Context for Creation

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

Why I’m Walking Away

I’m giving you all fair warning.

In the next few weeks or months if you come up to me and start talking about how horridly busy your creative life is, how you’re overwhelmed and not totally committed to the work you’re doing…

If you open the conversation with how much you hate that you have no time for all the other parts of living but you seem to keep ending up in this situation and you’re scattered and can’t really feel yourself fully doing anything…

If you start talking to me about this quandary like it’s normal and something we all have to share as a natural given of our artistic existences and though you don’t really like it, it’s just this thing we all will agree to keep doing…

If you do that to me I’m going to walk away from you.

Maybe not right away. I’m probably going to nod with you for another minute and then make an excuse to go to the bathroom. Or grab another drink. Or to say hi to someone else that walked in the room. But make no mistake that I’m leaving because of what you’re saying, and I’m doing so because I’m trying to be done with it.

I would like to publicly declare a divorce from exhausted distraction as the expected baseline.

Look, I like working hard. If you’ve spent ten seconds with me ever this is obvious. But there is a difference between useful rigor and running in random circles. Lately, I feel myself stepping back and watching people I love – smart people who are thoughtful and intelligent makers – talk about projects in this way that makes clear they don’t really like them. I hear seemingly everyone around me detail work that drains their reserves of time and creativity and doesn’t pay enough.

This is the definition of absurd, no?

And yet it is the default operating mode of most of the artists I am surrounded by.

Here’s a question. Taking a long-term view, what’s going to be more fulfilling and useful to your creative practice: taking on that role you don’t much like with the company you feel ambivalent about for that tiny bit of money or spending that extra time at home reading? Or volunteering at a hospice center? Or taking a long walk and seeing what comes to mind?

These are actual questions I’m asking myself these days. Because I’ve really started to wonder what it means about all of us that we physically can’t stop ourselves from working. It makes me wonder if we’re laboring smart or just laboring hard so that we don’t have to get into stickier questions about meaning and value that are WAY more difficult to answer. It makes me wonder if at the end of all that frantic effort we’ll have given ourselves any room to actually be living the substantive lives from which we’ll want to draw meaningful creative source material from.

Not to be the kind of person who talks about this thing that happened a few weeks ago in a therapy session but, yeah, here’s a thing that happened to me a few weeks ago in my therapy session:

I finished talking about a ton of exciting new work projects on the horizon. I catalogued a bunch of stuff that I was wrapping up that I felt proud of. I talked about the effort of finishing the wedding planning and how great my classes were going. I spent 45 minutes talking and talking and talking about all the things I was doing and doing and doing.

And then, right near the end, I ran out of things to say and my therapist and I sat in silence for a minute. In that minute this feeling began to rise out of the center of me, like a steel weight but in reverse, a balloon of heavy emotion that needed to bubble out. And because it was quiet and because I was in a place where I didn’t need to do anything else and because I took a second and actually let it happen, it popped and I started to cry.

It was a combination of things: watching police shootings over the past few months and feeling guilty and helpless at our collective lack of compassion for those who experience racial prejudice in this country, the bile of Donald Trump and the way it has unleashed a whole new level of misogyny into the open American air, the hangover of sentiment in the days after a massive personal event and realizing I’ve made this huge step forward in my life, and a whole jumble of other influences that I’d accrued and had remained unexamined. In that moment of silence all the actual life that I’d been squeezing into the edges of my working existence came bursting up and out of me. And for once I gave myself room to sit for another few minutes in my tears and notice the need to process these reactions to the world.

We need to create room for these moments. We need to create room for such noticing.

Not because of some self-care “keep yourself sane” kind of way. (Though shouldn’t this be enough of a reason…?) We need to do it because without that space we are all action and no reflection. We are only functional systems without mission and ethics to evaluate the meaning of the products we produce. I wonder if doing less and doing it with more (to paraphrase an Artist U maxim) will mean that in the long run we’ll all be more genuinely productive in creating things that we value. Maybe rather than feeling constantly exhausted by having to generate new stuff, I’d be far better off creating work about the things that are already somewhere in me and needing to be expressed, if only I could give myself space to notice that they need to get out.

I get all my ideas for blog posts in the shower because it’s one of the few places there’s silence and room to wander.

These days I’m dreaming about what a life of mostly shower-sized room might look like.

And that’s why if I feel like we’re normalizing the opposite in out conversations together, I’m going to find a way to walk away, walk off into the silence, so I can see what bubbles out.

 – A

This is the Cost

I see a lot of theater.

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

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

ocotoroon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– A

I do not want to get angry

I do not want to get angry.

I’ve seen it happen before to those that work in this field. I watch the mentors of my early 20’s and notice that while they execute their work with skill and depth they increasingly carry around this place of anger.

Some days, when I feel tired and when it seems like it is such an absurd thing I am doing I start to get angry too. I can feel it rising from below and make its way up and through me. The anger comes in tiny commented sarcasms or critiques of the work of others. It is a critical voice, one that knows so much and in all that knowledge requires ever increasingly exacting standards. It looks at the works of my past, works that I loved when I made them, and only sees the flaws.

I wonder some days if this is inevitable, if the skill we possess is always just a bit behind what we are able to critique and examine. I think about how hard, how very hard, it is to make something and how easy, how incredibly easy, it is to dismiss or undercut or find fault. I think about the work it takes to shield ourselves from all those critical voices in our professional field. I wonder about the use of such voices in the pursuit of making something new.

My own mind counters with a thought: But without those critical voices how do we get better? If no one tells us what we’re doing wrong how do we refine and strive for more?

I think about this thought that my mind has offered me. I look at it like an object on a shelf and in response I think, “But who decides what’s ‘wrong?’ And what exactly is it I’m getting better at?”

I put this second thought on the shelf next to the first and stare at them side by side.

My earliest theatrical experiences were in “community” theater. As a shy teenager plays gave me a structured system to experience lives beyond my own and to examine a theme or idea not just by thinking about it but by physically embodying it day after day. Theater was the way I practiced a kind of empathic weightlifting. The stretch of pretending to be other people made me learn more about myself. I know it made me a braver and more compassionate person.

My friends and I did want to make something “good.” There was a sense of striving in these projects. We hoped our work would be seen as “well done.” But I can look back at those plays and see, of course, that in almost any objective sense of professional theater excellence they  were silly and small. Back then there was so much farther to go.

This is not to say that I want to make sloppy things. I like rigor. But I wonder if hard work is different than polished work. For though I know I will not likely find again the love I once had for Godspell or The Music Man, I do think it is useful to remember what is beautiful about such “community” theater. It allows us a system to join. It brings us together in shared purpose. It is a vehicle for vulnerability in our early learning before we have mastered something.

Most of the theater makers I know did not begin by aiming for “professional.” They began from community. They found love in a space of sharing.

So I wonder about a collective industry adoption of virtuosity and excellence as a sign of our professional status. I wonder if excellence, while understandably desirable, may lead us away from the thing that actually feeds us in being artists. I wonder if virtuosity of craft might slowly build up armor around our bodies and keep us impervious to the vulnerability that keeps us growing and open.

I wonder about other yardsticks with which to measure success:

Happiness?

Connection?

Authenticity?

I know some part of me fears that these seem too genuine, too fuzzy, too amateur. I worry that without Excellence I will be laughed at or pitied.

But I also wonder if maybe this is the feeling of that vulnerability I seem to have lost. And I know for sure that the pursuit of Excellence seems to keep making me angry. So perhaps it’s time to try something new.

 – A

This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.

young me now me

Quit romanticizing whatever you had then. Whatever it was, you can always get it back again…

Several weeks ago I was on the phone with my sister.

She lives in Knoxville and among other things runs a business in which she sells delicious pastry treats under the aegis Dale’s Fried Pies. Her pies, I think, are something like my plays. They are the most obvious manifestation of what she does with her days. They, semi-imperfectly, become a container for her myriad of interests. They become a vehicle for the underlying questions she wants to explore. Anyway, Dale and I were on the phone several weeks ago. She was in prep stages for an official opening of a new building she and her husband purchased, renovated, and turned into a professional kitchen, office, art gallery and community space called The Central Collective. I was just coming off of opening The Children’s Hour at Ego Po and was readying to head into another tech this time at Drexel for some Halloween Lovecraftian silliness with my student cast for From Beneath It LurksDale told me about the myriad million little things she was discovering one needs for a building about to open to the public in a shmancy ceremony complete with a mayorial ribbon cutting: paper towel dispensers and garbage cans for example. I told her about the emotional drain of gearing up to head into another weekend of 12-hour days and lots and lots of light cues.

At some point, Dale said to me, “I mean it’s good. It’s not hard, really. Just busy. There’s just lots and lots to do. But it gets done, right? In some way it gets done.” At least, this is some approximation of what she said, to the best of my memory’s ability to recall.

And, in the best of my ability to remember my response, I stepped off the curb at Tasker and 10th as I walked to the subway and replied, “Yes. I mean, all the times I have down time and I’m dreaming about doing my work. All the times I’m imaging the future utopia I’ll be in when I’m making the art… This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

When I think back to the projects I enjoy the most in retrospect, the only thing I regret is that at the time I was so busy in the making that I often forgot to remember that I was there in the present tense moment. I’m so often imaging back to a bygone time when the work I made was younger, simpler, more directly created somehow or thinking ahead to a day when I’ll be making that ideal project in that ideal way with all the support and resource I don’t currently possess. It’s a comfort in some ways, this imagining that at some point in the past or future there’s this amazing thing. But it also means that that amazingness is never actually happening.

Has there ever been a milestone that when actually achieved felt solidly like the end of something, like a destination?

Maybe you all are better than I am but if I’m honest the answer is: Not for me. Too often by the time I’ve gotten to the thing I set out to do in some “back then” moment, I’ve already defined a plan and a road map to some other future moment when for sure this time it’ll really be the thing I need and actually feel like I’ve landed.

When was the last time you stopped for a second, a minute, an hour, and thought about the fact that the thing you always say you’re waiting for is in some way happening right this very now?

What if in that brief sliver of time we just all stopped to relax and enjoy our work in its present tensity?

For today, this is my mantra, however humble it may be: “This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

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