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What are the rules of the world?

Photo: M.J. Chung

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 11 / Day 1


I subscribe to the Virginia Woolf school of diary keeping: 1/3 culture, 1/3 politics, 1/3 hot mess. And besides, what kind of Jewish writer would I be if I didn’t start a diary expounding on my anxieties? Am I anxious? Am I ever. I wake up each morning and go straight into the worrying. About my life, about the state of the world, about the future of the industry I’ve devoted my life to. Which, I suppose, makes sense when you wake up to headlines about Trump wanting to unleash the army on American citizens, neo-Nazis fighting police in central London and record numbers of people dying of Covid globally. Not to mention the seemingly endless, heart-stopping headlines proclaiming the imminent demise of British theatre.

(It probably doesn’t help that I start doom-scrolling through the news and Twitter the moment I turn my phone on – which is to say, the moment I wake up.)

I’m a freelance dramaturg, writer and director. I grew up in the US but have been living in the UK for the past 15 years. The majority of the time, I live in London. However, I’m currently living in a suburb outside Chicago, in my childhood home, with my mother. When it became clear back in March that Covid was becoming a global catastrophe, I did what any sensible person would do: panic, drink a lot of gin, spend an entire day confusedly packing a suitcase for an indefinite period of time and leap onto a tightly-packed, eight-hour flight to Chicago. A number of years ago, I was in visa limbo and couldn’t get back to my dad who was in and out of hospitals, slowly dying, so to say the idea of borders closing, flights ending and not being able to fly home to my only parent left during a deadly global pandemic was, needless to say, triggering in a profound sort of way.

So now I spend my days in genteel suburban quiet. (Think: Stepford with face masks.) Not knowing when I’ll be back in London, not knowing when I’ll be able to return to Chicago once I’ve left for the UK. Will there be a second wave here? What about there? Then what? Everything feels out of step, out of place, out of time. I’ve been here since March 20, which is the longest I’ve spent in the area where I grew up in about 17 years. When I saw a tweet announcing this week’s blog where my Dramaturgs’ Networks colleagues referred to me as being ‘Chicago-based’, it was jarring. I’m not Chicago-based, I thought. I’m London-based. Aren’t I?

The combination of deracination from my adult life, the uncertainty of the future and the lack of parameters in the outside world mean I spend a lot of time worrying and wondering what to do. As a friend of mine said, it’s hard to know what makes sense to do when nothing makes sense. Something I often ask my students when I teach playwriting is: what are the rules of the world? No really – what are the rules of the world now? Seriously. Does anyone know?

In terms of day-to-day living, America is confusing because different states have different restrictions (sometimes even different areas within the same state). The guidelines are variable and don’t always make sense. It’s kind of like bad dramaturgy. You can do this but not that, and this here but not that there, and this thing with this number of people but not that thing with the same number of people. It reminds me of the end of the Caryl Churchill play Far Away when they list all the humans, plants, insects and animals who are siding with and against each other in an ongoing world war. ‘The Latvians are on the side of the chimpanzees. The crickets are on the side of the women who wear hats.’ (I made that quote up because I don’t have access to a copy of the play because my copy of Far Away is, indeed, far away in London.)

It makes you long for the days of actual concrete rules for living: you can drive but only with a license, you can drink that milk but only if it’s within the expiration date, you can cross the street but only once the little man is flashing green. In some parts of the US, people are ignoring the rules entirely, as if Covid is a made-up thing. A friend who is currently working in a rural part of Washington state tells me no one is wearing masks and people are eating inside restaurants. INSIDE RESTAURANTS. In a country where we have now lost more people to Covid than in the last 70 years of wars and the death rates show no sign of slowing, it makes me afraid just thinking about it.

I like to create a semblance of calm in my morning by going for long walks with the dog. But I also like to know what’s going on in the world. So, I usually end up walking while listening to something upsetting about how the world is on fire. However, the other day, I was listening to some podcast that mentioned Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’. This can be roughly defined as: knowledge can only be achieved with uncertainty.

Towards the end of writing this post, I checked the news. I discovered that the Supreme Court passed a ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which, in the Conservative-controlled Court, not many people expected. This is incredible news and makes me wonder if there is, as the op-eds are saying, a sea change afoot, if middle America – even conservative America— is finally starting to wake up to the idea that institutional discrimination is real and, well, very bad.

Maybe we’re all learning things – how viruses transmit and reproduce, how to keep ourselves from getting sick, how to work towards a more egalitarian society. Just with a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.

Everything is terrible, but here’s a picture of our dogs holding paws.


Sarah Sigal is a freelance writer, dramaturg, director and researcher working in physical theatre, devised work, site-specific and interactive theatre and new writing. As well as working in performance spaces, she also creates, facilitates and curates work for unusual spaces and events and is interested in the possibilities for theatre-making. Originally from Chicago and based in London, she has a BA from Gettysburg College and an MA and PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London. She has taught at a number of British universities as a freelance lecturer and her book Writing in Collaborative Theatre-making was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan. She was the Live Performance Programmer at JW3 from 2016-2019 and has just completed a LABA Fellowship at the 14th St Y (NYC). She is a member of the Dramaturgs’ Network Advisory Board. She is currently working on adapting her play Agent of Influence into a novel and writing the libretto for a new opera called The Agency with composer Matthew Olyver, which will premiere as a scratch at the Têt à Têt Festival in September. Website: Twitter: @SigalSarah


Photography is courtesy of the author.


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