Arts and Academics

Adjuncts unite!

adjunct

Yesterday, I was sitting in the tiny and strange office allotted to adjunct professors at Rutgers Camden finishing up grading journals and responding to the questions and thoughts of my students. It was my first teaching gig of the day. First as in, the one before I wrapped up my assignment at one institution of higher learning and headed over to another totally different one at Pig Iron’s School for Advanced Performance Training. Two voice classes connected to the study of theater for two totally different set of students in two totally different kinds of learning environments, both taught in an hour and a half.

I do this a lot. Teaching. These past few months in particular I carried the equivalent of a full teaching course load (4 classes) as an adjunct across three institutions. The semester before I was at two others. I have no permanent status or relationship with these places, other than that I’ve come to care a lot about my classes and the students that take them. This is a journey I’ve mostly navigated alone – from course focus and intensity to the more mundane administrative stuff like direct deposit and getting the floor swept so my students can lay down for breathing exercises.

I happened to catch Aaron Oster in passing as I left Rutgers yesterday. And while normally, I’d be rushing out and on to the next thing, something made me stop and listen and chat. And we ended up having one of the first real conversations I’ve had in a while with another adjunct about what our work is like. We chatted about Rutgers Camden as a school compared to others we work at, what the students were like here and elsewhere, how we might tackle some of the challenges we encountered.

It wasn’t all that long – maybe 15 minutes – but it struck me as I walked away how rarely I do this. And then later after finishing my second class, I had drinks with Justin Jain and got into a second conversation about a student I’d been worrying over and how I might be able to solve a problem I’d encountered in class.

These two little tête-à-têtes made me aware of something I’ve increasingly noticed: that I think about my students a lot. That they take up a ton of emotional space in my life. That there are all kinds of things I see in them and the schools I work in. That I’m often wondering how this work feeds (or inhibits) the creative work I do professionally. That sometimes it sends my art in new and unexpected ways and that sometimes it zaps all the energy I have.

But most of all it made me realize how rarely I have a chance to share these thoughts with other people doing the same thing.

I’m interested in doing that. In sharing the sometimes funny and lonely and depressing and liberating thing about being this kind of a free agent in this way.

If you’re a working artist reading this who also teaches – a class here and there or the equivalent of full time – I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share thoughts/experiences below in the comments. And if you’re Philly local, I’m going to try and organize an adjunct quorum sometime in the next month. If you want in, let me know!

I’m not sure what form exactly such a thing would take, probably just a hang out with some food and a chance to chat. Maybe its something that grows into a discussion of best practices for adjuncts, discussion of fair fee for time, or advantages and disadvantages of various schools in the area. Mostly, I’d just love to see and hear from others in this large teaching artist community.

Maybe I can even swing a little cash to swank up such an event….

I’ll have some free time again once the semester ends.

:)

– A

 

PS – Hey all! I am intuiting the forces of the universe. Robert Smythe has helpfully passed along some great info about a meeting you can attend TOMORROW on this topic. Check it out:

*Adjunct Symposium: Saturday, April 19th at Media Mobilizing Project*

4233 Chestnut St. Philadelphia, PA 19104

Meet adjuncts across the city and learn about United Academics of Philadelphia (UAP) at our adjunct symposium on* Saturday, April 19th from 9am till 3pm*, with a reception that starts at 3pm. The event will include speakers and panels on academic labor and more. This event is free and open to all.

UAP site:

http://uap.pa.aft.org/

UAP on facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/UnitedAcademicsOfPhiladelphia

UAP on twitter:

https://twitter.com/UAPhilly

For the love of ladies, think of the children…

First, an admission:

Last night I gave myself a small break on the blog to close WELCOME TO CAMPUS at Drexel University.

Second, a short diversion:

I like the final product of CAMPUS for a lot of reasons. I’ve loved the process even more. I could go on a lot about this piece, why I feel like it’s the personal, intimate kind of work that theater ought to be doing in the digital age. If you haven’t seen any of the press for the show, it’s is a traveling campus tour that tells true stories exploring what the college experience is actually like in the spaces around campus that a traditional tour might not take you to. We went into dilapidated dorms, anonymous classrooms, cram into elevators, and stand in the stunning atria of the campus’s spaces. Students emerged from background landscapes to blend the lines between what is real and what is the play. I built it over 16 weeks with the students of Drexel, turning every day students into secret, highly trained public performance ninjas.

There’s a big part of me that just wants to spend this space today rolling around in the wistful sad fact of finishing a process so dear to my heart.

And now back on target:

But it’s gender parity month here at Swim Pony and so I’m taking the proud teacher vibes o’erflowing from me this Monday afternoon and sending them in a slightly different direction.

2013-2104 has been the Year Of Teaching for me. It’s the first year the training of theater to others has become the majority of my day job income. Teaching, though, has always felt like a kind of performance – one in which my class’s material ought to be as thought provoking and meaningful as any play I might make, one in which my persona ought to be as interesting as any lead character.

I use personal stories a lot in my directing and teaching work. I talk about aspects of the way I live and see the world to try and help myself relate to the material at hand, and hopefully in the process, hear and learn how my students do so as well. It’s a theory based in a kind of lemming bravery principle: if you see me jump off a scary cliff into the action of the scene or the idea from the reading and dive into the messy complexity of my own life, you are likelier willing to do the same.

I try to be honest with them. I try not to only paint in the nicer aspects of myself. And in this vein if we’re doing something that seems weird or silly or just plain not working, I usually will acknowledge the feeling.  I try to explain to them why I make creative choices, to not only get them to execute an action but to understand why I am aiming for this particular choice and not another. I do this because when it works well, I soon find myself with students who are able to think about and question those choices. And sometimes offer new ones that are even better than the initial ones I’ve proposed.

This past year, I’ve also become particularly aware of things like this:

  • A book I use for my voice class (a book I love and use all the time) has a couple weird sentences about how women place their voices
  • A scene in a classical play I’m staging with students offhandedly mentions a woman as the weaker sex

I might know that a couple of paragraphs in the voice textbook are problematic but find the book still worth using. I might realize that there’s a historical context for the scene I’m directing but still think it important enough for other reasons to include. But I’m realizing that unless I say that, I run the risk of not communicating those caveats.  And by not bringing it up, by not pointing it out, by not having the conversation I have in my head out loud with the little people in front of me, it’s possible that I’m passing along a tacit complicity with the aspects material that I don’t subscribe to.

It’s the same questions from a couple of days ago:

Are we aware?

Are conscionably contextualizing?

Take a classical work where a female character’s whose worth is hugely determined by her virginity status.

The reason for reading this text might be the beauty of the language or the significance of the author and play to theater history or possibly to see the first emergence of a theatrical device that occurs in the play. This might be why you want them to read this work.

Is the reason also that you agree with the implicit moral assumption that young women must wait until marriage to have sex or they are tainted and less valuable?

It might seem obvious that the outdated gender morals underpinning the action of the play are contained to the world of that play, that obviously you as the professor don’t feel that a women should be stoned or banished or shamed for being a sexually active adult. It might seem obvious that the trope of the tragic heroine undone by her loss of innocence isn’t something you actually think about the real young women sitting in the room with you.

When you say it out loud it seems obvious. This is exactly my point. You need to make sure that it’s obvious. Because if you don’t say it, how can they know?

I try to pass on the sensibility that every artist actor, director, playwright alike, is the author of his or her own artistic experience. That we all have choice and agency and therefore responsibility in the material we present and engage in. That whether we are in the position of learning versus expertise, it is still incumbent on us to have thoughts and opinions about the work they engage in and that we must examine and decide if we accept into ourselves and how we do so.

If we don’t, we run the risk of perpetuating the same things we’re frustrated by.

If we don’t share all the lessons we have to offer our students, we risk passing on others we never intended.

– A

Connor’s Story

When I first started doing theater I was in 7th grade. It was a way for me to get out of my own skin, skin I wasn’t super comfortable in yet. It was a way to escape and be someone else. It was also a chance for me to be with other people, to find community. I liked having what felt like a secret club of people who got together to create something bigger than any one of us individually.

When I first started doing theater the stories I told didn’t really matter: Annie, The Music Man (twice) and Neil Simon’s Start Spangled Girl. But it was the act of telling them that made meaning for me of my experience, the act of being together with people. In high school, I wanted very much to be Bernadette Peters, to have big hair and a big voice and a fancy costume and to be very good at what I did. Somewhere in the midst of that time my desire transformed from simply wanting to be a part of something to wanting to be a part of something amazing, to create it at a high level of skill.  So I trained in music and acting and having always prized myself a very good student, I threw myself into that study with fervor and drive.

When I first started doing theater I thought that the purpose of it was to raise myself up to the level of the creators whose works I was enacting. I thought that playwrights and composers had some kind of magical skill. I thought that their works can from some nebulous place that was very different than the kind of place I pulled my own artistic feats from. And it wasn’t until I first found myself making a piece of my own that I realized that I too had that capability, that capacity. And it wasn’t until then that I was really really hooked.

When I first started doing theater, my experiences shaped my ideas of what the end product was supposed to look like: fancy, professional, expensive. When I first started making theater my experiences shaped my ideas of who the audience for that work was supposed to be: increasingly large and anonymous groups of people who come to see me and my works because of my skill and excellence. It was an impulse to impress. And when I first started doing theater I thought that my job was to try and tell the stories that matter to the most people. To try and create as universal a message as possible. To create a Great American Play.  To try and reach people I didn’t know and pour into them the experience of my greater artistic truth.

I don’t really think that any more.

If your plan is to see Welcome To Campus and you haven’t yet, don’t read this next part. If you’ve already seen it, or know you won’t make it, go ahead and proceed.

There’s a moment early in Campus where the student tour guides, who have been up to this point manically presenting Drexel in a shiny brochure-style intro, crack just a little. They are listing, as one ought as a highly school spirited representative, their favorite letters in the word DREXEL. Student Cami, a go-getter, chooses D for its primary position. Garth relates his choice of the E as the “workhorse” of the word. And so on through L and X. And then just after Dean has also chosen D (without which he would “just be EAN”) there’s an awkward pause. A sort of looking around and then realizing “Oh right…” kind of moment. And then Lexi breaks the uncomfortable tension with a plaintive, “Connor’s supposed to be the R.”

Through the rest of the play – a walking tour in which the students relate their actual college experiences in the locations in which they actually occurred – Connor and his obvious absence are hinted at and remembered. His return is promised and reiterated. And while we grow closer to Lexi, Carl, Cami, Garth and Dean, our sixth tour guide Connor remains an enigmatic mystery. The audience knows only that he seems to have been rather important to our tour guides and that clearly he isn’t going to be here.

The stories the tour guides tell (once having broken their shiny personae) do not relate to him really. They are stories about their experiences from their actual college lives. They are stories of a kind that no traditional tour will give. What the actors and I aimed for was to find a way to share the intimacies and strange details that really make up their experience of higher education. And yet, in these moments in between performances of the most awkward dates of one’s life or ruminations on feeling terribly alone in a new place, they all keep hinting at this other unseen person.

An outsider to the show might wonder what exactly the decision process was behind including such a motif through the show.

I could create a fancy and artistic sounding justification. But the real reason is this: there really is a Connor and he really was going to be a sixth tour guide. He also doesn’t  go to Drexel any more.

I taught a class last fall in preparation for this show. All the tour guides in the performance were part of this class. We spent 10 weeks together talking and playing and writing and reading and sometimes farting around trying to create an idea for a play. Over the course of this term we found together this idea of a college tour, an offshoot of an initial idea I’d proposed, one that included their own personal stories. And for their final I prompted them to give a theatrical tour of an actual moment from their lives in a non-theatrical space, ideally the actual location if possible.

One of the last ones we took was Connor’s tour, which happened in a large and scary building called Drexel One Plaza (Garden Level for those in the campus know). On a cold day late in the term we walked from the black box theater over to the building, tried the back door with no avail and then walked around to the front to be told by a security guard that the building wasn’t open to the public after 6.

We got in anyway; the group managed to sneak in through a side door after one of the students confidently declared he could find a way to get us in. When we did get in,  filled with excitement and giddiness at having outsmarted the proverbial castle guards, we walked through the empty building’s halls. And though I pretended not to notice the security cameras lining the ceilings, I did gently encouraged Connor to get a move on with his tour.

We walked through the strange windowless floor to a simple and unremarkable classroom. Connor’s story was relatively straightforward. It talked about feeling a distance from the Drexel. It talked about being displeased with the administration and academic environment. It talked about how his long distance girlfriend and her support was really the only thing standing in the way of him throwing in the towel on this version of the college experience. And then he told us about the day that she sent him a text message.

He told about a recent day he had been sitting in this classroom and how he had been looking at the board (the one we were now looking at just then) and how he had been holding his phone (the one he was now holding) and how he’d received a text message. He told us that reading the text he knew he would break up with his girlfriend later that day and how he knew when it happened he was going to have to leave Drexel.

It’s how I found out he wouldn’t be there next term.

And we all sat there. Sat and stared at him and his phone and the room and each other. Each thinking about the fact that this was the room where that choice had been made. The same way you stare at the walls of Versailles knowing a king used to sleep in a bed there. It was a weird kind of re-enactment, one where you become aware of just being. Aware of your being in a place where someone else’s being has just been.

As I was sitting with the class thinking about all this a security guard arrived and told us we had to leave. We giggled and pretended to be sorry for breaking rules we clearly weren’t sorry to have broken at all.

This is one of my favorite moments of teaching, ever. I still have trouble putting into words quite why.

I really like the play I’ve made with these Drexel students. I think that Welcome To Campus is a really lovely play. But it’s funny sometimes when I watch the audience. I think about the fact that to them Connor is just some name. That even though the actors and I went to the trouble of re-creating the whole thing – mentioning Connor’s absence, staging a security guard denying us entry to a building, building in a covert break in, telling the story of the text message, the sitting in silence and getting kicked out at the end, all of it – there’s some part of me that is sad that they don’t know that what they’re seeing is just a re-creation of the real moment that has stuck so hard with me in this process.

A few days ago Connor came to see the show and I got to watch him watch his scene.

This is one of my favorite moments from teaching, too.

I didn’t direct this play solely for this moment. There’s more in this piece than just this particular layer. But it felt like the right kind of full circle. That finally we had an audience member who really knew what the journey of this play had been. Because even though he wasn’t there when we built so much of the later parts of it, he was an insider in one of the moments that sits at its center. And now I could watch this insider see the thing as an outsider. See a creative voice get to be an observer of the artistic result.

Connor is the opposite of the kind of person I used to want in my audience. He knows more about the moment of his personal scene than I can, than I ever could, understand. But that scene feels like the kind of gift I feel my work needing to be – a way to see our own lives reflected back to us, to parse them out for meaning and beauty – through the help of the artistic process. And while I don’t want to deny the anonymous who see the work their place, for the few I’ve met have been lovely and effusive, I wonder in a piece like this if the point is not for this insular community to create a message to send to the outside world, but for us to use the work as a way to understand our place within it.

How do we open our process to an audience that will not only be our external viewers but our internal community? How do we bind them to the building of the thing? How do we share in the depth and power of expanding and filling our stories with shape and craft?

I don’t yet know. But it feels like the calling.

– A

Fuck You Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Holly Golightly: Did I tell you how divinely and utterly happy I am?

Paul Varjak: Yes.

A few months back during Fringe season I went and saw a show inside a real house. It was a lovely play with breakfast and beautiful writing and was based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (The book not the movie, in case you were wondering.)

This is a post I’ve wanted to write this post ever since then.

Not because the play was bad, because it wasn’t – it was wonderful actually, one of my favorites of the season – and though I loved the staging, the writing, the actors, so much about the experiment in dramatic form start to finish, despite all this afterwards when I sat in the car with my partner in viewing-crime discussing what we’d seen all I could think was:

“God I detest that female character.”

Not the actress, not the writing of her part, but that faux feminine charming and carbonated, silly yet exotic, tiny pink banged and attractive and mysterious and wild and ukulele playing, Natalie Portman-esque, devoid of any actual humanness cypher of girlishness. Film critic Nathan Rabin put it far better that I when he called her “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Fucking manic pixie dream girl. I hate her so much.

I didn’t write this post back then because I liked the people who put the play on and I didn’t want to hurt them by bashing it when so much of it I truly enjoyed. Especially when I really didn’t have anything more to say on the matter than the fact that I really detest this trope, one I see as rooted in all kinds of shitty ideas about girls and women and the kinds of people they can be, one whose recent “emergence” in this particular form is cloaked in a kind of faux liberation. I think versions of her have been around far longer than we realize. The manic pixie dream girl (or MPDG as I will call her from here out) embraces a “seize life!” zeal but only in so much as it is thrown at her pent up male would-be partners. And while I find this odious and tedious in the extreme, while I have in many ways created my sense of aesthetic and artistic purpose to fly in the face of the MPDG’s twee triviality and lack of substance, at the time I didn’t really have much more to say on the matter. I just had my silent fervent hate.

However, this summer into fall, I have been spending an awful lot of time with women a fair bit younger than myself. Amazing, bold, incredible young women. Women whose ideas and humor have surprised and delighted me, who brought choices into classrooms I could never have predicted and who found inventive slants on characters I have seen performed dozens of times. I look at these young women with their incredible talents and wild and weird inner lives and it fills me with joy.

I admit that many of these fantastic people I underestimated upon first meeting. And I think that’s in part because it took some time to find the strange and silly underbellies that were hidden within them. Wild and wondrous senses of daring, humor and ridiculousness that I suspect are not often enough given space to be explored. And I wonder if this lack of space isn’t partly what constrained my seeing the wholeness of them. And then I think about the kinds of roles they will have available to them in a year or ten year’s time. I think about the shows that I have seen recently, the struggles of my female friends who are performers, the distance between the roles that they have truly loved and the ones they have had to suffer through to keep a face to their name in the acting world. I race in my mind for plays that I could bring to these lovely young ladies, works could lift them and their wildness up.

I have so much trouble doing so. There are more than none. But there are certainly not enough.

In high school when I got really serious about theater I committed to reading a play every week for two years. I raided my theater department’s library in hopes of finding the great roles that I wanted to inhabit someday. And while I found a few, I also realized that more and more there were plenty of stories that intrigued me, that tantalized and pulled me in, but had no women in them or only a few or none I personally wanted to be unless I was cast across my gender. And slowly over time one half of a dual cast narrator from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the hyperventilating Alma from Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Widow Begbick in Brecht’s Man is Man, even the beautiful and frustrated monologues of love from Twelfth Night’s Viola, these roles, despite being some of the best I could ask for, just didn’t feel quite enough any more. They were the stories that were made available, but none of them felt exactly enough mine to continue telling. And somewhere in the midst of this it occurred to me that I could tell some of the stories that excited me through the performers onstage even if I didn’t actually have to be that body up there in front of people.

This frustration was the one of the forces that ultimately pulled me out of acting and into directing. In the latter space, one in which the stories I told were not limited to the options others presented to me, it felt like I had more I could say and more ways I could say it. And I found the plays, fewer and farther between than I’d have liked, that highlighted the female roles I’d wished I’d been offered. And when I eventually realized that even beyond these lay the opportunity to create new stories that were entirely of my own imagining, I finally believed that there was enough substantive food for a life of digging into artmaking.

The problem I see with the MPDG and princess and all the other lame female counterparts in much of our contemporary storytelling is that they teach women (and the girls who grow up to become them) that these are the extent of the roles that we have available to us. In art, and I think also in life. I read a study about how the greatest predictor of the number of girls that will grow up to work in science and technology-based fields is hugely correlated with how many women are working in these fields in their community. Not even how many they personally come into contact with, but the number that exist generally in their sphere of being. I would guess that the increase has something to do with a young person’s sense of awareness that such a thing is possible.

It is hard to imagine beyond anything that you know of or have seen. Our narrative context fuels so much of the imagination we later have available to us. So what you see and what you encounter in the stories you take in, especially in formative artistic years will inevitably shape the possibilities that you allow yourself in the future. I fear and I worry that the amazingly bold and smart and incredible young women I have met will be limited to becoming the most amazingly bold and smart and incredible versions of MPDGs and princesses and nurses and ingénues rather than applying those same forces of will and intellect towards the multitude of other avenues that might be available to them. I worry that if some aspect of them is too hard to squeeze into those narrow shapes that they will be excluded. I worry that if they do fit inside them that some of the other incredible parts of them will be pushed out so that they fit more neatly within.

My first year out of college, when I had so few moorings, so little outlet for the stories I wanted to tell, I flirted with becoming the MPDG. I became enraptured with a boy and then became enraptured with my ability to construct a persona that I thought was charming and alluring. And I, despite my feminist upbringing, despite my experience crafting my own stories, despite my sense of myself as a strong and independent person, found it easy to default to a narrative that seemed pre-designed for me. I could sense this trope and its effervescent power and in little bits and pieces I began playing and becoming her. I felt her narrative pull and began to conform my outer self to match it. Then one day this boy gave me a movie and told me that a character in it reminded him of me. And at the end of that movie I realized in no small amount of horror that he wasn’t wrong, that I had made myself to resemble this precious punky person and that I had created a vision of my life in my own mind in which I was a side character.

It was only when that version of my life story and the caricature of myself that I’d formulated within it began to fail that I realized how little of my whole self I’d really offered.

This is the power of art and narrative, whether we make it or consume it. It shapes our sense of ourselves in the world. It can limit not only our sense of being in the works of art themselves,  but it can transform our ability to conceive of ourselves in the world at large. A new incredible story at its best helps us change the way we think. It offers us a vision of a world that we might hope to live in. And when we limit our narrative selves to these paltry simplistic women, we limit the kinds of women we imagine we can be. And by passing those stories on, we teach our younger female counterparts that this is enough to be satisfied with.

I worry for these young ladies that I have met over these past many months. I worry that their outward forms will dictate so much of their inner artistic work. I worry that they have grown up on these stories that do not contain the entirety of them and I worry that they will be forced to shrink themselves down to fit inside the ones that are made available. I want to grab them and tell them that they should demand huge spaces in their artistic lives. That the stories we tell are the way we make sense of the world around us. That creating visions of how we can be is how we begin to become that. That they owe it to themselves and the women they will become.

That they are more than MPDGs and her static character counterparts. For she is singularly dimensional. She does not advance through the course of the story. She is there to shift the inner workings of others. She is inwardly inanimate like a rock. The manic pixie dream girl has no opportunity to change or shift or grow or move.

There are a lot of reasons that I make my own work. This is one of the biggest ones. It’s why I write this post now, several months later, not because my singular dislike of this character matters very much, but because I want to tell them they are not like she is. That they can do so much more than any of these things.

– A

Getting to “Fuck It” Faster

If you’ve been standing within 100 feet of me in the last month or so, you’ve inevitably heard me go on and on about my most recent directing project.

It is, in essence, a project that does not adhere to any of the rules that I follow in my “real” work. It is one that I traveled almost two hours a day to get to and from. It is one that rehearsed at odd and tiring hours after full days of other work. It is one that paid me far less than the salary I set for myself in my own company’s work. It is one that I embarked on with little choice in content, space, personnel or schedule. Never in a Swim Pony project do I allow designers to be assigned to me. Never do I cast a massive ensemble based on a day’s worth of auditions. Never do I work in a tiny and oddly shaped theater space. Never do I do so many of the things that I did for this recent production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at Arcadia.

Yet, I can hardly recall a time in recent memory when I have been this excited to get to rehearsal, felt as free in pushing and playing with my actors, as wildly open to trying any and everything that my mind could conceive.  And ironically, I can also hardly recall a time when encountering things that did not go the way I expected where I felt so easy in adapting to the new circumstance and believing that success or no, it would all still absolutely have been worth it.

I thought about this yesterday as I semi-moped about my house feel post-partum performance let down. I thought about what it might mean that I have been so very happy these past weeks and what I might need to do to capture this feeling more often.  And as I was semi-moping I thought about the times in the past when the work has felt the most fraught and when it has felt the most free. And collage-like came a cascade of things people have said to me that feel strangely similar:

A written comment from a vocal jury performance: “Adrienne Mackey is a wall of sound”

A reader of this blog: “It surprised me to realize that you could be that vulnerable.”

The remark during a training session for Roy Hart work: “Adrienne, you are like a golden tank. Beautiful but bulldozing over everything in your path.”

In a therapy session recently: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes I find you very hard to read.”

And as these thoughts fell through my mind over the course of the day, they began to layer into the shape of something resembling a realization. Not an earth shattering one, in fact something that I’ve pretty much always known, but one that I realize I haven’t totally acknowledged as a problem: that when I really intensely care about something, especially when I’ve had the chance to stew about it for a long time beforehand, I often psych myself out of really enjoying it. When I really want to do my best, when I am trying my hardest to do that, I often over-think myself out of doing what I want and having a good time.

Often in school, in training, in life, in my work I have these moments where I want so badly to do well and I feel myself failing. And this failing becomes this nasty spiral where I want to do well so I push too hard or work too much and then feel the falseness of that work, feel the desperation of it, and end up falling farther down the hole. And so I try to relax and not care, but of course, I know this too is a lie, that I do care, that I want to do well, and so feel guilty about trying not to do and bounce back and forth between half measures of forceful pushing and uncommitted frustrating motions of trying to disengage from my angry and needing and deeply caring self.

Almost always when I get to an incredibly exasperated and dark place at the bottom of this spiral I say, “Fuck it.” And only then in hopelessness despair do I finally give up trying.

And this, inevitably, cliché-ingly predictably, is when I finally break the cycle and start making the stuff that’s really good, the stuff I wanted to make the whole goddamn time.

It is so recurrent that I can even know that I have to get to “fuck it” and in mind boggling-inducing meta levels of self-sabotage manage to try too hard at finding the feeling of “fuck it” until I give up even at this and rage at the gods with a hearty “fuck it trying to find fuck it!”

And then, of course, the work gets good.

Perhaps external measures of success have become so entangled with my own sense of worth, with my own sense of desire, that when I think about it I genuinely feel like I don’t actually know what I want. Maybe I am so often in my head that I start to game out every strategy ahead of time and this removes me from actually experiencing anything in the actual moment of its happening. Or possibly the key to really loving something is the delicate balance of knowing when it’s time to try hard and when to let go.

Maybe it is all of these things.

The real gift of the process I found with my students at Arcadia was that I walked in and had absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. I was doing a play with no one to impress in a style I have almost no expertise over on a subject I pretty much didn’t give a shit about. And somehow that gave me freedom to do exactly what I wanted. Which was lovely and freeing and incredibly important to me. And by the time I realized how much I cared about it, I had already found the permission to keep doing it. And in so doing, saw the freedom and permission that all of my lovely darlings gave themselves so that together we all set ourselves free.

This is what I thought about yesterday in the afterglow of a lovely process.  And sitting here now a day later thinking about those thoughts I think this:

What the fuck (it)?

Because, really, what the hell do you do about that? What do you do with the knowledge that when you try hard you are trying too hard? That when you try not to try you end up trying harder? That you’ll keep going around that until you despair and give up and then stop trying and then you’ll finally do it right? That this always happens unless you magically manage to end up doing something where you don’t realize that you care until its too late and you’re already doing a good job?

Ugh.

If I look back at my past, I see this pattern emerge everywhere. Beginnings are so often the most joyous place for me. The moment of beginning, the time before I know enough to know enough to know when I’m messing up is usually when I manage to subvert the work and get to “fuck it” faster. It is the moments when I don’t realize what I’m doing or I go into it not thinking much at all about it that I am able to just relax and really let rip.

This is how I discovered a theater of devising rather than scripted plays.

This is how I became a funk-a-delic back up singer.

This is how I started teaching new approaches to voice.

This is how I found myself loving so fully a production of Midsummer.

This is how a person who has intense personal space issues looks at a hoard of college students and cannot help herself but to hug them, to grab them about the ears and kiss their faces. How a person whose persona is thoroughly entrenched in wanting and needing and demanding respect in my field and from my peers can have no shame. How she who is so studious and careful in letting people in has no trouble showering these students with all the feelings that I am filled with when I see them in voluminous words unprepared ahead of time (so as to ensure they accurately describe the true depth of my feeling). And how in such total lack of preparation I find truer expressions than in the many times in the past I have tried with hours and days of writing and re-writing to say something right from the core of me.

Even here. Even in this space, it feels just a bit forced trying to pin it down in words after the fact. And I am trying as I write these very words not to hit the back button, but to allow myself the luxury of letting these thoughts tumble out just as they come.

And I don’t exactly yet know just how I will do it, but I think this is the work I must be doing now. Finding my way to “fuck it” faster. Figuring out how I can be as generous with myself as I am with them. How I can give myself the sovereignty over my artistic space, to do whatever I want simply because I want to, because it makes me happy, and believe that this happiness is the key to my artistic success.

– A

Amateur is Latin for Love

Over the past six months my life has taken a radical shift. I went from the intensive grinding gears of two large scale projects – one a gig for Shakespeare in Clark Park in which I worked as a director for hire as wells as The Ballad of Joe Hill a work created and produced by my own company Swim Pony – into a far more predictable series of teaching gigs – a new post as voice teacher for Pig Iron’s APT, a residency at Drexel, coaching a mostly non-actor set to coach med students interpersonal skills at UPenn’s school of Medicine and directing a production of Midsummer at Arcadia.

As I headed into the summer I felt a sense of relief and apprehension. Relief that my time into September was booked with work that I both believed in and had found a way to appropriately compensate myself for. I felt a sense of pride at having booked myself solid for the first time ever with 6 months of artistic work alone while still paying a mortgage and socking away from money for savings. I thought and felt, “Finally, we are approaching a place of stasis, a solid foundation upon which a life can be built.”

And as I left the month of September, reasonably compensated, well received by press and peers and patrons on my work over the past months, I still felt somehow just a little unsettled by I can’t say exactly what: a sense that I’d done well but… With a feeling that I’d created two works of which I was proud, one that I felt was the first appropriately resourced self produced piece I’d ever been in charge of but… That I’d made shows that I think showed my professional skill, that highlighted many aspects of my  expertise, plays that made me proud as a professional creator, and yet…

Yet, still, something niggled at me. The audiences were a bit timid at one. The energy not quite right in another. The joy, the abandon, the feeling, the… what? the… love.

Yes.  That’s it. The love was what I felt missing. That underneath the polish and skill and work was just a little bit less love than I went into all this seeking. Somewhere in this summer of incredibly hard work and tiring hours and beautiful images and incredible ideas I was missing a little bit of amore.

Look. The people with whom I created my last two professional projects are ones that I adore. They are my core creators, most of them, the people that I will work with in many cases for the rest of my life. But something about these last two shows left me a bit cold. Not through any fault of my co-creators, but perhaps because I myself allowed myself to be swept up in the accomplishment of professionality, of the implied self worth that doing a thing at a “meaningful” level of competence and expertise did I let myself hide a little of the messy and silly and sometimes uncertain and ridiculous person that I love myself to be in a process. I doubt these co-creators would admit it, but I bet deep down they felt it.

I could not have spoken this to myself then as I do now. But I think I knew it. We all wanted a bit more of that love in our work.

So it was at this juncture that I looked into that stretch of fall to winter months with no “professional” work in sight. Here I found myself in a sea of students of varying ages and skills sets and talent levels ahead of me. It was here, with a chip on the shoulder and a block of doubt in the stomach that I set off into the wilds of “amateur” theater. I went to auditions and first classes and training session with zero expectation of artistic fulfillment, looking instead to do a decent job, make some connections, steel myself against the antsy feeling being out of “real” rehearsals. I intended to let life be simple for a bit in order to plan my re-emergence back into the “real” theater scene soon enough.

So I went to my classes with their small number of students in order to get them on board with the weirdo piece I wanted to create. I went to rehearsals to direct play that I have loathed for a very long time expecting to wade through language I could care less about. I went to work to train folks on characters and skills I have repeated ad nauseum over the last few years. I went to these things expected a heavy heart and soul. I went there ready to be frustrated with amateurism and a lack of professional rigor.

I went there expecting these things. And I found that I was wrong. I found myself, suddenly realizing that I was happier than I have been in months, possibly years. That heaviness and weight of proving myself and my worth had been freed from myself and that for the first time in a long time I have re-found a kind of love. Yes amazingly, I find myself at the near end of this time more inspired, more buoyant than I have in perhaps years. I went expecting amateurs and what I found was love.

So often we define the amateur as the absence of talent skill or training. Back in late October I read an article by Todd London about innovation in which he points out that the word Amateur comes from the Latin root for “love.” When I read this, something dropped in me. An “Ah ha” kind of moment. A moment where I realized that the amateur is not solely, as is so commonly assumed, defined as one who does something at a “non-professional” level but one who does it for no other reason than a deep and abiding love. The amateur can have no other reason for doing the thing other than the pure and true love of it, for they have no other compensation to reward them. How often we degrade it, define ourselves in opposition to it, in order to prove our own worth. How often, I realized, I myself was working, creating and doing things in so many ways simply to prove that I was most certainly not an amateur but a professional, a person worthy of time attention and thought. Worthy to be seem by foundations to presenters to peers this need for professionalism had infected my spirits. It had stopped me from silliness. It is true that over the past several months I have created things and worked with those that on almost any level one would not call “professional.” But in exchange I have found something that might be worthier still: Love.

And after months away from it there are moments that I cherish

–       The act of creating ritual, silly and ridiculous and childish

–       The moment of discovery for the very first time in a scene or a word or a movement

–       The undaunted display of failure, the expectation that one is at the beginning of a journey, and the sense that one is not worth less because they have not yet mastered the way how to do something

This thought, this core of the work as an exploit of love has lifted me. And now that I find myself nearing the end, I wonder how I take these with me back to the land of professional living. I wonder how I take the happiness and joy and love that I have lived with over these past months back to my work and my life and my collaborators.

And were this any other post here, I’d find some way to neatly wrap all this up into a perfect bow of professional conduct and meaning. But I don’t think I’ll do that just now. I’ll leave it ragged and happy and unfinished. And just be satisfied with that.

A

Grad School

How is it possible? Can it really be that I’ve been writing here this long and I still haven’t made it to the subject of Grad School?

Well, ok. Let’s dive into this sucker.

Let me start off by saying I am the product of two pHd’s.

My parents met at a small college in southern Illinois where they made up the majority of the psychology department. On my father’s side, all eight of my grandmother’s living children graduated from college, many going on to terminal degrees in their field. While my mother’s mother may have chided me about not being able to getting married if I got too fat, she was also very clear that a girl goes to college for more than her “MRS” degree.

I say all of this for context. I say all of this because I suspect this decision is  difficult because I have a serious lack of perspective. Education for its own sake is a value that made its way into me at an early age. And the idea of evaluating whether “higher learning” is “worth it” feels a little weird.

Full disclosure: I had the luxury of a college education search in which the academic quality of institution was the only consideration. It never occurred to me not to go to the place in which I would learn the most and hence become my best. It was deep in me that learning is something you do for its own sake, not because it is a means to justify the ends. I am lucky to have had a mother that was willing and interested in devoting hours of research and travel to help me make my way through the educational application process. I worked very hard, but I did so in a context that valued the effort I was making.

Similarly, the kind of knowledge that I chose to pursue was always something that I felt free to follow with an uncomplicated curiosity. Love chemistry? Awesome! Feel like shifting into classical music? Totally cool! Decide at the end of the day that theater is where you belong? A-ok.

I have never had to understand of the kind of sacrifice that people who love art so much they have to betray their parents’ wishes to make it. It never occurred to me that anyone would think less of me if I picked one learning path over another. So long as I loved and excelled at whatever I wanted to learn, that was all that mattered.

So ultimately, though I had offers of scholarship that would have meant far fewer student loans for both myself and my mom down the road, I picked a very expensive, very demanding, very very very good and small liberal arts school that had the perfect mix of intense theater studies and undergraduate research opportunities in science.

It remains one of the most formative experiences of my life. Simply, and unequivocally put, I would not be the artist and thinker I am today if I hadn’t had that opportunity.

It is a really lucky and wonderful thing to have been given.

And it puts me in kind of an awkward position now. How to explain why… This may take more than one post I think. But this is definitely part of it:

The only condition that my mom gave me on school selection was that I was definitively not allowed to go to an arts conservatory. She believed, and in my opinion rightly, that there was plenty of time for me to choose my path but that the college years were a chance to broaden my exposure to knowledge rather than to deepen a specific narrow channel.

I can’t speak for every artist of that age, but I can speak for myself, and I know that my taste and sensibilities at 18 were terrible. Or rather, they were unformed, uncomplicated, and driven by external forces that I didn’t yet have an eye to look at critically.

“Mom, I don’t know if I can go to a school that doesn’t have a musical theater program.”

I said these words out loud.

More than once.

This is my karmic retribution for putting up that fight over a decade ago: I now have to remember saying them and how much I really deeply meant them.

The person I was then couldn’t know that some day it wouldn’t be Sondheim and Bernadette Peters that inspired me to create every day. That person didn’t know that she would be so much more opened up and fulfilled by the prospect of creating her own voice and vision rather than stepping into someone else’s. She couldn’t know that all the things that seemed so important and special about those high school productions of Into the Woods and Steel Magnolias – the fancy costumes and glare of lights, the audience oohing when she cried real tears in that last scene – would ultimately become symbols that she would question on a regular basis in an online blog for her experimental “should I even call it theater” company.

It was the context of the learning, the people she met and the teachers she had and all the experiences that place gave her, that made her change. It was all those things that made her believe in the arts as more than a hobby or entertainment, but as an avenue of expression equally important in the larger scheme of the world as science. It was that place of learning that did that.

And because it did, now she is me, and I sit imagining the future in which I do appropriately narrow and deepen the specific aspect of art-making that I want to pursue. I think about the learning environment that I have created in my work and life. I think about how it would change if I allowed myself to spend a lot of time working towards someone else’s definition of what theater should be. I think about whether the work that those institutions teach is work I think is useful to the field. I think that even at places where it is work I believe in, is it the place or the people that make the work that way?

And I wonder things. Things like:

“I love learning. I love being in academic institutions. I love the idea of taking time to sit and think deeply about things. I would love grad school. I should go!”

And then:

“But it’s so expensive at so many places. Can you really justify the cost? Can you really say that it’s worth putting that strain on the rest of your life? Do you really believe that what you will receive is worth that much money?”

And then:

“Well there are places that don’t cost as much. There are cheaper programs. You could do one of those. Also, you have to think about the potential positive outcomes. You could teach more. You could make more doing the teaching that you already do. Education is not just learning, it’s also a tool.”

And then:

“I have never thought about learning that way, as a commodity. It was always just for its own sake. That makes me uncomfortable. How do I evaluate cost/benefit analysis in this context? Are cheaper programs a better deal? What if they take me away from my career for two or three years? What if everyone moves on? What if no one cares when I come back?”

And:

“So maybe I should just go to the program that I really love, one that I think will make me the best no matter the cost. But what is that program? There aren’t a lot of super experimental devising academic programs. And the few I’ve visited so far seem, well, not so awesome.”

And:

“Also, do I even want to do more teaching? Do I then have to get a pHd? That takes forever! And those jobs are super scarce and hard to come by. And even if I got one, none of the people who are academics in a full time way really make enough art. Not as much as I make now, and even that feels like WAY too little.”

And on and on and on to the point where it seems absurd that I’d even consider more education.

But then I think about how much I loved that context, that stretch, that drive and push that I got the last time I was in a setting where I was forced on constant basis to deeply examine what and how I make and the cycle begins to repeat.

Here’s what I fear: I fear I will get a degree that is cheap but doesn’t help me much and that in the process I will become a worse artist.

I think that is literally possible. I think that being around too many people who make their work without depth, without questioning or thinking hard enough will make you like them. You cannot help but acclimate to your circumstance. The world you are in becomes your standard. And if the standard around you is low so eventually will become yours.

I also fear that I will spend a lot of time on something that is rigorous and demanding but that is ultimately not what I want to do.

This is why I have stayed away from some of the big names, the places with the awesome reputations and decent funding programs. The ones that make the best work in the standard traditional model. The ones that in a way I blame the most for taking the best and brightest and reinforcing aspects of theater that I think are dying a painful death and need to be revamped.

I also fear spending all the money I have and will ever have for an education I could love but will be chained in debt to for the rest of my life.

This is why I haven’t entered the few programs that seem totally right but so very expensive. The ones with the world famous experimental mentors and alumni that are the exact kind of people I want to emulate. Or the ones that allow you to design and direct your study however your process dictates but require you to pay your own way. I went to an info session for one of these last kind of schools and asked someone how much debt they would have after they came out. They couldn’t say. Not wouldn’t. Couldn’t. I think they literally couldn’t let that number stay in their heads or it would so overwhelm them that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the experience. The number must be huge. A hundred thousand, maybe more. Maybe a lot more.

So that’s where it has sat for years now. Me running from these different specters of grad school future. Continuing to soldier forward without them and wondering if it’s needed, what it’s use is and then feeling sad for needing to define the use of knowledge at all.

Each year I feel just a little bit further away from exactly what in my career I think grad school could change. And every time I go to one of those info sessions the potential applicants seem less similar to myself. Earlier in their artistic path, eager to pick up the traditional model, needing that paper for some specific reason.

I always assumed it was somewhere I would head.

But every year I seem not to go.

A

PS:  If you’ve gone, are you glad? What did you gain? Are you poor? If you haven’t yet, why? And do you think you will? If you know you won’t, what‘s the reason?