I grew up in a home where it was preferable to be ‘okay’.
A fall in the playground should be immediately followed by jumping up, waving away your concerned friends and shouting: “I’m okay! Just need a bandaid for my knee!”
Breaking up with your high school boyfriend should be an event marked by a weekend of high productivity proclaiming: “I’m okay!! Look how much I can accomplish in his absence!”
Last year during a rehearsal for a show I was working on, one of the ensemble members was wearing a t-shirt that said:
“It’s okay not to be okay.”
I teared up instantly, excused myself and went and cried in a stairwell.
“It’s okay not to be okay.”
Recently Uma Thurman finally shared her experiences with Harvey Weinstein. (Maureen Dowd, New York Times, Saturday February 3rd, 2018) At first there was the, now familiar but still sickening, stories of his demands for sexual acts and worse. But what shook me to the core was her story about a day on set for the film Kill Bill, a film and sequel directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Ms. Thurman as the woman who avenges the death of her husband.
Near the end of production, Tarantino wanted Ms. Thurman to drive a car for a particular shot. At this time, Thurman was under the thumb of Harvey Weinstein (the film’s producer) and, for good measure, caught up in a bizarre and twisted ‘muse’ relationship with Tarantino. Although she had been informed by crew members that the car itself wasn’t safe and every instinct within her was begging her to say no, she strapped herself in and drove the car for the shot. Until it crashed into a tree. (See clip here)
One of the most horrifying things about the video is her expressions of ‘I’m okay!’ to the various members of the crew who arrive to help her out the car, when she so clearly isn’t.
We, in the world of theatre and live performance, have all witnessed this phenomenon:
The director or producer of a project has an idea or vision that they enthusiastically share with the artists in question.
In an effort to ‘easy to work with’, the Artist responds: “Sure! No problem! Of course! I can do that!” Only to be discovered sobbing in a bathroom stall during a break, scared to do the thing they just agreed to do, but more scared of being labelled ‘difficult’ or ‘high maintenance’ and consequently losing future contracts.
I was once in a community theatre show where my character enters by running down a staircase and then falling on the floor. When we were blocking it, I asked,
“So … how do I do this?”
“Oh, just fall.” Said the show’s enthusiastic director, whom I adored.
So I energetically rushed down the staircase in my character shoes and flung myself on the floor, sliding three feet before coming to a full stop.
My purple kneecap begged to differ. I never asked for help again.
When is it going to be okay for artists not to be okay?
When are they allowed to speak up in rehearsal and say –
“I’m not okay with the way this fight scene is being blocked.”
“I’m not okay with having non-artistic team members watching this rehearsal.”
“I’m not okay with the way this set keeps shifting.”
Uma Thurman, the star of a major film trilogy, not to mention other major blockbusters, loved and adored by millions of fans, couldn’t say “I’m not okay with driving this car.”.
We’re kidding ourselves if we think that other artists, particularly non-union artists, can do the same.
It’s time for us to work harder at creating environments where it’s okay not to be okay.
We need to stamp out the gossip that labels artists as ‘difficult’ or ‘demanding’, when they say they’re not okay with an artistic choice that compromises their safety or integrity.
We need to gently guide artistic team members toward their vision in a way that doesn’t include the need to implement ideas that aren’t safe.
We need to stand up for artists everywhere when they tell us that they’re not okay.
Uma Thurman crashed into that tree over fifteen years ago, and she still suffers from leg, back and neck problems to this day.
It’s okay not to be okay.
Let’s make that the truth for every artist we work with.