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Silver Learnings: Jill Abusch

These past 15 months, no matter how “hard” or “easy” any of us had it, we’ve learned a lot. Good stuff even. Our learning, you could say, has been one of the pandemic’s silver linings. To acknowledge some of those Silver Learnings, we’ve invited friends from different walks of life to share what they’ve learned from the pandemic. Our guess is you’ll hear some voices that sound like your own, and some that offer a window into a world you’ve not known but from which we can all now learn.

 


Jill Abusch

Jill is co-founder, Artistic Director, Camp Director and resident second mommy to many students and alumni of The Play Group Theatre. Along with directing many of PGT’s stage productions, Jill teaches a variety of classes from Little Theatre to Advanced Acting Technique, and has gone into schools and camps to train teachers on the use of drama in the classroom.  She studied acting and directing at the Stella Adler Conservatory and the Classical Studio at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she earned a BFA in Drama. She adores working alongside her husband and partner, Steven, and is especially proud of their best productions, by far, Aviva and Ilana.

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In those early pandemic weeks, when things were still so chaotic and everything felt so dark, I found this online, and posted it on our fridge:

It was a good anchor for those hunkering down in our house – me and my husband Steven, our two daughters, Ilana (19) and Aviva (23), and Aviva’s roommate, Sofia. Throughout the day we would rotate through the various spaces in our house, trying to adjust to the virtual versions of our lives. We housed a college classroom, a public health consultant’s office, a congressional aide’s office, and a children’s theatre in our living room, sunroom, dining room, and bedrooms as we tried to figure out who worked best where, and when. And late in the evening, as meetings and classes and rehearsals wound down, we would gather in the kitchen to cook dinner together, talk through our day, and ask each other our Daily Quarantine Questions.

#1 was easy. “What am I grateful for today?”

We were together. We were healthy. Our parents, family and friends were healthy. We had food – lots of it, and it was delicious (everyone in this crew loves to cook!) We had our jobs. We were all okay. We had so much to be grateful for every single day.

#2 kept us in check. “Who am I checking in on and connecting with today?”

If we had gotten busy that day, or had started letting the fear and the darkness take over, if we were feeling sorry for ourselves DESPITE all that we were grateful for, and hadn’t reached out to anyone all day to see how THEY were doing, this was our moment to stop and check-in.

#4 and #5 also kept us in check. “How am I getting outside today?” “How am I moving my body today?”

Many a dinner got put on hold so that we could go do laps around the backyard, or even the dining room (desperate times!) And “Well, I went up AND down the stairs today” had to suffice for “moving my body” once or twice. Oy. We were all making do.

#3 really tripped me up. “What expectations of ‘normal’ am I letting go of today?”

More than once, trying to answer that question reduced me to tears. I understood that I had to totally reorganize my life to meet this moment, but I also knew that having an expectation of “normal” was part of what kept us all healthy, positive, and moving forward. I love my normal!! My kids love their normal!! While I understood we weren’t going to get through this by clinging to an unrealistic expectation of normal, I also couldn’t help but feel that “letting go” of expectations of normal was a slippery and dangerous slope. Normal included a lot of responsibilities and a lot of joy. Normal included life outside of our house that was still there, albeit in many ways on pause. The moment called for reorganizing, not untethering.

After a few nights of watching her mother reduced to a puddle of tears in the kitchen, my super smart kid got out a Sharpie. “Ok, let’s change the question. What’s a healthier version of this question?” After debating what we really needed to be asking ourselves, and a bit of word smithing, we rewrote the Quarantine Question #3: “What aspects of your new normal are you enjoying today?” And THAT I could answer every day: morning coffee in my sunroom, a mid-day walk around the neighborhood, lunch with my kids, an evening Zoom with my parents. The list goes on. I enjoyed a lot about my new normal. And ultimately, I appreciated these moments more when I was able to separate them from missing my old normal. My daughter taught me a lot when she gave us permission to figure out what question we felt like we needed to be asking of ourselves.

#6 was the toughest for me. “What beauty am I either creating, cultivating, or letting in today?”

I am a theatre teacher and director. I am a costume designer and I am married to a set and lighting designer. We strive to create, cultivate and invite in beauty every day in our work. We try to instill that same value in our students. Ultimately, it is my hope that together, as a theatre community, we – students and staff together – create, cultivate and invite in beauty on stage for our audience, and in our rehearsal process for one another. Everything I know about making theatre tells me that we have to be in a room together to accomplish this. That we have to make eye contact, and hear each other breathe, and “feel the group.” My actors and I talk about how rehearsals are at their best when they can get out of their own heads – that the ideas, the creative impulses are really always in the air between them, that is the beauty of making theatre together! The air is literally charged with their creative energy – you can FEEL it! Actors need one another to create beauty. Theatre is a group sport.

And, of course, the visual part of making theatre beautiful – the costumes, the lights, the scenic elements – we spend endless hours on those details too. We work with our hands – we build, we sew, we paint, we refocus lighting instruments. And then we bring the two together – the actors and the visuals – and that’s when the real beauty happens. Okay, actually, part of the beauty. Because then we bring in the audience … and that’s when the REAL beauty happens. And we were on our way in March 2020 – gorgeous harmony was floating through our building, laughter could be heard in the green room, set designs were drawn.

And then overnight, we were on Zoom. And if there is anything that isn’t beautiful, it’s Zoom. The sound is ugly. The look of it is ugly. You can’t make eye contact. You can’t feel the energy.

So when your work is all about creating, cultivating, and inviting in beauty … and then overnight it isn’t … you start to really examine what that whole notion of beauty is about.

Over the last year, I’ve been so moved by the ways my students and colleagues have adapted to what felt like unsurmountable obstacles. Restrictions became permission to make art in new ways. Not better ways, to be sure, but new ways. And I have been surprised, time and again, that beauty can be found even in the most unlikely of places. Zoom has been made beautiful – yes beautiful – by the incredible music directors, audio engineers, and designers that I am blessed to work with (and, in one case, to be married to!!). Their tenacity, attention to detail, and imagination is limitless – and that, I have learned, ALWAYS yields beauty.

But the true beauty I have witnessed this year has been the courage of children and teenagers to make art in what felt like an artless world. To take part in an activity they adore that was clearly going to be missing so many of the very things that make them adore it. To brave the awkwardness of recording themselves singing, and then try to act along to their own voices. To unthinkably WATCH themselves in a recorded musical number, rather than get up on stage and perform it! To do a scene in little Zoom boxes, and somehow find that connection to their scene partners. To move through their own fear, and sadness at what they were losing this year and to find the joy – to create beauty in the darkest moments.

I can’t wait to get back to the theatre, where beauty abounds. But I am forever grateful that I was lucky enough to create, cultivate and invite beauty into a year that often felt so lacking in beauty in so many ways.

Jill Abusch
Artistic Director, Play Group Theatre

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