. Circus and theatre coming back in Australia and Las Vegas, or contracts being booked in several places throughout Europe for instance. Stepping beyond standby, past those backstage curtains and into the lights must feel incredible. So happy for you and living vicariously through you! It’s awesome to see trust in the social distancing protocols of these performance spaces, and to see what happens when governments take strong, logical stances rather than constant yo-yo-ing of half measures that lead to half assed results.
Obviously, a strong stance requires a strong base, and I guess after writing this, it seems like those supporting pillars are weak. Pillars such as professional, social, emotional, and physical well-being are all equally difficult to maintain, so feeling that anxiety perhaps isn’t a surprise when the world you’ve built seems ready to cave in around you. Ignoring the laws of physics for a second, perhaps my energy would be better spent focusing on improving the integrity of one pillar, rather than frantically running between all of them trying to maintain a bare minimum. My last blog post was focused on the uncertainty of creation, and it’s rich that during the year to follow I threw myself into many personal projects, but wasn’t quite able to finish any one of them. As I mentioned at the beginning, if you read this expecting answers to these difficulties, tough tits! All my ending can be at this point is an open acknowledgment to restart a simpler form of dedicated artistic and physical practice that grounds me, allows me to tackle ONE PROJECT AT A TIME, and hopefully flourish despite the constraints. Wherever you are dear reader, I hope that you manage to acknowledge any anxiety you may have, and flourish all the same.
Warm spring regards,