In this month’s edition of The qUeerBC Post, Christopher Cook shares how theatre (and a deep appreciation for Star Trek) provided him with an outlet to explore his queer sexuality. He details how his immersion in the arts ultimately led to a shift toward a career in Counselling Psychology, and ultimately to a doctoral program at UBC. In his captivating editorial, Christopher shares how he has weaved his passions for theatre, research, and mental wellness through his involvement with UBC’s Research-Based Theatre Collaborative. Chris concludes his piece with a link to register for Don’t Rock the Boat, a free theatre workshop about graduate supervision and wellbeing.
We Are All Artists
“How are we going to do this?”
I am standing with a group of four researchers of all different experience levels – a Ph.D. student, a post-doc, and two professors – in a university classroom with the desks and chairs shifted aside. September afternoon sunlight is washing over the displaced classroom furniture and our faces, making everything look overexposed. We are in a circle.
“Who will be writing it? Who’s going to be the actors?”
The questions come from all around the circle. These researchers are all part of a lab embarking on a collective play creation process, and I will be facilitating this process. Our goal is to turn their research on the experience of health care professionals and students with disabilities into a theatre piece. Looking around the circle, I see uncomfortable shifting. The last time most of the people here were in a play was in grade school.
The researchers’ questions are familiar. I have heard different versions of the same concerns in most of the theatre creation processes I have had the privilege of facilitating. The core question underneath all the others seems to be: “How can we possibly make a play?”
When I was a kid, I either wanted to be a counsellor like the character Deanna Troi, on my favourite TV show, Star Trek; or I wanted to act alongside Deanna Troi, starring in my favourite TV show, Star Trek. My passion for performing developed at a young age. I realized I was queer when I was ten, and this was the early-1990s. Apart from a few gay characters that I had watched in Hollywood movies and tried to use as reference points, I had no idea what being gay meant. I only knew that it was not safe to tell anyone around me. Acting seemed like a natural outlet.
I ended up turning this outlet into a career. But during my undergraduate performance courses, I was wracked with imposter syndrome. I felt this inadequacy late into fretful nights of not sleeping, staring at breakfasts I felt too nauseous to eat, and before I walked on stage for most of the four years of my BFA in theatre performance. One place I did not feel like such an imposter was in the warm-up circle with which we would start every studio class, slowly waking up our bodies, voices, and imaginations. There, in that circle, I felt connected and in relationship with everyone around me.
After several years of working as a theatre artist, I chose to explore that other version of what I wanted to be when I grew up – not an actor, but a counsellor. I enrolled in my first undergraduate psychology course just before I turned thirty, and I was sure that I would jettison theatre from my life entirely. But as I pursued graduate training in Counselling Psychology, I continued to write plays that focused on mental wellness journeys and lead collective theatre creation processes with diverse groups. These experiences showed me that we are all artists. Engaging in art-making creates a constellation, or a map, that supports others to lean into creativity in whatever way they choose.
While a graduate student at UBC, I have had the privilege to work with the UBC Research-Based Theatre Collaborative, which explores the intersection of theatre and research. One of our current projects, Don’t Rock the Boat, dramatizes scenes exploring grad student and supervisor relationships. If art-marking creates a constellation, I learned part of the map from the workshop process for Don’t Rock the Boat. Across all the different contexts I’ve worked in – theatre studios, therapy rooms, or grad school – relationships are primary. Whether it’s two actors staging a scene or a grad student and supervisor designing a research project, whatever we produce doesn’t matter as much as the relationships we create – the connection of constellations we contribute.
I am back standing with researchers in a circle. Their questions that all point to, “How can we possibly make a play?” are hanging in the air.
Ten months from now, in July, we will have created Alone in the Ring, a twenty-minute touring theatre production in which all four of the researchers will play multiple roles and share stories from their research on disabilities with audiences of students and health professionals across the Lower Mainland. But I do not know this yet, none of us do.
I look around the circle before I reply, “Let’s acknowledge all these questions and see if we can put them aside, just for now.” I explain what a theatre warm-up looks like and then say, “We always start in a circle.”
Christopher Cook is a therapist, playwright, and theatre creator. He is passionate about using theatre as a therapeutic, learning, and research tool. His plays include Quick Bright Things (Persephone Theatre, 2017) and Voices UP! (UBC Learning Exchange, 2017), a collaborative creation with community members in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Chris is currently completing his Ph.D. at UBC, focusing on the intersections between mental health and research-based theatre. Quick Bright Things will be published by Playwright’s Canada Press in 2020.
Don’t Rock the Boat is a theatre workshop about graduate supervision and wellbeing that runs through November at the UBC Point Grey Campus. Book tickets at https://ubc.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_eJsFl9GwkvLzFKl.