Taking Up Space

When people ask me what I do for Swim Pony, I tell them it’s a little bit of everything – some admin, some stage management, some writing and research, and so on. That’s part of what I love about this job – I get to flex all different parts of my brain and constantly rotate tasks so they stay fresh and interesting.

For Cross Pollination, I manage a lot of logistics – schedule meetings, book spaces, pick up supplies, and process payments. I’m also the documentarian; I go to every meeting and residency gathering and take copious notes that get turned into the public-facing documentation for the program. For the former, I live in a very rational, categorical brain space. For the latter, I let that go and do my best to be aware instead of the emotions and rhythm of the space and the artists.

The incongruence of these two roles isn’t particularly difficult to resolve; as a stage manager, I’m happiest working with directors who encourage me to have creative opinions in addition to detailed prop tracking charts, so maintaining artistic awareness while keeping everything organized isn’t particularly problematic. However, there’s also another layer.

The part that’s hardest to balance is what I see as being “good at my job” with being a human being.

Let me unpack that for you a bit.

Cross Pollination is, almost unfailingly, an incredibly intimate space. Often, the trio of artists are exploring the most foundational motivations between how and why they make art and making the choice to share those with people who in most cases were strangers not long before. They spend a large amount of very concentrated hours together, talking and experimenting and having to open themselves up to things they don’t know how to do or succeed at. Questions like vulnerability, family, and meaningfulness are dug into deeply.

I’m there for all of it, but I’m not really a part of it. Occasionally I participate: often exercises that are led by one person and are completed individually or that are collaborative but not generative feel okay for me to be a part of, because they’re not actively part of discovering the artistic center of the triangle that the trio of artists form.

But mostly I do my best to stay an objective outsider. The point of me doing the documentation for Swim Pony instead of Adrienne is to have an outside eye who can write about the experiences of all the artists as intimately as possible (hence my always being in the room) without the bias of being one of them myself. I don’t participate in most conversations, and I observe the collaborative, creative exercises that take up the majority of the time.

Now, let me stress that I’m not complaining in the slightest: I’m very aware of how fortunate I am to get to be in the room with so many amazing people. I feel like I’m gleaning secrets about being a lifelong artist that take most people ten or twenty years to discover for themselves. Every day I’m in a Cross Pollination gathering, I feel like my mind is firing on a million different pistons as ideas I never even thought about spark from things people say. I often compare myself to a sponge, constantly absorbing as much as I possibly can.

But every once in a while, the sponge gets oversaturated. One week, an individual exercise I thought I could participate in and then withdraw and take notes about during the recap instead gave me an emotional breakdown. Another time, I found myself crying in the midst of a conversation before playing a game and had no idea where the tears came from.

I always feel guilty in these moments. I feel like it’s selfish to draw attention to myself or to take up emotional space when I’m supposed to be the objective observer. I feel like I’m losing respect by not being able to keep it together and deal with my shit on my own time, when these residencies aren’t about me. I feel unprofessional, sometimes even immature or childish.

Nobody’s ever told me to feel this way. Adrienne would never tell me I’m not allowed to have feelings; these are personal expectations I’ve internalized for myself. In fact, often I like and even prefer to operate this way: as a stage manager, being required to be the one who stays calm and solves the problem is often how I actually do become calm. Fake it ‘til you make it, you know.

But apparently that doesn’t always work. And in this case, maybe it shouldn’t. If I’m going to really understand what’s being discovered in each residency and be able to document the process with any accuracy, I have to let myself be part of the room. I have to let myself be raw and open and affected, just as the artists are. I have to stop setting myself standards of total objectivity and think of myself more as an anthropologist. Anthropologists don’t do research by watching people like zoo animals; rather, they integrate themselves into communities while also maintaining an outsider’s eye.

Because taking up space isn’t about being one of the artists in residency. It’s about being a human being.

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