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.

I do not want to get angry

I do not want to get angry.

I’ve seen it happen before to those that work in this field. I watch the mentors of my early 20’s and notice that while they execute their work with skill and depth they increasingly carry around this place of anger.

Some days, when I feel tired and when it seems like it is such an absurd thing I am doing I start to get angry too. I can feel it rising from below and make its way up and through me. The anger comes in tiny commented sarcasms or critiques of the work of others. It is a critical voice, one that knows so much and in all that knowledge requires ever increasingly exacting standards. It looks at the works of my past, works that I loved when I made them, and only sees the flaws.

I wonder some days if this is inevitable, if the skill we possess is always just a bit behind what we are able to critique and examine. I think about how hard, how very hard, it is to make something and how easy, how incredibly easy, it is to dismiss or undercut or find fault. I think about the work it takes to shield ourselves from all those critical voices in our professional field. I wonder about the use of such voices in the pursuit of making something new.

My own mind counters with a thought: But without those critical voices how do we get better? If no one tells us what we’re doing wrong how do we refine and strive for more?

I think about this thought that my mind has offered me. I look at it like an object on a shelf and in response I think, “But who decides what’s ‘wrong?’ And what exactly is it I’m getting better at?”

I put this second thought on the shelf next to the first and stare at them side by side.

My earliest theatrical experiences were in “community” theater. As a shy teenager plays gave me a structured system to experience lives beyond my own and to examine a theme or idea not just by thinking about it but by physically embodying it day after day. Theater was the way I practiced a kind of empathic weightlifting. The stretch of pretending to be other people made me learn more about myself. I know it made me a braver and more compassionate person.

My friends and I did want to make something “good.” There was a sense of striving in these projects. We hoped our work would be seen as “well done.” But I can look back at those plays and see, of course, that in almost any objective sense of professional theater excellence they  were silly and small. Back then there was so much farther to go.

This is not to say that I want to make sloppy things. I like rigor. But I wonder if hard work is different than polished work. For though I know I will not likely find again the love I once had for Godspell or The Music Man, I do think it is useful to remember what is beautiful about such “community” theater. It allows us a system to join. It brings us together in shared purpose. It is a vehicle for vulnerability in our early learning before we have mastered something.

Most of the theater makers I know did not begin by aiming for “professional.” They began from community. They found love in a space of sharing.

So I wonder about a collective industry adoption of virtuosity and excellence as a sign of our professional status. I wonder if excellence, while understandably desirable, may lead us away from the thing that actually feeds us in being artists. I wonder if virtuosity of craft might slowly build up armor around our bodies and keep us impervious to the vulnerability that keeps us growing and open.

I wonder about other yardsticks with which to measure success:




I know some part of me fears that these seem too genuine, too fuzzy, too amateur. I worry that without Excellence I will be laughed at or pitied.

But I also wonder if maybe this is the feeling of that vulnerability I seem to have lost. And I know for sure that the pursuit of Excellence seems to keep making me angry. So perhaps it’s time to try something new.

 – A

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.


This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.

young me now me

Quit romanticizing whatever you had then. Whatever it was, you can always get it back again…

Several weeks ago I was on the phone with my sister.

She lives in Knoxville and among other things runs a business in which she sells delicious pastry treats under the aegis Dale’s Fried Pies. Her pies, I think, are something like my plays. They are the most obvious manifestation of what she does with her days. They, semi-imperfectly, become a container for her myriad of interests. They become a vehicle for the underlying questions she wants to explore. Anyway, Dale and I were on the phone several weeks ago. She was in prep stages for an official opening of a new building she and her husband purchased, renovated, and turned into a professional kitchen, office, art gallery and community space called The Central Collective. I was just coming off of opening The Children’s Hour at Ego Po and was readying to head into another tech this time at Drexel for some Halloween Lovecraftian silliness with my student cast for From Beneath It LurksDale told me about the myriad million little things she was discovering one needs for a building about to open to the public in a shmancy ceremony complete with a mayorial ribbon cutting: paper towel dispensers and garbage cans for example. I told her about the emotional drain of gearing up to head into another weekend of 12-hour days and lots and lots of light cues.

At some point, Dale said to me, “I mean it’s good. It’s not hard, really. Just busy. There’s just lots and lots to do. But it gets done, right? In some way it gets done.” At least, this is some approximation of what she said, to the best of my memory’s ability to recall.

And, in the best of my ability to remember my response, I stepped off the curb at Tasker and 10th as I walked to the subway and replied, “Yes. I mean, all the times I have down time and I’m dreaming about doing my work. All the times I’m imaging the future utopia I’ll be in when I’m making the art… This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

When I think back to the projects I enjoy the most in retrospect, the only thing I regret is that at the time I was so busy in the making that I often forgot to remember that I was there in the present tense moment. I’m so often imaging back to a bygone time when the work I made was younger, simpler, more directly created somehow or thinking ahead to a day when I’ll be making that ideal project in that ideal way with all the support and resource I don’t currently possess. It’s a comfort in some ways, this imagining that at some point in the past or future there’s this amazing thing. But it also means that that amazingness is never actually happening.

Has there ever been a milestone that when actually achieved felt solidly like the end of something, like a destination?

Maybe you all are better than I am but if I’m honest the answer is: Not for me. Too often by the time I’ve gotten to the thing I set out to do in some “back then” moment, I’ve already defined a plan and a road map to some other future moment when for sure this time it’ll really be the thing I need and actually feel like I’ve landed.

When was the last time you stopped for a second, a minute, an hour, and thought about the fact that the thing you always say you’re waiting for is in some way happening right this very now?

What if in that brief sliver of time we just all stopped to relax and enjoy our work in its present tensity?

For today, this is my mantra, however humble it may be: “This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

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.

In Progress/Process

Recently, Swim Pony began work on a new project called THE END. Designer Maria Shaplin, Sam and I all gathered together to start imagining how we start a conversation about what it means to die. It’s rare that I write publicly at these earliest stages of process. Normally, this time is something protected, delicate, and I worry about exposing it to the light of the outside world.

When I write grants for THE END I start by saying things like this:

THE END is a blend of theater and game.

THE END is a personalized journey.

THE END is a meditation.

THE END is a performance for an audience of one.

THE END begins with an invitation:

An elegant letter arrives in the mail. It offers instructions for the first contact (“Sit in a quiet corner for three minutes in silence, then email the address below with the first sentence that comes to mind about mortality.”) At the bottom of the paper is a date and these embossed words: “This will be THE END. What happens between then and now is up to you.”

This kind of writing exemplifies the state of mind that I am in when I first begin a project. I start by defining the very biggest containers I sense the work will fit into. I write what I think I know to be true. I state what I hope the work will provoke. These large scale definitions, things like “meditation” or “journey,” help me define the texture of what is to come. I often talk about creating a litmus tests for the work generated: in the earliest phases I want to know if the play should taste like lemon, feel like sandpaper, or sound like the wind. At the other end of the spectrum live tiny moments, flashes of a stage image or the feeling of a particular moment for the audience, that I sense must fit in somewhere even if I don’t quite yet know how. This is how I can sense that I must create a fancy invitation or include a particular piece of music.

The work that follows these initial impulses is the slow meeting of the largest and smallest imaginings. The process is the slow and steady progress of filling in the middle.

My collaborators and I begin by playing a game called My Gift of Grace. In it, we ask each other questions ranging from what fears we have about playing the game to what we want done with our body after we have died. The questions provoke conversations. They spin off into wild forests of feelings and beliefs. We can never manage to get through more than 7 cards in a sitting. There are 47 in the deck and we have made it to #23.

We write about death in 30 minute increments. The topics range from friends who have passed away to our beliefs about the afterlife. I recall the experience of seeing Paris’ Catacombs and nearly having a panic attack. I pull out the journal I kept at the time and transcribe words from six years ago:

It felt like palpable fear. Mostly, I just wanted to leave. I wanted to think of something ready to say about it (a real skill and crossbones, SO MANY FEMURS!) in case asked but mostly I wanted so much to be out and away. I simultaneously wanted to be close to the people I love most, to hug them, mesh into them, to prove we are in love and vital and alive and life seizing and at the same time throw away everything, my family, my relationship, all of it, and find something more REAL, to embrace and confront any doubt I’ve ever had and know that I’d feel more secure having been willing to give everything up to find the truth.

Later I make a list of all the things in my life that I remember dying, roughly in order:

  • My father’s father
  • My mother’s grandmother
  • My mother’s other grandmother
  • A kitten named Diva (hit by a car)
  • The class rabbit Thumper (in our backyard while we had him at home for the summer)
  • A caterpillar we wanted to grow into a butterfly
  • Another kitten named Diva (sick when we got her)
  • Two girls from my middle school killed in a fire (we sang for them a song in the choir concert)
  • Two green anole lizards whose names I don’t remember
  • A frog
  • Several fish
  • A cage of gerbils
  • A mouse
  • A boy from my high school (committed suicide)
  • My iguana Iggy
  • The plants in my college dorm room
  • A girl from my college (car accident)
  • My childhood cat Koko
  • My childhood dog Barkley
  • The plants in my first apartment
  • My childhood cat Jojo
  • The plants I planted in my south Philly backyard
  • My partner’s father
  • My partner’s grandmother
  • My partner’s childhood cat Mandu
  • My partner and I’s cat Tallulah
  • My childhood cat Bill
  • My mother’s mother
  • My partner’s grandfather
  • My father’s mother
  • My mother’s father
  • My mother’s sister

We play with spending 5 minutes in silence just allowing ourselves to think about a particular aspect of this topic and then writing in online dialogue with each other from different spaces.

passportsWe create questionnaires that try to capture the information one might need if they were to take a journey into such a land and create passports for confronting the underworld. Like some kind of Olympian god deciding the fate of an adventurer, we are uncertain about whether the player should be assured a road back out.

And by the end of these hours of initial work we send an invitation out to others to come and see some of what we’ve made. Tomorrow we’ll find out what works and what doesn’t, what gaps we made a little progress in closing, and which need more work to bridge all that space between the largest and smallest known quantities.

This is the way the work gets made, not in single genius leaps but in tiny incremental progress.

In process.

In practice.

In slowly figuring out how to take what is inside and make it manifest in the world.

– A

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?


Let Me Tell You Why

Some days I wake up in the morning feeling excited and refreshed.

Take this morning for example. I sat down for my daily check in with my fabulous company associate Sam. We chatted about upcoming deadlines and big picture project dreams. I made myself a list of things to work on today including rehearsal plans for my new work with a phenomenally funny group of students at Drexel. I put together some notes for an upcoming grant. I wrote a letter to a collaborator from my recent directing freelance gig for Ego Po.

I was doing things that were adding up to a happy and productive art-maker’s day. Things that would never lead me to think about the fact that being a female creator might put me at a disadvantage in my community. Too bad then that I had to go and read the Inky’s review for Luna Theater Co’s current production of Animal Farm.

I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to drive up the readership stats but I’ll summarize and quote here the relevant stuff. If you really want to find it, you can look it up online.

The review begins with an overview of Orwell’s story and then follows up by saying that the production’s performances (carried out by an all female cast) are genuinely terrifying and display a “startling physicality.” It cites some issues with direction and overall vision. It says that two of the performers Michelle Pauls and Tori Mittelman are both “brilliant” in their ability to “contort themselves by gait, posture, tone, and expression into pigs.” The review rounds out this first half of the review by stating that the “six actors craft stunning physical performances.”

I haven’t seen this show. I have no idea if these are accurate assessments of the directorial issues the reviewer hints at. I have no idea if the performers are “stunning” or “brilliant.” But I do know that up to the halfway point I was reading an article about a classic work performed by an all female cast that hadn’t yet cast aspersions on the quality of the project simply based on the performers’ gender rather than their unique and individual abilities to carry out the roles for which they had been assigned.

Some days I read about productions doing things like this and I see reviewers manage to actually see female artists taking on roles traditionally walled off from them by the default power of the canon just as “artists” that don’t need to be defined by gender. Some days I see such reviewers not remark or wonder whether female performers are equally capable of taking on such roles. Some days I think, “Gosh, maybe there is hope to finally just erase that Smurfette Principle “men will always and forever be the default” thing. Some days I start to think that maybe we don’t need to just wholesale throw out the canon because maybe I’m thankfully wrong in my fear that it’s just too hard for people to re-imagine stuff that comes from a time of straight white cis-male privilege into a world where we all see that straight white cis-male privilege should no longer be the case.

Today, alas, is not that day.

Because after citing the power of these particular performers for several paragraphs the reviewer gets to the crux of his review. After stating the terror induced in the audience through the performances the reviewer begs a question:

The only question is: Why?

And following that question there are a lot of other questions. There are plenty of these I have no problem at all with. There are plenty of these that I think are great questions to be asking a contemporary theater artist making a modern adaptation of a work from the past. Questions like:

Why create one disturbing moment after the next without offering more than the horror of slaughter?


Why unleash Pauls’ fear-inducing portrayal to prowl the stage, appear at random like a spy, direct the atrocities, if only to terrify in the abstract, and point no real or allegorical fingers at modern targets?

And some days I might have read this review and its thoughtful questions been able to move on. But today that series of questions also had to include this one:

The only question is: Why?

Why cast all women as animals clearly identified as male in the book?

Perhaps I might respond to this particular rhetorical question with a bit of rhetoric inquiry of my own:

  • Why do you need to lump useful negative criticism about directing choices and staging with a comment on casting choices that create more inclusivity and space for female creators?
  • Why question such casting when you just called their performance abilities “stunning” just a second ago?
  • Why are you subtly implying a director ought not cast people with “brilliant” acting ability for a particular role simply because they do not posses the talent-irrelevant attribute of being a dude?
  • Why would I bet a million dollars that you would never ever ever ever have commented on an all male casting even if it meant a cross-gendered Muriel the goat and Clover the mare?
  • Why do pigs and cows and horses and donkeys need to be so obviously gendered to be performed well?
  • Why does a pig’s gender even matter when animals are clearly being used as an allegory anyway?
  • Why do I have to sit here for an hour and wonder if this stupid random sentence is an emblem for the embedded anti-female sentiment that runs deep in our creative community?

Back to that original question:

Why cast all women as animals clearly identified as male in the book?

Because if we don’t fucking figure out a way to get women’s voices and perspectives into stories from the past that previously excluded them then as we inevitably progress to a more equitable and just society where female voices are no longer marginalized we will have to ditch this shit into the garbage bin because apparently you’d rather do that than find a way to modify such works to be more inclusive.

That’s why.

That tiny line, one in an otherwise unremarkable and potentially totally relevant review, bothered me enough to take an hour out of my day to write this. That’s an hour that could have gone to raising money or researching or admin upkeep or even just farting around on the internet. Instead it went to venting frustrated feelings so that I didn’t feel like I had to just sit there and take casual undercutting of female bodies being represented on the stage.

Some days I wake up in the morning feeling excited and refreshed. Some days I manage to put my nose the grindstone and define my work path and get shit done and make some amazing art. Some days I manage to do all those things without someone making a comment in a public paper of record that makes me stop and write a blog post about how much better we’d be as a creative community if they didn’t make an offhand comment about how my gender isn’t as useful a default as the male one.

Today, alas, is not that day.

– A

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!