What Makes Us Feel (Anxious)
We all live with anxiety, that is certainly so if you want to be an artist — or, uhm, are an artist. In the throes of anxiety and self-hatred it sometimes feels you can never escape. Brett Evan Solomon’s What Makes Us Feel Good, directed by Gabriel Vasquez, currently up at The Tank for a short, piercing run, is all about the anxiety of making art, the anxiety of being alive, and how overwhelming those feelings can be.
Every single section of the play — every exchange, monologue and direct address, every single scene — is consumed by anxiety. Be it concerned with making art or just being alive, the play is dealing with, and working through, what it’s like to be anxious as fuck all the time.
I see my anxiety as something like the closed eyes and closed ears of everyone around me. The classic metaphor of the dark cloud is a useful representation. Sylvia Plath uses a bell jar. Solomon has excavated a subject matter that mocks and deepens those anxious feelings and just begs to be a play, the gruesome story of William Bradford Bishop.
Bishop murdered his family with a sledgehammer in 1976. The case has never been resolved and authorities suspect he’s galavanting somewhere in Europe today, or maybe somewhere in California, or hell maybe he was in the theater last night for all we know.
The mystery provides rich creative soil to till, a dark equivalent that reflects how severe our anxiety can feel while mocking those very feelings. Solomon succeeded in mocking me — I’m sorry, mocking anxiety — by taking the Bishop story and making it a play within the play, and not only that, but a children’s play within the play. A children’s play about a gruesome murder with a sledgehammer? You bet!
The play begins with the actors choosing to perform a play within a play because they’re “basically sick of being miserable all the time not getting work.” Every section, be it addressing the audience or within the Bishop story, is filled with these sort of frank proclamations about the shitiness of their circumstances, the lack of purpose in their life and their art, their cries into the abyss about how to move on. It creates a play that is itself rather anxious, is endlessly trying to deal with anxiety, and that explores anxiety from multiple angles.
Our anxiety is alienated from us, revealed as the self-involved thing it is, through the play within the play. The context of the children’s story begets a performance style that resembles clowns performing for kids. Against the subject matter the style is brutal, like a Tim Burton work (you didn’t think Burton was brutal?), easily overlooked while being there right on the surface. When the characters quarrel about the murder, my own self-involved quarrels feel not so significant. My own self-involved quarrels are heard in the voice of a clown and seen performed in front of children; god I feel awful.
But to reflect on anxiety through an unspeakably tragic event also suggests how painful and harmful anxiety can be. In this way, I labored through the work. It reminded me how unsuccessful I am (don’t think that way), how little I have done (don’t think that way), how much my brother has accomplished (don’t think that way) — wait, why did I think of my brother? The play has nothing to do with my brother? But the anxiety vortex of What Makes Us Feel Good shoots one into the black hole of anxiousness.
All of Solomon’s text, even within the children’s story, has a direct effect that feels personal, which contributes to the sense that the play is itself anxious, is a therapy session, as if the play is attempting to deal with its own anxiety. The material of the play — the object created by Solomon and Vasquez and the ensemble — is consumed with anxious force. As perhaps we all are; I’m certainly familiar with that feeling, that ‘I’m so anxious I just need the world to know’ feeling in your gut. The object that is the play needs to be told and needs to be heard.
Of course, the title is ironic, because the play suggests everything makes us feel bad. The play is also bookended by appeals to love, with an opening and closing monologue that has a performer asking the audience for hugs, for attention, for love. But the cries themselves are soaked with the anxiety behind them — a desperation, a deadness, a hush, a lack — and rather than making us feel good, as one may suspect an offer of a hug would accomplish, it makes us feel miserable.
But anxiety is also a kind of confusion, as the play makes clear. Our issues are never as severe as they seem, and maybe mocking them is a useful ameliorating tool. Possibly my favorite line of the work is, “Existence is so small but we’re so big / Or is it that it’s big and we’re small?” a totally ridiculous yet poignant little nugget I’m going to use next time I’m deep at the bar (we all understand what I mean by ‘deep’), alone with everybody, consumed with myself.
We do feel big and everything feels miniscule when we’re worried sick, and hopefully letting it all out can help. Maybe it will make things worse. But, as they say, there is never a bad time to find god, and there is never a bad time to try to get a hold of your anxiety. And maybe it’s worth it. That same depressing monologue at the end of the play is accentuated with “I want to make a difference / I want to make a lasting impression on you.” An honorable, worthwhile endeavor. Worth the anxiety of being an artist, worth the anxiety of being alive.