Stage Left: "Die, Vampire, Die!" Reflections on Self-Doubt and Advocacy Work.
("Die Vampire, Die!", [title of show], 2006. Lyrics are here)
One of the wonderful things about theatre is how even relatively small/strange shows can attract a really fervent fan following. A perfect example of this is [title of show], which managed to move from the New York Musical Theatre Festival to an extended off-Broadway run to, ultimately, a well-reviewed though short run on-Broadway and a tremendous life in regional theatre. Something, or some things, about this show struck a chord with people.
The part of the show that resonates most closely with me is probably the song I've included in this post—“Die Vampire, Die!”. This song is, within the context of the show, about defeating doubts and obstacles to creative-sector work—writing, painting, singing. But I think the types of “vampires” spoken of in the lyrics are familiar to those of us doing advocacy work as well. (Here I will note that the song does have some problematic lyrics. I want you to know that I'm aware of this—and look for a later post on relating to media we know is problematic).
The singer, Susan, identifies three types of vampires—the Pygmy Vampires, Air Freshener Vampires, and the Vampire of Despair. I'll quote the in-song description of each and then spend some time talking about them.
1. Pygmy Vampires.
“They'll swarm around your head like gnats and say things like 'your teeth need whitening', 'you went to state school?', 'you sound weird'”
Pygmy vampires are the small everyday doubts we have. In an activist context, they might be things like “has someone written this before?”, “am I using the right sources?”, or—probably one of the more common ones—“am I overthinking this? Is this not actually oppressive?”. These thoughts are...insistent, and they come from a context where there's a lot of pressure to agree with them, especially when you're fighting against the status quo. An individual one is easy to brush off, but they tend to travel in packs, and it's easy, in my experience, to be overwhelmed.
2. Air-Freshener Vampires
The air-freshener vampire doesn't want you to write about bad language, blood, or blow jobs. She wants you to clean it up and clean it out, which will leave your work toothless, gutless, and crotchless
This one is more specific to artistic contexts in how it's presented, but I think at its core it's something a lot of activist communities struggle with—the question of palatability. Do we need to tone down our anger? To make our work more accessible to outsiders? When exactly does something become alienating to those outside a community, and is that always a bad thing? I know I have trouble hitting the balance, and I'm willing to bet I'm not alone. People who tell us we're being too “hostile,” too “radical”—these are air-freshener vampires.
3. The Vampire of Despair
The last vampire is the mother of all vampires and that is the vampire of despair. It’ll wake you up at 4am to say things like: Who do you think you’re kidding? You look like a fool. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be good enough
Again, I am a person with depression. And because of that this hits me hard. This voice is pretty much a constant companion in my head, and it's one that's impossible to work with. And again, I think most of us doing social justice work are familiar with it in some form. It's the voice telling you that your efforts are futile, that there's always more oppression in the world, that we can never do enough to fight it. It's what leads to burnout for social workers and grassroots activists. And it's powerful.
There are a lot of vampires out there. Sometimes they best us, and that's okay. We're only human. What's important is that we get up again. We keep going in advocacy—or we don't. Sometimes we need to step back, and that's fine too. We find ways to care for ourselves and support each other, and that's something most of the communities I've been part of are really good at.
And then we slay some vampires.
In fly the vampires, oh my the vampires, then die the vampires,
filling you with life, creativity, all that your art should be, out go the vampires
Die vampire, die vampire, die vampire, die!
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