Challenges Are Challenging

The lull from my first few weeks as a graduate student is ending. It’s not the end of the world or the end of my fun; I knew it was coming . . . and yet, the anxiety and impatience caught me off guard. Adjusting to Toronto and the expectations of graduate school are still entirely new challenges for me. My previous experiences with my mentor graduate student at Rice University and my travels abroad have prepared me for this next step, but that’s the key difference: it’s still a new step.

What that meant this week is that Sunday and Monday were difficult days, difficult in unexpected ways. On Sunday I went to the matinee of PIG by Tim Luscombe at Buddies in Bad Times theatre. At first I wasn’t planning on that particular show. I’d never been to an explicitly LGBT theatre company and the reviews in NOW! magazine made it sound jarring and offensive. But a PWYC ticket price drove me to reconsider: why am I here in Toronto if not to see shows that I wouldn’t normally attend? So I went. Alone. And it was jarring. Well-written characters presented different views of homosexual relationships in London, but different varieties of mainly sadistic and pain-fueled love affairs. They revolved around the physical relationships between gay men, but gay men whose affairs, marriages, and other relationships don’t fit any simple or “normal” label. I actually enjoyed thinking about the way they drew out the death drive linked to sex. It’s there so obviously in tales of star-crossed lovers scattered throughout Western literature, and yet so often seen as something beautiful and unproblematic. The amazing part of Buddies’s production is that it did manage to make these sadistic relationships seem beautiful and touching at moments.

What I didn’t realize is how much it would affect me emotionally. I didn’t feel like seeing anyone after the performance, was nervous about making eye contact with anyone on the subway. Bodies around me had new meaning after coming out of 2 hours about whipping, lashing, electrocution, and death its most vulnerable forms. My roommate teased me for watching The Lorax after I got home, but I had to do something to dramaturgically “cleanse” my mental and physical palate. It took me longer than I expected to “recover.” I should have known that this would happen. It is after all what good theatre should do: it should linger with you even after the final lines have been spoken. After you have left the theatre and returned home. I’m glad that I want to consider these scary, alien topics more and discuss them with my gay and straight friends. But only now, after I’ve had almost a week to process it.

The other challenge came on Monday through my performance theory class. Every Monday so far has been really taxing on me. The lectures whirl about my head and I feel lost in the name-dropping of different performance theorists and the tense arguments over the definitions of terms like the “other” that seem to inspire and ignite some of my peers. It came to a head in this Monday’s class, our first performance lab. Every other week we are going to go out into public spaces in the city instead of merely discussing it, adding a practical aspect to our research and the articles we read on the alternating weeks. This assignment meant constructing two public performances on York’s campus as members of the “Cleaning Crew” or custodial staff. The group performance for my team meant crawling around on the floor of campus’s main thoroughfare for almost half an hour. My knees hurt afterwards and I have scabs on them–the battle scars of the day. And yet it was the individual performance, a performance I chose to mean “washing” windows, in a very public eating area that really rattled me. I hated being watched and laughed at, even though I knew that was part of what I wanted to attract. It reminded me how much I don’t like being seen, how much I prefer to function as an observer as dramaturg, playwright, and scholar. I went and hid in the bathroom afterwards, exhausted and deeply anxious for jumping into a performance so quickly.

I have since worked through most of my guilt and come to terms with my difficulties in this graduate course. I realize now that even though performance art is not a comfortable area for me, it’s one that is still valuable to study. I am there for different reasons than some of my passionate peers and I might never become as invested in some of the discussions as they are. That’s part of studying on the graduate level: it’s taking what you need from every class, course, discussion and applying those pieces to your own research. They don’t have to line up and they shouldn’t. It’s not about meeting expectations, except the expectations of your own career and research goals. I will probably continue to be exhausted every Monday, but that’s just the natural process of facing my fears and learning how to grow out of them into something . . . I don’t know what that something is, but I’m still working towards it.

As for the rest of this week, I did see another show with a friend. I met up with my Bible study group and connected with my professors in order to build relationships about my research and theatre career interests outside of class. I put aside my lingering stress from the performance class on Monday evening to meet and soak up the knowledge of experienced, working dramaturgs in the greater Toronto area. It’s clear in hindsight that I’m rising to the challenges, not letting them stop me but push me forward to keep fighting for the truths they reveal. Thank God for great relationships that teach me how to integrate every experience, how to see the value in each moment of despair and deep anxiety.

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About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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