This first shows I saw this year, at Sydney Festival, were preceded by weeks away from the theatre – nothing much happens in Adelaide over the long summer weeks that stretch over the New Year, not until the empty weeks give way to festival season and it’s a race to catch up on all that we’ve missed.
Sitting in the foyer at Carriageworks, reading Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, I found myself not wanting to leave the imagined theatres of the novel to go into the theatre of real life. Groff’s world was rich enough to be all I needed. In hindsight, perhaps this was foreshadowing a move to Melbourne that has found me deep in books and far from theatres. Once again, I’m reading of these spaces instead of visiting them, this time in the theatres of London through the eyes of Eimear McBride.
Moving cities was a chance for me to thrust myself back into reading, the same way it took over my life over those extended Adelaide summers. I’d hang onto those books through Adelaide Writers’ Week – at least as much as I could handle as I ran about the city writing on theatre – and then, as those weeks fell away, the books would fall away, too: lost to good intentions and an over-crowded dance card. One or two on the go, always, but voracity so often lost.
But, moving cities: new routines, new resolutions. Dedicated time to read, every day. And it’s worked. The stories have again piled up on my brain, the books piled up on my floor: New South Wales in the 1890s, Prague in the 1930s, California in the 1960s. Histories of single womanhood; memoirs of eating disorders. Mass paperback fiction; micro-press poetry collections.
Meanwhile, my connection to theatre – the mere knowledge of what’s playing, let alone my engagement with it – has been all but lost. In a city like Melbourne where theatrical choices abound and multiply, it’s sink or swim in keeping up. Without the energy to swim that current right now, I’ve sunk below the waves with no knowledge of what’s happening on the surface.
As I navigate a new career in a new city, my want for art has been taken from theatre and given to books.
Recently, critic Alexis Soloski wrote a beautiful and tender ode to theatre for the New York Times: about being away from it with a newborn baby, about her desperate need to return. On reading scripts and listening to radio plays, she writes, ‘What’s missing, of course, is the sense of liveness, the thrill of the present tense […][Theatre] offers community and anonymity at once.’ I read this piece knowing exactly what she was talking about, but without the reciprocal desire to step back into theatres night after night. It was familiar to me of a different time; not to me of today. It seems that Melbourne, the big smoke, has thrust me into this liveness, the present tense, community, anonymity Soloski talks about – and books are my reprieve.
For those of us who consume art avidly, whatever genre or form, we so rarely talk about its potential to exhaust. We return because it nourishes us: this feast of human perspectives, of learning about the world, of connecting with humanity. It makes us feel part of something bigger. It shakes and it comforts.
But it exhausts. Days spent in galleries leave a physical pain in our feet. Books pour ideas into every corner of our brain until it could burst. Live music leaves a dull ache in our ears – damage we risk just to feel the music completely. Theatre asks us to partake in the physical act of moving into someone else’s world – like all physical acts, this takes energy.
Feeling and thinking and being in someone else’s world; that energy can’t always be repaid. We step into the perspective of someone else’s vision, again and again and again: of course that transition can begin to wear.
For those of us who consume art avidly… we so rarely talk about its potential to exhaust.
In her collection of essays Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner reviews the film United 93, and asks: ‘Why do stories matter so terribly to us, that we will offer ourselves up to, and later be grateful for, an experience that we know is going to fill us with grief and despair?’
These stories satisfy our basest cravings – the need to grieve and to cry; or the need to be scared and feel alive. But they can also take a toll; they can also deplete.
As we consume more and more, we learn what we need to do to protect ourselves. Somewhat bashfully, at first, and then with joy, my friends and I talk about how much we love terrible movies: those straight-to-DVD sequels of films about cheerleaders or gymnasts; those mega-films advertised for a ‘girls’ night out’. In the face of investing in art so deeply, so often, reprieves are needed. What’s one art form filled with levity when we take others so deeply to heart?
Then there is the protection we need to take for more than just the exhaustion. That friend who knows what stories I shouldn’t read, who will send me warning text messages, or will physically pluck a book out of my hands: this isn’t for you, she says, not right now. Sometimes I need art to make me burst the pain. But right now, I need to take care of the parts of my heart and my brain that need protecting. And in this, too, to step away from the theatre: those spaces where often the biggest impact happens from the biggest surprise; where shock and heartbreak, crucially, can’t be stepped away from. Reading books, it is easier to choose to follow paths others have tread; it is easier to step away, and breathe.
And so, as I navigate a new career in a new city, my want for art has been taken from theatre and given to books. Books I can read on trains, in pubs, in bed. Books I can read for minutes, or hours. Books I can put down. Books where, crucially, my opinion is rarely required, except for a smile, and a nod, and a ‘yeah, I really liked it.’ It’s the opposite of everything I love about theatre: the physical act of being somewhere, of giving yourself over to someone else’s time, of committing to being in their space, of the challenge to find the worlds to analyse intellectually.
One day, when I’m more settled, perhaps I’ll be able to give myself over to that world, completely, once again.
But for now, I’m going to read.