I had the delight and good fortune of getting an hour of Debra Brown’s time a couple of weeks ago.
What’s amazing, given that in some ways we share passions of music, theater, and circus, is how we met. It was an evening in Huntsville, Ontario at Deerhurst Resort. We both felt compelled to go look at the sunset that was taking place out in front of the resort. I was taking a picture and Debra came up to me and you said, “Hey, my battery is dead. Would you mind taking a picture of the sunset and texting me? I’ll give you my number.” I took a picture of the sunset and we started talking.
Then we went back inside, I think we had a glass of wine, and we spoke for at least a couple of hours, if not longer. I remember she said, “Oh, I’m off to Monaco to work for the prince. I’m going to Mexico to direct a show with fire and circus artists” and I was thinking, “Oh, she’s delusional.” It’s not every day that you sit down with someone and they’re talking about the prince of Monaco. And remember, I worked in the psychiatric ward where many proclaimed to be the prince of Monaco.
And then we watched videos of animal whisperers. She showed me a video of this woman who healed this traumatized black panther. So that was my introduction to the absolute delight, uniqueness, and joy of Debra’s world.
In the morning I Googled her because I wondered, “Who did I have wine with last night?” And there she was, having won an Emmy for her work at the Academy Awards. It turns out that she’d had this amazing, illustrious career for three decades with Cirque du Soleil.
Debra Brown has worked with Aerosmith, Pavarotti, Celine Dion, Bjork, Hugh Jackman, Shakira, you name it. She’s been around the world and back and everywhere she goes, she brings back animals that she gives love to and finds homes for. She’s just this incredibly special person that I thank myself every day I crossed paths with. So I was really happy to have her on the podcast and to talk with her about the dignity of suffering from an artistic perspective.
Art, Performance, and Emotions
One topic we discussed was how art and performing are tied in with emotions.
Debra has had so many emotional experiences with artists during her career, it was hard for her to pick among the thousands of memories. She opened up about the notion of dying creatively, that each time she created it was like a death. Her director Franco Dragone used to say, “Another birth, another death.”
The minute he said that Debra realized it was okay to let go. She realized that she wasn’t alone. Creation is so spontaneous and in the moment. It’s so intuitive and involves tapping into everyone’s truth. So by the end of the process, everyone under the big top was so invested emotionally.
This factors a lot into my work. I think that a lot of the time what I am doing with people is a kind of meditation on mortality. It reminds me of the saying: “Tell God your plans and He’ll cry with you.”
Debra articulates a process of eventually realizing that she was free to allow things to be on the edge of falling apart. It involved not knowing and having to grow into that level of comfort.
Debra says that she was always on the edge. She was not afraid to risk from the beginning and she’s still not afraid to risk on the dance floor. Franco taught her to not be afraid to do something that no one has ever done and that in fact, it’s necessary to do that.
With every creation, she asked herself, “What if we just do something simple that touches the audience? Can we bring a tear to their eye? Can we touch their heart? It doesn’t have to be a trick. What is it?” She was always looking for that something, that which is invisible that moves them and that had nothing to do with the athleticism of it.
That was risky and it became more difficult to do later in the circus after Franco left. It wasn’t understood as well then. Franco understood, though, and gave that freedom. Sometimes they would completely turn right and change the show. In fact, he said, “We come with our pants down each day.”
That being said, to go to the edge, you have to be well supported. You have to have an ally or you’ll be isolated creatively.
When I talked to Gabor Maté, I mentioned that one of the first things I heard him talk about was the circle of kin: the more people that are around us, the safer we feel.
I remember when I was working in the emergency room, there was this very strange policy, which was that people who came in who were often quite alone, alienated from their communities, and dealing with debilitating addictions (very often to alcohol or drugs) couldn’t get counseling until they went to rehab and got off the alcohol or drugs. I found this so bizarre. I realized that we only have so many resources but I kept saying to myself, “How do you expect somebody who’s alone, alienated, and relying on something to help them feel safe to take an emotional risk if they don’t have any support?”
When Debra said that, it reminded me that to take a risk you have to have an ally. It helps to have people around you to just have a bit of an emotional net.
That’s exactly what Franco was for Debra. The artists didn’t always understand until a certain point. When they would break through the boundaries and come up with a birth of something that had never been, something that was completely original, then the flow would start. But it was like chipping away at ice sometimes and because Debra didn’t have the words to help steer the artists, sometimes Franco would be very supportive and support that and just help put the artists in the right mind frame to come with her.
COVID-19 and Art
On top of these things, Debra and I got the chance to dig into how COVID-19 has challenged artists specifically. Many artists are a bit lost right now, given the pandemic, not having been able to practice their craft, especially those that relied on weekly paychecks to survive. My good friend said that the pandemic in many ways made him realize how insignificant the arts can be to society.
Right now, all the arts are still going on but behind closed doors. If they weren’t, there would be a lot of despair. Many artists, however, went off, studied, and switched careers. They took the decision to just transition or keep on moving and keep the light on in their heart. That was the challenge during COVID. There is this air of dampness, wondering, the unknown, and not knowing if tomorrow something will happen.
I asked Debra for some ideas on how to reinvest in our creative lives during this pandemic. She said to keep playing the music even when you don’t feel it. Keep your body alive even though your spirit has dropped to the bottom of your feet. Just go through the motions and keep on moving.
All you need is a small lamp, one step at a time. Keep the light on in your heart and keep on moving one step. You can choose that step not knowing what the next steps are. You don’t have to know.
This goes right along with my favorite saying: “Go as far as you can see and you’ll be able to see further.”
If you want to learn more about Debra and her take on the dignity of suffering from the perspective of an artist, check out Episode 10: Sometimes You Just Have to Die: The Art of Taking Risks with the Renowned Cirque de Soleil Founding Choreographer Debra Brown.