The last coherent thing Vivian Bearing says to her empathetic nurse Susie near the close of Wit is “I’m a teacher.” (She’s just explained that “soporific” means “makes you sleepy,” and Susie, generous character that she is, thanks her for teaching her something new.)
It’s been just over two weeks since we closed Wit, and I’m still learning things from Vivian. No doubt I’ll continue to do so, but I want to start articulating some of these thoughts here– if only for me to look back on later and consider how these ideas might have changed over time.
The first lesson is both the simplest and the hardest, and the one I learned over and over again as I stood backstage trembling in the dark before Vivian’s entrance: Memento mori.
No matter what else happens, we are all definitely going to die. Now, later, nobody knows, but the moment itself will happen. In the face of that incontrovertible fact, everything else gets put into a rather stark perspective: what are you going to do with your time? What really matters?
I was lucky enough to get at least one definitive answer to this question virtually every night of the show: in the sounds of people weeping as the inevitable end closed in on Vivian even as her carers did all they could, the stunned silence that often preceded applause at the finale, and the remarkable audience members who came up to me in the lobby afterwards to thank me for our company’s work. People I’d never met were so moved by what we’d all put together that they clearly needed to talk to me: about best friends going through Stage 4 cancer, about dealing with end-of-life issues with loved ones, about losing friends and family members to this infuriating disease, about living this life themselves. I’m sure my castmates had similar encounters.
It was a deep privilege to listen to them, to hear their stories in exchange for the one we’d told them, to discover repeatedly that because we’d told our story well, these people felt that they could tell theirs.
What really matters? Art matters. Storytelling matters– because these create moments when true connection can occur: reminders of what it means to be human. To contribute to this process in the company of such an amazingly talented and generous group of people (onstage, backstage, and in the audience every night) was, for me, a gift of extraordinary grace.
I wear two bracelets these days: the first is one I acquired during rehearsals in support of ovarian cancer research. be brave, it says. The second is one I had engraved once we closed the show: Memento mori. Do what matters most.