“What did you do during quarantine 2020?”

Everyone will have a very different response when asked.

My short answer is: “I found my biological father – then focused on self-care and creating art with a purpose.” There’s always an interesting reaction to that.

2020 was a test for artists. Our entire industry shut down, and the only way to not lose hope (or your mind) was by focusing on your “WHY”…or finally discovering it. The pandemic pretty much forced our industry to finally look at itself – individually and as a collective.

One of my favorite books is “Start With Why” by Simon Sineck It is the concept that any person or organization can explain WHAT they do, some can explain HOW they do it but very few can articulate WHY they do it. 

Those who are anchored in their “WHY” are the most effective and find the most fulfillment and purpose in their work. They are also the leaders – the people who inspire us to take action. In quarantine, artists lost their “WHAT” and “HOW”. All that was left was their “WHY”. WHY do you do art? WHY did you choose a life in the arts?

As artists, we are on a journey with no actual destination… the journey is a vocation unto itself. I believe a huge part of that journey is figuring out what your “WHY”/mission/purpose IS as an artist – when this isn’t explored, artists find themselves burnt out, lost, and unfulfilled. In an industry such as ours, you HAVE to know your WHY and be driven by it… otherwise, self-defeat is inevitable. I believe if this was the focus in arts conservatory education, rather than encouraging young performers to figure out what their “type” is, we would have a much more creative, exciting, and supportive industry.

Honestly, that is why I have always been drawn toward Luis Salgado and his team as artists and collaborators – their “WHY” is so clear and they lead with it in all they do. It also happens to be in alignment with my own.

I began my “WHY” journey back in 2014 when I found myself lost and at the beginning of an identity crisis. I was 27 years old and had not booked a tour or Broadway yet… to me, that felt like failure. I joined a class through Jen Waldman Studio called “Artist Alliance”: the focus of the group was to apply the concepts in that book “Start With Why” by Simon Sineck to each of our artistic lives. After much inner speculation and analyzing the kind of work I felt drawn to, I realized WHY I decided to live my life as an artist and pursue theatre.

In five words: “Give witness to the unseen.”

That was truly just the beginning of my journey towards discovering not only art with a purpose, but the path to my true self.

I would like to point out that I still did not book a tour or Broadway after that. But, it didn’t matter anymore. Something had shifted and I had changed.  I did not feel like a failure.  I was on a mission – playing the long game. I could also see that there wasn’t a formula to “making it” – whatever that means. We are all far too different for there to be one formula for success. But knowing my purpose and that this was a long game allowed me to give myself grace, and most importantly, take the time to explore my self and my artistry in a way I never would have otherwise.

I would venture to say that every artist’s purpose is deeply personal to their own individual journey. And that is what I found with the discovery of my “WHY”.

WHY was giving witness to the unseen so important to me? Because I understood the weight of silence and not being seen in my own unique circumstances. I am a donor-conceived person. As in: I was conceived via sperm donor. It was a secret. I did not know the paternal half of my identity. My hands shake as I type the words “donor-conceived person”. Even after all of this time and inner work I have done. There is so much shame tied to this term that most people aren’t familiar with.

My father who raised me, Pat, was a wonderful man. He also had terrible luck when it came to his health. When he was only 19 years old, he was diagnosed with cancer. He found this out while my parents were engaged, so the beginning of their journey together as a married couple was accompanied by cancer, chemotherapy, and a lot of scary medical stuff people should never have to deal with. When they reached the other side – remission – it was time to move forward with their lives and start a family. Except there was one big problem: they discovered the chemotherapy had destroyed my father’s chance at having children of his own. They were unable to conceive without the assistance of a sperm donor.

But this was the 80s. Artificial insemination was taboo back then, and in many ways still is. Their doctor suggested that they allow him to pick an anonymous donor for them, this way they “didn’t feel like they were playing God”. He said if the insemination was a success, then they should forget about it as if it never happened.  The baby didn’t need to know. And that was the intention – that I would never know the truth.

Cancer returned to my beloved father Pat, again and again. He never lost his faith and positive attitude, but he did lose his battle to cancer and passed away in 1999.  Three years after his passing, I learned the truth of my origins. You see, I grew up always looking different than the rest of my blue-eyed Irish family. I not only recognized that I looked different, but I FELT different. People would point it out all the time, too – that I didn’t look like my brother, that I was so dark-featured in comparison to my family. It was wildly frustrating and embarrassing. One day during my freshman year of high school, I expressed this frustration to my mother.  And for whatever reason, the truth came out that day: I was donor-conceived.

My whole life as I knew it was turned upside-down.  My mother had no information regarding the donor – his ethnicity, his medical records, nothing. When we called the office of their fertility doctor to get some answers, we learned that there was no paper trail. There was no way for me to find out where I came from. Half of my identity was a question mark. So what could I do? I tried to move on, and did not speak of it again for a very long time. But it was always on my mind.  Festering. An internal battle I could not articulate. I was a secret. 

After I graduated from Boston Conservatory and joined the grind that is the theatre industry, I realized HOW IMPORTANT it was to know where I “fit in”. In an industry led mostly by white casting directors and producers, spectrum and specificity was not seen or acknowledged in regard to what ethnic box you “checked” in their eyes. This was a unique problem for me, being donor-conceived; it is also a problem for mixed actors.

What do you do if you don’t seem to “fit” perfectly anywhere?

My name, Erin McShane, is as Irish as you can get. My agent at the time said it was confusing to casting directors because my look didn’t match their “expectations of what an Irish girl looks like”. I recognize now that this assessment had very problematic implications. My agent suggested I take a neutral stage name. Being a young, impressionable actor, I took her advice and chose Erin Maya – in honor of my beloved mentor Maya Massar. “Maya” also means “illusion”; this felt fitting considering my donor-conceived secret.

I started to get cast in Hispanic/Latinx productions. I felt such an acceptance and kinship with the Hispanic and Latinx theatre community, deeper than any I have felt in any community before. However, I also felt like a fraud and was deeply conflicted about it all. Even though I didn’t know half of my ethnic background, I was raised Irish and with white privilege. I wasn’t certain where in the industry I belonged. Casting uses the term “ethnically ambiguous”, and looking back I realize how problematic that term is. No one should be getting seen for In The Heights, Mamma Mia, and Fiddler on The Roof all in one day, like I was…unless that is their unique cultural background. So did I have a unique circumstance? Maybe; but I don’t know what the right answer is and I’m not going to pretend to.

Finally, around three years ago, people began to openly discuss the problematic nature of whitewashed-casting and how it hurts non-white communities.  Those communities rightfully demanded accurate representation, and Caucasian actors playing Hispanic/Latinx roles were called out and asked to stop contributing to the problem. It was a really important time in our industry, and that work continues today.

I had no clue where I fit into the equation. All I knew is that I did not want to contribute to the problem if it turned out that I was completely white. So I decided to step away from the industry. It triggered my need to know the truth of my roots. 

Part of discovering my “WHY” meant finally facing my truth of being a donor-conceived person and what that meant to me. In giving witness to others’ unseen stories through my art, I realized I was neglecting my own. I was waiting for someone else to tell my story. But I was finally at the point of exhaustion living with the nagging ache of self-uncertainty, subconsciously always playing defense and hoping no one would ask me about myself.

If you can’t take ownership of who you are, it’s kind of hard to make it in an industry when the product is YOU. So, like Lizzo, I took a DNA test….turns out I’m 100% that bitch.

-Just kidding-

Turns out….I’m half-Spanish. More specifically – I’m half-Cuban. Which brings me back to “art with a purpose”. Let me tell you a short story:

In 2007, I saw a musical Off-Broadway called “In The Heights” that rocked my entire existence. In the middle of Act 1, Abuela Claudia sings a song called “Paciencia y Fe”, reminiscing about her childhood starting in Havana, Cuba and later immigrating to New York.  At the end of the song she asks her mother in heaven: “What do you do when your dreams come true? I’ve spent my life inheriting dreams from you”. Watching this number in the audience, my chest began to quiver. Tears rolled down my face. I felt an intense sensation of home… and I could not understand it.

I kept those words “Paciencia y Fe” in my heart. “What do I do” … with this DNA test?

I was Cuban. My body, my heart….knew the truth of my roots FROM THAT SONG years before I would learn the truth myself. THAT is the power of art with a purpose. 

For the last three years, I’ve been trying to find out who my donor is – to put the final pieces of the puzzle together. In March, exactly one week into quarantine I found him. After 19 years of knowing I was donor-conceived and wondering who this question mark was, I found my biological father. I wrote to him. And I was met with both confirmation and rejection. “Not interested in connecting.” It was heart-breaking.

“What did you do during the quarantine of 2020?”

The short answer: “I found my biological father – then focused on self-care and creating art with a purpose.”

And it was focusing on that self-care and my WHY that carried me through this quarantine. I’ve started writing a musical about a donor-conceived woman to raise awareness for my DCP community and our struggles. Making art with a purpose is all we can do in times when we feel helpless. That is constructive. That is where the true gold lies – if you can use your own story to help others relate and feel seen.

People are complicated. Art with a purpose, to me, CELEBRATES that people are complicated and that everyone has a story. Squeezing performers into archetypes is lazy, limiting, and exclusive. My wish is that our industry will learn and listen during this great pause – and come out the other side better and stronger before. 

I believe the best art will come from this period of quarantine; whether it be now or later upon reflection. The need for art with a purpose has never been more vital. Maybe 2020 tested all of us artists in ways we didn’t even know we needed.

I know it tested me – but I am forever grateful.*

Erin Maya.

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