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Let Me Tell You Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, alas, is not that day.

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

The only question is: Why?

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

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

And:

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

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

The only question is: Why?

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

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

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

Back to that original question:

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

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

That’s why.

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

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

Today, alas, is not that day.

– A

Sharing the Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Sam

Re-conceptualizing Gameplay as Play Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Sam

A Million Female Gandalfs

Today I had my final class of the semester at one of the schools I teach at. For the final of Voice for the Stage, I ask my students to perform a monologue they’ve worked on for several weeks in the large mainstage theater in front of each other. They pick their monologues themselves; I allow them to be from movies or television, from a favorite play, anything that they are genuinely interested in. I do this because it’s a chance for these learners to test their abilities, honed over the last 14 weeks, to offer up the stories they’ve chosen to tell via their bodies. I want, and encourage them, to choose words they feel will be thrilling for them to inhabit. It’s a chance to see if the class has helped them in transmitting those narratives’ feelings and emotions out of their imaginations, through their voices and out into an audience.

Today a girl stepped onto the stage and performed a monologue from Lord of the Rings, playing the wizard Gandalf.  I think about the fact that a year ago I was watching another girl performing another Gandalf monologue during this same culminating performance day and that earlier this semester I also saw another female Gandalf at a different school.

I think about how every single year there is a female Gandalf.

Last week, I sat in my living room and heard six fast and sharp pops from somewhere to the south and west of my window.

Oh no, I thought. I know what this sound is. I hope it’s something other than what I think it is, but if I’m honest I know exactly what this sound is, and still I keep working, hoping somehow that I’m mistaken until minutes later I hear the parade of several sirens in the distance and I can’t pretend any longer that what I already knew I knew wasn’t true.

In the moment I’m afraid, I’m scared, and I’m sad.

I think, I should call Brad and make sure he’s ok. Even though I know he’s at the theater, having left nearly 40 minutes ago, I should still just check and make sure.

I walk to the window and I see two police cars parked on the corner and several police walk into a mini market. Moments later I see several people, males of varying ages from teenager to thirty something adult, all walk quickly out of the store. They’re all African-American. They’re looking at their phones. A microsecond-long thought passes through my head, “What are the police doing? Why aren’t they stopping these men? What if they need to question them? What if they’re involved?”

This is the first thought that instinctually comes into my head. That they are guilty. It isn’t one of reasoned or rational thought. It’s gut reaction. It’s fear. It’s instinct. It’s the first story that comes to my mind.

A moment later I’m examining that thought, the first that flashed in my mind and I feel disgusted with myself.

In that moment I say, literally, as in actually I saw to myself out loud to the room, “What is wrong with you Adrienne? Why would you think that?”

I think, Why is the first narrative you’ve built around these humans who are leaving a store and looking at their phones one that assumes their guilt? What is it about them that makes you think this way before you even have had a moment to think? Why is the story you instinctually tell one of guilt and violence and implication? Why is the story you tell not one of a person scared and wondering if the people they know are alright? Why is their act of looking at of phones something that nonsensically becomes something nefarious instead of appearing innocent because it’s the EXACT SAME INSTINCT you yourself had?

And of course it’s because they are Black.

And in this moment, it’s painful to realize this.

And in this moment, it’s painful to realize that I do not want that impulse inside me.

And in this moment, it’s painful to realize that even though I do not consciously believe it, something about the world I live in has made this my gut instinct.

And in this moment I hate the world and I hate the gut instinct and I hate myself and I feel privileged and stupid and small.

I think, Why on instinct don’t you assume that these fellow humans are going to their own friends and families and making sure they are ok, that they hurry from this place because they too are scared and worried and want to feel comfort in a moment of stress and tension and possible tragedy?

I think, Why, why, why on earth is that not the story you instinctively picture?

I think about how quickly that terrible default story appeared in my mind. I think about the fact that I’m a storyteller by trade. I wonder about whether I’m telling stories that make it easier or harder for this kind of terrible default story to emerge.

I think about all this and I’m ashamed.

There is a darkness in you, I think. There’s something dark and sticky and terrible and it’s not something you put there on purpose but it is part of a much bigger problem that’s so so so terribly hard and sad and needs to be changed. I think about the color connotations of the words that my brain has just used to think about the problem, again the ones that simply came to mind. I think about how these too are problematic tropes that assume fault based on color and that they too infect the stories we tell.

This is not darkness, I think. You cannot think of the terrible thing that feeds the bad kind of stories as darkness. You are not allowed to equate darkness with that kind of evil and hatred.

I’m ashamed in that moment of the story that emerges from my brain without my asking it to appear. I hate it and I stand at my window and I look at the people walking by and I do my best to imagine a new story. In my new story I finally see the lines of worry in their faces. I think, You need to step back and work harder to see the world better. You need to work harder to get those other instinctual stories out of yourself, to find their roots and pull and pull and pull. You need to keep working on new stories that are better, you need something else to plant in their place.

Today between the myriad of moments in which I smile and clap and laugh with the group there’s a different kind of moment, one in which I pause and purse my lips for a moment and feel very very sad.

I’ve seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I’ve seen Black students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson (fighting wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls who are Mexican, playing Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I’m sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologues there’s so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

I’m sad because every year I see a female Gandalf.

I’m sad because there are a million female Gandalfs, it seems. I’m sad because I’ve seen students choose to play sponges and mutants and demons and even a human embodiment of a font, and though every year I see SO many of my female students find power and depth in speaking like Ian McKellen pretending to be a bearded wizard I have never, not once, not even one single time in seven years of teaching, seen a male student decide that they’d find something exciting and inspiring about speaking words originally intended for a woman.

I’m sad because this must mean we are not doing well enough in the stories we have for my female students.

I’m sad because the first story that comes to my mind when I see a group of Black men reacting to a gunshot is the worst kind of story. I’m sad because this isn’t the story that should be brought to my mind. And because it is, we’re clearly not doing well enough in the stories we have for them either.

I’m sad because I know that I get so tired hearing stories about women that conform to all the stupid and terrible gender norms. I’m sad because I get so tired of having to hear these same stupid stories that are such a tiny part of the larger whole of what being feminine can mean. It hurts me that there aren’t a larger number of better stories for the women who stand on that stage.

I think about the times someone has created a story for me that I do not want to be a part of, of the effort it takes to remove this story from myself. I think about the way that I am doing the same to others without even realizing it, without wanting to, and that I need to keep striving to find a way to stop.

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 attached onto people, to dictate how their lives are told, 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. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who don’t 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 in order to pull those stories out of ourselves.

I think about how we are literally wasting people’s lives by casting them in these shitty stories, how even a million female Gandalfs can’t create enough force to invert the imbalance.

And I think that this rooting, this active undoing and this need for rewriting for the better must be the job of our lives as artists. If we aren’t doing this, what good are any of the stories we go on to create? At this moment, as storytellers, we must take responsibility for the telling. For what other kind of magic can we possibly be here on earth to do?

– A

Freewheeling thoughts on “Row After Row” at People’s Light and Renée Zellweger’s face

There’s this moment in the production of Jessica Dickey’s Row After Row I saw last night at People’s Light and Theatre Company that almost makes me cry.

It is a moment near-ish to the end of the play in which the character Leah, carefully and conscientiously played by Teri Lamm, tells a story of how her body is like the war that her two fellow characters, Tom and Cal, re-enact on the battlefield of Gettysburg. She tells a story about an attack on a subway train. Of being groped and choked. Of the resulting shock and surprise and disbelief leading eventually to rage and explosion in screams that erupt from instinct.

This moment of the show is so carefully thought, so well crafted, so agile in its depiction of a feeling, and this care is the reason I feel so much that I want to weep.

I have never been attacked in this way but the monologue makes me feel as if I might, through seeing it, understand just a little bit about such a terrible thing. It also articulates a feeling I know so very much about, a feeling that comes as a result of being a women who lives in a world akin to that of this character. It bespeaks an understanding of the heaviness that living in a female-gendered body sometimes carries, of all the outside signifiers and shorthand “understandings” that such a body must sometimes undo and undercut if it wishes to appear other than as this surface glimpse would offer. It bespeaks the work of such a task. It bespeaks the way in which it slowly wears down the task’s undertaker and the way that we sometimes crack at our weakest moments and places, not because the weight is so onerously heavy but because sometimes we are just simply tired of holding it up. It is a beautiful moment of art that carries the power to potentially open up the minds of the viewer to understanding just a little bit about such a terrible thing.

There is another moment in this play that also almost makes me cry.

It is a moment, near-ish this time to the start, when this same Leah is arguing with this same Cal about the propriety of women in Civil War re-enactments, about the supposed opposition of historical accuracy with a need for inclusivity. She is talking, as best as I can remember, about how she sees Cal’s anger as a symptom of a dominant status slowly dying, its indignation as a signal that such status is truly under threat. She makes some decent points and her logic clearly stings her opponent. Cal regroups and then asserts back even more harshly in his arguments. The fight escalates in raised voices and wild gesticulations to a pitch that almost makes one fearful of the outcome.

And then Leah kisses Cal.

This is the other moment that almost makes me cry and it does so because it is such a disappointment.

I cannot and do not, as a single representative of my gender, claim to speak definitively on behalf of all women, or even all feminist identified women, but I can say with great deal of certainty that it has never occurred to me when in the midst of an argument with a misogynist over issues of misogyny that it would be beneficial to make out with them as a means to win my argument.

Not even, as the character Leah asserts, to shut them up. Especially not, as she claims, because other more logic-based tactics are failing.

I see this moment onstage and I become sad.

I think, “Ugh… That’s… too bad. I was really liking this play.”

I see the actress valiantly fights her way through this action, through the moment of satisfaction the character takes in the surprised silence that follows the kiss, through the lines explaining that she did it to make him stop talking. And it’s possible that I am projecting, highly probably even, but at that moment I sense her backing off this piece of the script. To me, at least, it comes off so much less embodied than her other electrifyingly deep stage moments. And this distancing, in some measure made up of my reaction and perhaps some part the actress’s, means that even though the action of the kiss echoes later through the play, even though I understand its foreshadowing significance, I can’t help but do much more than hate the trope and the statement it makes about how this character’s intellectual beliefs are hopelessly feeble in comparison to a single sexualized act.

So it bespeaks the power of the words that follow that this early moment in the play does not end up tainting the latter one for me. It must say that on the whole this early moment is less the predominant case and more likely a blip on the judgment radar. It must be so because I walk away from the play truly wanting people to see it.

This same night I see Renée Zellweger’s apparently unrecognizable face everywhere on my Facebook feed.

And for some reason I can’t quite articulate, the play has made it such that I simply cannot stomach a million people’s discussion threads in which this human is reduced down to a question of cheekbones or botox. It magnifies the sadnesses from earlier in the night a thousand fold. It makes me want to yell that the answer to these questions are not the point, that the questions themselves are a war. That her intent in taking whatever action towards her outward appearance is beside the point. That by simply framing this conversation as one in which a famous woman is discussed as a series of pieces that should or should not have been modified, we have removed the agency from this person to be a person and in her place created a series of scrutinizable body parts that are something a bit less than human. That I do not think this is what any of these people intended but that it may still have this effect all the same.

And all this just feels sad and sad and sad and sadder because I do not think it is conscious and that is somehow saddest of all and this is what made me want to cry for a third time in a single evening.

Is it because of the earlier moment or the latter one from Row After Row that I cannot stop myself from responding to these posts?

Perhaps it is both.

Perhaps it is neither.

Perhaps it is everything that is pushing and the weight has finally found a tiny crack in me.

I think about writing something. Something long. Something thoughtful. Something that will explain why, just at this moment, this thing that is rather stupid matters to me in a way that is not stupid at all. But I have already wanted to cry thrice tonight and I do not think I have enough energy to figure out how to say it well enough. Instead I find a snarky article in which someone does it for me and post it to accounts of friends and former students to provoke a battle I am sure I do not have ample enough resources to win but which I still cannot stop myself from charging at.

In the morning, as I shower, I catalog all the ways my own past works contain such little failures. I think of the stereotypes that on reflection I must admit I too have put forward into the world. There are such plentiful numbers to choose from. And I think about how we are all such imperfect carriers of moral value, how it is such a struggle, such a desperate war, this way we wage to find and root out the darkness that we all carry.

I think about the genders of the bodies on that People’s Light stage and how even in this play about feminism and the equity of representation of voices that ever-present ratio of men to women persists like an echo of history into the present day. “2 to 1, 2 to 1, 2 to 1,” it calls to me…

I think about the idea of a war, of our own capacity to fight, and of the times in which giving up feels like such an easier choice. I think about how sometimes we look to those we think ourselves in lock step with and find ourselves wondering whether they are working in any way from the same strategy and plan.

I think of how strange it is that there are times when we all find ourselves kissing the enemy. I think about how potent such a foe is when such a thing can happen and we realize it with surprise and sadness and confusion only after the occurrence.

I think about the line from Row where Leah talks about being a kind of angel, of using her softness and love and desire for healing to kiss and pull the pain and anger out of those who fight. I think about what it would mean to be each others’ better angels, to try, as Tom says, to strive at making ourselves more perfect in our unity with each other.

I think of all these things as I open my computer and read the responses to my snarky article’s link. On my screen I see the glimmer of armor, of “Do Not Tread On Me,” and I picture this playing out in a hunkering down of camps, of defending of fortifications and attempts to keep one’s body whole and intact.

I think, this is so natural, this response, when one is on a field so wholly uneven and unsuitable for honorable struggle. When we are so far away that we cannot really see whom we fighting, when we are suddenly unsure of whether they are friend or foe.

I decide to treat them all as allies. I decide that they must all be my fellow fighters and I do my best to run towards them screaming not in rage but in concerted defense, trying to explain that I think I see something dark and trap-like ahead. That from my vantage on this field of battle I see a potential weakness in their advance. Not because they are weak but because sometimes we simply cannot see every angle of our opponent, especially when they are so dastardly. I hope they know as I run to them that I fully expect myself to be unknowingly walking toward a dark and trap-like thing some day and that I hope I too have a comrade willing to stop me before I fall. I hope they see that together our tactical awareness is stronger if we can trust and be tough enough to engage in such scrutiny.

Amazingly, they do see this.

Perhaps this is what truly composes bravery, I think.

Perhaps bravery is not simply plowing into the unknown but the ability to trust another’s sight. To take it in and contend with it. Perhaps bravery is also the ability find something troubling and not shy away from it. It is holding a person close and saying, I just want to say that this is what I see.

It is both the utterance and the listening.

– A

Week 1: The Logic Model

Here. Listen to this while you read. It’ll help you know what to feel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I dunno.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(first days are funny things)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you do to warm up?

 

 
What are the mechanics of what you do?

 

 

 

What are the restrictions?

 

 

 

 

Can I try?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that the average age of a classical music audience member in 1995 was 55 years old and today it’s 75 years old? The same people have been listening to classical music for the last twenty years.

 

 

What’s gonna happen when they die?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here.
Take this survey.
It’ll tell you what to think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t worry it opens in a new tab so you don’t lose us.

Also keep the music playing while you do it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And don’t worry. I logged on with Facebook too.

It’s secure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Y’know what, I lied. I didn’t actually log on with Facebook. I created a password and used my e-mail.

 

 

 

 

 

But I’m sure it’s still secure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you feel like the survey answer was true to your personality type?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

….did you even take the survey?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it would be better if I drew a picture to show you what the week was like…

Here.
photo-10

 

 

A. The beginning, and questions about beginnings. An empty room promising [perhaps overwhelming] possibility. Three people sitting on the wooden studio floor, knees up, notebooks open. What if…?

 

 

 

 

 

B. 

 

 

 

 

 

C. 

 

 

 

 

 

D. Laughing and weaving lies. Stealing from artist statements, personality quizzes, and the Chinese zodiac. What if we winked at the ways we try to tell each other what to think and how to feel? What if we gave the audiences a survey and then assigned them a “personality type” at random?

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s next for you?

An interplay between effort and ease: Lauren Rile Smith and Francois Zayas

Lauren and Francois

The latest “blind date” from Cross Pollination! Today we meet:

Lauren Rile Smith (trapeze, circus arts)

Francois Zayas (music, composition, percussion)

Muscularity mixed with grace. This was a theme that emerged in both their applications.

lauren door 1Whether expressed through a virtuosic solo on maracas or the twisting expertness of a trapeze act, this pairing grew partly from a sense that both acrobatics and jazz are art forms that require intense training, years of study in almost formulaic muscle memory, in order to achieve a sense of freedom and flight in the moment of performance. They are also both mediums that depend on deep trust – of the instruments/objects used to perform, of the people who join us in that performance – in order not to falter and fall.

Francois: “Through all the years of my career I have experienced the benefit of collaboration with other artists many times. This is something that I seek out in francois maracasmy everyday life and constitutes an essential part of my creative process.”

Lauren has mentioned to me in the past that she is often seen as unique in her work for being a woman who acts as an acrobatic “base” or support (a position usually occupied by male performers). It strikes me that perhaps (though I will admit to having had only the first tastes of the banquet that is jazz music) it is also unique to have a percussionist as the leader of a jazz ensemble. In this way both of these creators strike me as participating in tradition while simultaneously innovating within it. It also seems as if your part in your artworks creates a kind of foundation, a ground floor on which everything else can be built.lauren trapeze

Lauren: “I see a powerfully interdisciplinary potential in circus, as an art form that straddles genre, from dance theater to variety-hall burlesque.”

And there’s a parallel too in the way that their works re also a vehicle to express personal identity: be it in the way we are allowed to see a female body moving through the air or in the awareness of how one’s Caribbean roots can be expressed through pulsating waves of rhythm.

Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:

Lauren: feminist, muscular, inventive

Francois: Unique, thoughtful, Cuban

francois drums close

Credit: Alan Jackman

This was a conversation that wove its way through all these things and more: Lauren talking about the way that the aesthetics of ballet are sometimes necessary in trapeze but sometimes not, Francois talking about how standard jazz improvisation has become a default that people expect but might not really strengthen the composition of the music.

Thanks to both of you!

– A

Cross Pollination begins…

Hey all,

So it’s been a bit.

And though we haven’t had much time together in this space, I feel like I’ve gotten closer to the Philly arts community in the past few days than I have in the past year. Monday marked the very first of the Cross Pollination “coffee dates” – meetings in which the folks selected and grouped together after the initial application round meet up and see what kinds of chemistry might result. I’ll be doing A LOT of these in the next couple weeks. If they keep going like they have been, the CP team will be in big trouble because we’ve found some really kick ass creators out there in the Philly landscape and choosing half of them to move on is going to be a daunting task.

abeepollen1Tomorrow I’ll begin profiling the groups that I’ve met with. I’ll be lucky enough to be an equal participant with all the groups that are brought together as part of this – the third leg of all the trios that move on. And because I don’t want to be the only one to get to see the wealth of awesomeness, one of my big goals for the Cross Pollination project is to share the creative research that happens at every step of the journey. So expect a lot of thoughts about how other genres can teach us about our own work this summer and in the months beyond.

I thought that I’d start at the beginning, with myself, the only common thread through all the projects.

We received 90+ submissions for this project. Only 30 artists/ensembles, 15 pairs, were selected to meet in person with me to see what kind of a trio we might make. Each one of those folks wrote something in their application that sparked myself and the reader panel to know more. And since they did all that work, before we met I too created an “application” that I sent to them. It explained my work and impulses to pollinate using the same questions I’d asked them.

Cross Pollination Application

Name: Adrienne Mackey

Artistic area(s) of practice/expertise: Theater mostly, with a little writing and voice in the mix as well

• A bit of writing

Using 400 – 800 words on this form or another attached sheet write about why you’re interested in Cross Pollination: What makes you want to participate in this project? Do you need to shake up the way you make stuff? What makes you want to work with artists from other disciplines? Is your current process open to change?

I wrote the grant that is funding Cross Pollination on a whim.

I’d received funds from the Knight Foundation previously for another project called “Outside the (Black) Box” in which I staged theatrical works in unusual spaces including a show at Eastern State Penitentiary and another that toured to science lecture halls all over the city. And because this foundation had never done it before, I figured there was no way they fund me a second time.

So I used it as an opportunity to imagine a kind of ideal artistic experience: one that allowed me to meet a huge number of new and diverse creators, one where I got to spend substantive time, was well paid and had access to any resources I might need, and most importantly had the chance to do some research and development without the pressure of any finished product. As a former lab chemist, I approach my creative “experimentation” with a scientist’s sensibility: I ask questions I do not yet know the answer to and then carry out research that delves into the inner workings of my subject of study. And it’s funny that it was while working in a lab that I discovered directing live performance was going to the thing I would commit my life to doing.

I say live performance because when most people think of the word “play” they tend to imagine red curtains and “please unwrap your candy” speeches and sad family members sitting on beige couches talking about their relationship problems. That or Elizabethan doublets and “To be or not to be.” And while I don’t mean to say there isn’t value in those kinds of experiences, the kinds of work I’ve been making for the past decade tends to look and operate differently. I usually ask a bit more of my audiences than sitting back for an hour or two and watching. I want them to sing, I want them to move, and sometimes even choose the way they navigate the experience they take part in.

And yet, while I love creating and directing these kinds of projects, I’ve also always been a bit of an artistic omnivore. I studied classical opera as well as some pretty “out there” experimental approaches to voice. I’ve acted professionally and currently sing back up vocals in a funk band. (I’m the one in the middle with the big hair). In the last few years started writing the words my actors speak and also composed nearly 50,000 words on the state of the arts in Philadelphia and beyond. My directing works have always been an outlet for my interest in other topics – quantum physics, American labor history, science fiction, racial tensions between communities in Philadelphia – and the form these works take are often inspired by other mediums I encounter in researching them.

So in a way, this project is my chance to formalize that process. It’s my attempt to find other people who have developed skills in one area and want to see what they can learn by smashing them up against another’s. It’s a way to remind ourselves that there’s always more to learn, always new directions in which to grow.

• A bit of everything else

1)   Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:  Scientific, Muscular, Surprising

2)   Work samples:

Share a bit about your work. This can links to audio recordings, video clips, a digital portfolio or website, press coverage and/or writing samples – basically, whatever you think best represents what you make. Feel free to also include information on any upcoming show/reading/performance!

Last fall I created a piece at Eastern State Penitentiary for the FringeArts festival called The Ballad of Joe Hill. I love working in spaces that aren’t theaters. Something about discovering the story of the place and how it’s architecture helps convey the emotion we’re after is really exciting to me. Below are a couple of my favorite photos from the show (all credited to the amazing Kyle Cassidy):

brad trial

hilda suitcase

reporters

hilda hall

For the NPR nerds out there, WHYY also had us on RadioTimes with Marty Moss-Coane to talk about the piece and its historical context.

Here’s a photo for another play I created in 2010 called SURVIVE!

box survive

In this one I really wanted to create a theater experience that communicated the massive, incomprehensible size and complexity of the universe. So we had audience and performers moving through 20,000 sq ft of space in a “choose your own adventure” format. A person saw one of 128 different possible unique viewings of the show’s material, and any one person only able to see about a quarter of the play’s content in a single viewing.

Here’s a video trailer for that. And you can check out more pictures here.

And last I’ll share a little bit of my most recent play Welcome To Campus. I created this show in residence at Drexel University (where I teach) and the piece was a traveling “tour” of the campus performed by student actors. The students brought the audience across 2 miles of the campus giving tours of their own lives in the places these events actually occurred – classrooms, dorms, the gym, etc. We also had a second set of performers out in the landscape that magically manifested whatever the person was talking about. In one scene an actor talks about having to cut a friend out of her life who started drinking and spiraling into a negative lifestyle she was comfortable with and as the tour walks by you see a series of students all having the same phone conversation based on the event the guide is talking about. You can catch another profile on NPR, this time on Newsworks, here.

One of the things I really liked about this piece was a collaboration we had with a photographer and graphic artist for objects used in the piece. We weren’t allowed to use official Drexel schwag (our “fake” tour was NOT administration approved) so we created our own folders, maps, tour guide bios, gave audiences a “voucher” for the dining hall (continent on their submission of an application for admission). Kate Raines, a photographer friend, did a brochure style photo shoot of these kids that we used in a power point that started off the show. You can see some of the photos of the students doing their best to look happy and productive.

campus 1

campus 2

campus 3

campus 4

And at the very end of the show the audience is surprised to walk out onto the main stage of the theater building as they hear “pomp and circumstance.” Their names are called as they received “diplomas” (actually the show’s programs) as they “graduated” our play. Crowning achievement of this show was when an actual Drexel applicant and his parents came to the show and said that this was exactly what they wanted to have in a tour when trying to look at colleges.

Thanks for reading. Looking forward to meeting you!

– Adrienne

This is why, this is why, this is why…

I had promised myself that this time I wouldn’t.

But I did it anyway.

Afterwards, I always feel dirty. I always feel awful. I always feel sad and conflicted and implicated when I partake in the coverage that flares up in the wake of a tragedy like the one at UCSB.

And I certainly wouldn’t be writing about it here on the blog if my rabbit hole of darkness and anger and violence and misogyny hadn’t lead me to a spinoff rabbit warren of articles by and about film critic Ann Hornaday’s recent response to the tragedy.

Ok look. I’m not going to spend much time here rehashing exactly what went down in this exchange. If you haven’t seen it online and formed an opinion, here’s the original essay (with a follow up video in which Hornaday contextualizes some of her initial statements).  And here are two other thoughtful articles, one by a woman and one by a man, that follow the original one’s social media aftermath and point out some very salient and relevant points about said online responses to it.

And here’s the thing that’s messy and hard for me to explain.

In my view, as a women who shares stories with audiences for a living, Hornaday raises interesting and worthy points of discussion. I don’t know much about the recent work of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan because my first experiences with both these artists fell very much in line with Ms Hornaday’s assessments of their collaborations as “outsized frat-boy fantasies.” But given the little I have seen, I see validity in her central argument: that casual misogyny present in works like these (and much of our mainstream media) can and probably do play a role in the way young men (including the one from the UCSB shooting) adjust their expectations of how the world (and in particular the women in it) should behave in relation to them.

Any honest and intelligent reader of her article should not claim that she makes a causal link between the movie type she mentions and the UCSB killing spree. She does not. But this does not stop lots of people from saying she did.

In a way, she actually implies a much deeper, and possibly scarier thing: that this one act of aggression by a single deranged individual might reflects strains of deep seated misogyny in our larger cultural consciousness. She implies that these movies could be affecting us all and not simply those that seem obviously ill. That in some small measure they are training every one of us to buy into values and desires that are hurtful to women and that it is not unreasonable to expect them to be manifested, to some degree, in reality.

Artists know this. They know that the stories we tell our audiences, the art and culture we offer them to consume, these are a kind of mirror of the sensibilities. Our works are the ideas and values that exist within all of us made visible and tangible to the viewer. To those that rant about simply understanding the difference between fantasy and reality I say this: just because I know that they are different, doesn’t mean one does not affect the other. Just because I know it’s probably not realistic when I see a pudgy character with few resources or skills in life able to “bag” an intelligent and successful and beautiful Katherine Heigl in a movie doesn’t mean it isn’t conditioning me to normalize it once I have seen it.

This is the stuff that dreams are made of…

In some measure art is indicative of the collective needs and desires of that culture we as a people are connecting to. But art is a feedback loop that flows in both directions. These stories come from us but they also reinforce our current mores within their narrative structures. They are a way in which the creators that produce them are able to mold and shape the creative landscape of influence in the future. Simply by watching a story we must take it into ourselves. Consciously or not we reflect on ourselves in relation to it. And the more something appears to us in narrative form, the more we feel its weight in our collective cultural consciousness. The more it seems like what’s normal and around us all the time.

If a prevalent type of story irritates us what are we to do? We might disengage with this aspect of our dominant culture (an act that is sometimes only possible with great effort and little external reward) or perhaps we might find ourselves slowly grinding down our rough edged opinions until they can coexist within the dominant ones.

Perhaps this how casually racist, sexist, genderist, classist, all the ist-ists out there are able to continue so much longer than they ought. Because the ordinariness, the omnipresent banality of such isms, wears down our outrage. Until such things become repeated to the point of cliche. Until they seem like the stories we’ve always been telling. Until it doesn’t occur to us that another story could even exist. Until they are as common and invisible as the air all around us.

And I imagine it’s tough if you fashion yourself a kind and funny and sensitive human, tougher still if you really ARE a kind and funny and sensitive human, to find that without intending to you’ve been standing in such air. That you didn’t want to breathe it in but you were without knowing it. That you just were going along about your business not trying to hurt anyone and now you feel trapped and can’t breathe and you’re labeled bad for just being yourself. And that this labeling someone is maybe not just indicting you with a single and simple solvable accusation, but something much bigger, something that you are deeply entangled with, something that would take a lot of life changing to really get into conversation real with.

To engage with that question is the hard hard hard thing. To dismiss a small aspect of it… To pick apart the argument and allay one’s unease with a sense that the accuser is the problem… To name call and take the fight to a simpler, lower level… much easier.

Much easier than admitting you are NOT a bad person but that sometimes we all do things that have many valences of impact on the world and about which all kinds of judgements can be made.

So I think it’s understandable that someone would react on the defensive, with anger and with outrage. Because for that person it is much more complicated that simply regretting one thing they said or did. It’s reckoning with all of it. No one wants to be called an “ist.” I think maybe no one is just an “ist.” Or that we’re all “ists” to some degree. But that label, that over-simplification of one’s identity, is what I think they fear. So they fight (Oh how they fight!!) not to end up in this box or stuck with that label or categorized in ways they didn’t agree to.

A little bit ironic, no?

This is why, this is why, this is why… it hits me so hard. Why some days the allies feel like the furthest ones away.

It is so hard to read that article and think that anyone imagines that it is anything but a woman who wanted to create a seasoned and reasoned and thoughtful raising of the question that perhaps, perhaps, perhaps there might be a way in which the stories we are currently telling have an effect on us, and perhaps especially on our weakest members.

It is so hard when at every turn in the article she raises questions rather than declaring angry blanket statements.

It is so hard when she reminds the reader that this influence is by no means the sole or even dominant force underpinning the choices that this sad and ill child made.

It is so hard to imagine that someone in that field in a position of power could completely and totally write off a statement like, “it’s worth examining who gets to be represented on screen, and how.”

When this article is perceived as a vicious, angry and male-hating attack. When an intellectual and well articulated argument on a huge number of societal and cultural forces is reduced to “How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.”

And it is the hardest, the kind of hard that almost makes me weep, when that kind and funny and sensitive person, one clearly inspired by hurt feelings and a desire not to be labeled as part of the problem, responds in a way that incites a devolution into the EXACT kind of casual misogyny the article intended to address in the first place:

reaction seth 1

reaction seth 2

If how Ms Hornaday brought up the subject is the (WRONG! HORRIBLE! INSENSITIVE TO THIS ENTERTAINER’S FEELINGS YOU HORRIBLE BITCH SLUT WHORE!!!!!!) incorrect way to address this…

How on earth are we supposed to talk about it?

<sigh>

This is why, this is why, this is why we need to start telling better, fuller, more complete versions of our society’s stories.

This is why, this is why, this is why as female creators we must not be satisfied with our currently limited and problematic options.

This is why, this is why, this is why as Ms. Hornaday says we must realize:

“As Rodger himself made so grievously clear, we’re only as strong as the stories we tell ourselves.”

– A

 

An interview with Adrienne

Hey all,

FringeArts did a nice little interview with me a while back about my current thoughts on art, projects in the Swim Pony mix and my hopes for sustainability over the long term of a long term career.

If you’re interested in reading (and seeing me sitting backwards in that omnipresent chair) check it out by clicking this picture:

Print

Enjoy,

– A