From the Empathy Gym – May 2020

From the Empathy Gym – May 2020

Essential Business

We’ve been hearing a lot about essential businesses that have needed to be open during our “shelter in place” period. Pharmacies, groceries, hospitals, banks, post offices. There have been some puzzling inclusions in this category: gun shops, etc? Now, as shelter in place rules are being loosened, we are hearing about another group of businesses deemed essential that can be opened. We’re hearing a lot about construction, manufacturing, etc. But we’re also hearing about other essentials in this first wave: hair and nail salons, massage parlors? Where intimacy is an essential aspect of the work. Political leaders have declared pork processing plants essential and advocated requiring workers to return to unsafe conditions.

It seems the most confounding irony that the oil and the meat businesses, their tentacles suckling without boundary on the earth, are among the hardest hit by this plague. Curious that workers in the slaughterhouses have been attacked so disproportionately by the virus. And with oil worth less than nothing, the skies are clearing over our most polluted cities, stars we haven’t seen in decades are beckoning. Flocks of geese wander the streets of Milan. This tiniest reflection of nature has sounded mother’s supremacy, forcing the great human race indoors, as if scolding a child, saying “Sit down and think about what you have done!” Reminded of our insignificance in the true scope of the universe, we will have to rethink everything.

We will have to ponder what is essential. What do we really need? When this is over, will we return to our rape of the earth? Do we need more huge buildings, bigger cities? Do we need to feed and slaughter billions of animals? Do we need to rocket about the skies of our planet, and continuously drive our cars back and forth like rats in a maze?

At San Francisco Playhouse, we grew so fast our offices became impossibly crowded. Staff couldn’t hear themselves think and some left in frustration. We scrambled to find more office space, spending money we didn’t have to stave off sinking morale. Several months later, it suddenly dawns on us, duh, all of our administrative, development, marketing, literary, production planning and accounting work can be done from home. After the plague passes, will thousands upon thousands of office buildings remain empty in an urban desert?

What is essential? We Americans are bred on the bull market. Growth, growth, always growth. We measure our success by how much more we are producing. It is our mantra. And we don’t question it. More cars, more airplanes, more equipment, more, more, more. Our theatre has been a growth business. We want to do more, we want to do it better, we want to compete nationally and internationally.

Now we will have to burn lean. And the fattening of the American public is a perfect expression of runaway “more.” Our problem with runaway obesity comes from the “we are never enough” mentality. We eat so we will be more. Why? We do it thinking we will be satisfied. But of course, we are not. Because acquiring material wealth, constantly reaching for more only makes us more aware of the gaping hole we cannot fill.

What will fill that aching emptiness in our national spirit? Only one thing. The realization that nothing from outside ourselves can fill it. No amount of financial success, or possessions or status or beauty will fill the chasm. What we need must come from within, must come from nurturing spirit. We must feed that spirit with understanding, connection, compassion.

So when we ask what is essential, what is the most essential business, the answer can only be: what nurtures and makes us whole. Our countries’ great arts organizations have valiantly strived to fill that need. As with many others, our SFPH mission states it clearly: to lift spirits, deepen self-awareness, and nurture a compassionate community. And yet our arts are among the businesses most deeply endangered by the current crisis. And our market-focused leadership, in its frantic dash to right the fallen growth machine, will have little time or interest in shoring up the arts. The giant flagship institutions with endowments and community status are more likely to survive, but even that is not a given. Regrettably, it is certain that many, if not most mid to small-sized dance, music and theatre companies will perish.

Is San Francisco Playhouse necessary? Adrift on a cloudy sea with no compass or map, we are determined to persevere, but it will be a long journey, undoubtedly fraught with the kinds of reversals that knock hope down every time it gets a leg up.

We have been held aloft by our incredible board of directors and other heroes who have generously given to sustain us through this calamity. We are so deeply grateful for those who have kept us afloat thus far. We hope any of you who see our empathy gym as necessary will help us build a bridge from this bleak shore to that future where art thrives. For the “rough beast is slouching its way” and only our combined voices lifted in unison can ensure that the arts will rise out of the ashes to keep us firmly focused on what is essential.

Please write me at arti[email protected] to share any thoughts you may have.

Bill English (Artistic Director)

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