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Through The Looking Glass

In my twenties, halfway into my photography studies at the Zurich Art Institute, I ran out of inspiration. Life had gotten a bit out of hand and I found myself unable to juggle the rapid changes and developments I was facing (these included finding out about being adopted, coming to terms with being transgender, and my father coming out as gay).

At this point, I found solace in the words of ancient Greek philosopher Atticus, who said, “The beautiful thing about reading old books and storytelling in general, is realizing all your struggles aren’t a ‘you’ thing but a ‘human’ thing.” Overwhelmed by this world, I took Atticus’s hint and devoured more books than ever before. For the first time, I also turned to the world on stage.

Countless evenings saw me sitting in the auditorium, mesmerized, absorbing the often superb stage adaptations of classical as well as modern tales.

I began reading about theatre, researched acting methods (especially Lee Strasberg), and became increasingly fascinated with the performing arts. From what I could ascertain, my creative process at the art academy wasn’t that different from staging a play. But, whereas developing a photography project was a rather two-dimensional process, theatre felt so much more vivid, exciting, and complex – an entire universe, evolving like a dazzling mosaic, due to the collaboration of a multitude of brilliant, creative minds.

I just had to find a way in.

And so I did.

One month later, I walked through the doors of Zurich’s Theatre Academy. Not as a student, unfortunately – but, second best option – as a student photographer who had asked to document the creation of the Academy’s latest play Lapin Lapin, by Coline Serreau.

What hit me immediately was the intimacy and trust everyone shared backstage. My unstable family background had up to then always overshadowed my experience with human beings.

I was used to mastering everything alone, used to not being able to trust anyone completely. I had never imagined the possibility of a team in which each member is completely focused and dedicated to achieving a common goal.

I was delighted, energized, enlivened, as if I had tumbled headfirst into cold spring water at the end of a scorching summer’s day – emerging alert, skin tingling, heart beating steady and strong. At first, I was worried about what the cast and crew might think of this eager yet clumsy photographer. Also, how was I going to photograph the exceptional mix of passion, heart, and professionalism I felt backstage and in the rehearsal rooms? I soon decided not to worry. Rather, I’d enjoy this three months of creation with this unique group of talented individuals.

I had no other obligations during this time. Thus, I ended up being the first one to arrive, and the last one to leave – every single day.

I spoke with cast and crew whenever they had a moment’s time. I went with the actors to their fencing, voice, and singing lessons, photographed the entire make-up and wardrobe process, and never missed a rehearsal. Slowly, the production came alive.

After a few weeks, I was able to recite every single line of Lapin Lapin by heart. Over time, I blended into the background. The students got so used to my camera and me being there, I was able to capture backstage life at its most personal – lively discussions, nervous breakdowns of all magnitudes, and often tears as the students dealt with daily challenges and sometimes failures whilst developing their stage characters. I witnessed everything from professional competitiveness to the artists supporting each other when the pressures of creation became just too much.

Bringing a stage persona to life required a fine balance. The actors carved out the essence of what made their part come alive. They had to have a profound psychological as well as emotional understanding of who they were portraying. Yet diving in too deep meant they would lose control of their creation and ultimately even lose themselves in the process.

I was in awe. Every week spent with this young group of artists made me realize how far away from myself I had traveled. I had gone down the rabbit hole. The myriad of challenges life had thrown at me so far had caused growing confusion and, in its wake, had almost brought me to a full stop, especially in my development as an artist. My professors’ question, “Why do you want to study photography?” had left me ever more speechless. I couldn’t remember who I was or why I had wanted to create anything in the first place.

Listening to my peers at the Theatre Academy now, I realized I was a storyteller at heart and always would be. Moreover, watching the actors brave the waves of their own turbulent private and professional seas, I understood: hardships and challenges are facts of life. Harnessed well, they can be fuel for creativity and growth instead of being a destructive force in our lives. Challenges lend perspective. More than anything they forge a strong yet kind heart, resilience and compassion. And without any of these traits what kind of storyteller would I be? How would I reach an audience?

Atticus was right about “the human thing”. His words and my camera’s lens led the way to Lapin Lapin. And here I was, after three months of creation, emerging from chaos, reclaiming my “muchness”.

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