Of brain function, theatre and the brief contemplation of a taurobolium

Are you sitting comfortably? Then, we’ll begin. 

 

Almost seven months now and this is my first public statement as the artistic director of b current Performing Arts. Seven months passed in a flash. I came to this job, mind you, in the middle of the third wave, in the middle of operating grant season. I don’t know about your brain but mine is using the pandemic as an experiment in the perception of time, the march of days and weeks pass in slow-motion or at accelerated speed. It’s giving me a whiff of what dementia might be like; while remembering insignificant details from years ago vividly, I can tell you very little about what I was up to last week. And if I am reluctant to define my life around professional benchmarks, memories of my onboarding still loiter in the Jell-O world of my corpus callosum, where short-term memory hangs out, before moving on to the archival areas of grey matter, after being labelled in accordance with the Dewey Decimal System. 

 

I am writing to you from a child’s desk by an open window that offers elephant grey skies, the smell of rain, and a gentle chorus of sounds as the precipitations land on tin roofs, puddles, the beaks of robins. The desk is plain except for a surprising inlay flourish off to one side alluding to Art Deco origins. It has followed me across the province through several personal and professional transitions. Soon, it will be moving back to Toronto. At this desk, operating grants deadlines oblige, I created a season days before my job officially began. These days were darker than some might remember. Vaccines existed but distribution proved a huge issue and what was then referred to as the UK variant was ravaging the country. I didn’t want to plan anything live. As pragmatic and as courageous as I want folk to think I am, I have to come clean about being a worrier. I could never forgive myself if someone got very sick or died of covid because of my programming. Not sure why most didn’t seem to follow the news as I was but I remember being afraid of going back to work in early 2020 and telling Bob White who was about to get on a plane: “Be careful. This is THE BIG ONE”. Some knew. There were no masks to be found by the last week of January and I actually purchased gas masks. And, if my zombie apocalypse fears have yet to be realised, by February 2021, I still felt compelled to conjure up projects which were safe but still appealing in hypothetical post-pandemic times. Tarot cards, crystal balls, the works of Nostradamus, I believe in science but had I been convinced it could foretell the future so I didn’t screw up my first season ever, I would have considered a taurobolium.

 

On a personal level, I fared well. I am an only child, I don’t fear solitude. Having a live-in partner through this is comforting but, even with in the company of one bipeds and four quadrupeds, after a while, loneliness clings to you. But there was something I found soothing about the first lockdown. It felt like we were together apart. Covid deniers in the public sphere seemed largely confided to other countries. I loved being at home. Warmth. No putting on five layers and boots on to go to meetings. And theatres around the world streamed their shows. I was looking forward to months of this stuff. That I would hit the digital fatigue wall within a month is not something I could have predicted. I missed hundreds of streamed shows I wish I’d had capacity for. I had none.

 

Designing a season back in February 2021, my speculations of late 2021 to late 2022 oscillated between folk in hazmat suits or buck naked at Eyes Wide Shut parties. Wouldn’t a post-pandemic world necessarily be Dionysian? In my native French, we have the term “lâcher son fou”, to release the inner uninhibited person inside you. It could translate as “letting loose” while lacking to allusion to one’s “inner court jester”. Another French word for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent is the “exultoire”, an important notion in Japan: moments, events, holidays where our inner god of wine demands that we surrender with abandon and forego social norms. I surmised folk would seek release through partying as opposed to violent antivaxxer displays. My mind thinks far sexier thoughts than the reality around me. 

 

Wheel of the Year Walks is not a new idea for me. For years, I’ve been trying to sell the concept and all the rebuffing gave me a chance to resurrect the idea at this auspicious time. Had an institution taken on the project in, say, 2018, I would never have known to attach the Knowledge Integration department of the University of Waterloo to this project. I met Rob Gorbet of KI in 2019 and it was him who found the right technology for us and elevated the project into a brand new category of exploration and possibilities. I am proud of this project and so grateful to the Digital Now jury and the Canada Council for seeing the full potential here. TD Ready Commitment has also decided to extent its funding this year and cover some costs for this project. Across the industry, there has been support for the Walks and we have a long list of partners we will keep announcing as the project unfolds over the next year. 

 

And soon, we will gather. playGROUND is another project close to my heart. In boxing, there are contenders and opponents, and when I applied for this AD-ship, I couldn’t figure out which clan I belonged to. I decided I had nothing to lose and gave myself the freedom to express my take on theatre and be honest about what I think needs to be done. There is no truth about my take on and values about theatre that my board is unfamiliar with. I have their full support in articulating and birthing this vision. playGROUND is a big part of that. Creating new modes of creation has always been an interest of mine and b current will be experimenting at experimenting. Development is our bailiwick and it is our job to always rethink processes.

 

As part of my mandate, b current will be growing over the next few years. Gradually but surely. This city deserves more theatre by Black and Brown artists and Black and Brown institutions are best placed to bring their works to audiences. I applaud white theatres that actively seek to deepen their engagement with intersectional artists and intersectional works, but let us not forget that, for years, Black and Brown artists have found refuge at culturally-specific institutions, a retreat from the trauma they have experienced in non-IBPOC institutions. And if all institutions, including b current, have their share of intersectional shortcomings, it is time for Black and Brown institutions to take a larger place in the industry. Let us wear our crowns.

 

As I posted on Facebook, I wrote about ten thousand words before settling on this. Writing about my life, my thoughts on the industry and what my wishes for the world are. Despite my solipsism, I spend my days thinking about artists, how to get money to artists, how to shine a light on the artists I believe everyone should know. Like the Switch Collective and Natasha Adiyana Morris who are creating the first two iterations of the Walks. Like Jordan Laffrenier who wants to make something extraordinary of The Escape as part of playGROUND. I love this job. Despite the difficulties (which are considerable) I am in love with my life right now. I do not have time to create much but giving myself over to help artists create is a laudable way to spend ones’s life. 

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank those who have helped me since my onboarding. Thanks to all the ADs and arts leaders who have offered help. Thanks to Chris Abraham and Tanisha Taitt. I could never thank you properly. And thank you Philip Akin for your real talk. Your words did not fall on deaf ears. The wisdom you shared with me will bear fruit. 

 

That is all for now. Thank you for reading.

 

Sadie Berlin

12th October, 2021

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