The Balance

One of the things that I think lengthy, geekish thoughts about is the balance between community arts and professional arts practice. Where does the need for inclusivity and accessibility meet the need for an artist to cultivate and protect her own aesthetic discipline? When are we being snobbish? When are we burning out?

Sometimes it’s helpful to reframe these kinds of questions. For example: Father Damien of Molok’ai (yeah, yeah, yeah, cheap segue… but follow me). Think of Damien. He’s trying to serve a bunch of lepers. They’re sick, they’re poor, they’re desperate, they’re abandoned. He wants to give to them. But he’s also got to ask himself some real questions about how he’s going to do that. One healthy guy in a society of hundreds of lepers. There’s so much need. What’s he going to do to keep himself whole?

The institutions – the board of health, the bishops, queens, newspapers, and governments – all have opinions about how Damien should preserve himself. Don’t live there, and if you live there, don’t touch them, and if you touch them, only the men, and if you touch them all, if you challenge our rules in the name of love, we will stop feeding you.

Which, you’ll note, means Damien needed to be fed.

Damien relied on the encouragement of fellow priests, on the renewing of his sense of self through Catholic rituals, on the dream of returning to his family, and on the same rotting provisions the lepers ate.

From November 21 to December 1, my friend Lyf Stolte is performing the part of Damien in a one man show of the same name. Lyf has worked at Sanctuary, facilitating theatre with street-involved folks, for nine years. He has worked to make a space for marginalized performers to be darlings of the stage. Yet Lyf’s first training is as an actor. And – in my shamelessly biased opinion – he’s a bloody great one. But more often than not, Lyf hasn’t made it onto stage in the last few years.

But an artist without his art is like Father Damien without his church rites. Some things give us fire.

Lyf can’t just help other people to be on stage. If he does that, something in him will die. He has to find the flame that ignites in him when he acts. And paradoxically, in finding this fire Lyf is still able to serve. The themes and questions of Damien are many of the themes and questions of Lyf’s other work: loving the poor, looking for justice, wrenching hope from the dead places.

Oh, this great balance.


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