Author: Sam

Awesome Lady Superhero League

Following our first Brainstorming Town Hall, the Awesome Lady Squad (which we’ve starting likening to a real life “Justice League,” fighting against inequality in the world)  reconvened to dream up more concrete action plans and flesh out the specifics for a few of the ideas so we can get down to saving – or at least improving – the world, one mission at a time.

After reviewing the problems and hopeful visions the group had listed at the last meeting, we dove right into an idea generation exercise. We each took a stack of post-its and spent fifteen minutes dreaming up projects or creative solutions to tackle specific issues or problems relating to inequity we see in the world.

When we finished, all the ideas were briefly pitched and grouped into similar projects, eventually developing an inspiring web of proposals. Click here to download a list of all our ideas.


Then, we all took another look at what we’d generated. Adrienne asked a few ladies to self-nominate as “mission leaders” to develop a project they were drawn to. These volunteers were joined by others interested in working on the same project. Thus divided into four groups, we set to work.

Each team received this Mission Task Sheet, which features a series of questions to guide each group in thinking about the practical requirements of implementing the project proposal and the “superpowers” required of team members to most successfully conquer a mission. You’re welcome to download a copy at that link and fill it out for any project you’ve been thinking about but aren’t quite sure how to begin working on.

Here are the ideas the teams fleshed out:

Family Communication Skills Workshop

  • Hosted by community hubs (libraries, YMCAs, etc.)
  • Theater/improv games for kids
  • Improv games for adults (of the sort taught to standardized patients helping to train new doctors)
  • Kids and adults reunite in family groups and share activities that each did, in hopes that the age-appropriate experiences of shared themes will give them the tools to start discussing their experiences
  • Perhaps end each session in a potluck without phones

Mystery Resistance Choir

  • “Bangin’ arrangements” of 4-5 songs created with new lyrics responding to issues like islamophobia, misogyny, climate change, LGBTQ, and immigration and spreading a message of love and positivity
  • Volunteer choir rehearses these songs and goes to malls, lobbies of corporations, and possibly neighborhoods for caroling-style impromptu performances of the songs
  • Potentially hand out flyers/calling cards
  • Party for people who participate

“Thanksgiving Dinner” Conversation Game

  • Inspired by My Gift of Grace, a card game designed to spur comfortable conversations around dying and living well – a conversation game that will guide people to openly consider and share where their values come from through entertaining thought experiments, ethical dilemmas, etc. – a step back from politics and into the morals that drive them
  • Collect questions/topics that people have trouble having with friends and family and develop ways to address them from a less political, more value-driven perspective
  • Play-test different versions and develop game that can be played with both family/friends of starkly different opinions and those you just want to get to know a little more specifically

State of Reunion (Civic Practice Fair)

  • A live event for civic organizations to come together in one place to pitch their mission to citizens and engage them in their practice
  • Each organization gets a booth and three minutes to pitch the state of the world and how their org can help to improv it
  • Listeners of each pitch can sign up to volunteer/donate/sign petitions for the orgs they’re interested in supporting
  • Food and drink vendors to make it a fun overall experience

These projects are in varying states of action/interest in further development, but if you’re interested in learning more and/or volunteering to lead/participate any of these missions, email Likewise, if you want to lead a different mission and are looking for volunteers to help, let us know and we’ll help you get the word out. Beyond that, the Awesome Lady Squad will be gathering again January 5, 7-9 PM at the front studio at Headlong, to continue this work. Join us!

Awesome Lady Squad Town Hall Dispatch

Awesome Lady Squad is back with a vengeance: a huge thanks to the 20+ ladies who joined us at last night’s meeting. Here’s a dispatch on what we got up to and what’s next:

First, the TL; DR version:img_0026

  • Made a list of the specific fears, dreads, and causes for concern that we see
    and feel in the current political and cultural landscape
  • Made a list of concrete hopes and dreams we seek instead
  • In small groups, brainstormed tangible action plans the Awesome Lady Squad might take in response to the above

In more nitty-gritty terms…

After realigning ourselves with the values set forth in the Awesome Lady Squad Ladyfesto, we each had five minutes to individually answer each of the following questions to develop a sense of the landscape: 

What is it specifically that you see and feel? What are the manifestations that create your cause for concern?

Given these negative outcomes you anticipate, what would you hope for instead, as concretely as possible?

We came back together and shared our individual thoughts to collaboratively compile a list of responses for each question. Thoughts for the first question came fast and furious, ranging from “visible apathy towards hate speech on social media” to “lack of accessibility to support systems for people who are poor or don’t speak English as a first language” to “Where does art fit now? Does it still matter with all this?”

Then, we switched to our hopes, sharing ideas and challenging each other to spin negatives into positives towards a visionary response to the challenges at hand. Here, ideas ranged from “develop language or a cheat sheet for talking about our issues/concerns” to “volunteer with non-artistic organizations to share art with kids” to “tap into the bridge-makers to disconnected communities.”

For a full listing of all our brainstorms, click HERE.  If you weren’t there, we encourage you to take a moment to write down your own responses.


After putting these lists together, we switched to small groups for a Project Brainstorm, in response to the following question:

Knowing the problematic issue or outcome, and knowing what we might want to have in its place, what are projects or creative solutions that we could manifest? Assume that money is no option for now. What are tangible actions to take?

We shared the initial action plans folks dreamed up, including a Family Communication Skills workshop and making protests inherently theatrical.

On Saturday, December 10 from 2-4, we’ll continue that conversation. Newcomers should come having thought through their own sense of the artistic landscape and be prepared to dive into brainstorming projects, while returners will have a chance to flesh out their ideas even more. Then, we’ll move forward in concretely planning ways the Awesome Lady Squad can move forward with some or all of the projects.

Hope to see you there! We’ll be meeting in the rear studio at Headlong (1170 S Broad St).

Failure of Imagination

It was really hard to get myself to start working this morning.

I woke to a Facebook newsfeed of arguments about gun control, rebukes of Donald Trump’s ongoing islamophobic statements, posts crossing out #PrayforOrlando in favor of #PolicyChangeforOrlando, members of the LBGTQ community expressing personal fear and outrage, and on and on. Even posts on the positive end – plans for candlelight vigils around the country and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s powerful sonnet at the Tony’s – just served as reminders of what happened this weekend in Orlando, of the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

Often, I can convince myself that the best thing to do after such events is to keep living my life, to not let fear or anger or sorrow prevent me from that. But today it was hard. Today it felt like a day spent revising a grant, drafting residency documentation, confirming conference travel plans, and researching game mechanics, was pretty meaningless: who am I kidding, arguing for the importance of art when there are people being shot and killed senselessly at a place of joy and community and celebration?

Then I remembered something: I’ve had this conversation before. Back in December, the San Bernardino shooting happened halfway through a Cross Pollination residency with Adrienne, Mark Lord, and Shelley Spector. The next morning, they spent a long time talking about how unimportant some of their explorations suddenly felt in the face of the way the world was going, and what they could do to make sure that their time spent together was genuinely worthwhile.

Then Mark shared something that’s stuck with me. When The 9/11 Commission Report was released, he read the whole thing. In one section, they talk about four failures as the root of that attack being possible: failure of policy, failure of capabilities, failure of management, and failure of imagination. Failure of imagination, Mark explained, means that no one imagined that such an attack could happen. The CTC (Counterterrorism Center) never even considered that aircraft could be used as a weapon, so they never did any analyses for what that could look like or how to prevent it. There was no level at which the 9/11 attacks occurred to them, even though it’s their job to think from an enemy’s perspective.

For the failures of policy, capabilities, and management, The 9/11 Commission Report offers pages and pages that discuss how to use political science strategies to make changes and prevent other attacks in the future.

For failure of imagination, there were no suggestions.

If this was one of the primary failures that allowed 9/11 to happen, Mark explained wondering, why are there not more thoughts on ways to solve it? How do people become more imaginative?

Through art. Through creativity. Through a willingness to look at the world from a fantastical lens. Through an experience that transcends reality. Through music and performance and storytelling and visuals that make you feel things or consider perspectives you might never have come to on your own.

I’m not saying attending a couple more plays would have magically given the CTC the creative powers to imagine every possible terrorist attack scenario. And I hate that the kind of imagining they would need to suspect that kind of attack requires believing the absolute worst of humanity. But regardless, the capacity to imagine, whether it’s a happy dream or a nightmarish possibility, is essential. Cultivating the ability to see the world from a multitude of perspectives fundamentally rewires people’s brains, both in how they problem-solve and consider issues in their own lives, and in how they see and respond to other human beings.

And that’s why I have to keep doing this. It may not be a direct response to the horrors that happened this weekend, but creating art that opens minds, develops imagination, and encourages compassion has a role to play, however, small, in making the world a better place to live.

– Sam

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.

The Best Kind of Tired

When I visited Barcelona a couple years ago, one of my friends decided she was going to use the opportunity to remember and practice all the Spanish she’d ever learned and refused to speak English to any of the locals we met. Likewise, most of the people we interacted with at stores or restaurants wanted to practice their English when talking to us. It was hard work at times to cross the communication barrier, as neither side was fluent, but when a whole conversation was achieved with understanding on both sides, it was always extremely satisfying. My friends and I would return to our airbnb rental at the end of the day, and we’d be completely exhausted, not just from the physical activity of exploring new places, but from the  mental openness required of being immersed in a different culture and trying to communicate in a different language.

Cross Pollination feels a little like that. This week, Adrienne is working with sculptor Shelley Spector and theater/dance dramaturg and deviser Mark Lord. Adrienne and Mark both work in the theater world, so in some ways they speak the same language, but they approach their form so differently that they’re definitely using different forms or dialects of it. Meanwhile, Shelley, as a visual artist, is often speaking another language entirely. But all three parties are constantly asking questions and seeking answers from the others, and the moments where everybody reaches equal footing and understanding, whether it’s by participating in an exercise led by one artist, or by conducting interviews that let the others ask in-depth questions, are every bit as satisfying as when Jess had whole conversations with Spanish shopkeepers.

But while I could often let go of the Spanish conversations when I left them, Cross Pollination has a much more lasting effect. The conversations are so dense and openness and authenticity so sought after that I always leave mentally exhausted. But to add to that, not only are the Cross Pollinators communicating across different languages, but their explorations don’t just consist of walking around a city or hiking up a mountain; they’re often trying totally new things, using muscles that they may  not even know they have. The work may not be difficult, necessarily, but the newly discovered muscle can end up feeling sore just because it’s so out of practice.

But soreness is exciting when it means you’ve achieved something. Communicating in another language opens the world so much more than being isolated in your own. And Cross Pollination may leave us exhausted ad oversaturated, but it’s the best feeling there is.


Cross Pollination Squared

[Let me start with a moment of clarification: I am not Adrienne. I’m Sam, and as I work full-time for Swim Pony, I have now become a more regular blog contributor alongside Adrienne. She’ll still be writing as much as ever, but as there was some confusion when my last post was published, I just want to make sure I’m not given any false impressions. Also, thanks to MJ Kaufman for the snazzy title to this post. Onward!]

We are knee-deep in our first week of Cross Pollination right now, with Chris Forsyth and MJ Kaufman. My job for the project is logistics coordinator and documentarian; I schedule meetings, book spaces, coordinate bringing in outside artists to help out, purchase supplies, process paychecks, and manage much of the social media and web presence. At the end of each Cross Pollination week, I’ll also be writing and publishing Swim Pony’s official documentation of the residency. All this allows Adrienne to be fully invested in cross pollinating as an artist, without having to simultaneously stress about micro details that take her out of the process.

For me, it also means that I have the fascinating observational perspective of getting to be at every meeting and every rehearsal for every group, to soak in and take notes on the conversations that happen and ideas that develop. The whole idea of Cross Pollination is to bring together artists who would probably never all be in a group or collaborating. Therefore, I am continually struck by surprise over how many parallels exist across different groups, even in these early stages.

Some parallels make sense, of course: with Adrienne as a common factor in each group, it’s not surprising that I’ve heard about storytelling through collage, aversion to plot, and an interest in gaming systems as a way into audience integration in almost every meeting. However, much more interesting are the commonalities that have come up in unexpected ways, which seem to say a lot about how Philadelphia inspires people and the questions that artists of all kinds ask themselves.

Each group starts with a preliminary “coffee date,” where the three artists grouped together meet and do some initial getting-to-know-you chatter to make sure there’s not a horrendous personality clash. Then there are two more preparatory meetings before the group’s Cross Pollination round, which allows time for more concrete conversations about what might happen during the week in terms of both content and form (allowing me to make sure they have an appropriate space and any supplies they can think of ahead of time).

One of our groups, Mark Lord and Shelley Spector, along with Adrienne, had their first of the two preparatory meetings last week. There was a lot of interest in marking art from found objects and spaces, particularly those found in a space that is a really tight, specific container, such as an Amtrak train. They talked about a core value of audience takeaway, about building something tangible and offering a tactile experience, and the desire to work in a space that’s not neutral. There was a conversation about “interventions,” an art term for something existing in a place where it’s not supposed to be (such as when Shelley and her family were offered a hayride in the middle of Philadelphia). The group hit a stride on the topic of undercutting American consumerism, things that could be done in or relating to retail spaces to poke fun at them, or alternatively to bring tranquility into holiday shopping spaces (especially since their residency will be the week immediately following Black Friday). Then they veered back to the idea of objects’ stories and the spirit of gift-giving that exists alongside the rampant consumerism come December. We all left the meeting with heads spinning, excited and inspired to let the thoughts simmer and talk more next time.

The next morning, Shelley sent us a follow-up email that offered a new proposal that brought together many of the ideas that had been discussed: translating the idea of a train into the more diversified subway, and building a collapsible tent or “store” that gives gifts of objects or performance to subway riders. Adrienne responded with interest and curiosity in what can make something on the subway a “gift” in a way that genuinely offers a positive experience rather than bothering people. The conversation ended there for the time being; it will come up again at our final prep meeting, and it’s anyone’s guess if we will ultimately end up doing anything close to that, given the number of ideas that float around in all the Cross Pollination conversations.

But regardless of whether it happens, that idea is out there. Now, let me talk a little about this week… Adrienne, Chris, and MJ’s prep conversations were very different. Topics included family, education, structure vs. freedom, what it means to be “productive,” funders, event coordination, making theatre feel like a rock concert, artistic inspirations, and collaging of different elements in one space. We went into the week with a lot of topics of interest but no concrete plans. The week started with some slow explorations, but towards the end of the second day, we landed on an idea that inspired the rest of the week.

Chris, MJ, and Adrienne tried a couple different ways of layering all their expertises on top of each other: Chris playing guitar, MJ writing, and Adrienne directing all at the same time. One of the later experiments explored the question of how to bring instrumental music to the foreground instead of it always being supplemental to text/plot. Two actors were asked to read from a long, non-dramatic text that MJ had written previously, a sentence at a time, with long gaps between each that let the music swell and exist as the priority. The result was something that felt like a live podcast, with the way the music interwove with snippets of texts in a powerful auditory (but visually relatively unstimulating) experience. The group connected this to a comment Adrienne had made about particularly enjoying listening to music in the car, as part of a journey. So we talked about maybe making this “live podcast” a performance piece in the back seat of vehicles: what if we called an Uber driver, then a musician and two actors got in and suddenly were providing art to the driver?

The next day:
-So, are we riding around in a car today?
-Cars are a little small; we couldn’t all fit…
-They’re also unsustainable.
-…Yeah, driving a car around totally aimlessly is probably not a great idea.
-What if we do it on the subway?

And with that, we were off. We spent the rest of the day riding the Market-Frankford line back and forth, particularly the elevated section going all the way out to Frankford Transportation Center, and experimenting with ways to bring performance into a subway car without it feeling overly intrusive, like something we were offering to the riders but not forcing upon them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t; there’s still more to explore and tweaks to work out.

But all I could think about was how, totally unexpectedly, we’d ended up doing something so similar to what Shelley had proposed for their week. Artists of totally different mediums, in very different ways and for totally different reasons, hit upon the idea of working on the subway as a public and meaningful place/opportunity to share different kinds of art with people.

As I said, I don’t know if Shelley and Mark’s week will result in subway art at all. But at this moment, the connectedness of these experiences – the fact that each week of Cross Pollination doesn’t exist in isolation but is fed by shared inputs of the same city and issues in the world – feels both serendipitous and meaningful.

What century is this?

It’s been a long time since I saw a big “Broadway musical.” But I was offered free tickets to the national tour of Bullets Over Broadway at the Academy of Music yesterday, and since I had a free evening, I was happy to accept. I knew nothing about the show, but I generally enjoy musicals and I figured it’d be an enjoyable night out.

What I did not expect was for it to rile me up to the point of shouting about it to my roommate over breakfast this morning. Which is how I knew I should probably explore the root of that irritation, and what we can do about it.

Bullets Over Broadway is a big glitzy musical set in the 1920s, about an emerging playwright/director bringing a play to Broadway through the assistance of a mobster financial backer. The show opened with “Tiger Rag,” which featured a group of leggy women in skimpy tiger costumes performing for a bunch of gangsters. The song offered no exposition towards the plot, and seemed to serve merely as a chance to dress some pretty chorus girls up in sexy costumes.

As those thoughts flitted across my mind in the first minute after the overture, I also had the strong sense that  I’d be in for a bumpy ride. And I was right. Not only were the female ensemble only ever used as flappers/”gentlemen’s club” dancers/sexy train conductors to give unnecessary exposition about what new location the story was moving to, but the leading ladies were no better. Let’s assess.

The Women of Bullets Over Broadway:

  1. Ellen – The playwright’s girlfriend from before he makes it big, who gets so little stage time in the first act that we hardly even care when her boyfriend strikes up a love affair with his play’s star. She almost gives women a little independent agency when David confesses his affair and she responds by saying she’s cheating too and doesn’t seem at all upset about his infidelity. But then along comes the finale: just as David’s lover dumps him, Ellen returns and says that she has realized she’s much more interested in their steadfast love than the passionate sex she was having with her man on the side. (Yes, really.)
  2. Helen Sinclair – The darling of the theater who David recruits into starring in his show. Has the authority/independence to do whatever she wants, but mostly just comes off as an alcoholic diva bitch who destroys David and Ellen’s relationship and then dumps him.
  3. Olive Neal – The mobster’s girlfriend who lands a role in David’s play because the mobster won’t give him financial backing if he doesn’t cast her. Your basic Lily St. Regis: lots of pink clothes, lots of blonde hair, and lots of stupidity. Her voice is so annoying and her talent in David’s play so lacking that the real audience enthusiastically applauded when she got shot.

Those are the female roles in this musical: a ragdoll who comes running as soon as the man who cheated on her is available again, a scheming bitch, and an obnoxious dumb blond. If you’re not one of them, you’re a chorus girl at the gentleman’s club, or an insecure and irritating supporting actress with a pet dog who has his own therapist, or if you’re lucky, the assistant director with only one line.

I tried to tell myself that maybe it was sort of okay, that the show was just a product of its time. For example, I have a lot of problems with the way women are portrayed in South Pacific, but because it was written in 1949, I give it a little leeway in its contents. (I have questions about why anyone still does shows that are problematic because of “their time,” but that’s an issue for another post.) This musical, set in the 1920s, felt akin to the old classic musicals, very much in the world of Guys and Dolls; since I’d never heard of it before this tour, I thought maybe it was a 40s or 50s piece that had been revived as a fun touring option.

And then I looked it up, and found out that Bullets Over Broadway premiered on Broadway last year.

What? WHAT? WHAT?!

Why are we still making show like this today? It’s bad enough when productions of the classics maintain the inherent sexism and racism that so many of them have, without thinking of ways to update them to be relevant and useful for a contemporary audience, rather than memorializing the problems by refusing to acknowledge they exist. But why is anyone STILL making NEW theater that only treats women as objects of men and the butt of their jokes? Why would we offer a play like this a Tony nomination for best book? Why would any actress accept a role in such a play? How could Susan Stroman, a director/choreographer who is more than successful enough to turn down bad offers, be pleased with directing other women in a show that treats them like this?

Of course, one of those answers is obvious. The women performing in Bullets Over Broadway, leads or not, are getting credited for a national tour, probably being paid quite well, and honestly probably having a lot of fun with all the dancing and singing. With factors like that, it can be easy to bask in the personal growth opportunities offered from being a part of such a great gig and ignore the bigger picture of what the musical is actually saying and doing to women.

I get that. I really really do. I question sometimes if I made the wrong choice by not going for an apprenticeship or ASM/PA job at a big theater that could fast track me to a professional career in stage management for large-scale, big-name shows. But then I see this production, and I know that I will take all the challenges that come with my path to make sure that that’s not the kind of theater I’m helping put into the world.

For many audiences, this is all they know that theater is or can be. The perception of money equating to quality and that good professional theater has to originate from New York that many people have means that, most likely, there are hundreds or even thousands of Philadelphians who only really go see shows at the Kimmel Center or Academy of Music, and maybe the Walnut if they’re lucky.

So many people laughed at the expense of the goofy female characters in this musical. So many people were so impressed by the moving car with real headlights that appeared on stage for less than ten minutes total and probably cost more than the budget of any single Swim Pony show. So many people clapped or cheered when David and Ellen got back together again at the end, even though it took away any measure of independence she’d built up. I walked out of the theater with all these people around me, and I felt so sorry for them, that they’re content to shut off their brains and consciences and enjoy without asking questions.

It’s no wonder that young people, people who care about the way women are treated in art and entertainment, and who want to be able to express their opinions and engage with what they’re seeing, don’t care much about theater and go to see it in such minimal numbers.  Because honestly, if this show is what traditional theater is offering, I’m glad it’s “dying out.”

Not everyone has to make shows that are immersive and participatory and site-specific like Swim Pony; there are many excellent traditionally structured plays and musicals that I get excited about. But new musicals that play into old stereotypes are not on that list.  I hope that all artists can accept and find work not just because it’s likely to be good for their career, but instead because they care about it, about what its saying and how it’s saying it and what impact that will have on an audience.

Because if you don’t believe in the art you’re making, then why are you making art at all?


Sharing the Process

Adrienne and I just opened The Children’s Hour with EgoPo Classic Theater, with her as guest director and me as stage manager/dramaturg. It’s an intense, dramatic play that takes the audience through a roller coaster of emotions as the lives of the characters fall apart.

But despite the emotional investment the performances demand, as I sit behind the semi-transparent black curtain that separates my tech booth from the performance space, I can’t help feeling like the audience is missing half the experience, if not more. Our rehearsals included hours of conversation and exploration, of developing backstory and relationships and searching for answers to difficult questions. We fought tooth and nail – sometimes even against what was written on the page – to build the characters into real people instead of archetypes, with sympathetic motives for the choices they made, good or bad. Once in an early rehearsal, I came out of the studio to the lounge to gather actors for the next scene, and when I apologized for being behind schedule, they responded unanimously that they were not upset at all, that they’d loved having the time to sit and talk about the play.

The audience doesn’t generally get to see this part. Of course, the purpose and goal of all the exercises and conversations is to create layers that will exist in performance even without explicit knowledge of where they came from. And doing the work definitely makes a better end product. But even so, when a friend asked me how the play was going, I told him it was great, but that I felt like I’d gotten a lot more out of the rehearsal process than I do now being in performance.

Here’s the thing. A big part of why I wanted to pursue theatre as a career is because of how much I love the process. I love learning new things about empathy and humanity from how different people interpret words or ideas. I love asking questions and the eureka moments when something finally clicks into place. And it’s great that theater-makers get to experience this. But for theater to continue serving a purpose in the contemporary world, we can’t be doing it just for the joy we get out of it. We have to make and share theater in such a way that the impact it has on audiences is as powerful as the impact it has on the artists creating it.

And if the most impacting part of the work is often the process rather than the product, and we want the audience to have as effecting an experience as possible, then syllogism tells us that we should bring the audience more into the process. Like the special features that are probably one of the only reasons people still buy hard copies of some films, or backstage passes that let people see behind the scenes of rock concerts, or the Pottermore website JK Rowling created to share more of the secrets of the Harry Potter world that have been only in her head for so long. All these things open a window into process, into how a product reached its end-state. And people love it.

Process-orientation has been part of the Swim Pony mission for a long time, both in the kind of work we do and in how we share and develop it with our community. But we’re excited to do even more. We’re excited to further develop an artistic community that’s about dialogue and openness from the beginning, rather than one that presents a streamlined finished product that only scratches the surface of what went before. I hope you’re as excited about it as we are.


A little guest directing, a little guest blogging

Adrienne and I are starting off fall working on something a little out of the ordinary for Swim Pony: a “play play,” as Adrienne likes to call them. Adrienne is guest directing The Children’s Hour at EgoPo Classic Theater, a 1930s period drama about an all-girls boarding school, one girl who doesn’t quite fit in, and the destruction she wreaks with a slanderous story about her headmistresses’ supposed secret love for each other.

Despite the heaviness of many of the scenes, there is a lot of laughter and joy and support in the rehearsal room as we unpack these characters and their stories together. While we work on the show, Adrienne is doing a little guest blogging for EgoPo as well…

 Check out her first post on their company blog!


Re-conceptualizing Gameplay as Play Play

Sam here. As Swim Pony’s new Artistic Associate, I’ll be taking on some of the company blogging alongside Adrienne.

I grew up playing video games. Since my brother is only seventeen months older than me, we spent most of our time together as kids, and in addition to building LEGO cities and biking around the rotary at the end of our street for hours, that meant a lot of video games. First, it was Cruisin’ USA on the Nintendo 64, Super Smash Brothers Melee on Game Cube, and every generation of Pokemon. Later, we were more into epic role playing games like Fire Emblem and the Tales series, as well as real-life simulations such as Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon… and the occasional round of Mario Kart.

At a certain point, I developed more of my own interests and gradually played fewer and fewer video games. Ironically, I think my falling out with the hobby coincided pretty directly with diving into theatre full-throttle in middle school. For a while now, I’ve thought of gaming somewhat nostalgically, as something I really enjoyed and wish I could have time for again.

So starting work for a company interested in the hybridization of gaming and theatre feels more than a little bit like coming full-circle. Over the past few weeks, we’ve started Play Play meetings, where a group of theatre artists gather and share ideas/games/research links that explore the whole game/theatre mash-up concept – and it’s more prevalent than I thought. Key players in both industries are becoming more and more interested in immersive experiences that welcome participants into the world of the game or the performance, and therefore it’s clear to see how the two can meet in the middle.

Our conversations so far have focused largely on games with hyper-realistic role playing and thus real world believability. We talked about Sunset and Gone Home, two short computer games that place you in a hyper-realistic world where you role play as a character and have to explore your environment to solve a mystery. They’re what are called “real-time art” or “story exploration games.” By default, you’re forced to interact with your environment as you would if it were real: open drawers, turn on lights, read notes. The ability to interact with the world in a real way is as important as the plot in creating a sense of immersion, if not more so.

But digital games aren’t the only form of “gaming” out there. Another popular genre is LARPs (live action role plays). When this topic came up, I realized that I have a huge amount of misconceptions about what LARPing is today – partially due to ignorance, and partially because I’ve just never really thought about it. I considered LARPing as sort of a physical take on fanfiction: players dress as their favorite character(s) from existing games or stories and act out alternate universe/continuation plotlines.  In some cases, this is accurate; LARPing can be as simple as a group of friends getting together and fighting with foam swords, inspired by characters or scenes from fantasy worlds.

But I have recently learned that LARPing is a lot more than that. Adrienne shared a clip from a Nordic LARP called Delirium, in which 36 players portrayed couples in a mental institution for fifty hours. The environment was designed so that it was impossible to escape from your character; if players tried to rebel against non-player authority figures or the set expectations for a situation, the scene would reset and they’d have to start over. The experience was much more intensive and immersive than my preconceived notions of LARPs.

Though this is considered a game, since people choose to play and to take on roles, it feels very theatrical; there is a set, costumes, lighting, rehearsed actors (playing doctors and other authority figures), and so on. It seems a bit like a sneaky way to get shy audience members to become participants in a large-scale immersive play, by tricking them into thinking they’re playing a game rather than seeing theatre.

One of our Play Play conversations brought up something else that is, technically, a LARP. Several members of the group talked about times when they were assigned to play out societal roles in middle school as a practical lesson. One “game” involved first, second, and third world layers; the small first world group had a Nintendo, Doritos, and air conditioning, while the third world classroom was jam-packed with no entertainment, money, or hope for escape. Another school had “Immigration Day,” where they spent the whole day standing in line, and were more successful at getting through quickly based on the characters they’d been assigned and how they dressed and acted correspondingly. These cases were very successful at getting participants to engage and play their roles because the setting was created with real in-game rewards and punishments for role playing appropriately.

My question after hearing about these scenarios was whether the participants, as middle schoolers, were aware of the lessons they were supposed to be learning or if they just felt like they were playing a fun game. This led to agreement that debriefing about the lessons learned was an essential part of the experience. But in thinking about actually devising a theatre/game hybrid, is there a way to ensure participants are aware of the plot being created around or by them while they’re actively within it? For that matter, is it more effective/useful to aim for an immersive and complex world or to prioritize the plot you want the participants to experience?  How many branching storylines are you able to realistically incorporate into live theatre, when each change affects the real world and the variables are harder to control? How can the digital element of video gaming be incorporated into live performance? Is that a necessary part of game/theatre hybridization?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of our conversations and the questions they brought up for me. I’m excited to see where we go from here, both at Play Play and Swim Pony at large.

And I think my brother – who never stopped playing games — will be proud to hear I’ve started again, and that I even get to consider it part of my job.