Why make theater?
I’ll be honest – I have doubts. A lot of my friends have doubts. There seems to be something in the air lately. A worry, a question, about what the hell we all are doing.
Sidebar: A few months back I was rehearsing The Giant Squid at Swarthmore College and ran into my former thesis advisor. For those unaware, I completed a degree in chemistry and I really liked the stuff. And though I ended up pursuing theater, I loved hard science. It had rules but still allowed for experimentation. I liked understanding how the world works at the tiniest of levels. On my shelf I still have the thesis on chiral binding properties of copper-porphyrin aggregates and ct-DNA to remind myself the word laboratory didn’t always just refer to experimental theater but that I actually once worked in, you know, a laboratory.
So back to Squid, it was a super strange colliding of worlds to introduce the man who taught me the finer points of circular dichroism spectroscopy to the actor with whom I’d just discussed the best angle to allow a giant tentacle to wrap around her 14 months pregnant belly pad.
He asked why I had returned to the college. I explained I was putting on a show for the student body.
“Oh yes! And is that what you are doing these days?”
And I told him that, yes, in fact I had a small company in Philadelphia that made original works of theater.
“Fantastic! Why, it’s everything you always wanted Adrienne. Congratulations.”
When I tell this story in person I deliver that last sentence as a punch line. I exaggerate the “Fantastic!” and pour on feigned gushy-ness for “everything you always wanted.” As if it’s funny, ridiculous even, to imagine that everything I always wanted was to run a theater company. And when I realized I was doing that, I also realized that there are lots of times when I talk about my work in this kind of diminishing way. That even though I spend so many of my waking hours advocating to others about what I do, I still find myself angry at my art form a lot of the time. And it’s a little scary, if I’m really honest about it, that as a person who does exactly that for a living, I ought be the last person who would want to make running a theater company sound like a laughable pursuit.
As young creators, I think we spend a lot of time taking in information without really questioning: best practices of creating, tips about living a life filled with art-making, and information about systems that support the work we create. No one would deny that a life in the arts can at times be incredibly punishing. And while I deeply believe in the intrinsic importance of artistic experience as a concept, if I’m to keep at this particular mode of it for another 30 years, I need to know it’s worth doing this art, in this way, at this time. Because those same skills that I’ve honed to question my work to make it my best also keep me up at night asking: “Why do I make theater?” “Why do it this way?” “Why is it useful?” “Is the result worth the effort?” and “Do I even like it?”
I worry sometimes that I’m playing the harpsichord. There’s nothing bad or wrong about that instrument. It’s just not terribly useful or relevant to a vast majority of people in the world. So in the last few months I’ve been trying to pick that instinct apart. Figure out whether it’s conventions that I think the form has gotten stuck in, its place in a changing and increasingly technological society, the non-profit system that surrounds it, the harsh under-capitalization it suffers from, all of these, none of these… And in trying to figure out how to reconcile myself, I thought it might be interesting to share these thoughts and elicit responses from other smart people thinking about the same kinds of things. So for the next month, I’m going to write at least 500 words every day for 30 days to see if I can define what I really think about theater and how I make it. And after 15,000 words of my own (and hopefully a bunch from other people in response) it might be possible to get to the parts of live performance that are amazing and transformative so that I can cut out the other crap and really concentrate on making what matters.
Either that or make a quick pivot back to research chemistry so I can stop playing the harpsichord before it’s too late. (#stopplayingtheharpsichord)
See you on the other side
Nice article emailed to me in response today. Thought I’d share:
Yes, it does seem that something is in the air. Perhaps it is “the end of the world” but maybe not in the dramatic apocalypse way, but more in the get in gear the world is ready to start changing so massively it will be the end of the world as we know it now.
I too have questioned my place as an artist, as a theater maker. I too have not found peace. But sometimes I am able to stop fighting it for a little bit and just BE who and what I am right now. I have had some help along the way. While reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (no I didn’t finish it) the message I walked away with at the time was this: Whatever path you are on, that is the path you are supposed to be on. Whatever you are doing right now, is what you are supposed to be doing. I was worried then, having gotten a fashion design degree but in absolute love with theater and costume design that I was spending the majority of my time and energy making women’s support undergarments. I was making ridiculous money, I was really really good at my job, and yet, what service did it provide? I didn’t like the company culture that I worked for. And then there it was in black and white on the page – this is ok. this is what you are supposed to be doing now. It will lead you to where you are going. Where is that!? I probably asked a hundred thousand panicked times, but I think that is part of the just be here and now, you can’t know where you are going because you haven’t gotten there yet.
The other tool that has always helped settle my artistic heart is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It is a book that takes you on a many week journey exploring your thoughts and fears of being an artist and gently guides you into taking action and making art, whatever that may be for you. Julia has helped me learn that Artist does not mean crazy unstable hurtful individual, she has taught me just the opposite, that an artist can heal, can help and is vital to a community. I seek to be that kind of an artist – an artist who creates wonderful things – not just the art, but who creates a more peaceful successful community. I define success as creating something with a lot less stress and frustration. This was supposed to be fun wasn’t it? Isn’t that why we started making theater? Because it was fun? I try to keep it fun, but not at the sacrifice of the art, I still want it to be the best ever. But that is my struggle, my heartache, my challenge. If I stay up all night making it the best I can humanly make it, I will also do my best to not ruin your day of rehearsal by being cranky.
Why theater in all of this? I have also asked that time and again. I am a strong and capable person. I could go build schools in Africa or hoe corn fields or do…so many things. And yet, that is not where my life has led me. It has led me here, to Philadelphia (on several occasions. I go away and the city calls me back. You call me back) to this community of artists and makers and theater and dance and play. This is where I am meant to be right now, doing this. And so I will. Until a different opportunity calls to me. In response to the article you also shared, I have seen a quote that says (this is not a direct quote, more the gist) Nerd/Geek – Call me what you like, but what it really means is that I LOVE something so much, that I am unafraid to share it, be it, live it and tell others about it. And so I am a theater geek. Because I love it and then I do it.
I spent five years as a dresser at the Walnut St Theatre. I was well paid, I had employer-paid insurance (with dental!), and when I wasn’t working, I could collect unemployment to fill in the gaps. So I was undeniably “comfortable.”
But! That whole time I had this nagging feeling that I got my degree in Acting and Directing and that I should be Creating, not just Working in theatre. And I did a little writing and a few readings here and there, but I was too busy and exhausted most of the time to try to Create.
But then I left the safety of the ‘Nut because I want to Make Theatre again. And I’m scared, and I have doubts, and all the uncertainty of trying to make it work with A) no money and B) no “artistic capital” of my own. But! I have the certainty of the IDEA, and I know what I want to make, and I’m so excited as I find Collaborators who are interested in making it with me. Because this time of Trying and Striving and Burning with the Need to Create makes me feel more alive than anything else.
So I’m with you in the constant doubt and questioning, but I’ll keep trying as long as the answer to the question remains YES
I refer to this subject matter as the “What The F**k Am I Doing Syndrome”. Self employed as a Realtor and an Actor/Stage Manager, there is a lot of uncertainty…mostly surrounding the idea of how and when will I be compensated for the work that I do. There are periods of time when all is well, I’m working, I’m closing deals, I’m performing, I’m gratified, I’m being paid, I’m providing for my family. Then there are the anxiety ridden dry spells. And two or three times a year I say, “What the f**k am I doing?”. Should I quit one of these careers? Should I stop doing theater? After all, it’s so time consuming, so draining, so this, so that. And then I say, “What are you, crazy?!” Theater, acting, creativity, and being with creative people is who I am! It is where I feel the most comfortable, where I can be fully expressive of who I am. That “need to creat” as Steve mentions is insatiable. It must be fed and nurtured, or else we cannot grow. Even composing this little message has satisfied a creative need. So, thanks for your blog idea. I’ll be looking forward to more…