Do I even want to go back?


No, I didn't come out of a year of this with new resume skills.  No, I did not fall in love with Zoom theater. No, I didn't start a new career or launch my own business. No, I didn't reimagine theater to be film and just call myself a film/theater director now. And absolutely no hard feelings to those that did. To those who thrived, who clarified, you amaze me.

But very early in the pandemic, maybe May or so? I read this New York Times essay about caterpillars. How they cocoon and metamorphosize. I am that caterpillar. I am in the mushy dissolve of my own organic mass sitting in the darkness slowly sinking into the puddle of me and wondering will this ever form a new shape or do I just live here now? This year I disintegrated. I caterpillared and I am not (even) a butterfly.

I find myself sitting through this (year plus) anniversary with immense overwhelm and a heaviness on my heart like I just got cheated on again. Maybe because I did. Not in my romantic or sexual life (shout out to supportive partners keeping you grounded through this caterpillar mush mess), but in my career or whatever my “professional” life was before all this. The theaters--the Primarily White Institutions--you've cheated on me and betrayed me and I am not ready to forgive you for that. 

I hate my self-conscious need to preface this, but I will anyway for fear of you simplifying and discounting and judging me and my deep feelings I decided (for some reason) should be public. I am white. I'm a cis woman. I have insane amounts of privilege both financial and otherwise. I have bought the lies for a long time. I look back and I see the cracks, the moments when reality pushed through to me and said, "Look at me. This isn't okay. You know this isn't right." And I see the spackle I put right over those cracks to keep my bullshit as consistent and as close to patriarchal whiteness as possible. 

Since moving to Minneapolis 4 or 5 years ago now, I've started to chip away and make those cracks bigger. The past couple years, I've been ripping them apart faster and faster as I get angrier and angrier at the ways I've been betrayed and lied to by my white teachers, and my white parents, my white friends, family, peers, coworkers, bosses good and bad. I know society--systems--lied to them too. I know it's literally designed that way. But this growing sense of betrayal only gets stronger and redder and angrier. From college and the stifling lies and erasure, to internships at PWIs and the undervalued labor and worker abuse there, to my years as an early-career artist always told to get smaller and more rigid and more perfect to get ahead. I'm (clearly) still pretty hurt by the manipulation of it all. 

So, while I haven't had some sort of career revitalization this year, I have had some time to think about my priorities as an artist worker. I had time, as many of us did, to look around and not only realize the deep unhappiness, neglect, and exhaustion but to also (as my dear friend says) turn to each other and go, “Oh shit, you felt like that too? Did we all feel like that?” 

It was probably about mid-April 2020 when I first realized what it felt like to wake up rested. It was a couple weeks after that when I noticed my chronic nausea and stomach issues were no longer an everyday battle. We did that to ourselves, to one another, in the name of “good work.” I’ve had some time to think, to interrogate the work I do, who I do it for, and why I am still so magnetized to an industry that doubles down on its lie that it has ever been “for the people.” 

I believed them when they said we were working in service to a community, while they kissed the feet of a corporate board. I believed that what we were doing was collaboration, while power imbalance silenced necessary voices.  I believed them when they revered process over product, quality over quantity, and then doubled the workload and cut the supports. I believed we were essential. Even when they said there was no time for discomfort, disagreements, better health, and family; I believed they still cared. The hypocrisy feels so overwhelming sometimes I just want to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Because when crisis struck, when shit hit the fan, and fear and need bundled up into panic…. Where was the service? Where did that collaboration go then? Who really helped who this year?

So, then what's left? Is there theater without capitalism? Are there jobs without worker abuse? What if I want to keep feeling rested and be able to take care of my basic needs? Where do I fit back in? Do I want to fit back in? 

I tell myself yes. I tell myself this industry, this work force of communal storytelling is not just essential but it is perfectly positioned to affect the cultural change our country requires. And I really do believe that.

But we have to closely examine these lies, memorize every inch of their surface and never let them hold us up again. Push them out, and keep them out. Maintain that bubble of care, the protection, the boundaries, continue to prioritize your health while holding dear the impact you have on others around you. This overwhelmingly loud reminder that no one is coming to help. We can only save each other.  So where does that leave us? 

We have to decide. As an industry, as a city, as a theater community how we are going to move forward in a different way, make decisions in a different way. Embolden our power in all of the little ways we go about our days. Hold space for ourselves. Not sell it. Compete. Burn it out, run it down. Again, and again.

We cannot collectively forget this moment. This shift, this time to look back together and go…. Oh shit. I don’t want to work like that. I don’t want to feel like that.

Let us push out. Press ourselves outwards and upwards until we grow and strengthen and are so used to holding and carrying ourselves that it becomes second nature. Again and again and again and again. 

That is the world, the industry, the culture and society that I want to go back to. Where prioritizing our people over our job is instinctual. Where change and accountability aren’t scary. A world that celebrates our differences, nurtures our uniqueness, and finds joy in all of our complex ways of thinking and being. A world where we can hold multiple truths at once, run into our mistakes with graciousness, and always, always show up for one another.

So here my caterpillar mush waits. Churning and twisting, trying out some shapes, redissolving again, before the big reveal of whatever I was supposed to "become" in my quarantine cocoon. I peek out, but there’s a point at which we don't go back. We can’t just keep reading or observing, looking around to see what sticks, what’s being left behind, what's being pushed. Now we are being pushed. The urgency is returning. The pace is quickening. I can feel it in my bones, starting to slowly shake again. You probably feel it too. 

Do not give in. Let the mush ooze out of the cocoon, even incomplete and unformed. We must carry ourselves upwards, and lean on each other. See how we take care. Compiling all our collective mass, our individual pieces, our little decisions, one by one, to build a better wingset. A better shape and a new evolution. And only then do we hit the starting line

Headshot of Sophie Peyton
Sophie Peyton

Sophie Peyton is a freelance director, dramaturg, and producer; working primarily in new play and new musical theater development. Regional credits include: McCarter Theatre Center, Wilma Theater, MN Opera, Mixed Blood Theatre, Park Square Theater, History Theatre, and Trademark Theater. Sophie Peyton is a passionate advocate for anti-oppression theater practices. B.A. from Temple University.