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Hope is a dangerous thing

Last week was a difficult week.

Were it not for COVID-19, most of The Theatre Centre’s Sea Sick team – Alanna Mitchell, Melissa Joakim, Franco Boni, Ravi Jain, Rebecca Picherack, Sascha Cole and myself – would have been in England, preparing the show for its London Premiere. Tonight was to be our opening night.

Our losses began with the abrupt cancellation, mid-run, of Daughter by Adam Lazarus at the Battersea Arts Centre in London in March. Two weeks into a four-week run, Canada was calling us home rather urgently. After hours-long conference calls, we formally closed The Theatre Centre’s building – our bustling community hub – to the public. At the time, we were talking about a closure into early April, and here we are, facing May, with no real sense as to when we’ll be reopening.

I’ve been the bearer of a lot of bad news to my team, as national and international dates for Sea Sick have continued to be cancelled. After the National Theatre, Sea Sick was meant to have its American premiere at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina. We were going to have a fabulous homecoming at The Theatre Centre in June, in association with the Luminato Festival. From there, we were off to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut. All cancelled.

And with each cancellation comes phone calls from producers and artistic directors around the world who are dealing with their own crushing heartbreak as they close their beloved venues, or cancel the festivals they’ve been working toward for an entire year. I feel their losses, I empathise with their grief, I share their fear about the future.

And these are losses. We can grieve the tragic loss of life around the world and close to home. We can be afraid for loved ones who risk their lives every day to work in essential roles that keep our world moving. And, we can grieve the loss of opportunities, the loss of physical contact with people we love, the loss of coming together in celebration and mourning.

We’re also experiencing what’s called ambiguous loss… we’re grieving things we haven’t yet lost, but that seem to be disappearing from a future that feels totally uncertain.

But there’s something in that uncertainty I’m holding onto these days. For the first time in a long time, for me, the future feels inventable, rather than inevitable.

We’ve all heard a massive untruth uttered in recent weeks, that the pandemic is a great “equalizer”; a virus that doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, doesn’t care about borders, is not interested in racial, cultural, or religious differences. While all that may be true, the virus has amplified all the ways in which this idea of equality is false. We are seeing those with some of the lowest paying, most precarious jobs, now relied upon as essential to keeping society going. And while the virus may not target traditionally marginalized groups, the effects of the virus certainly highlight a multitude of social inequalities.

But we’re also seeing some of our governments respond in exciting ways. Who could have imagined the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit even just a couple of months ago, paving the way toward real conversations about Universal Basic Income? Who could have imagined governments all over the world, calling on communities to band together for the greater good? Who could have imagined the majority of those communities being willing to give up personal wants, needs, and desires to work toward that greater good? Who could have imagined Doug Ford calling protesters of those efforts, a “bunch of yahoos”? (Okay, so we can all imagine Doug Ford calling protesters “yahoos”.)

The most fascinating thing about these recent measures, is that they prove what’s possible when we collectively agree to work together. It signifies the possibility of a massive cultural shift. And particularly fascinating to me personally, is that it’s causing me to… hope. For someone with a weakness for 24/7 Sylvia Plath-ing*, hope feels unusual.

Which brings me back to Sea Sick. If you’ve seen the show, then you know the stakes of the climate crisis. You know that our global ocean is becoming warm, breathless, and sour. You know that 50 per cent of our oxygen comes from the ocean, and that if everything in the ocean dies tomorrow, we die too. You know this. We know this. But you also know that Sea Sick’s author and performer, Alanna Mitchell, has hope for the future: “Adapt and survive. It’s the essence of Darwin’s teachings and our species is really good at it. Write a new ending. Live to tell another tale.”

At the end of every performance of Sea Sick, Alanna stands before the audience and takes questions. Usually the first to be asked is, “what can I do??”, and Alanna will say “I hope you lie awake all night thinking about that” (which is an answer I love). But she also talks about the huge cultural shift that needs to take place to address this crisis. It’s not about individual effort, but collective effort. The solutions to this crisis do exist, but it’s going to take huge political will to put those solutions into place.

Many things our governments are doing to mobilize against this virus are the very things environmental activists have been calling for for years. I have to admit, I don’t know that I ever believed we could do it. I was touring across the world with Alanna Mitchell, not really believing this massive cultural shift was possible— that we were capable of it. But I loved Alanna’s hope, I thought it was hugely important to put her knowledge and her hope in front of audiences around the world – I could see the impact of her hope on other people.

So, here I am. With the privilege of my position, I am working safely from home. I live alone with two cats. The feelings of isolation come and go. And between the zoom meetings, conference calls, and online cocktail hours, I find the time to grieve. I’m mourning things I hadn’t had time before to mourn, I’m grieving the lost opportunities for The Theatre Centre’s artists, communities and staff, and I’m grieving things we’ve yet to lose. I’m grieving the loss of life – both known to me, and unknown.

I’m also hoping. And along with hope comes some conspiring… colluding… collaborating. It’s time to take what we’re experiencing in this moment— this time of seeing what’s possible, this time of personal sacrifice for greater good— to take what we are learning and apply it. What kind of world do we want when this is all over? The greatest loss for me would be to see us come out of this unchanged… so let’s invent the future.

Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have
But I have it*

Stay tuned…

*Apologies to Lana Del Rey for this gentle theft.

— Aislinn Rose
General and Artistic Director
The Theatre Centre