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A Peek Into TrailOff

Intrepid fans of Swim Pony, founder Adrienne Mackey here with some exciting updates!

You might have heard that we here at Swim Pony HQ have been busy with research for our newest project TrailOff, created in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) to bring original audio stories to nature trails throughout the Philadelphia region.

Since getting the funding go ahead earlier this year (Thanks NET, William Penn and Barra Foundations!) we’ve been delving deep into that funky space between digital and analog, between the mind’s imaginary space and the natural world. Some of the goals behind TrailOff are practical: for example, how we might offer experiences akin to immersive and site based theater to a wider network of audiences. However, on the macro-level we’re also looking at creative and philosophical questions that reimagine how we experience what form stories can take and who gets to tell them.

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Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Photo: John Hawthorne

Before we get into all that, let’s start with a few quick words we’ve been using to explain what the heck this thing will be:

TrailOff is a brand new mobile app, designed to re-imagine how people interact with recreational trails and, by extension, expand the diversity of users that seek them out. The core of this work lies in the creation of 10 unique narrative walks: intimate journeys that use GPS to link audio storytelling to physical attributes along a mapped route. Each selected path will feature text from a local writer along with underscored music and sound design, all tailored to sync to the movement of a listener as they travel along a trail.

TrailOff grows out of two lines of inquiry that have been simmering in Swim Pony’s pot over the past several years. If you’re even peripherally aware of what the company has been up, you know that we’ve been keen to explore how the design of games and other interactive media might teach theater makers something about how to structure immersive works. The lessons learned in works like WAR OF THE WORLDS have spurred us to dig deeper about what it means to place an audience in the center of an experience. Similarly, projects like WALK AROUND PHILADELPHIA  have spurred a curiosity about what it means to curiously explore the tangible world in relationship to one’s own personal narratives and experiences, with the moving body as the medium through which these two collide. In THE END we got a first chance at blending these impulses, and with TrailOff, we’re also aiming for the process and product to create space for a wider variety of Philadelphia’s voices. In short, this new work is a creative process that will examine the narratives of place – who dominates the meaning we make about the natural world and how we might re-imagining those stories from new perspectives – while simultaneously giving its eventual audiences a visceral experience of literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

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Schuylkill Banks, Photo: John Hawthorne

While we can’t yet share the actual stories that will be part of the project but we can share some creative insight we’ve gained in exploring what aspects of a story best suit this particular format.

In July, Swim Pony and Toasterlab, our tech partners in the TrailOff app creation, undertook a narrative workshop, visiting potential trail sites across the area to explore writing specific to trails. In the same way a novel, screenplay, or standup comedy set all include language but utilize hugely different techniques to best serve their medium, we wanted to learn what kind of story is uniquely heard best while walking and listening through headphones.

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Swim Pony & Toasterlab near Bartram’s Garden,  Photo: John Hawthorne

We took away a LOT from that workshop but a few things stood out. The first lesson seems obvious in retrospect: when writing to place you have to spend LOTS of time there doing the same thing you expect the audience to do. When writing for a form that will eventually require you to move as you listen, it’s best to write in motion and on your feet as well. We spent tons of time walking trails and noticing the stories that made sense there and what we found is that there’s a balance between density of language and the ability to stay connected to what you see. Useful silence is key.

We also found that simple details that connect the listener to the world they are surrounded by are hugely powerful. One of the most effect pieces of language was also the most humble: standing in Heinz Wildlife refuge hearing someone talk about wind washing over reeds.

Our last big summer takeaway was that while this form is tricky on plot-heavy stories – relatively little happens or changes on a trail – it is uniquely well suited to putting you in another’s state of mind. We found language that traversed that space of internal thought or invited us as users into contemplative spaces of our own super exciting.

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Jenna Horton on the Delaware River Trail,  Photo: John Hawthorne

In November, we brought sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman into the mix to delve deeper into the aesthetics of sound as well as an overarching narrative structure for the app . We brainstormed and begin to define how sound will influence the user experience. We also strategized questions about how audio triggering might work. We shared research on other projects that felt inspirational to this one and finally started trying out ideas again in real space.

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Brainstorming notes, Photo: John Hawthorne

A few key takeaways from this workshop centered on the interface experience the user will have. We began wondering narratively who it is that the user is interacting with when they first download TrailOff. Some questions that guided that process:

  • Is there a guide that has put together the overall experience?
  • What is the aesthetic that one encounters as they interact with the app?
  • What is the journey from the first story to the last? What is gained? What is the narrative connection, if any, between each trail?

We began developing a character we’re currently calling The Ranger, a mysterious curator and guide who will over see the experience that each user will have. In tandem with this development we started thinking about the difference between a piece of immersive theater and a pre-recorded audio tour. What is it that makes “liveness” so palpable and special? Why does the story “being there” with the audience matter?

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Adrienne walking Gateway Park,  Photo: John Hawthorne

Finally, we began very functionally playing with ways that sound might overlay story content and actually began testing sound scores underneath previously generated text from our summer workshops. And if you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing you might even like to experience it yourself.

Below are three pieces of audio we experimented with. Stream or download one of files above and play it while you take a walk. Each of these files are an little tests in pairing different kinds of language, music and soundscape. To assess what “works” and doesn’t think about the following:

  • Is the experience you connect most to located in your ears, in the world, or somewhere in between?
  • Are there places where your thoughts are in conversation with what you hear?
  • How much (or little) does the language feel connected to the place you are in?
  • What about this experience feels uniquely suited to this format?
  • Is this even a “story” at all?

 

A Horror Inspired Creature Story

A Banal Convo About Appliances and the Future 

A Nostalgic Tale of Cicada Pee 

 

If you give it a try, we’d love, love, love to add your creative thoughts to our own. Just throw a few thoughts quickly into the box below!

 

Are you bored of this shit? #MeToo

I am SO tired of shitty stories about women.

I am tired of shitty stupid, how-many-times-do-I-have-to-watch-this-same-old-ass-trope, kinds of narratives about ladies.

I am quite tired of listening to the same supposed allies defend the same small NOT reprehensible parts of a female character that makes her, um, remotely a baseline human as clear evidence of a writer or director’s progressive ability to write women.

I am tired and, frankly, completely BORED of boring, boring, BORING stories that are so impossibly predictable in the way they dehumanize female characters that it has essentially become a farce.

I am tired of only seeing stories that have more women then men in them.

I am tired of every show set in a past period in history requiring women to be introduced in their roles as wives and daughters.

I am tired of women roles in which their romantic potential is ALWAYS the key factor of their plot line.

I am tired that there is never, ever, EVER just a rando female scientist or doctor or computer programmer or lawyer or ANYTHING with an actual substantive character underneath her dialogue who contributes to the larger plot scheme who is not also a lover to another character, (unless of course she’s just there to add some forwarding exposition and will never be seen again).

Here is a thing I do now on the regular: every time I am taking in a story in which women are outnumbered by men, in particular when female roles are essentially decoration or only defined in service by their desirability I just say out loud that this is happening.

And you know what, it gets to the point sometimes with articulating outrage that it gets  BORING HOW OFTEN I DO HAVE TO DO THIS.

But do you know what’s more boring than pointing out places we should be annoyed and frustrating with diminutive places for women in the arts? HOW BORING IT IS TO KEEP WATCHING THESE STORIES.

Here’s a boring thing that happened to me yesterday that also made me tired:

I turned on Netflix to put on a little background noise while cooking. I searched for any random movie that popped up. The first one Netflix recommended me was something called Sleeping With Other People. It had been a long day and wasn’t in the mood to think hard and the two main actors are people I usually find funny I didn’t FEEL like doing a lot of work to figure out if this movie would be BORING in the way that almost all stories are, and so in this moment of fatigue and weakness I just turned on the movie.

In the first scene a woman is scorned by a nerd and sleeps with some other dude  because he’s there. Then both she and the dude flash forward in time to when they are caught cheating on other people.

In the male character’s scene his girlfriend is RUNNING AWAY FROM HIM until he PHYSICALLY STOPS her in order to mainsplains that she needs to apologize for reacting to his serial lying about non-monogamy with dozens of people. His vehement tirade ends with him demeaning her single objection to a pointed targeting of her best friend as actually being her fault for not expecting that ANYTHING he EVERY wanted to do to her was on the table unless she actively received explicit agreement from him not to be a terrible human. That and she’s being emotional and irrational.

Male character leaves unrepentant and intact. He is personally unaffected by his behavior or the feelings of those around him. No one around even seems to notice him screaming at the female he ostensibly has feelings for.

In the female character’s scene she is quiet and repentant and demure to her boyfriend who talks loudly and at length seemingly unconcerned for anything she has to say until she throws herself on the table to tell him how she and her therapist have realized that she needs to come clean about the single other person she has been with since they started dating. He proceeds to scream about how she is a slut in front of an entire restaurant. He yells without being checked by anyone as she receives a myriad of blows hypothesizing an irrational and untrue litany of insults and screams as he storms out while she is left standing there in red like a scarlet indecency.

Female character is completely destroyed emotionally and publicly shamed for a fractional amount of equivalent behavior to dude in previous scene. Mostly she stands still making small mouse-like sounds to indicate her complete lack of worth in any capacity whatsoever.

This is FIVE MINUTES into a movie I turned on because Netflix RECOMMENDED it to me.

OH MY GOD I AM SO BORED OF THIS!!!!

I will not mention that the 15 minutes of the following show that I tried putting in which I realized that the licensed therapist was hiding a secret identity of an irresponsible nympho (despite clearly doing the vast majority of child-rearing duties even though she and her husband are both working professionals) because it is TOO INSANELY BORING to talk about!!!

And I will not speak at length about the comedy set in the early 80’s that I watched a bit of after that in which the main female computer programmer sleeps with some guy she’s known for 10 seconds without protection cause she’s CRAZY and her CRAZY is apparently the thing that makes her the only girl who can do computer-based things and after he says sleeping with him won’t get her the job she looks hurt and tells him not to worry because she’s not one of those girls who gets her feelings hurt, which is why we understand that he CAN hire her because she is willing to put up with tough emotional situations like this one without displaying any girly feelings because if I were to talk about the first 10 minutes of that show I would be SO BORED OUT OF MY MIND THAT I MIGHT DIE!!!!

Want to know part of the reason why men think it’s ok to harass women? Because the stories they grow up with tell them that this is how the world is supposed to work. From the moment one is born they are indoctrinated with narratives that normalize and reinforce abuse of women and the subjugation of their identities in service of the narratives of males. We shove the stories of “don’t worry your abuser is actually a prince underneath” of Sleeping Beauty and the “it’s totally not a biggie if you are forced to spend a substantive portion of your life inactively passive progressing to the point in which you are literally asleep, so long as a prince wakes you up with a non-consensual physical act” of Snow White down their throats until they are so populace and so commonplace it never even occurs to imagine otherwise.

And seeing the vast number of #MeToo’s that filled my Facebook wall yesterday I was made tired but I was also so freaking BORED.

Not because these women are boring. Not because their experiences are not real and emotionally charged.

But because it is so IMPOSSIBLY BORING AND TIRING AND INSANE to have to experience these stories over and over and OVER in an omnipresence that is narratively PLAYED-FUCKING-OUT.

Maybe all the #MeToo creators on my Facebook feed need to start moaning in pain the next time someone hands them a script with a cardboard deep female character or overtly yawning in the face of a director who is telling them to play something “sexier” or bend forward and start lightly hitting their forehead on a table during a male-dominated season planning meeting. Maybe we should all go to the movies and just start loudly stating that we are BORED of what we are seeing because misogyny is SO IMPOSSIBLY BORING and we are tired of watching this BORING PROBLEM CONTINUE TO BORE US.

So here’s a thought for those that want to do something to counteract the displays of BORING, SHITTY and emotionally EXHAUSTING stories you’ve recently seen:

If you produce, if you write, if you direct, if you defend stories and plotlines and characters that do these tiring and damaging things in relationship to women, if you don’t acknowledge that these tropes and limitations are also part of the violence that perpetuates the behaviors, if you cannot see how it is just one more boring kind of control, if you cannot think of women as something that does not require them to inhabit the roles of victim or princess or witch or old hilarious hag or nympho or life changing manic pixie dream girl, if you are silent and standing by to the constant assault of intelligence capability and capacity and depth and potential of women…

If you see this and you don’t SAY something, if you create this and find it too tough to figure out how to DO something else, if you participate in things like this without BOTHERING to notice or comment, you are not simply observing the problem.

You PART of the problem. And a BORING one at that.

Because until we ALL are BORED of having to deal with this, nothing will get fixed.

– A

Awesome Lady Superhero League

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the ideas the teams fleshed out:

Family Communication Skills Workshop

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

Mystery Resistance Choir

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

“Thanksgiving Dinner” Conversation Game

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

State of Reunion (Civic Practice Fair)

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

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

Awesome Lady Squad Town Hall Dispatch

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

First, the TL; DR version:img_0026

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

In more nitty-gritty terms…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Open Letter to my Awesome Ladies and my Awesome Lady Allies

Before I get started lemme just say if you’re not in the mood to read a lot and just want the details on the upcoming Awesome Lady Squad event, jump down to the bolded stuff down below…


At the end of April of last year, as civic unrest was sweeping Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I was feeling awfully heavy about the world. That sense of weight was born out of the inequity I saw in society, in the brutality of an “othered” community being discriminated against, and a sense of helplessness about what to do about it. It seemed clear to me that I could no longer sit back in my own privilege, that I needed to ask myself some hard questions and begin to find better ways to hold myself accountable for how my personal actions echoed out into larger cultural forces in the world around me.

At the same time, I was teaching a class called Voice for the Stage. The course was structured to end with students performing a monologue of their choosing in the college’s main stage theater, a place that required them to show off their newly acquired vocal prowess. During the final session of that class I watched a female student perform a monologue from the movie Lord of the Rings in which she took on and totally owned the character of Gandalf the Gray. As I watched her I felt a moment of something cracking. It was a thread that pulled on my desire to show empathy for those who were suffering unfairly. It also pulled on the frustration I felt as a teacher for the way that our society’s impoverished narrative landscape had pushed so many of my female students towards male roles as they sought to embody power and status as characters.

In the wake of that class, I wrote a post for the Swim Pony blog called A Million Female Gandalfs. That post was my attempt to make sense of a deep heaviness I felt at the time. A bit from that writing:

I have seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I have seen African-American students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson again (this time fighting wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls whose heritages are both Mexican, play Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I am sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologue there is so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

Another quote from farther on in the piece:

I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be forced onto people while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world we live in. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who do not yet have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults to pull them out of ourselves.

Awesome Ladies and Awesome Ladies’ friends, I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks have evoked a lot of the same heaviness of feeling. I’ve been feeling a lot of the same sense of frustration about the landscape of dialogue and narrative we’ve been living in. And similarly, I don’t have a clear sense yet about what exactly it is we do about it.

But, once again, I do know that I can’t sit passively by.

And so.

I’m reconvening the Squad.

Because if there’s anything possible to be done, I know that Awesome Ladies are the ones to do it. And thanks to a generous space donation from Headlong, Swim Pony’s Awesome Lady Squad will host:

A Two-Part Awesome Brainstorming Town Hall

Monday Dec 5 from 8 – 10pm &

Saturday Dec 10 from 2 – 4pm

at Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad)

The focus of this time will be to share our feelings and responses to recent events, imagine some concrete actions that we as an intersectional Lady community might imagine being useful to the world, and come up with a plan to put our Awesome might into action.

Come to one or both armed with your ideas and your readiness. We’ll do our best to facilitate a convo that helps create a plan of attack from there.

RSVP to SwimponyPA@gmail.com if you can (though please still come if you haven’t and pass along to anyone in the creative community you think would want to take part) so we get a sense of size to watch for.

Keep on Awesome-ing and hope to see you soon.

– Adrienne

Orlando

True fact.

On the dressing room mirror of the Macy’s bridal boutique at the Cherry Hill mall there is a decal that says the following:

Be the kind of SPECIAL you want to be.

If you are Adrienne Mackey such a decal will make you cry.

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Now I’d like to talk about Orlando.

(deep breath and another warning shot to those who might need it)

I have followed the story of the Orlando shooting with the predictable mix of sadness and anger. I do not carry an LGBTQ+ status and in the aftermath of the events, I’ve felt a thorny mix of privilege and frustration: a feeling that has coalesced into uncertainty about what exactly to do, lo these several weeks later, for the beautiful colleagues and friends and students that I know and love who have been reminded with this event that no, they are not safe and that yes, they are under attack, and that indeed, we still live in a culture that denies them the equity they deserve.

And in my sadness and privilege and anger, I’ve wanted to come up with a plan of action because this is how I understand myself useful in the world: not in my sympathy or feelings (which should be a given), but in my doings towards different outcomes for the future. I want to come up with something that moves our culture even a tiny step away from such a thing that seems so thoroughly and obviously horrible.

Weirdly, I have also spent the last weeks planning a wedding.

It’s my wedding, if you’re wondering, one that has been in the works for about 8 years now. Or rather it’s mostly not been in the works for 8 years now. Up until a couple months ago when I told people I was engaged and they said the usual, “Oh my god! Congrats! You must be SO SO SO HAPPY!!! When’s the date?” I would usually look at the ground and tell them that it’s not that big a deal and we’ve essentially been all but legally married for a while now and please, please, please just don’t make a big fuss about it.

There are a lot of things about a wedding that freak me out, many that I am only just beginning to realize the depth of my discomfort with. I don’t like engaging in an activity that makes me feel so poor. I don’t like events that constantly put me in a place to feel super girly and hyper stereotypically feminized. I don’t like feeling that my relationship to a man (however genuinely wonderful he happens to be) is the most salient feature about me as a person.

For a long time after getting engaged, my husband to-be and I continued not setting a date and thus the wedding just kept not happening. At some point, when the length of betrothal got long enough (somewhere on the scale of three years) people started to tilt their heads and raise one eyebrow and then sort of shrug their shoulders about it with a meaningful kind of look and say, “Huh…” or “Oh… That’s interesting… What are you waiting for?”

Eventually, when the engagement got really really long (somewhere on the scale of six years) people would say the same thing and then I’d see this silent other thing pass through their faces which I always took to mean, “Well clearly you can’t really be in love and want to marry this guy if it’s taken you so damn long to get around to doing it, I mean Jesus, he’s already given you a ring, girl.”

On the Sunday when the news of the shooting broke, I had tasked myself to follow up with a myriad of emails to caterers I’d been putting off all week. It seemed about the single stupidest thing to be focusing on the midst of such a terrible tragedy but my mom and I had planned months before that she would come into town and tag along with me on a variety of wedding related events the following few days.

So this is what I did in the midst of the news about 49 innocent dead people: set up meetings to talk to people about dress fittings and pressed bamboo disposable plates and rose gold earrings that matched the shoes I’d ordered.

“You family is safe. You partner is safe,” I kept thinking as I did all this. “Do not take these blessings lightly.”

At this point, I’d like to say for the record that I love my partner. I care about him deeply. He is unequivocally one of the most important people in my life. But on the same token, taking part in the stereotypical “head over heels” goo-goo ga-ga romance narrative one sees in dumb rom com movies has always made me feel uncomfortable.

The most extreme and cliché stories about romantic love – one in which a person happily, eagerly, gives up their individuality and throws themself into being part of an eternally linked soulmate-style couple – uniformly upset me. Women who take their husband’s names freak me out. Wearing a veil and dressing in the symbolism of white, walking down an aisle and being “given away” from one man to another, standing in front of people all dolled up like the star of some wedding play I’ve dreamed about my entire life, all these things feel like they cut hard against aspects of my self-definition that I’ve worked quite hard to cultivate in my life.

There are plenty of people that take these traditions and re-appropriate them in ways that make them happy, and for those folks, power to ‘em. For me, such rituals are things that feel disempowering and trigger-y. They make me feel like an archetype, like a generic thing I don’t identify with. They make me feel like an imperfect version of “bride” rather than the actual person I am.

And at this point, let me say that I’m going to try not to “wedding” all over Orlando. One is a huge and massive tragedy and the other is a small and totally self-oriented event. One is so so so big and the other so so so small.

At the same time, I bring up my personal struggle over my wedding because I see it as an example of the sensation that arises when one’s personal sense of self is in conflict with a larger cultural story. Surprisingly intense feelings of helplessness have sprung from moments in which I feel myself wholly out of sync with the way that I sense this wedding story is supposed to be told.

It feels like there is this way, a way that we all can sort of intuitively feel, that such a thing is supposed to be done. And yeah, sure, one can unseat and come up with an alternate solution to every single one of the defaults. It is indeed possible to ask to please not be shown a white dress, or quietly undercut people’s assumptions that you believe that this is the most magical day of your life, or say that no you really won’t need to set up the dining area like a 12 year-old’s idea of a royal palace. You can politely negate the assumption that someone will give you away like a set of family dishes or awkwardly explain that you have to check with your partner about the rental agreement not because he’s in charge of paying for shit but because he actually and seriously cares about the aesthetics of table linens, maybe more than you do if we’re honest, and he’s the one whose done most of the research on decorative place settings.

One can do all these things but eventually it just gets tiring explaining that all the things people assume about you are wrong. It’s tiring even when they aren’t mean about it. It’s tiring because you have to keep doing it over and over and over. It starts to feel like you’re being a pain in the ass when you just wish someone would shut up about telling you that you’re going to look so pretty. It’s even more tiring to try and explain that it’s not even that you hate looking pretty, you just wish pretty was maybe 2% instead of 99% of the data coming at you.

You can do these things but – for me anyway – it mostly feels like you’re some kind of cranky and difficult person that hates the things that everybody else blissfully and easily loves doing. Like you’re some kind of problem that needs to be solved.

Here’s a thing I kept thinking about in my cranky difficultness and privileged sadness of wedding planning in the wake of Orlando: I don’t think people go from zero to massacre. I don’t think people are born murderous.

I think they accrue tiny morsels of discomfort within themselves, discomforts about things in themselves they do not like and discomforts about the people around them they do not know well enough. I think these discomforts can slowly aggregate into a kind of soil into which hate can be seeded. And I think that once in a while such seeds find a particular climate and soil that grows into the kind of rage that makes an Orlando.

Tangent: once when I was in high school, a close family member told me that the idea of two men dating each other made him uncomfortable.

As I remember it, admittedly now nearly two decades later, we were out to dinner when the topic came up. I was performing in a musical at the time and mentioned offhandedly that the lead role of the play had been double cast – two young men splitting a role and performing it on alternate nights.

“You know what’s funny,” I said. “I think they’re also together. Both pretending onstage to like the girl playing the lead while offstage they’re dating each other. At least, that’s the rumor.”

“Can I admit something?” my family member said. “The idea of two men holding hands, kissing, anything romantic… It weirds me out. I mean, I know that’s wrong. I would never do anything because of it… but if I’m honest, that’s how I feel.”

I remember a very particular state of dissonance that my relative kept articulating: that logically they understood it was not good to feel grossed out by a man holding hands with another man they care about, but that this “ick” factor was an instinct, one born out of the environment in which they were raised.

I think there are stories that as a culture are collectively comfortable with and I think there are those that we are not. I think some stories cause this discomfort simply because we haven’t encountered them enough. Like the first taste of coffee or red wine, they are foreign and untested to the aesthetic palate and as such give our senses a shock. But such discomfort doesn’t appear because they are bad stories. It is simply that our brains and guts have not yet figured out what to do with them in their newness. As we grow, hopefully, we learn to widen our circle of comfort and not only tolerate but appreciate the ways in which such things make our lives richer than we have previously known the world to be.

But what if we don’t? What if we spit out otherness and confine ourselves to only a small number of definitions about what stories are good stories to hear? What if we continue to needlessly limit our ability to acclimate to such diversity of narrative? What happens when we confront people who do not, cannot, and should not need to fit their tales into the limited palate we have created?

And as I wrote in regards to another mass shooting, I have been wondering in the wake of Orlando if this kind of rage might not stem in part from a kind of poverty in our narrative landscape. I wonder what would happen if we lived in a world in which we had swaths of stories about lives that looked like the ones in all those tragic articles I have been reading: ones about people living as theme park ride operators and travel agents and restaurant managers and community college students while simultaneously being gay.

What do we do with people who elicit discomfort in us because our experience is not yet adequate to the depth and fullness of this complicated world?

What we should do is figure out how to hold our discomfort in our mouths and taste it for richness. What we should do is sit with that discomfort and wrap ourselves in it so that we might get to know it. What we should do is mine our own patterns of defense so we might notice when that discomfort is everything to do with we the havers of dissonance and unquestionably not to do with those that provoke it within us.

But this is hard to do when we live in a culture that gives some of us the leeway not to bother.

It is hard when some of us are never required to imagine ourselves holding the dissonance of difference, when some of us never have to bother to strengthen the muscles of such holding.

What if we had, say, a whole three mainstream sitcoms or rom coms or heady dramas in which the central romance between main characters we narratively invest in wasn’t a straight couple? And not because they are doomed or tragic but because we like watching such a couple fall in love? What if we had a lead character that was trans and their trans-ness wasn’t the point of the story?

Is it possible that if we decided something like those things were important that the inherent discomfort of such things might be something we all had to practice getting comfortable with earlier and more often?

This is what I was thinking about as I tried to be the kind of SPECIAL that I wanted to be.

And so it was that Orlando plus one final stink eye from the saleswoman communicating nonverbally that I was being the bizarre kind of woman who seems not to want to be beautiful and happy and celebrate my love in a white dress made me start to cry in the Cherry Hill Macy’s bridal salon dressing room.

Just before it happened I said I didn’t want to wear white. The woman replied, “Ah ok… So a color more like… Champagne? Or Eggshell?”

And as I walked into that dressing room with a dark blue dress she begrudgingly handed me I was so fucking mad at that stupid woman and her shitty pen with a giant fake flower taped to it for being able to make me feel small and dumb and unlike the person I generally believe myself to be. I was so fucking mad she had elicited this feeling over something as insignificant as a color choice. I was so fucking mad at myself for feeling sorry for myself three days after a crazy person shot 49 people for no reason other than just being who they are.

I looked at that word “SPECIAL” hovering on the mirror and I just started bawling. I stood there weeping over feeling so tired at having to re-write the script of my wedding story in all these tiny but slowly accumulating ways. It was a moment of actually letting myself feel the freaking work of subverting all the defaults of this one dumb ceremony that I voluntarily bought into. It was, to paraphrase Ann Patchett, the realization that I was reading one slender volume of such hardship while others I cared about had catalogued an entire library. It was me feeling so goddamn angry at the stupid vinyl decal that lyingly promised to hold people in their specialness in their moments of major personal catharsis and growth.

I see the story written on that Macy’s mirror in this way: the world would appreciate it if you, the dissonance provokers, could just be a little less weird, that it would be great if you could just make things a little less hard for those of us that aren’t used to your desire for otherness, that if you could just default into a story that’s not quite so umm… odd it would be easier, and if you could just do things in this way that’s a little less stereotypically gender-non-conforming this story would just be so much better and satisfying, so yeah, if you can just be a slightly different kind of person than the one you are and act a little more normal so that you’re recognizable as something I am used to seeing, if you could do all that it would be so so so SO great!

I mean, you don’t have to be exactly the same – be the kind of SPECIAL you want to be! – but a little decorum would be appreciated.

So.

(deep breath)

Here’s what I figured out about what I think we can start to actively do.

I think we find the moments in which we feel a dissonance within ourselves and note that we could give over to the ease of weakness, that there are times when we can sense in the back of our minds and hearts that what the “other” is asking of us is to imagine our usual stories in a way slightly out of our “normal” conceptions and that it would be easier for us to do what feels comfortable.

And then we actively work to make the opposite choice.

I think we intentionally work to put ourselves into such places where we must hold discomforts. Not the discomforts that we have already acclimated to. Not the red wines and coffees we have already learned to love. No, we put ourselves in places where these dissonances make us itch, where they make us feel weird and maybe stupid, like we can’t instinctually sense what’s “normal.”

We put that discomfort in our mouths and chew on it until we’ve acclimated to the taste.

This cannot happen if we fill our theaters’ seasons with love stories only between women and men.

This cannot happen if we never allow those who look unlike us to design, act and direct for our companies.

This cannot happen if we only cast minorities as sidekicks to the central journeys of straight white cis male characters.

I think we need to look at our choices and say, “Hey, it feels a little weird to let this person do this thing that I am not used to someone like them doing. It feels like maybe I’m taking something from this white/straight/dude/cis/whatever person who I know is super talented and with whom I am used to working. It feels like it’s a little out of my comfort and knowledge zone. But I’m going to trust that the dissonance I feel is the thing that eventually gives me a wider understanding. That discomfort is an opportunity to take my own internalized and problematic instincts and make them mine to hold.”

I think this is what we do so we starve those fertile climates of hate of the seeds that grow rage.

I think this is what we do to truly let people be the kind of SPECIAL they want to be.

I think this is what we do to help stop an Orlando.

So for now, it’s what I plan to do.

– A

 

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