Context for Creation

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!

 

An essay on the emergence, at long last, of spring

I’ve been musing this morning on divining rods.

I’ve never actually used one, but the idea of this object – a stick that subtly helps point one to something desired – is one I love. I invoke the divining rod all the time in my teaching as a metaphor for thinking about creative impulse like water that hides under the surface, a flowing material that needs a bit of focused attention in order to be found. I like that using a divining rod is a tactile endeavor, an action-based object held in the hands rather than examined in the mind. I like its connotation to something spiritual, a channel to something just a little bit mystical and beyond the natural realm. And too, I like that the tool is one that requires the body to listen to a pulsing current already existing in the world. A divining rod insinuates that creative spirit requires one to get outside and muck around a bit in order to be found.

The past months have felt a lot like interminable winter. There is, of course, that literal season which I’m sure we can all agree outstayed its welcome far beyond what was appropriate and polite. But too, it’s felt a bit like the space between last year and this one has been a creative freezing that is frustratingly resistant to a thaw. In the din of the daily artistic grind there are so many forces that pull towards themselves – funders with ever so slightly magnetic needs to fulfill their board’s directives, students with aims that require an ever so mild adjustment to the inner compass, collaborators that exert subtle forces on the instincts of the work. In the midst of this one can lose that inner flow of water, that first thirst that drew the body to drink. None of this is to say that I feel I’ve been creatively unproductive. In some ways one could look at the last year in Swim Pony’s work as a time of far greater produce than any in the past decade. But, to take this metaphor to its fullest, it’s also felt in some way like ground that has been over-planted. The nutrients that allowed the soil to yield such fruits feel depleted, as if there is simply not much left from which to grow.

What is that thing that I sense myself seeking?

Heart?

Impulse?

Maybe it’s easiest to just call it water. At this moment the current feels slack and the tide feels low and while I know I’m a savvy sailor who can ride the ups and downs, I fear without finding a source of liquid force, the boat is going to get stuck. As the weather warms, and the ice begins to melt, it seems imperative to get outside with that stick and figure out where all the water has gone.

A few weeks ago the husband and I undertook an adventure to the Wheaton Arts Center in Millville, NJ. I found an exhibit listed on a “Things To Do” website: something to do with biology and the intersection of science and art in the form of glass. It seemed promising enough that we set out on a 45 minutes drive to a small museum devoted to the roots of American glass manufacture in the local area.

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Much of the museum was chintzy in a charming kind of way. Not terribly interesting, I’ll be honest, but relaxed enough that our general lack of said interest didn’t interrupt an enjoyable walk through a faux-Victorian-styled home filled with fragility. We wandered through the exhibits on the origins of American Revolution-era glass blowing, the  catalogue of a building up and then eroding away of an industry throughout the area. We saw shelves of Tiffany and mass-produced Depression glass. We learned that creation of a “Millville Rose” paperweight was a sign of a high level skill for those craftspeople that managed to master it.

cactiAnd then, at the very end of the circle through the museum, we came upon an exhibit cataloguing the work of an artist named Paul Stankard. His form: nature-inspired themes encased to form paperweights. Collected in this area were hundreds of small round objects taking nearly identical form in perfect rows. His early stuff felt about the same to me as much of what we’d already encountered – pretty but a bit too delicate and girly for my tastes. These first works were thing I would never buy for my home because a) where would I put them, b) fancy glass makes me nervous, and c) the only thing they do is gather dust on some shelf where they never get looked at.

What I’m saying is that Stankard’s early works provoked little of the spirit of water in me. They were decently photorealistic depictions of flowers that seemed nice enough to spend, say, a few seconds on noting that it probably was really hard to make a cactus flower out of glass. They were objects that offered an “Oh… Huh.” level of artistic response. Then we turned a corner into another room, one filled with Stankard’s later phases of work. From the very first approach, they literally took the breath right out of my body.

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The images I took will not do them justice, these intricate tiny creations of flowers and roots and bees. They were small dioramas of surrealism, of ritual, of things sprung from supernatural purpose. They were absolutely transcendent tiny worlds encased in crystal, suspended in motion so perfect it’s hard to believe they are not alive.

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Some minutes after first encountering at these objects, I stood in front of a video playing an interview with the artist in which he articulated a turning point in his creative practice from mimicry and re-creation into something more metaphoric and representational. I walked back inside to look again at the tiny bodies hidden in the roots of flowers made of glass and heard Stankard’s echoing voice explaining something about metaphors of life and death and giving oneself leeway to let go of what a flower literally is and instead dive into what it might have the capacity to reveal.

These art works are deeply comforting to me, not only in their intense and vivid beauty but in the way they underscore the long arc of creative trajectory for the maker. They hold in their perfect suspension the promise of something unseen to break through. In the midst of what has felt like the unending cold and gray sterility of long winter, it was a reminder of future warmth and growth much needed, that perhaps every mundane step can be a tiny pull towards an inner stream of something downright divine.

Right now, the best I can think to do is to take time each day to try and feel the pull of water, even when all that seems to be present is its absence.

To take small steps, in whatever direction a bit of wood demands.

To read, if only as a practice of feeding the soil.

To write, regardless of whether or not the work finds its feet.

To whittle away at the dam, without worrying too much about what’s released.

So here’s a letter of well wishes to you all, written in the hopes you are finding the emerging spring.

– A

 

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

Orthogonal to The End

Today, Sunday May 14th, marks the halfway point of The End. This month-long game about dying that I have spent the last two years of my life working on, is now equal parts gone and yet to come.

Strangely, perhaps, I mark this moment not in the midst of our secret clubhouse, dishing on the players with my collaborators, but sitting quietly at home, alone. Today, funnily enough, is the one day in the month of the project that I am taking off entirely from working the game.

~ ~ ~

Today, Sunday May 14th, is also Mother’s Day. Around 11am, I find myself speaking to my mother on the phone and she relates her present experience of packing the house she has lived in for the past three decades.

As she speaks about the process of transitioning, there is an understandable tinge of sadness on the edge of her voice. This home is the one I spent my childhood in. I remember its various stages of growth and change like sediments laying over top each other with the passage of time. I remember when the living room inside that house was covered with a wallpaper made of a straw-like material and our small cat Koko scaled it like a mount climber using her claws and we couldn’t get her down for hours. I remember the eclectic mural bearing The Beatles, Star Wars and David Duchovney that my Aunt Olivia painted with me on the wall of the room that I occupied as a teenager. I remember looking at the wall in my mother’s room and noticing how pink the paint was as we sat eating Chinese food from takeout containers while watching television with her and my sister on a Sunday evening during the school year.

I remember these things in flashes, and idly wonder why so many of my memories seem to involve walls. Meanwhile, my mom is telling me about closing down her family therapy practice and the strange sensation of saying goodbye to clients she has worked with for nearly 30 years.

~ ~ ~

Later in the day, I am talking to someone about The End and they tell me it is a beautiful thing. I reply that they have not played it so that cannot know for sure. I say that for all this person knows the game is horrible. They joke that something can be horrible and beautiful at the same time.

My very earnest answer to this is that, of course, I do not think the game is horrible, that I feel that it is indeed very beautiful but that sometimes it is also very sad. I try to explain that it is an experience that intentionally tries to allow for our understandings of life to be really sad and really beautiful at the same time.

The person says to me that these seem to be two orthogonal dimensions, the sadness and the beauty.

I think, but do not say, that I am not certain this is so. I begin to say that I think the sadness and the beauty might have a relationship that is not quite so independently variable-ed. But then the conversation shifts to the curiosity quotient of dolphins and it seems weird to bring it up again.

~ ~ ~

Still later in the day, I have finished making dinner and sit on my couch in the blissful haze that comes after productively cooking the new groceries that have been purchased this evening. It is the first time in weeks such a bounty has been brought into my home and it feels good to have these provisions at hand for the coming weeks. Cooking feels accomplished in an immediately gratifying way that I haven’t experienced for some time. The End in its sad beauty is such a slow burn of a process that sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what it is this piece does to those that participate in it. There are some days when a player pulls a card and comes back with an obvious cathartic experience, but just as often a player’s reflection on a card doesn’t obviously and immediately bear emotional fruit.

The arc of this experience is so unlike any theatrical project I’ve undertaken. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is the kind of piece where any one part of it must be structured so as not to burn out an audience member entirely lest they lose stamina for the days and weeks of work that lay ahead of them.

I was thinking about this as I ran the Broad Street Run the weekend before this one. As I was running alongside thousands of others, I was thinking that perhaps there are stories that cannot be told in the span of a few hours time. It was around mile 3 when I began musing that it might be that there are some experiences that are simply impossible to understand without real duration, without effort and time over time and effort. I started thinking that it’s so rare to experience yourself fully witnessed in your messy complicated and theatrically un-clean life. Over the course of that third mile this thought stayed with me. I imagined myself in the metaphor of the race I was running, this long shot from the very top of the city to its very bottom. As I ran it occurred to me, too, that I’d never considered that part of the power of this run was that those thousands of people along the sidelines were taking the time to watch all this effort. Without their presence, I doubted that the experience would feel the same.

Around mile 4 something about this thought hit me in a sad and beautiful way and I started crying. I ran and I cried and I noticed people notice me doing so until around City Hall and then a massive wave of euphoria took me over.

~ ~ ~

This evening, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to long for a person deeply missed or to be wistful about a place you have previously held dear. I have been thinking about how the experience of loneliness elucidates something in the relationship that sadness and beauty have to each other. I have been thinking about loss and about accrual and about sediment and about walls.

And then I notice a bit of that sadness bubbling in me and I notice the instinct to want to clean my kitchen or grab my phone and check facebook. Instead I sit on the edge of my bed and set a timer for five minutes.

And for those five minutes of time, I sit with myself and try to be present with the feelings that arise. I resist the temptation to write down my thoughts in a journalistic way or start working on a thesis to an essay I sense I might write in a bit of time after I am done.

The conclusion that I come to when the timer goes off is that when we miss something or someone we are actually just experiencing their beauty in an orthogonal dimension.

~ ~ ~

Today, Sunday May 14th, I have let myself sit and feel present in whatever sadness and beauty are with me tonight. I will not require myself to be happy. I will not require my emotions to make sense. I will simply be what I am in this moment, a cluster of experiences that are hurtling forward dimensionally, hopefully some roughly equal parts gone and yet to come towards the end.

– A

 

An Invitation to The End

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There’s a story I tell about myself as a child that goes like this: around 5th or 6th grade I learned about infinity and it gave me an existential crisis. Trying to wrap my middle school mind around a never-ending mathematical concept opened up a door to the idea that there were things vastly bigger than my own consciousness. Once that door was opened, once those interlocking curves of a sideways figure eight began unspooling, I couldn’t go back to a conceptual space where the world could be wholly known. Infinity showed me the universe was unending, while I on the other humble and human hand, was not.

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In the fall of 2008 while in France I took a trip to the Catacombs of Paris. I don’t know what exactly I thought I would be doing there. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that a massive shrine containing the skeletons of over 6 million bodies might not be the emotional equivalent of visiting the Monet museum, but I honestly went in thinking little more than that I was in for a light afternoon of cultural purveyance.

The worst part was the bones just sitting in massive piles. Somehow arranged in intricate designs the skeletons were abstracted in a way that was tolerable, but the piles, the vast and completely unremarkable piles of bones, and the sense that those inanimate objects used to be people and that it is likely no one alive remembers or cares about them… It left me with the intense and pressing desire to do something, to make my life mean something, to create a legacy that helped me feel alive in the face of those sad and lonely mounds of former humanity. That night I wrote for hours, trying to unpack the intensity of the feeling the experience had provoked.

While I couldn’t directly bring myself to think again about that trip to the Catacombs and the panic it produced for some number of months, I will say that within a year of going I made three original plays, quit my day job, and got engaged.

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On page 14 of psychotherapist Irving D. Yalom’s book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, he and a patient undertake a thought experiment grounded in Greek thinker Epicurus’ writings, imagining the oblivion after death as the same as oblivion before birth. In the book, he talks about this as a tool to find solace. We do not fear the time before we were born, he says, and so too, might we come to lose our fear of the time after we die.

The first time I read the book, I made the following note in the margins:

This thought is in NO WAY comforting to me

The thesis of Staring at the Sun is that death anxiety manifests from a fear of a life unlived. Yalom’s point, as I understand it, is that by acknowledging our current actions in the context of their inevitable end, we can gain perspective about what is important to us. Such “existential shock therapy” gives us a sense of whether the things we currently are preoccupied with will really matter to us in the long run and leaves us grappling with our need “to construct an authentic life of engagement, connectivity, meaning, and self-fulfillment.”

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Multiple times as I read this book I started to get the infinity feeling. But I also realized that the more I read, the more the reading got easier. The past year I’ve begun to talk about death and dying a lot, and the more I do so, the less weird and horrible the topic feels. These days, while I can’t say I never get that spinning unending queasiness, it definitely doesn’t have the same hold over me that it once did. And I’ve made a lot of changes that have moved me away from what I feel like I’m “supposed” to be doing and towards what feels authentically who I am.

It’s a strange thing to ask a person to think about dying. Not dying in the abstract or dying in the context of a gritty television drama or immersive video game but dying in the way that each one of us personally, inevitably, and unquestioningly will have to experience.

But then again… isn’t it equally strange to walk around as if such a thing doesn’t exist?

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The End isn’t a game, exactly. It isn’t theater, exactly, either.

It’s a month-long contemplation. It’s a structure designed to create a little existential shock. It’s room to step back and reflect on what it is you want your life to be.

And I’m inviting you to it, into what I hope will be an experience of bravery and questioning and meditation and fear and, yes, I hope, even fun.

Some basics:

  • The End will last from May 1 – 27, 2017 with a culminating event the evening of May 28, 2017
  • It will take, on average, 10 – 15 minutes a day
  • Each day you will choose a card from a deck that offers a different task aimed at examining your values, choices, and wishes for life.
  • It can be played on your own at home, on your lunch break, and even on your way to work
  • It will interact with you in all the ways you live – through text message, email and social media posting, phone and in-person experience – and the “playing” of the game can be tailored to suit the mode of communication that best suits you.

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If you’ve made it this far and you’re interested in being one of the first 50 players who take part in The End

 [Edit: Applications are now closed. Thanks to everyone who applied – stay tuned!]

Or write to SwimPonyPA@gmail.com to ask for more info.

Be well, dear ones.

– Adrienne

The Undertow

Several months ago I sat staring down a mountain of work – meetings, grant deadlines, classes to plan, papers to grade, research for projects to be done – and I had an overwhelming desire to read a poem by Walt Whitman.

I didn’t need to read any one poem in particular, just the sense of Whitman and the spaciousness of his writerly vision. I felt so small and trapped and overwhelmed that I simply wanted to sit with words that invited me to spread myself back out, to imagine that there was something in the race I felt myself running that was not merely productive but also grand.

oh me.jpeg

Two days ago I sat in a circle with a room of friends at an Awesome Lady Squad meeting and shared my experience of sadness, of wondering, of questioning what it is that I am supposed to be doing with this life I am living. At the end of that meeting I shared a brief exchange with an artist some number of years ahead of me in which we both wondered if the kind of art that seems to be the predominant one being made is valuable in this moment, in this world, in the ways that a thing becomes meaningful to a life.

Today I sit in front of my computer, plenty of work waiting for me, but unable to splash the proverbial cold water on the face, brace up and get down to the business at hand. Instead I feel the need to write about the way my understanding is awash in questions about how to be useful to the people and places around me, about whether I can be honest in such questions, and how exactly to get started on the path that I sense lies ahead.

I have been working these past months on an art project about dying called The End. It has, in so many ways, become a provocation to me about what it means to truly live. To wholly accept that the time I will exist as finite, to understand that in truth I can only contribute a single verse or two to the larger song, that the song itself in is much larger than I can possibly be, if I am to honestly do that it feels like I might need to do something different. What that different thing is… well…

The near daily contact with such a fundamental fact does not make me sad, exactly. Rather it stirs up something I am still trying to give name to, something that has been in progress and process for a rather reasonable amount of time. I’ve written before about tectonic shifts, stepping back and walking around and away. And those are all some way of trying to name what’s emerging, a thing that feels like an undertow.

It’s a pull away from the shores of “excellence” and towards something more genuinely communal. It’s a drift from the need to control and hold those things I define as dear to me. It’s a willingness to allow what comes to unfold.

A little over a week ago I wrote a letter to my friend jesikah in California and thanked her for sending me a poem by Neruda in commemoration of my wedding. In the letter I tell her that the poem makes me think of a Georgian chant titled Shen Xar that was used in a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (directed by my collaborator Catharine Slusar) that I worked on at Bryn Mawr College. An ancient Georgian wedding hymn, the song survived the cultural purge of the Communists due to a notable lack of traditional religious imagery in its lyrics. This recording by an all male Georgian trio is a wonderful version I’ve listened to often these past few months.

I tell her that “I love this song and the way it cycles through the same quiet melody over and over again like a string of rosary beads, a slow working of its message that washes over you like waves.”

I tell her that I had some feminist qualms about the particular language of the letter in the scene the song was used, but that in the moment of performance, “one where an impossibly young college student stands on a rock amidst a pool of water holding a piece of paper in a quiet blue light, trying to give back to the world the love she know she holds, [the song] was so beautiful it didn’t matter.”

I send her the Neruda poem (left) written out next to the lyrics of the chant translated (right): neruda-shen-xar

The following week I teach the song to a group of my students at Pig Iron’s School for Advanced Performance Training and it feels like the right thing to be doing in the first moment I see them after the national election.

I notice as I near the end of this writing that it feels unfinished, that the thesis seems still not to have emerged. I see that I am caught holding myself up in this moment, feeling the unrest between wanting to do something helpful, to be on the side of righteousness, and to simultaneously wrap a life’s meaning in something impossibly beautiful and grand and sad.

Today I know that I really want to live my life before I die; I want to know I have spent my time in this world like the Georgian sun – shining, brilliantly, myself.

And today, too, I can accept the heavy pull of towards the knowledge that says I am still trying to understand what that means.

– A

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