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Who Are We Now? Theatre Alberta Essay Series – Helen Knight

Brave Girl – Lunchbox Theatre
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Who Are We Now? Theatre Alberta Essay Series – Helen Knight

OVATIONS OF A COVID KIND – Helen Knight | June 10, 2020

I read once that clapping is like a high five you give yourself for someone else’s accomplishment. And although this cynicism gives me a chuckle, in these physically distant times, a self high-five is perhaps our safest bet. 
The idea of applause is a complicated one. I both miss it, and mistrust it. It is both a boisterous non-verbal expression of approval, and also just an instinctual response to having collectively experienced something together. In other words, we don’t always clap when we want to, but simply because we’re social beings in a group. I myself know that I have, maybe once or twice, applauded shows that have been – and please forgive my cold unfeeling heart here – less than brilliant (don’t worry, it wasn’t yours). And heaven help us before we get into the mess of the standing ovation. Does it even mean anything if my mom was the first to stand? Do we all have to stand now? Everyone else is standing, and I didn’t love the show, but now I’m an ass if I’m the only one seated. Or, I did love the show, but now I don’t want to stand now because I am an artist, damnit, not a lemming! 

Or perhaps it’s just my overactive neuroses making all the noise. 
I hadn’t been on a stage in months, but I had just gotten home from a long shift at the hospital.
A few weeks ago, just after 7pm, a good friend of mine sent me a video she’d taken on her phone. It was a pretty uneventful shot from her apartment downtown, slowly panning back and forth between the seemingly empty apartment doorways and balconies under a relatively grey sky. But the din echoing down the brick lined urban hallway was unmistakable: applause. Whoops, and cheers, and someone somewhere was even banging a pot. “And that,” she remarked matter of factly, “is for you”. I hadn’t been on a stage in months, but I had just gotten home from a long shift at the hospital. I felt exhausted, anxious. And though the “for You” was an overstatement, I found myself overwhelmed by the persistent, warm, percussive wave arching through the air, saying to me and my colleagues, ‘We see you. Thank you. We’ve got your back’.
I’ve been a nurse for 16 years, an actor for about 10, which means I’ve had more than a decade feeling conflicted about what career I’m pursuing and how. I’ve known what I’ve wanted to be doing since I was a kid, but bills gotta be paid, and a girl’s gotta find her own way. I finally cut ties to my nursing line a little more than a year ago, choosing to go “casual” so I could actually commit to becoming a full time theater artist instead. It was a thrilling and challenging year.
You ever held a limbo pose for more than 6 seconds? It’ll break your back…
Was. Because that was in The Before Times. We are now in the … not the After Times, but definitely in the Midst Times? Or, more plainly, just in the midst of the shit, really. I mean, sure my neighbour is making focaccia, and I have time to actually water my plants, but I also can’t hug my nephew. Across the board the 2020 season was cut short and the applause stopped: auditions were cancelled, contracts held, and the promise of a new performance year seems to be in indefinite limbo. You ever held a limbo pose for more than 6 seconds? It’ll break your back, or give you a hernia or, at the very least, you start grunting awkwardly and your face turns red. Point being, it’s ugly, uncomfortable, and nobody was built to maintain it for very long.
So what do we do in the meantime? Well, I for one became a nurse. Again. For the first time in a long time the tension between my careers has just disappeared. There is no tension if one half of the rope you’re holding on to suddenly releases. So I found myself swinging very directly and quickly in the only direction left for me to go. And I feel engulfed by it. I am lucky to have a Joe Job to return to, I know it. I also get to leave my home several times a week and, by necessity, spend most of my working hours very much within the intimate 2 meter bubble, touching strangers. And maybe even more crucially, this job gives me a sense of purpose, especially now, when so much is uncertain and chaotic.  
Aside from the obvious new COVID protocols, not much has foundationally changed in my day to day nursing activities. I will hold a hand, hold a basin, wash a back and wipe a tear, change a dressing, change a diaper, change a bag, lose a pen and use a stethoscope, sound an alarm, ignore the bells, phone a family, write an entry, titrate and bolus, listen, redirect, and try to relieve pain. I will not go more than 30 seconds without being interrupted and will easily clock 14 thousand steps in my eight hours on the floor. On a good day, I will be able to work like a machine without actually becoming one. 
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt less like an artist than I do right now. 
My world, like many people’s, has gotten very small. Very practical. My needs are simple: food, shelter, health, family. I am craving the tangible because there is so much that remains ephemeral. Maybe that’s why bread baking has become so popular. And home improvement. And gardening. And even doing non-arts work that we’ve traditionally resented. Extra free time notwithstanding, it is a comfort to have warm bread, and flowers, and new paint on your walls. And work to do. 
There is artistry simply in being; in getting through.
Some people are riding this wave, with their eyes still on the horizon, seeing possibilities and making meaning out of a confusing time. Some have their eyes on the ground, just watching one foot fall in front of the other, wondering how in the world they’ll ever learn to walk again. Many of us are somewhere in between. And, you know, all of it is okay. Wherever you are right now, whatever you’re doing – or not doing – it’s enough. You’re enough. There is artistry simply in being; in getting through. That is our collective experience. And for that may we all, without reservation or cynicism, fuckin’ self high-five. 

HELEN KNIGHT is a Calgary based actor, writer, battle-axe nurse, and amateur container garden enthusiast – though not necessarily in that order. In the After, she’s looking forward to espressos in bougie cafes, crowded festivals and theatres, and long drawn out hugs with friends.

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