Exploring the Purpose of Art Through GhostLight:

The first time someone told me that I’m meant to be artistic was about three years ago at a Ghostlight retreat, while sitting on the floor of an AirBnb, surrounded by other creatives who were having a similar reaction to me of puzzlement and cautious hope. Maybe, we were all a bit taken aback that our interests might be more than simply a cosmic accident resulting in a heightened sensitivity to sad commercials, or innate desire to do jazz squares. I had always viewed my penchant for the arts as an incidental feature of my personality, like the ornament on the hood of a car, or that hook on the back of the seat where you’re supposed to hang dry cleaning. Seriously, who even uses that? It didn’t exactly help that artistic pursuits are treated in schools as little more than enjoyable interludes between life’s more important moments, exhibited by their relegation to the “electives” frontier of school curriculum. It was great that I could write well, something my teachers liked about me, but not something for me to invest too much time in.

It was the same story for many of the artists around me. Ghostlight, an ensemble of a dozen or so young artists, had been assembled not two weeks prior through a series of auditions where we showcased our talents and got to know each other through improv games. Now we sat, notepads in hand, a whiteboard across the room, trying to uncover the area of need in our community that we wanted to address through a showcase of original work which would take place in just a few weeks. By the many cut-out pieces of paper and dry-erase markings, sticky notes and question marks, anyone who looked in at that moment could see we had a lot of options to choose from. Our community, like many in the world, was hurting bad. And we, humbly armed with only our insecurities and our shaky skill sets, felt woefully ill-equipped to tackle these issues. But as our director, Lesa Brown, stood in front of us and insisted that we were born creative for a reason, it was a new idea that suddenly ignited in me a fresh desire to create. I, like many of the others, had gone to college and experienced that Robert Frost moment while in my counselor’s office. Two paths, and one was a whole lot scarier than the other. Should I pursue the arts, or embrace practicality? Not only did I fear the arts for the instability they foreshadowed, but as someone who had always desired to do something meaningful, a large part of me shied from an artistic career. I associated it with vanity, or wondered how much good it could truly do. After having talked with several other members of Ghostlight, I discovered many of them felt the same way.

Many of us had been given the idea that art was at its core an act of self-expression. That the expression was the ultimate goal, and we make art for ourselves. And this was all well and good. But all of us had auditioned for Ghostlight in the hopes of utilizing our art to do something more, to make something new that would reach beyond ourselves. But, so many of us did not feel confident in our ability to do this. It had been drilled into our heads that the arts are useful only for those talented enough to make good money from them. So, you are either a genius, or just lucky to have a fun hobby. I wanted to believe differently, and so did my fellow ensemble members. We embarked with Ghostlight holding onto a singular belief: art is a powerful tool meant to bring change and healing into the world. It has a purpose beyond either money-making or legacy-building. And we wanted to prove that.

But, this left us with several dilemmas. Who did we want to reach out to? What issue did we want to tackle? Who did we want to help? The process to find answers began with a three-day retreat where we narrowed the field through discussions, games, acting, visual storytelling, small group work, you name it. The more we talked, the more we realized how many needs there were in our community. The creativity made itself known right away, many of us tossing ideas around before we had even found an audience, but it was invigorating. I found myself, for the first time since coming home from school, excited about creating something. I had returned after only a semester of college, consumed with anxiety about my future, and found myself back with my family, which was over-burdened by mental health issues and reeling from conflict. I felt helpless.

Finally, I thought. Finally, I can help.

We landed on the topic of emotional intelligence, motivated by the very high rate of teen suicide in our county. Collaborating on a topic which hit so close to home for many of us lent a passion to our brainstorming, writing and rehearsing that I hadn’t experienced before in any other creative effort. We had a goal in mind, someone specific we wanted to speak to, and that imbued meaning into everything we did. And not only that, but it was fun. I was able to write and direct my own piece, something I had never done before, and found an inexplicable joy in it. Working with these other artists became a sort of celebration of who we were. It was also freeing to create art without much of the crippling self-doubt which usually accompanies self-expression. It wasn’t just about us. But at the same time, we were given a space to be our authentic selves.

Not to say that there weren’t challenges. Put a dozen artists in the room with different styles, ideas, backgrounds, and skill sets and ask them to make a cohesive piece, you’re going to have some conflict. I clashed with people sometimes (like, seriously, that’s the direction they wanted to go?). But it was also a cool challenge, and at times, we achieved a miraculous balance. I only have a limited number of things I can do well, and it was great to have my weak points supplemented by others’ skills and vice versa. Anytime I got stuck trying to come up with something new, there would be someone else there with a totally fresh idea that I never would have thought of.

The last couple weeks before the show would be very familiar to anyone who’s done a live production before. We scrambled, and there was a moment where it looked like this was going to be a disaster. But then, it came together. It wasn’t perfect, and there was no perfect way to tell if after weeks of thinking about our audience, we had reached them in the way we intended. Had we made any great impact, changed the course of the future for the better?

I don’t know. But in a way, it was much simpler than that. We saw a hole in our world, and we did our best to fill it, doing something we all loved. By being ourselves. 

Author: Megan Clum. December 14, 2020.