Creativity in a Time of Grief

Ashley Steed

Non-Registered Critics, Writer

Although I've officially been the Editor in Chief of the new and improved Better Lemons since November, this is my first article. I've sat down a few times to write something - about how we need to be taking risks and creating magic on our stages, about bringing the theatre community together, about my passion for the performing arts and my deep deep love and appreciation for LA theatre. However, every time I sat down to write, nothing came out. I've had a terrible case of writer's block, which is really a pain for any form of writer. The past few months, I've had trouble focusing - I couldn't think about risks, or community, or even theatre magic because I was busy thinking, or rather worrying, about my mother.
Although my mother encouraged me to study architecture as a backup plan, she never discouraged me from pursuing a career in the performing arts. In fact, after a mental breakdown from too many sleepless nights in the architecture studio, I told my mother that I was officially switching to theatre. Her first words were, “I'm so sorry I ever convinced you to study architecture. The stage is always where you've belonged.”  I, however, wasn't sorry. She knew just how difficult life was and she made sure to prepare me for anything and everything. I loved my time in architecture, but it's not where my heart was. She was right, for me it was always the stage.
At the end of 2015 my mother saw me act for the first time since high school. I was in Love and Information at Son of Semele. She walked in and I could hear her laughing from backstage, proudly telling everyone that she was my mother, her joy overflowing. I was so happy for her to see me on stage again. Yet, there was also deep deep concern. My mother had cirrhosis of the liver and it was taking its toll on her. She had been very unsteady her trip to LA to see the show and by this point there had been countless falls throughout the year and even more hospital visits. There was now a shroud of anxiety around my mother - as if she would spontaneously combust or crack into a million little pieces.
This past year, I decided to lead a devised show for a festival (opening soon). I started the project just after I put my mother into hospice, knowing that she probably wouldn't make it to Christmas. The producer asked me if I wanted to hold off, maybe produce my show later. When my mother was still “with it” she told me she didn't want me to stop living my life because of her illness. Thus, I told the producer, “The best way to honor my mother, is to do the work.”  And that's exactly what I did.
Throughout this intense creation process I've had to deal with calls nearly every other day about my mother's decline. Over Thanksgiving I emptied out her apartment, but made sure no one told her - she still thought there was a chance she could go home. Though a trained actor, I've never been good at lying. Pretending that she could one day leave was one of the hardest roles of my life. However, this was the stage I was standing on - the role of caretaker. After emptying out her apartment and selling all her belongings, she asked me, “when do I get to go home?” I simply replied, “well, mama, let's see what the doctors say, ok?”
It always took me at least a couple of days to recover from visiting my mother. I'd cry while trying to be brave for her. I'd try even harder to be patient with her. However, I've never had time to wallow or rest because, just like my mother, I am a workaholic. There were points during rehearsals for the devised piece where I wondered if I should have waited to do the show. At the same time, I was also grateful to have the distraction.
We took two weeks off of rehearsal for the holidays. I was going to spend the break doing some work for the show to ensure it would be ready for tech mid-January. Of course, no work got done. My mother made it to Christmas but by that point was already in a long process of dying.
I watched a lot of doctor shows growing up (my mom's favorite), they don't depict just how awful and traumatic dying can be. There was no peaceful “I love you” or her simply closing her eyes and being gently taken away by angels. No. She kicked, and bit, and screamed and fought. She was weak but kept trying to get up and walk around, so the staff had to put her on a matress on the floor with some floor pads down on each side. This way she could drag herself around her room without the risk of falling. The final day she was mostly still and slowly, laboriously breathing. Why isn't any of this something shown on tv or film or stage? Maybe it's too hard to watch. Maybe it's too hard to believe. I couldn't believe it myself and I was living it.
My mother died just after midnight on Friday, December 30th at 59 years old. The first thing I felt was mainly relief - as it had been a long and tumultuous road. Nothing was ever easy for my mother, other than her love for me - which poured out freely. It certainly wasn't easy to watch this magnificent warrior woman who forged me from the ashes of all her trauma and pain to make something beautiful, slowly dwindle and waste away.
Just four days after my mother's death I had rehearsal. I didn't want to go. I felt overwhelmingly underprepared and I simply wasn't in a place to deal with people. It felt strange continuing on when I had this large chunk missing from my chest, where phantom pain had been making it difficult to breathe but easy to cry. As we say, however, the show must go on.
Slowly in that first rehearsal the fog had started to lift. I could think clearer and went nearly 6 hours without crying. I was (and am) thankful to have this creative outlet, to have my ensemble all relying on me to lead the way. They've been lifting me up everyday. What a gift. It's true, the greatest way to honor my mother is to do the work.
And so, that's just what I'll do. I'll continue to do the work. With the opening of each new show, if I sit in the theatre, close my eyes and listen, maybe, just maybe, I'll hear her amazing laugh as she proudly declares “I'm Ashley's mom.”
Thank you mama. For everything.

Ashley Steed is a theatre maker, creative producer and writer. In Los Angeles, she's started a company that devises new works called The Visceral City Project and is also a member of Son of Semele Ensemble. She's worked on numerous projects as a director, performer or producer here in LA as well as London. She began her writing career with LA Stage Magazine under the mentorship of the late Lee Melville. Ashley holds a BA in Theatre from USC and an MA in Theatre and Performance from Queen Mary, University of London.