The modern day hero wouldn’t be caught wearing a cape, or fighting crime in an iron suit, or seen contemplating life from the tops of skyscrapers.
The modern day heroes are the people who inspire us to strive when the future is grim, to take another step when it seems impossible, to dance like no one is watching (when really, there’s always someone watching). The modern day hero inspires us by being their genuine selves.
As a regular civilian, I search for these kinds of extraordinary people; those that are inspirational in every day life. I yearn for them, I hunger for them: the heroes that save the day, on the daily.
This month's photo story follows a woman whose tremendous creative spirit took her on a journey of healing and success, when she could so easily have fallen prey to bitterness. Tanisha Taitt is an ambitious and accomplished artist: she is a director/playwright/actor, a singer-songwriter, an arts educator, and an activist.
I met Tanisha via last month’s hero, filmmaker and human rights activist Gilad Cohen. I was instantly struck by her grace and humility, considering her remarkable list of achievements. From 2006 to 2008, she attended a continuing education program for theatre and worked as an executive assistant at Workman Arts, which is a multidisciplinary arts program formerly located on the CAMH grounds. Workman Arts is dedicated to providing an outlet and support to artists coping with mental illness. Upon attending a Violence Against Women (VAW) summit in Louisiana as the Canadian representative for the global V-Day movement in 2008, she decided she could not thrive in her 9-5 career. She explains: “I worked with lovely people. But this kind of bigger feeling of fulfillment, being in this space with these amazing spirits and being surrounded by art and activism and humanity at a heightened level, in a way that I just wasn't in my job, I was like -- this is what I need to be doing." She returned to Ontario and left her position at Workman Arts, bravely beginning her career as a freelance artist in Toronto.
Tanisha was born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario. She grew up with her younger sister, whom she considers her best friend, under the care of their loving parents, who are still together after 46 years of marriage. By the age of 3, it was clear that writing and singing were Tanisha’s major passions. With the support of her family, music would become a significant source of motivation in her life. When I asked Tanisha to describe her earliest experiences with singing, she told me, “It very much looked like my father playing his old vinyl LPs and me kind of following him around, just captivated with the sound and loving the music and then trying to mimic everything that he played. He had a real vast variety of taste, so I would be singing everything from old Motown stuff to calypso to James Taylor and Carole King.” The album Tapestry by Carole King holds a particularly special place in her heart, as she recalls pointing to the cover and telling her father, “Again.”
“I was always a very pensive kid.”
While her father was expanding her musical library, her mother was nourishing her penchant for the written word. Before she could write, Tanisha found herself longing to express herself, and would dictate poetry to her mother. Later on, she would attempt to record her thoughts herself, begging the nearest person for a pencil or crayon with which she could organize her mind and turn her ideas into something tangible.
In the late eighties, Tanisha found herself inspired by rising teen artists such as Debbie Gibson. Upon the release of ‘Foolish Beat’ in 1987, Gibson became the youngest female artist to have written, produced, and performed a Billboard Hot 100 #1 single, and Tanisha was enamoured. It had never before occurred to her that she could write and perform her own work.
Tanisha describes her childhood with warmth and fondness, recalling charming instances of following her father as they sang along to their music. However, when I inquire about her foray into adulthood, the tone changes. Tanisha is composed and steady as she tells me how she was sexually assaulted when she was 19 years old. The perpetrator was a stranger. “It was like what we imagine it to be – stranger in the woods, masked man with a knife, the whole shebang,” she intones evenly. The identity of her attacker was never verified. Tanisha emphasizes, "It was the worst experience of my life, and the source of my most valuable life experience."
“There were periods of time when I would spend days in the fetal position”
The years immediately following the attack were a blur. “The mind can do all sorts of things to you when you are traumatized,” she says, “and also when it is trying to protect you. I went through a period of completely blocking it out, and when it all came back, it came back like a floodgate, which is pretty intense." Eventually, the fearful, emotionally catatonic state became too overwhelming, and Tanisha sought therapy. "My mom told my therapist, and I don’t even remember because I was so dazed, but there were periods of time when I would spend days in the fetal position. Don’t remember.”
The therapist quickly became a source of strength and courage in the darkness Tanisha’s world had fallen under. When her therapist retired a year after they had begun treatment, Tanisha began to explore music as release and catharsis. “I was writing all the time. I could just purge a lot of stuff that way," she says, though she makes a point of clarifying that, “the music never served as a distraction.” In her mid twenties, she graduated from songwriting to performing. “I started playing in little cafes and clubs, and being able to actually sing the stuff was healing." She decided to study at the Harris Institute for the Arts, receiving the Canadian Music Publishers Association Songwriters Award and completing a double-major in audio production and management.
“…being able to actually sing the stuff was cathartic.”
Rather than allowing the assault to seep bitterness into her life, Tanisha used it as fuel for her creativity and her sense of empathy. “The assault changed my view of how I wanted to relate to the world, and how I wanted the world to relate to me, and how I wanted to help people relate to each other," she explains, displaying her tremendous capacity for strength, for beauty, and for love. “It made me want to heal people’s pain, and create relationships that were the opposite of what that encounter was for me. That encounter was rage-filled and fear-filled. I wanted to foster relationships that were fueled by respect and compassion, wanting to help people get over their fear and live lives of courage and connection.” This realization started Tanisha on a three-year quest of self-exploration that led her to Buddhism as her spiritual path. While very private about this part of her life, she calls her conversion “The most personal, profound, perfect decision I have ever made.”
“It was the worst experience of my life and the source of my most valuable life experience."
“As someone who has survived a really traumatic event, I am really attuned to other people’s suffering and I want to lessen it however that is possible.”
If the assault and the VAW summit in Louisiana weren’t motivation enough, there was one incident in 2008 that cemented Tanisha’s decision to leave her 9-5 career in pursuit of personal fulfillment. She had produced and directed a show based on V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women. A client from Workman Arts came to see the production and at the end she exclaimed to Tanisha, “I thought you only typed!”. Upon hearing those words, Tanisha realized how little of herself she was able to put into her work. “There’s nothing wrong with only typing,” she says, “but if you have this whole other world inside of you that people aren’t seeing, then you’re not doing the right thing with your life.”
In late 2005, she auditioned for and was cast in The Vagina Monologues, and then in a production of Ragtime, which compelled her to enroll in the Theatrical Performance continuing education program at Seneca College. Her professional break came in 2009 when after two and a half years of directing community-based, activist theatre, she was chosen by the Obsidian Theatre Company as their Directing Apprentice. Since then, her adoration of the stage has blossomed, culminating in her latest project: composing ‘Force’, a full-length musical about rape. Theatre and social justice are entwined for Tanisha, and she admits that without art as expression her world would be much more claustrophobic.
“The assault changed my view of how I wanted to relate to the world and how I wanted the world to relate to me and how I wanted to help people relate to each other.”
As we near the end our time together I pose the same question to Tanisha as I have to all of our past heroes: Has there ever been a time when your heart has led you astray? "There was a moment probably about 3 years ago when I had $2.14 in the bank, and that was the extent of my money. I didn’t have any savings or RSPs or anything. And I remember just sitting in my bed and having a breakdown - just bawling and saying to myself, can I actually do this? Because I can’t spend the rest of my life having these moments of extreme crises. Right? I can’t continue to expect any kind of repeated help from my parents. I can’t. I need to be able to live my own life and stand on my own. And I think at that point, I really thought, did I choose the wrong life? Because I don’t know that I can do this. I think that very day I ended up getting a GST refund that saved me.
There were moments when the jobs haven’t come as quickly as they need to, because in this career you kind of have to line them up one after the other. You can’t have a lot of downtime, unless you have one job that pays you really really well. And I‘ve had moments where I’m like, I don’t even want to consider the fact that this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing with my life, because this is my love. But I don’t actually know that I can live. And usually something swoops in not long after that keeps me going."
One of the biggest challenges a person can face is to recognize their own limits, and Tanisha knows she has a finite amount of strength and influence. “I can’t fix it all,” she admits, “but I can make it a focus of my life fixing what I can, addressing what I can.” The simplicity, sincerity, and honesty of that statement are inspiring and touching. I know that Tanisha is living with her heart.
***Special thanks to Artless Hub for loaning us the space for the interview, and even bigger thanks to Tanisha for welcoming us into her home to shoot.