For the past 4 days, I’ve been here in Orlando, Florida, at my favorite event of the entire year: the ATHE conference. This it the fourth consecutive ATHE I’ve attended (Los Angeles 2010, Chicago 2011, Washington 2012) and by far the most chaotic and busiest. There was just so much going on, so many amazing panels and workshops and performances that I desperately wanted to attend but couldn’t for whatever reason. I’m typing this from Orlando International Airport where I’m waiting for my flight back to Houston. I can’t believe that the trip is already almost over.
As a veteran conference-goer, I advised newcomers against “conference burnout,” or attending too many events and getting sensory overload and brain saturation. I kind of did the reverse this year, I felt, conference “underload,” since between staying at an off-site hotel and skipping basically two days of the conference to explore Magic Kingdom and EPCOT with Nana – who, after much deliberating, decided to come with me on her first-ever vacation/flight/hotel stay, I managed to attend two half-panels, neither of which were particularly insightful. I did, however attend the LGBT pre-conference cabaret show, three grad student sessions, the keynote speech/performance by Bill Irwin, the opening reception, the all-conference meeting (which I got to for the first time ever and won’t be missing again), 2 focus group meetings (Dramaturgy, where I got elected as Grad Student Rep alongside Walter and LaRonika, and the first ten minutes of Religion & Theatre), and the Mickee Faust paid performance. Not included in that list were multiple nights in the pool and hot tub, Dramaturg’s Night Out, catching up with old friends, and making new ones. Oh, and I also spoke on a panel this morning.
An interesting moment happened yesterday as I was running in between the two focus group meetings, which were 2 floors apart. Right in the middle floor, between the escalators and the registration booth, was a camera overlooking 2 chairs with a clothesline strung between them. On one chair was a marker, some blank slips of paper, a jar with written-on slips of paper, and a jar with written-on slips of paper rapidly disintegrating into water. On the other chair was a real-life person (the identity of whom I discovered later when I saw her setting it up elsewhere) with a black hood over her head and body and an exposed back, with words written on it in Sharpie. The instructions, written on papers clipped to the clothesline, stated to write down a fear or anxiety on the paper, put it in the jar, draw another paper, write that word on her back so she could “carry around our burden,” and then place that slip in the jar with water.
I was in a rush, but was drawn to the jar. I wrote down “constant self-doubt” and dropped it into the jar, drawing “loneliness” out. I wrote that word in neat script under her left shoulder blade, and then dropped the paper in the water jar. Other feelings were written on her back too. I walked back to the person and the camera recording her, stood for a minute, and reflected on both the feeling I dropped in the jar and the feeling I wrote on her back. I can’t remember what I specifically thought about; I just focused. To the woman’s back I stood and whispered “thank you,” and then darted away to the dramaturgy meeting, where I was elected grad student rep. This meeting is always fun but this time, I was feeling particularly inspired and at peace, enjoying every moment of the room around me and the people in it, my dramaturgs, my colleagues, my friends. As I rushed out at the meeting’s end, I slipped back downstairs for something and passed her by again. Someone had written my phrase, in big, bold letters on the right side of her back, right at the top over her shoulder blade. I didn’t even stop as I walked by, but smiled knowing that someone else had drawn the paper and hopefully had been as affected by the words as I had been when writing down someone else’s biggest fear. It was a moment of peace in an otherwise busy vacation. I felt rejuvenated and refreshed, if only for a brief moment.
I can’t wait for next year’s ATHE, which will be in mid-July in Scottsdale, Arizona. Right now, people are lining up to get on our plane, but I think I’m going to sit for a moment more to enjoy the last bit of Orlando.