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CHECKING IN: Staff Reflections in Different Rooms

To be perfectly honest, we have been at loss about how to respond. Actually, I can only speak for myself – as producer and a member of The Chicago Inclusion project, I have been at a loss as to how to respond. We can’t do field trips to shows we’re excited about or hold readings in community centers and engage in person with new neighborhoods. Our unofficial mission is to get everyone in the same room, and for the time being that isn’t physically possible.

But I began to wonder what would bring comfort if it were possible. How do we stay connected? And one answer we came up with is just to be honest about where each of us are. Each of us are going through different ways of grieving, coping with anxiety, confronting change. But in acknowledging how different our processes are, by focusing on our own humanity and mortality we also realize how intrinsically similar we are. We learn this through the inclusive art that we applaud and try to create, but we are learning it more so now, in this surreal moment.

It has been our hope as an organization to repair and build relationships within our theater community. It is still possible to do that right now. In fact, it is necessary to try in whatever way we can, which has always been our tactic. It has always been our hope that by truly seeing and hearing each other and our stories, people would come away from an experience knowing they’re not alone.

All of that said, below is a conversation members of our staff had about where we are all in “all of this.” It is in no way meant to be prescriptive, doom and gloom or Pollyanna. It is our way of grappling with whatever-this-is together, far apart, until we can be in the same room again.

- Emjoy Gavino, Executive Director

Members of the The Chicago Inclusion Project:

Elana Elyce, Arti Ishak, Jessica Vann, Stephanie Diaz and Abhi Shrestha, quarantined in Chicago

Emjoy Gavino, quarantined in Minneapolis

Charlie Hano, quarantined in New York City

Jeff Trainor, quarantined in Princeton

Behzad Dabu and Danny Bernardo, quarantined in Los Angeles

How are you doing?

Elana Elyce: Fine.

Arti Ishak: Okay.

Jess Vann: I am surprisingly doing okay... considering.

Charlie Hano: Most of the time, I’m okay. I take it minute by minute.

Stephanie Diaz: In the “big picture” of things, pretty good. I consider myself lucky-- my partner can still work full-time, I happen to really enjoy cooking, and we were forced to move recently, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because the apartment we’re in now has a lot of light and a balcony-- luxuries that have become unexpected lifelines.

In the “little picture” (read: my brain), I have, like most everyone I know, good days and not-so-good days. Many of my family and close friends are healthcare workers --nurses, doctors, first responders-- and my mom lives alone 2000 miles away, so my mind is on them a lot.

Jeff Trainor: My family is doing the best we can.

Danny Bernardo: Doing alright. Better than some, worse than some. Days of extreme anxiety and panic and days of "I'm gonna be ok".

Behzad Dabu: Meh, I have good days and bad days. Sometimes I find myself in a whirlwind of anxiety and all I want to do is pop an edible and stay in bed all day. Then I have some days where I find the rest refreshing and laugh a lot and feel free without responsibility. Then I think of finances and get scared all over again. It helps to know that almost everyone I know is in the same boat.

Emjoy Gavino: I fluctuate between feeling numb and optimistic, sometimes picking up other people’s anxiety and feeding off of it, sometimes trying to subdue it, always feeling grateful for what I have in this moment, then feeling guilty about it. Then eating cheese.

Abhi Shrestha: Working hard to be present. Being present is hard. But taking things moment by moment. A key tenet of the educational pedagogy we use at Steppenwolf is “living in ambiguity” and I am really trying to lean into that.

Do you hate that question right now?

Emjoy: I think it depends on who’s asking me and when they’re asking. To be honest, I’ve never known how to answer that question. So I typically deflect.

Arti: I find it redundant and impossible to answer completely truthfully these days.

Jess: Nah! I still think it’s important to ask. But leave it up to the person receiving the question what they want to disclose. I think it’s important we are asking the question but also be open for the response given. People are vulnerable right now and needing someone to listen is important. So those asking, I hope you have the emotional capacity to receive.

Jeff: Not at all. Apps like Marco Polo and FaceTime have been helpful in letting us all check in on each other.

Danny: Nope. It's important to check in with folks when you can. I mean, sometimes I may not want to answer that question right away but sometimes I desperately need that check-in without realizing.

Charlie: Yes, but I think it’s a necessary evil. We’re all scared, but we all want to take care of each other, as much as we can.

Behzad: Haha, it is funny... that question is asked a lot... "what have you been doing to occupy your time?" and I keep responding the same way. But how I feel is constantly shifting... so. Yeah. This is the new normal.

Abhi: I like any moment where we can take a step back and be reflective.

Steph: Not at all. It can be hard to answer succinctly, though. Sometimes it’s hard to even think about in a way that can be articulated verbally. But I don’t hate it because it means someone has reached out, which is more appreciated now than ever. I definitely like it better than, “So what are you working on…?” haha!

Elana: Not when people genuinely want to know.

What has this last month been like for you? (or, what is a normal day like for you?)

Steph: I don’t even know how to answer that-- every day is surprisingly different, but in the most banal ways.

Behzad: Well -- I keep telling myself, "okay be productive! When will you find the time to do all these things again?" but now I look back at this month... and so many of those things on my list... I haven't done them. I am finding it much harder to find my ambition, to find my motivation. Even though I have more time now, I have had less desire to work. I don't quite know why that is, but also then I start to dislike myself for being so unproductive with "no excuse" and it just starts a cycle of negative talk. SO, I have found some things i love.

ONE, I bought a bike and I go on bike rides. TWO, I take loooong daily walks. Like long. Through the hills behind my place... no set path.. random rights and lefts and look at the flowers and the big mansions and dream of living in them...looking at backyards and the views of the hills and the city... that's the beauty of L.A., almost everyday has been gorgeous and sunny out and those long walks have saved me. I have discovered the beauty of my neighborhood. And I got my taxes done.

Danny: The last month has been a lot like everyone else's. Establishing a new normal for the time being (not forever!) and trying to do the best I can to flatten the curve. When the "Safer At Home" order first hit LA, I panic-bought and am now fully stocked on Pinoy pantry essentials for a good few months. But now I crave food I didn't buy so I brave the grocery store every week and a half or so. And I've drank more in Zoom happy hours this month than I have in the last six months combined so my booze budget is up, lol.

Elana: I like working from home. I don't always get up as early as I do in regular times. I work out while listening to the governor's daily briefing. There are some general things I thought I'd have done by now, but haven't. Although I did finally make some progress.

Arti: The last month has alternated between going down the rabbit hole of every worst case scenario both personally and globally, or trying to think about nothing in order to pretend I'm on a staycation.

Charlie: It’s kind of been a blur. NYC is intense and scary right now. It feels like the one thing I do every day now is have dinner with my roommates & all five of us will watch something on TV.

Jess: It’s been interesting. Being told to stay home hits differently than having the choice to stay home, lol. But knowing that it’s to save lives is what’s important to me. I am actually a big introvert, so I recharge by myself, so this has been one big recharge. But I am also able to release some of that by working out or even talking with friends via phone. I also have therapy pretty regularly during this to help with my mental health.

Jeff: It’s been rough and I don’t know anyone who isn’t trying to figure it out each day. A normal day will consist of helping my daughter (age 5) with her school work while trying to keep my son (age 2) occupied and trying to keep them from bursting into the room where my wife is working.

I’m running the social media for the local toy store I work for (JaZams Toys and Books in Princeton, NJ). Since I can’t be in the store, I’m doing what I can to let people know how they can support a local store.

Emjoy: At first it was oddly familiar because being a theater artist, I am frequently on unemployment (much to my parents’ dismay)-- I already am aware of what it feels like to not have a structured schedule, to not have a project to look forward to or when my next job will be. I know that I will get stress hives and lose sense of time and not sleep well and emotionally eat and that’s just part of the process. So the last month has been a lot of that. But there are obviously added stressors because of the state of the world and in particular our industry and what to do with that anxiety has been tougher to navigate, also because my spouse works in theater administration and has been working from home so I can’t really escape the conversations that are being had.

That said, I’ve tried different things. The first week, I gave myself a set schedule. That was horrible and I hated it so much. The next week I gave myself a list of tasks that I would try to accomplish every day in whatever order and that worked better for me. The tasks would include casting work for Gift Theatre, answering and organizing emails for half an hour, updating my professional website, but also stuff like walking my dog around the lake, reading a short story, baking a cake, eating the cake, etc.

Abhi: I work in the education department at Steppenwolf and it’s been a whirlwind. The leadership at Steppenwolf has been really great about being super transparent about the state of things and continues to loop us in every week with more information. Some weeks have been more hopeful than others… My team has hit the ground running trying to figure out how we can still serve our various communities. We’ve been putting out virtual programming every week for the last month. It’s been really great, and really tiring. We are doing what we can to support our communities as best we can (our students, our classroom teachers, our teaching artists, our community partners). We’ve been in communication with them to really try and understand what each community is feeling like they need and how we can support that, even if it’s just creating space to discuss our mutual frustrations and fears.

A normal day for me looks like doing some yoga and breathing in the morning, making avocado toast with smoked salmon, a poached egg, thyme, sumac, and sesame oil – hopping on my computer and having virtual meetings starting at 10am, facilitating online workshops for teens and educators (usually close to 100+ participants), having lunch at some point, then having the rest of my night devoted to playing animal crossing or boggle with my partner.

It’s been hard. But I am also privileged and lucky to have a job for now and I am trying to make the most out of that.

Have your priorities shifted? What are you focusing on right now?

Elana: Not really; making sure I still eat clean the majority of the time and just not falling off day work-wise.

Jeff: I’m focusing on my family and my community.

Abhi: My priorities right now are focused on supporting my communities. My students, my educators, my fellow artists, and community organizers. It is focused on making sure I take care of myself so I can take care of those I love.

Charlie: This is the first time in my adult life where I can’t define myself by my ambition. It’s uncharted territory for me, and I’ve been learning how to nurture other aspects of myself.

Arti: I'm submitting self tapes when possible and working on projects that were already in motion before this started, but honestly I'm using this time to enjoy everything I say I miss when I'm too busy to be at home. I hang out with my partner whom I rarely got to see for months before this despite living together. I'm focusing on cooking and working out. I have been learning to cook and bake a lot of treats I used to love to order in to try and create healthier habits. As trite as it sounds, working out regularly is one of the only things getting me through this time. It is the only hour in the day when I'm not actively focusing on calming my internal worries because my brain is totally distracted and engaged.

Jess: My priorities have not changed. Maintaining some sort of normalcy in my home is what I am focusing on. So making sure I work out, which has already been a part of day-to-day before covid; doing something that brings me joy (talking to friends, a funny video, something). One thing I try to focus on is not beating myself up if I am not “productive”. If I can end each day feeling fulfilled in my day, I feel good. Even if that’s sending that e-mail for work, taking a shower, cooking a meal, I still got things done. Sometimes that also means staying off some of the social media platforms so that I am not comparing myself to others.

Steph: The recent, untimely passing of Diane Rodriguez has made me really examine myself and my practice: how I can be of greater service to my community? How can I best pay forward her legacy of generosity and massive contributions to the art form? It’s been weighing pretty heavily on me.

Like everyone else who is primarily a performer or designer, I’m not working, and nobody knows when that will change, and to what extent. So instead of focusing on work (finding it, doing it, helping others get it), I’m trying to take this time to develop discipline in a few of the (many) areas where I sorely lack it. For me this looks like creating schedules and routines, something I’ve mostly relied on someone other than myself to provide.

Danny: I wouldn't say shifted, I'd say refocused. The biggest reason I moved back to LA after having lived and worked in Chicago for 16 amazing years was to be closer to my family. The proximity to the Film/TV industry is a definite perk, but it was always to be closer to family. So now, my weekly excursions are hyper focused on getting my mom the medical care she needs while being very safe and cautious cuz she's in a high risk group. I wish I could say that I've been ridiculously productive in writing but honestly I've been just getting so accustomed to my trauma brain (it's a thing, google it) that I've just allowed myself to be. On the plus side, I've always preferred self-tapes for Film/TV and that's all we're doing.

Emjoy: The last few months, I’ve been away from my husband because he had to take a job in Minnesota and so I sped over to be with him and our dog before we all got the shelter in place orders. So a more immediate shift has been finding ways to take care of them on a day to day basis. But my overall priorities remain the same - family, community, finding ways to uplift people with art. It’s just that my ways of interacting with those priorities have changed and continue to change.

Behzad: Yes they have. I mean I realized how much of my life is my work. I mean, now that work has been taken away from me. It made me realize how much of my life focus is my work. And man... it's like. A LOT. I am single, I live alone. So I think it has forced me into some introspection about what I really want out of life.

Who or what has given you motivation?

Elana: All the same people/stuff that did before.

Danny: My mom and my dog. Plain and simple. Caring for them is what is getting me through this pandemic.

Behzad: I've been listening to great podcasts, watching great TV, listening to amazing music (the live concert versions of my favorite songs)... going down some of those rabbit holes has been fantastic.

Steph: The biggest motivator for me right now is my brain’s own tendency to sort of eat itself by playing out self-destructive patterns if it doesn’t have something specific to engage with-- the unnecessary misery of negative mental loop-de-loops is really pushing me to create mindfulness and order in my days. There is a certain amount of necessary self-reflection happening right now, of course, but there’s a place where it can cross over into self-flagellation, and that’s the place I’m trying not to live. Some days are easier than others!

One great way I’ve found to address a few of these things simultaneously is by attending all the various fitness, yoga and meditation classes my friends have been offering-- it helps me feel connected to them, gets me moving and out of my head, gives my day/week some structure, and also helps them keep their businesses afloat. I try to take a different class each day.

Jess: Truthfully? Creating content for my social media platforms and leaning into that for work and other projects I am a part of! 1) I enjoy it and 2) it keeps me being creative in a way that is different from my usual. When I finish a content idea, I feel good about myself! Because it’s something I did and feel proud of. Even if it’s a silly little Tik Tok video, lol. It keeps my brain active. I don’t know, that’s just me!

Charlie: Three times a week I volunteer with the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. I spend two hours in the morning packing food to be shipped off to people who need it. It’s kept me grounded and it’s a way to engage with my body and the world.

Arti: Nothing has convinced me of the power and utter magic of live performance more than seeing it

attempt to be adapted to Zoom. It has given me so much to think about in terms of what makes theatre meaningful to the human experience, what is its place in society as a storytelling art form, and how can we utilize its highest potential to invoke imagination? I literally cannot wait to get to make theatre again.

Emjoy: The Gift Theatre has been an incredible source of motivation and inspiration in the last month. Whether it’s continuing to cast a show we’re hopeful to put up at some point this season, having difficult but necessary conversations with the staff, hopping in on virtual readings via zoom, marco polo-ing with ensemble members about food, having an artistic home is not something I take for granted and has given me renewed purpose in all of this.

Abhi: My co-workers – the education department at Steppenwolf. They’ve been busting ass to do what we can for those who we are in community with.

A morning ritual. I’m telling you, some breathing, intention setting, and a poached egg will do wonders. Seeing how community unfolds in miraculous ways during a tragedy. (Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark” is a great book that speaks to this)

Jeff: A few months ago, I had started training at Princeton Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the foundation that they were helping me build within myself has kept me wanting to stay in shape. Exercising and showing my kids how to exercise is important to me. Also, keeping room open for dance parties any time in the apartment is necessary to get through the day.

Who or what has given you joy and hope?

Elana: All the same people/stuff that did before, and my new weighted jump ropes (joy).

Arti: I'm hopeful by the sheer acts of kindness and grace I've seen exchanged between folks, strangers and friends alike. In a time surging with panic and distress it seems there's also a wave of kindness that has risen up to meet it.

Abhi: I think I generally am a hopeful person. I try to tend hope in my daily life cause that’s the only thing that keeps me going. Poetry. Always poetry.

Cooking. What a gift it is. It brings me such delight.

Charlie: I’ve been teaching myself how to bake! I used to dabble, but now I’m able to make it a priority. Tonight I’m making a French silk pie, wish me luck! As for things that have given me hope...everyone I know who can be generous (whether that’s with their time or their money), is being generous. I’m very proud of my friends and my city.

Emjoy: I have 2 text chains, 3 facebook message chains and at least 4 marco polo threads where we just share pictures and recipes and videos of things we’re eating, things we’re going to eat, things we’re going to make, things we want other people to make for us. The fact that a few of these threads existed before we were in quarantine speaks to how much nourishing and creating dishes and sharing meals was and remains a huge part of my life. Between having virtual dinners and happy hours with friends, making dishes out of pantry staples and taking pictures of them and blogging about it for the three people who read it gives me immense joy. Food is my love language and I’m so grateful that I can continue to use it right now.

Casting from virtual auditions during all of this is so weird and of course I would rather see people in person, but seeing everyone's work has given me a lot of hope and comfort. I love watching people succeed and it makes me feels closer to the community I am so far away from.

Jess: Talking to my family and my friends I have known for most of my adult life and even childhood. Being in those spaces through whatever Zoom or Google hangout gives me joy. It lets me relax and just be myself. So that I can recharge for the next day.

Danny: I can't begin to tell you how blessed I am to belong to so many families. I'm lucky to have family to talk to, a dog to cuddle with, and roommates to talk to face to face (at 6 feet apart, yes even in the house). But the fact that I can connect with my family from my high school days (Las Vegas Academy for the Arts) as well as friends in Chicago, my Coeurage Theatre family, my East West Players MAMMA MIA family, and so many groups all through Zoom has been so helpful to my heart. On a Zoom happy hour I was just on with one of my cliques from high school (we dubbed ourselves the Sailor Scouts, guess which one I was), my friend who now lives in Hawaii and doesn't get back to the mainland much was saying how awesome it was that she gets to see us all so much more now.

And while this is good for right now, it's not a substitute for real human interaction. Don't get me wrong, when we get to a new semblance of public normal I will still have these video chats with friends from far away cuz how awesome is it that we can? But what's giving me hope is someday soon, I'll get to hug the people I love so much for real. Especially my mom.

Steph: There are so many tiny domestic joys that I’ve never had (or taken) the time to observe and enjoy before, in their true fullness and bounty. And as bleak as things may be right now, I feel such hope in the countless kindnesses I am privileged to observe or personally experience every day-- between strangers, neighbors, friends, loved ones.

Also, I have a Sasquatch-like kitten with permanent stankface who is very entertaining. This morning, he was out on the balcony and I think the neighbors discovered him for the first time. Their coos of delight --”OMG he’s so cute!! He’s just staring at us!!” will stay with me all day, maybe all week.

Jeff: The group at JaZams have been incredible. While working to keep their local toy store running, they are also donating 5% of each purchase to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) with the code 5for5.

Exercising, whatever it is you can do at home, is so important for all of us.

You can find a bunch for free bodyweight exercises on YouTube and Google.

Checking in with friends has been keeping spirits high. Every week, I do a free story time on Instagram for anyone that wants an activity to do with their kids. I loved Reading Rainbow when I was a kid and I’m trying to do that for the families that I’ve met in Princeton: @storytimewithJeff. Also, watching the John Wick films and Community…I mean, so good. Just so good.

Behzad: Knowing that we are all in this together has helped me. And I don't mean that in the cheesy way. I mean, quite literally, that no one person is alone in this. And also realizing that I live in a great city, I have friends and family, I have a nice apartment, I have food, I have a cute kitten. I am relatively healthy. So, trying to remember all the things to be grateful for has helped.

Anything else?

Emjoy: I can’t wait to see all of you again. I can’t wait to eat a big meal and get glared at by the other people in the restaurant because we’re laughing too loudly. I can’t wait to see how the brilliant minds in our community will innovate and create and tell stories through all this and to see how we redefine ourselves and our art form to adapt to a changed world.

Jeff: Call and check in on each other. Eventually, we will all be able to see each other in person again. Do what you can to help out each other and yourself.

Good luck everybody. I look forward to the hangouts and gatherings that will be happening again one day soon.

Abhi: I think I always turn to this Maria Popova quote around hope and feel it is REALLY relevant right now -- “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.”

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