After serving as conductor for a public performance, an audience member, whom I’ll call Sarah, comes up to me as soon as the show ends. “I need to talk with you.” Her eyes are brimming with tears.
Earlier that evening, during a teller’s story about a difficult encounter on the subway, I casually labelled someone in the story as “crazy” and later “deranged” (as a way to reflect this teller’s fear and judgement).
Sarah was deeply upset by this. We had a powerful exchange about it which I think will change me forever.
Act 1: Carrying a mountain
Sarah’s eyes are brimming with tears. Throughout our calm but intense conversation, her eyes continue to fill. She quietly dabs the tears away as we talk. I have no idea what is actually behind the tears. All I know about Sarah is what a see — a small white woman perhaps in her 60’s.
Later that night, in bed, when I awaken and can’t sleep from replaying our meeting, I imagine possibilities for what’s behind the tears. I imagine someone she loves, or maybe Sarah herself, struggling for years with a mental illness. The holding on by fingernails, the hospitals, the invisibility, the judgement and fear of judgment. Into my heart flows memories of the many people I love for whom serious depression is a life-long companion, sometimes threatening to overwhelm. I imagine Sarah in a hundred situations where she overheard a slight, a judgement, a label, a wrong towards people with mental or physical challenges, but she didn’t yet have the inner power to speak up. How much that hurts. How much courage it takes to step forward against a mountain of cultural ignorance.
I remember an eye-opening movie I saw about a man who was instrumental in the passage of the American’s with Disabilities Act, what crushing, overt prejudice and exclusion people faced before that landmark act, and how recent that was, and how those forces continue, and clearly are still a part of me, aware or not.
Act 2: Tight little girl
Lying awake, I feel the part of me that just hates to make mistakes. I can feel that little good-girl I was for so many years, the restrained straight A student who never attempted anything she wasn’t already good at, the teenager who did her best to never break a rule (achievable because my parents were so permissive), the young woman who made sure no one was ever mad at her. That girl wants always to be perfect and seen as perfect. To make a public mistake like I made last night — and worse, to hurt someone! — fills me with shame and regret. I want to write each person in the audience a personal apology (if only I had their emails). I want to hide, to disappear. I want to erase last night and make it go away.
Act 3: Taking action
a) As soon as Sarah and I finished our conversation, I found the teller of that story — who luckily hadn’t left yet — and talked talked about it with her.
b) In the troupe’s debrief of the show, I named the issue. We will give time to it in our next rehearsal. (We have learned that right after a performance, when people’s adrenaline is dropping and they need to go home, is not the time to process. We keep post-show debriefs to 10 minutes, mostly focused on appreciations.)
c) Because the theme of our October public show is “Visible and invisible: stories of disabilities” we have already committed to focus next rehearsal on our own experiences of that theme, and the following rehearsal to get training from members of the Disability Commission.
d) The company will review together a paper on “Respectful Disability Language” that explains the importance of language and offers alternatives.
e) What will I do differently as a conductor? Actually, the moment the word “crazy” had left my lips, I had felt an inner jolt, a faint “I shouldn’t have said that” nudge, but I barrelled over it, probably embarrassed. In the future, when I hear that small “oops!” or “ouch!” inside me, I will simply stop, even if I don’t know what to do next. Perhaps I will say aloud, “I don’t want to say that.” Or whatever. I can be transparent and trust I can make my way through it. And more important, I will focus on the teller’s feelings and not on their judgement of someone else. I could say, “We have no idea what was actually going on for that woman, but I do see you felt upset and scared by her behavior.”
Act 4: We are people, first.
Awake in bed, I feel that humiliated and upset little girl. But alongside her, I feel a centered and wiser grown woman, approaching 60, who interprets last night’s encounter a different way.
After all, why do I do Playback theatre, given its inherent riskiness? Because I love how Playback can create environments where people reach beneath their daily facades and make human-to-human connection. Well, my exchange with Surah certainly fulfilled that promise. That we could touch each other so strongly is testimony to the power of the show, not an erasure of it. Even with the pain of my mistake, the whole way it unfolded is a success, not a failure.
Something Sarah said will always stay with me. Quietly weeping, she said, “We are people first.” At that moment I fully understood that the goal is not to learn correct language so no one is ever offended. The goal is to always see people in their full humanity, no matter how they look or act or speak, no matter how the teller describes them…. and no matter what mistakes they make.