The Woman Who Takes It One Step at a Time
October 2, 2018
The hacky-sacks flew in semi-synchronized arcs through the air, occasionally landing in the hands of theater students, but mostly hitting the floor with their signature “thwack.” The students chattered and laughed at their common lack of athletic ability, but Annie Elias remained silent. She stood with one foot placed steadily just behind the other, her knees bent ever so slightly as if she was preparing to spring into action. What kind of action? Who’s to say. But with her eyes glancing back and forth between her designated thrower across the circle and the other members of the class, she seemed intensely aware of everything that was going on around her. She was focused, completely absorbed in what most other people would consider to be a low-stakes activity of ball toss. She was exactly where she wanted and needed to be.
Looking at her later that week from across the table in the theater box office, a water glass filled with hot tea placed (as usual) comfortably in her hands and her classic shy smile spread across her cheeks, she again seemed so at home, so comfortable. I asked her if she always knew she would end up here, teaching theater and leading a high school theater program, or if there had been some other great dream in mind.
She shook her head. “The goal was kind of unconscious,” she said. “There’s something that Joseph Campbell says about having the door open, or keeping the window open… Going through life letting the accidental or unexpected or unconsciously striven for happen, and just being open to accidents happening.”
For Elias, getting to where she wanted to be in life was as simple as hiking without a clear destination. She wandered and wondered, letting herself get pulled in new directions by serendipitous accidents along the way.
Growing up in Berkeley and then attending Mills College in Oakland, Elias was exposed to hiking throughout her young life, but she considered herself to be a “total amateur.” That all changed when, in her early 20’s, she went on a fellowship to the South Pacific to study stone and wood carving motifs in Polynesia: “I was just wandering all over and I took this walk into the wilderness that was sort of my… Wilderness Quest. It was an accident,” she said. Here, she fostered a deeper love and appreciation for the meditative quality of the outdoors, something that still defines her as an experienced leader of Marin Academy’s Wilderness Quest.
That same passion for the outdoors, , along with her desire to get away from the constraining nature of mainstream culture on her growing mind, then led her to hike the Appalachian Trail.
“I was like ‘I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a bird,” she said. “I think I’ve seen drawings of birds and been affected by other people’s interpretations of what’s beautiful.’ I had this idea of trying to have authentic experiences that were unfiltered somehow.”
While on the trail, she made the spontaneous decision to hitchhike to Warren, Vermont, where she eventually settled in writing articles about local people. But then, her life took an even more unexpected turn: “I literally saw a flyer on the town hall door that said ‘Theater Games Class,’” she said. “And I was like ‘Wow, theater games! That sounds interesting,’ and I thought it would help me as a writer,” she said.
The thing is, Elias was not the master-performer she is today. As a child, she wrote and performed whole plays, sang through entire musicals with friends, and even offered harsh critiques of local productions (of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown: “Those aren’t kids! That’s not Lucy! That’s an adult! That’s not Charlie Brown! Those are grown ups!”). But other than taking a single theater class in high school, she had never received formal training, let alone performed publicly.
Of course, that didn’t stop her from attending the class. A smile snuck its way onto her face as she talked about the class, for it was here where she began performing theater, and also where she met her husband, David Sinaiko.
“It was sort of an intentional putting myself in the way of accidents happening,” she said. “I set out to walk on the Appalachian Trail and see what happens… [and] if I hadn’t gone on the Appalachian Trail and I hadn’t hitchhiked to that little town and been open to being there, and I hadn’t found that little flier…” She then wandered off, running her hands through her hair and smiling widely. “I was opening myself to authentic possibilities or possibilities that resonated with me without questioning whether this was furthering my career or whether this would make me money or what’s the end goal of this… [and] somehow I was fulfilling everything I wanted.”
Now, Elias finds herself at another major turning point in her life: her first sabbatical after 19 years at MA. Naturally, she has a clear idea of what she wants to do: “My mind immediately went to ‘I need to take a big hike,’” she said, “because these different transitions in my life have been marked by a long walking journey.”
I wondered if she would let other opportunities come to her naturally while on the hike and throughout the rest of her time away from MA, just as she had so many times earlier in her life. “No,” she said, again laughing and running her hands softly through her hair. “Unfortunately, I’m not as spontaneous as I used to be.”
And yet, while her level of real life spontaneity may have decreased, her level of openness still seemed to be alive and well. A ball flew toward her from across the circle; she caught it easily in a single hand, then waited for a moment. She looked around, trying to time her throw with those of her less-coordinated students, all in the hopes of receiving the kind of satisfaction that can only be attained with a whole group “thwack” as the hacky sacks land in perfect unison. She did not anticipate; she did not fixate on the successes and failures of her students. She remained absorbed in the moment, ready for the next ball to land.