A Life in Theatre Taught Me How to Be an Expat

expat issues, theatre


I was 13 when I started saving my babysitting money to pay for drama classes. It was $60 a month, and that was a lot for a 13 year old babysitter to save up, but I was so committed, I found the funds time and time again. Theatre was the most important thing in my life, and it continued to be through four years of drama classes and after school rehearsals in high school. It certainly was when I majored in Theatre Management in college and then took my first dramaturgy internship and entry-level job at a theatre in Florida. Theatre was pretty much all I thought about in graduate school and for the next three years of working professionally. Theatre was still foremost on my mind when I moved to Australia and set about reading 100 Australian plays in as many days, interviewing Aussie playwrights, and busting my freelance dramaturg groove.

That represents over two decades of theatre, which is longer than many marriages and long enough to raise a baby to adulthood.While theatre and I have entered at least a temporary separation period, the mark this critical relationship left on me remains etched forever. I was thinking, recently, about life lessons I’ve learned from theatre – some very practical, like how to use an electric drill or get house seats at the last minute – but others are more philosophical. I know I would not have gotten as much out of my expat experience if it weren’t for the truths I’ve internalized from my time in the theatre. Far removed from the stage, these are a few of the essential things theatre instilled in me which have paved the way in my expat life.


Stories Matter

The single most important thing I’ve learned about life from theatre is that stories matter. They don’t just matter because they entertain us, they are actually vital to our existence, which is why we love theatre, movies, television and books. It’s why we sit around into the waning hours swapping stories like tokens. Stories tell us how to live, how to make choices, and how to be our best selves.

I saw the great playwright Marsha Norman give a version of this talk  about the importance of stories, and it was an epiphany to me. I think you should read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:

Stories are where we get our information about what happens, or what’s likely to happen, in any circumstance we find ourselves.  And in most cases, we decide what to do, based not the advice people give us, but the stories they tell us. … Stories tell us what the right thing is to do, should we ever need to know it.  If we can’t decide what to do, we call someone for help, and if we have called the right person, they won’t just tell us what to do, because as I said, we wouldn’t listen to that.  They will tell us a story, a story about someone they knew who….married someone their parents didn’t like, left school before they were finished, sought work in a profession nobody believed they could succeed in, or dared to go against the common wisdom in any way.

The expat experience is all about going against the “common wisdom” and living a story-worthy life. While it may be easier to stay home in familiar surrounds with the people and culture you know, expats feel the need to do something memorable, something that creates a narrative. Even if the experience is only for a year or two, it’s forever part of your story. No one can take that away from you. When you meet expats, you meet people who have trusted the stories which say that if we follow adventure, we will reap a reward more precious than metals or gems. We’ll be the one with stories to tell.

There have been so many times that I’ve wondered why we’re here in Australia or why we don’t just go home, and it’s the thought of the story sustained me. At the end of our days, we’ll have this story to show for ourselves, and moreover, the story becomes part of our DNA and our children’s DNA. Our expat story is a signpost for our children that it’s OK to be daring and go against the grain, and perhaps will even leave a mark on generations to come.


Community is Everything 

Undoubtedly, the thing I loved most about my life in theatre was the community. First, there was the micro-community – the theatrical company of actors, directors, designers, staff, and so forth. Before I moved to Australia, nearly my entire social world centered around the rich relationships I formed with people who worked in the theatre in some capacity. These friendships are so deeply bound because you work together under intense pressure for a common goal. You’re not doing it to get rich, but because art matters so profoundly. You do this thing together, and your spirits become connected.

I can’t overstate the importance of community to expat life, as well. When you’ve left your family and friends at home, you need people to fill that role. Who do you celebrate holidays with and who do you call in an emergency? For me, my strongest community remains fellow expats. I think that’s a testament to our human need for connection. We expats come together because we arrive alone and need support and kinship. Since we’ve removed ourselves from our first communities, we build new ones together with people who have the same void.

There is also the macro-community. In theatre, that is the audience, your city, and the people you are reaching with your work. When we sit together in a dark room, watch a story or concept piece unfold, then when we leave the theatre, the stories and performances continue to reverberate and make ripples in the community. If you are moved by a play, you’ll go home and tell your family and friends about it, and discuss the ideas or issues it raised with, perhaps, a new perspective. As an expat, your macro-community is your new home town or city. Much like entering a theatre, if you agree to “sit” with your new city for a stretch of time (two hours in the theatre, but maybe more like a few months in expat life), observe what it has to tell you before you pass judgment,  then you are in a more enlightened position to share your observations and become part of its beating heart


Happiness is Not the Only Relevant Emotion

Theatre, at its best, serves up a smorgasbord of human emotion. Classically, we talk about theatre in terms of comedies and tragedies, but in the modern era, it’s much more common to see plays that deal in the realm of comi-tragedy or something even more nuanced than that. My friend Megan and I used to talk about Theatre of the Absurd being particularly beloved to us because it wasn’t straightforward in terms of action or emotional experience, which is just like real life. In the theatre, we are granted permission to be sad or even feel ambiguous. We don’t expect every play to leave us with a happy ending or to be wrapped in a bow of tidy conclusion.

Allowing for such a vast range of emotions is so critical to expat life. In American culture, we like to display our happiness above all else. It can feel as if we’re doing something wrong if we are sad or angry, like we need to breeze past these feelings to get swiftly back to the happiness. I do like to be happy as much as the next person, but it’s so important to recognize the enormity of choosing an expat existence. The early days are emotional roller coasters, and even five years on, I get hit with bouts of everything from regret to sadness to anger to glee, sometimes for no obvious reason. Having seen and read so many plays helps me to remember that every one of those emotions is valid and part of the human spectrum.


Just Because Something is Ephemeral Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Worth Your Time

The reality of work in the theatre is that every single project  is just a fleeting moment shared with a finite number of people. In the best case, a show in a regional theatre might run for three months. In high school, our shows ran for four days. The audience can’t rewind it or stream it again. There are so many resources, work hours, and emotions put into something that is, by its very nature, not designed to last. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, and continually striving to do better. If anything, the fact that it exists solely in this tiny pocket of time and memory is one of the most beautiful things about the art from.

So too is expat life such an ephemeral existence. We’ve stayed here, so far, for five years, but I don’t believe this is the place we’ll settle (if we ever do such a thing). And, in this five years, we’ve loved and said goodbye to so many friends who have completed their expat assignments or just had enough and returned either to home or the next adventure. It is hard to farewell a constant stream of friends, those friends who have become that critical community, yet I don’t wish away any of them. Every person brought their gifts and change into our lives.

And, when it’s our turn to move on from this expat life, will we say that it was wasted time because we didn’t ultimately settle down here? Of course not. This existence, like a theatrical performance, will fade into memory, but the mark has been made on our spirits through the doing, the embracing, the friendships, and the stories to last this lifetime and beyond.

3 thoughts on “A Life in Theatre Taught Me How to Be an Expat

      1. Trekking with Becky

        Happy to have such a fantastic post included in my weekly #ExpatTuesday link up! I hope you join every week, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your great content! 😀

        Please, spread the word about Expat Tuesday! 😀

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