This is the Cost

I see a lot of theater.

If you know me well, you know that this is a thing that too often makes me grumpy. There are a lot of reasons this is so, but in a conversation with a friend the other day I lamented that the biggest reason I needed a break from theater was because lately everything has started to blend together. I know that what I see are different productions and I know that the people making them have worked very hard and I do not want to denigrate that effort. But at some point, good lord, they all start to feel like the same story told in the same way by the same people.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing An Octoroon at The Wilma and for once I didn’t have that feeling.

ocotoroon

There are lots of things I could say about the craft of the production. I could talk about the smart script or the direction that allows a clarity and precision but doesn’t over explain. I could talk about the pleasure of watching ILL DOOTS in their jangly musical splendor as people in the audience sank into their rhythmic loop. I could talk about leaning over to my fellow viewer after watching Jaylene Clark Owens’ killer performance in the first half and saying, “Who the hell is that actress? She’s amazing. Why isn’t she in all the plays I see?” I could talk about a moment with a sudden image dropped on an audience, one that made them gasp, literally pulling breath into their bodies to gather strength in order to deal with what they’d just seen. I could talk about seeing familiar theater faces perform with a purpose and drive that must surely come from making something they deeply believe in.

I could say these things and they would be true. And in saying them it might lend one small additional assent towards a general consensus that this was a very good play done very well.

But at the same time, walking out of the theater the overwhelming thought I had was not of this praise. Instead it was this: This is the cost.

It’s a phrase that has rolled around in my head all week. This is the cost. This is the cost. This is the cost. Like a mantra I keep going over in order to unravel why it is repeating in my mind.

This play, this lauded work, this celebration of something so surprisingly and vibrantly alive, this is the cost of our prejudice. Because for every work like this that manages to sneak by the barriers our collective cultural illiteracy puts up, there are so many that are trapped and denied. For every work that makes us gasp and think and feel, offers us the chance to understand something new about the world we think we know, there are myriads more that have been shut out.

And this is the cost. We are costing ourselves exactly this thing that when given we proclaim to value.

This is the cost. This is the cost. This is the cost, I keep thinking. This is the cost of safety. This is the cost of comfort. This is the cost of apathy and weakness. How ironic that the farther something looks from those in power, the less likely it is to survive. Shouldn’t it logically be the opposite? Shouldn’t it be that the more something has capacity to move us into deeper and fuller wonder and newness, the more likely we are to risk bringing it into being? This this is the cost of such unreasonableness. This is the cost of such ignorance.

In person and online I see a vast collection of regrets for the passing of An Octoroon. I wonder if some of the intensity of feeling towards its ending is due in large part to its uniqueness, to its rarity. We should not need to mourn so deeply for the end of a work like this. It points out that we recognize its anomalism. It shows that our system is not set up to support that which might feed us best. It points out the embarrassment of riches we systematically and voluntarily deny ourselves.

Our cultural myopathy is blinding us and this is the cost.

White people, straight people, cis people, able bodied people, all the people who have never had to question the default of their existence, we people with our luck un-earned, those of us who have had not the opportunity to see from a different point of view, we must strengthen ourselves to better carry our discomforts. We must better learn to shoulder our fear and widen our empathic abilities. The rest of the world has been practicing while we have sat idly by. We must do it, if not for the obvious reasons of altruism and empathy and respect for our fellow companions on this earth, if not for these reasons than for no other than as an act of charity to ourselves that we might reap the benefits of a richer understanding of experience.

For if we do not do it, this is the cost.

– A

Laying Fallow

I arrived yesterday at a residency up in Vermont late in the evening. I check in and take my bags to my small room in the living quarters. Taped to the wall above the desk I see this:

tiny cal sq

It’s a tiny January calendar cut out and taped to the wall.

Because it might be difficult through just the picture to get a sense of size here is the same tiny January calendar as I see it if I back up a few feet:

tiny cal with desk

See? So tiny.

From the moment I saw it, this tiny little calendar tickled me. Centered as it is above the writing space it is both a focal point and a small bit of data in a vast empty room. In moments like this residency time can feel this way – present but distant and contained. In spaces like these my sense of deadlines and schedules is always more fluid. I feel myself moving on the order of human to human rather than human to institution.

When I lived in Paris for three months while studying Roy Hart voice work I became a kind of monk. I woke every morning at 6:30am and made myself breakfast and lunch in a slow methodical fashion. I placed a book and a notebook in my bag and got on the train for classes. At the end of the day I rode home and placed these same items on a table in the exact same place. Every Wednesday, our one half day during the week, I opened the notebook to a list of places I’d determined would be interesting to see and I went to one of them. At night I exercised according to a schedule taped to the wall, made myself dinner and drank a glass and a half of wine, listened to a podcast and then wrote in a journal before going to sleep promptly at 10:30.

The three months I was in Paris I was cleaner than I’ve ever been in my life. Each weekend I washed my tiny apartment from top to bottom. I cleaned floors and backsplashes and under beds. I made all my meals (but for two at the start and end) by hand. I ate slowly. I took an hour on Sundays just to stretch. I walked a ton. I wrote and wrote and wrote.

When thinking about my days there was a kind of familiarity in such repetitive scheduling that was comforting. There was a way in which I never had to plan beyond a 12-hour stretch at a time. I made small changes to my workout schedules, added or took away attractions on my list. I listened to an extra podcast or wrote only a few lines of “I have nothing to say today” if it was true. And I say this to point out that this routine didn’t feel punishing. Quite the opposite. It was perhaps the calmest I’ve ever been.

In certain kinds of ways it was a very productive time. I wrote a lot and learned a lot and thought a lot and was in great shape. But it was also a kind of fallow period. I had lots of projects on the horizon that I knew I would return to but I didn’t make much contact with those collaborators. I didn’t write up plans and ideas for rehearsals. I didn’t think much about the specifics of the actual pieces.

I just sort of readied myself to be ready.

I wonder if I hadn’t been in classes, hadn’t had an obvious check mark for the “I’m being productive” box, if I could have given myself that kind of schedule and time to be ready…

I wonder if I’d tried to fill every moment outside of those classes with high intensity activities and meetings and stuff if the class work would have sunk in quite as deeply…

I wonder if the insane burst of things that came after this quiet fallow phase would have been quite as insane or quite as much of a burst.

If I look at the past few months there are ways in which things have had a similar shape to that time in France. My days are filled with the deepest kinds of interactions and lessons and then I stay in most evenings. I have been cleaning far more often and with far less angst than usual. I stand over the sink and wash each dish and feel the water on my hands. I eat carefully, with great choice, and make almost all of it from scratch. For the first time in a long time I read for pleasure and catch myself talking in long slow monologues and writing and writing and writing.

And, weirdly, I worry if this is enough of a life. If such smallness is catching. If I must stare at the clock and the calendar and rev myself up for more.

For now I will content myself to stare at this tiny calendar that will carry me through the weekend and thank whoever left it for making it so small.

– A

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:

Happiness?

Connection?

Authenticity?

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.
<Pause>
-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.