The night before my play, Where the Mountain Meets the Sea, was to open as part of the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville, the entire festival was cancelled. It was a surreal ending to a very personal play I created with a group of collaborators whom I consider to be family. Honestly, I haven’t fully processed the cancellation. It some ways it feels like it’s on pause, in a weird limbo.
In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding this moment, I’m trying to keep some normality to my life. I have some familiar routines: I wake up every morning, listen to NPR, and take a shower. I spend 30 to 40 minutes putting together a bomb outfit. I make coffee and breakfast, go into my (home) office, and work. As an artist, I am fortunate to still be working. I’m in a writers’ room which meets virtually every day at 10:00 a.m. Our showrunner tries to keep our spirits up, and my colleagues inspire one another with quotes or have their children recite knock-knock jokes.
I have a partner at home with me. He’s a film and television director who, until now, was always traveling and rarely home. Even after being in our house for over a year, we’re still unpacking boxes, so we are using this time to finish putting everything together. We’re also taking the time to create and establish new routines. Every night we have a glass of wine together in our yard before making dinner, and afterward one of us chooses a favorite film or childhood show to share with the other one. Then we head to bed and begin again the next day.
Beyond the day-to-day routine, there are lessons I have learned that I know are guiding me now. I was raised not to panic, not to let fear paralyze me. I was taught to keep up a fighting spirit for myself and those I love. I have learned that life is filled with uncertainty and to be prepared for the ground to constantly shift beneath you. Through experience I know that the only thing you have control over is how you react, how you push forward, and how you turn obstacles into opportunities for growth, even if you stumble and fall along the way.
But as much as I try to live up to those lessons, to be strong in the face of uncertainty, I can’t help but worry about how long this will last. I worry about the toll it will take on my partner, who struggles with depression and who is feeling an existential sense of dread over what’s happening. In addition, his work has come to a halt for the unforeseeable future, and there will inevitably be a financial burden to bear, although how much remains unknown. I know we can lean on each other and make ends meet for now, but I wonder for how long.
I also worry about the toll this will take on my mother, who has pre-existing health conditions and yet still must work in order to make ends meet. My heart goes out to all of the actors, designers, dramaturgs, technicians, and crew members who are out of work for the foreseeable future—a timeline whose horizon seems to be drifting farther away with every passing day. There are many more people beyond my family and the theatre community, too. My friend’s parents are healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic with little protection thanks to our inept government. One of my best friends has tested positive for COVID-19, and now he and his family are more isolated than anyone else I know.
This kind of anxiety can be a major obstacle to creativity. But as a storyteller it’s important for me to channel that anxiety into my work and to find new ways to nourish my soul. By slowing down over the past week, I have discovered joy in places I had forgotten to look or neglected to seek out. I’ve finally connected with my neighbors (albeit from behind our fence and more than six feet away from each other). I’ve reconnected via Zoom happy hours with friends, people who for so long I kept saying I’d call tomorrow, until tomorrow turned into months which turned into years. I’ve explored new music, novels and visual artists. I’ve done so many things that I always meant to do but never seemed to have the time for. (And I’m beginning to wonder if “not having time” was really the issue after all.)
I never know how I feel about something until I have distance from it, and no one knows how or when we will be beyond the ravages of this pandemic. But at this moment, I feel reunited with a deep part of myself. I’ve found relief in not being propelled primarily by my ambition and need for success, but by a desire to care for myself, my partner, my mom, friends, and neighbors. Each day I try to find moments of joy and ways to keep my spirit going.
Jeff Augustin is a playwright whose works include The Last Tiger in Haiti, The New Englanders, and Little Children Dream of God. Augustin also writes for Apple TV+’s The Morning Show and the Showtime limited series The Good Lord Bird. Augustin is under commission from Manhattan Theatre Club and La Jolla Playhouse. He was also a playwright-in-residence at Playwrights Horizons and Roundabout Underground.