FUTURES/forward Mentorships: Featuring Sadie Epstein-Fine
FUTURES/forward Mentee, Sadie Epstein-Fine — cohort #3 duo, October 2020 to March 2021 — mentored by Judith Marcuse
SADIE EPSTEIN-FINE (they/them) is a second generation queer, Jewish, settler artist and activist. Sadie is a freelance director, playwright, choreographer and creator who works primarily in devised, immersive and physical theatre. They are particularly passionate about creating theatre for young audiences and working with non-professional performers (ex. lawyers). Sadie has had the pleasure of working with theatre companies across Tkaronto including Nightwood Theatre, Theatre Direct, Buddies in Bad Times, Canadian Stage, Theatre Panik and Quote Unquote Collective. Sadie has also spent many years working with young people in creative and non-creative capacities in schools, community groups and summer camps. They have led workshops in playwriting, devised theatre, acting, stage combat and dance. Outside of the performing arts Sadie has facilitated workshops, conference and discussion groups about queer, trans and queerspawn identities. In 2018 Sadie co-edited Spawning Generations: Rants and Reflections on Growing Up with LGBTQ+ Parents, published by Demeter Press, which was named one of the Top 10 books of 2018 by NOW Magazine and was nominated for 2018 LAMBDA and Forward Indies Awards.
The community-engaged art: a collective storytelling project to share and document the experiences of queerspawn (folx with queer/trans parents) to be archived and accessible in The ArQuives (Canada’s LGBTQ2+ archives).
Being Sick, Doing the Work
I applied to the FUTURES/forward program fueled by a deep, earnest, genuine desire and many years of experience facilitating community arts programs for young people. I have been facilitating theatre programs for young people since I was a young person myself. Over my 15 years of experience, I have seen and been moved by the powerful effects art can have on individuals and collectives. I, myself, was transformed by a community arts program called Gender Play, a theatre program for queer and trans youth. Gender Play inspired my application to this program, as I wanted to create a magical space similar to the one created for me and my cohort of gender players, rooted in theatre and therapy.
My previous way of working has been tireless. It has involved me working full days, either on the project or at a job that pays for me to be able to do the project. Then I might spend my evenings either in rehearsal or catching up on the admin. As I was falling asleep, I would be thinking about the next day’s exercises we would do, outstanding work, ways to make the experience better for participants. I rarely took a day off. Weekends didn’t exist for me.
The COVID-19 pandemic obviously changed many things for many of us working in the arts (and obviously everywhere). As our industry shut down and work came to a grinding halt, we began to ask ourselves: Should we be working ourselves into the ground? Is working 12–16-hour days sustainable? Can we have a life outside of our artistic practice? What does our work look like if we can’t meet in person? The pandemic put into stark relief that I could not continue to work in the ways I was working if I wanted to create any kind of sustainability. Previously I had taken an outward-facing approach. I worked hard to ensure that everybody else’s needs were met. I began to realize that the ways I treat myself and the ways I work influence the people around me and the collective culture that is created. This is the headspace I was in as I began this project.
I realized early on that I had to change my initial concept. When I submitted my application, I thought we might be out of the pandemic and in person meetings would be able to happen. At this point, 13 months into the pandemic, that thinking makes me laugh. I bounced around a couple of ideas mostly having to do with nature and the environment. I was really inspired by the other program participants and their work in climate art/activism. I have also spent many years working as a camp counsellor and canoe trip guide and I know I am my truest self in nature. Making art in nature with other people? Sounded ideal. Maybe we can meet in person if it’s outside? Alas, no such luck. The thought of doing a nature-based program online felt like absolute hell to me.
As I was bouncing ideas around I thought about a project I had wanted to do for a long time. In 2018 I co-edited an anthology of stories called Spawning Generation: Rants and Reflection on Growing Up With LGBTQ+ Parents. My co-editor and I had always wanted to make it into an audiobook, to make the stories more accessible and able to be spread further and wider – as a part of the queerspawn (people with queer/trans parents) agenda. Was this an opportunity to do that project?
This was also an exciting opportunity to include more people’s stories in the ever-expanding narrative of queerspawn experience. To increase the diversity of parenting structures, ages, cultures, races, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability. To look at the intersections of multiple identities with being queerspawn. I am queer, genderqueer, Jewish, white, raised by two moms in the 90s. Projects I work on tend to include people with an overlap of many of those identities. I had high aspirations for the many places this project could go.
Then… I got sick. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in January 2020 after three months of being so sick I couldn’t get out of bed. I had to put my entire life on pause. I didn’t have any space to reflect on how to work while sick, or how my workaholic tendencies were making me sick, or how to create a sustainable practice for my new reality. I was just sick. I began to recover just after my diagnosis, just as the pandemic was shutting the world down. Now, a year later, I was going through my second major flare and I had to confront all these questions.
I began by feeling bad. I felt bad that I couldn’t do as much outreach to new participants as I wanted to. I felt bad when I got back to people a week later (or longer). I felt bad that I couldn’t think about my own creative project. I felt bad that during mentorship meetings I didn’t prepare topics for discussions, questions to ask. I spent the first month of my flare feeling bad all the time. Wasn’t I committed to caring about myself as much as I care about others?
What helped me in the end was the community I had around me for this project. My fellow queerspawn didn’t care about my slow communication or my inability to think about this project 24/7. All they cared about was my wellbeing and they were constantly checking in to see how I was doing. One of the project participants encouraged me to lean into my sick body while creating my project as opposed to pushing against it. My mentor, Judith, met me with compassion every time I missed a deadline or failed to work as hard as I intended to. Our relationship became about more than her passing wisdom and knowledge along to me. Our meetings were spaces where I could share how hard this experience was while also thinking critically about the work, queerspawn community, and the arts sector as a whole.
This project was imperfect. I had participants drop out mid-way through. One participant enthusiastically committed to this project but then never responded to a single email after that. A 10-year-old felt this project was not a space for kids, and she was right. Most participants sent their projects in late. I lost track of the majority of deadlines and submitted everything late (including this report). One of my participants’ mom died a few weeks before the deadline. Another got COVID.
In all the imperfection there were also moments of pure sweetness. We had deep conversations about our place, as queerspawn, in the queer community. We shared in the excitement of one participant’s pregnancy and another one who confirmed a sperm donor. Two pairs of siblings created projects together, having conversations they have never had. One participant was reminded there are parts of her experience that are only understood by her fellow queerspawn.
I don’t know what I came into this mentorship expecting. Certainly not what unfolded. The biggest thing I learned from this mentorship was not a new technique or art-based activity. The lesson I learned was deeper. I really understand the power of creating work in community. How you can be a leader in community and be held by that community at the same time. I am now putting into practice the questions I began asking at the beginning of the pandemic. I know I cannot work myself into the ground. I know I have to take precious care of myself if I am to have the hope of caring for my community. A sustainable practice is the only way forward.
FUTURES/forward gratefully acknowledges that Sadie’s mentorship thrived due in part to the generous support of Judith Marcuse Projects, the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund and Community Foundations of Canada.