Context for Creation

8 Steps To Actual Actual Innovation in Arts Funding

A few years after I first started working in theater I ADed under a director who used this phrase that I love. When he was trying to uncover something about a moment, get at what the character was doing, he would say something like, “So what’s actually actually happening is…”

I love this turn of phrase, actually actually, because I think it speaks to the layers of honesty with which we communicate. There’s a way in which we might say we’re doing something but actually actually we’re kind of doing something else. Like when I say that I’m working all day on a grant but actually actually I’m equal parts answering grant questions and distracting myself with games on my phone or reading emails that I don’t really need to look at. It’s not malicious, this uncovering of my real activities but it does show the ways in which we label our actions in ways that aren’t always inclusive of all the forces working on us. I’m not on the internet because I don’t want to write the grant, I do, I just also am tired and really enjoying unlocking the secrets of Dwarf Complete.

Actually actually is a manifestation of our actions in the most literal and concrete sense of themselves. It strips them of their highfalutin’ intentions and gets down to the nitty gritty of their real intents and their actual (actual) effects. It shows that our motives are often more complex and human than their purest descriptions.

Sometimes I wish I could ask arts funders to tell me what they actually actually want.

In my anecdotal experience, when people give away large amounts of money there’s what they say they want in their beautifully crafted guidelines and then there are the means by which these funds are dispersed. And a lot of the time, the stated want isn’t actually actually best engendered by the means in which things are executed.

I don’t, truly, honestly, think this is malice. I know as artists there are times it can actually feel that way. But I really don’t think it is. That said, I think it’s useful for us to remind ourselves of the difference between what is said and what we feel like we actually actually see. It keeps you sane. It keeps things in perspective. It allows you not to get caught up in rage when you feel like you are held to a standard or desire that’s not always what is shown on the surface.

This isn’t true across all my experience, and it certainly exists at a lot of levels of divergence from that first actually to the second. The one that most gets me though, the one I find the most often frustrating, is the call for “innovative” art. Innovation is a tricky work. It is grounded deeply in risk. It requires, by definition, newness and the encountering of the unknown. It is something encountered for the first time. All of which is very hard to explain in a clear and delineated narrative six months, a year, two years before the innovative thing is going to take place, before its component pieces are thoroughly explore and identified, before its map has been charted, before experiments have been conducted to test hypotheses. By the time these kinds of things are known, the actual innovation is already over.

You can court the unknown, or you can have a steadfast plan carried out without alteration. You can scientifically journey into unfamiliar experimentation or you can seek the rigorous and practiced craftsman to execute his skill. These are both interesting and potentially worthy things. But in actual actuality they are a non-overlapping Venn diagram.

I understand the desire to know things, I do. But you can’t have it both way my darlings. Or rather, you can, in a way, if you pretend it’s possible and leave it to those actually executing the thing to try their damnedest to pull those two circles toward a tiny space of intersection. It’s a lot of work, that pulling, work that I’d say is better served elsewhere, like actually actually implementing some innovation.

My guess is things won’t change soon. But if someone else’s giant pile of money were up to me, here’s how I’d actually actually propose to get there:

 ADRIENNE’S LIST OF FUNDING PROCESSES FOR ACTUAL ACTUAL INNOVATION IN THE ARTS

1.   WHAT: Give $5,000 to the first 25 people under the age of 30 that ask for it. No questions asked.

WHY: First off, in the grand scheme of things, this is nothing. This is one not that large Pew grant. For reference, my very first show, THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL, was made with $1,500 and it launched my career into an entirely new orbit. Think about what 25 upstart artists could do with 5K. Plus, if they ask first they’re likely the most shit-together folks of this age set.

2.    WHAT: Rent a rehearsal studio space for a year and give away 20 hours worth of time to anyone that asks for it.

WHY: Space is one of the first thing that starts costing you money fast and it’s especially hard when you are at that stage where you’re in total blank canvas mode. It feels decadent and wasteful to sit in a room you paid for without a plan so often this time, which is actually the most important, happens in the cracks and spaces between “real” rehearsal.

3.    WHAT: You want fancy video work samples for grants? Hire a staff videographer and pay for them to shoot and edit the work of people in the Philly arts community.

WHY: The cost of a staff person like this is likely akin to one big grant to a large organization. Pay for this instead and you will get better work samples. You won’t have to keep telling artists we’re not spending enough on videographers. You won’t have us waste our time developing the skill set of videography and editing when we could be making stuff.

4.    WHAT: Democratize the grant writing process. Hire a staff that crafts the language submitted to the panel or board for every applicant. If you need to offset this cost have them work on a commission basis commensurate with budget size.

WHY: It is true that an individual artist might have a project as worthy of funding as a huge non-profit. But the chances that a solo creator has a whole paid staff of grantwriters is nil. So in essence, a huge part of what you’re actually measuring in the grant process is the monetary reach of the applicant and not the actual artistic ability. This is campaign finance reform 101. If everyone has the same writer, then the projects will actually be presented in a fair and equal way.

5.   WHAT: Fund an entirely “research” based phase with no require showings or products other than to document what happened and share that with the artistic community.

WHY: This is the thing that the academic weight of science has over the arts. People believe that research for research sake is valuable WHETHER OR NOT IT BECOMES A VIABLE PRODUCT. Scientists know this. They know negative results aren’t failures. I think artists know this but they get so beaten down about it that they forget. What if we got to go and sit in on rehearsals for each other or read papers about the questions other companies are asking and the methods they use to do so? What if we had a peer to peer exchange system the way that the scientific world does? I bet we’d all be a lot artistically richer for it.

6.   WHAT: No project grants. For 5 years. Only operating support.

WHY: Seriously. You all know. I don’t even need to explain this one.

And while I’m at it:

7.     WHAT: Stop dictating how to spend the money. No required areas. No explaining if you have to shift money from one place to another.

WHY: Do you know about these folks: https://www.givedirectly.org/operating-model.html? Their aim was to benefit the extremely poor across the globe. There are lots of charities that decide how exactly poor people across the globe ought to make their lives better and allow people to give them a cow or build a school, or whatever. In most cases the funder is telling the person who could use the funds what method would be best for the person to improve the person’s life. Sound familiar? These folks thought to themselves, “Hey. Who knows better than the actual person how they could best make their life better.” In other words, they assumed that person was as intelligent and capable as they were, just in need of the funding. I think we need to start imagining a world where artists just get to use money for their art in the way that they see most efficient towards making their art. Because if we believe they are smart and capable creators, why would we assume they don’t know where the resources toward their work ought to be best used?

And lastly:

8.    WHAT: One year, forget about trying to define “excellence” and just give all the money out by random lottery.

WHY: It was a real lesson in what a little but of status can do when my recent War of the Worlds collaboration was picked up as the mayor’s selection into the Bloomberg Public Art Challenge. Comparing the way people talked about the project with my collaborators and I before and after someone decided it might be worth a million dollars showed that so much of the perception of “value” and “quality” is intensely subjective. If we could just try democratizing this for a year, we might end up with people that would never ever seem like they would deserve that money, but absolutely blow us away with what they are capable of.

I’d even propose that if we took one major funder’s pool and did this instead of what they currently do, we wouldn’t even need more money. But I bet we’d have a whole lot more actual innovation

That’s all for now…

A

A Million Female Gandalfs

Today I had my final class of the semester at one of the schools I teach at. For our final class of Voice For The Stage, I ask my students to perform a monologue they have worked on for several weeks on the large stage in front of each other. They pick these monologues themselves and 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 is the chance for these learners to test their abilities, honed over the last 14 weeks, to hold the stories they have chosen to tell in their bodies. I want, and encourage them, to choose words thrilling for them to inhabit. It is their chance to see if they can transmit those narratives’ feelings and emotions out of their imaginations and through their voices and into the audience.

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

I think about how every 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 think. I know what this sound is. I hope that it is something else, though if I am honest I know exactly what this sound is, but I keep working, hoping somehow that I am mistaken. Minutes later when I hear the parade of several sirens in the distance I cannot pretend any longer that what I know is not true.

In the moment I am afraid, I am scared, and I am sad.

I think, I should call Brad and make sure he’s ok. Even though I know he is at the theater, having left nearly 40 minutes ago, I should still just 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 are all African-American. They are 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 are 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 is gut reaction. It is fear. It is instinct. It is the first story that comes to mind.

A moment later I am actually thinking about that thought that first flashed in my mind and I feel disgusted with myself.

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

I think, Why is the first narrative construction you have built around these humans who are leaving a store and looking at their phones one of guilt? What is it about them that makes you think this way before you even have 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 looking at of phones something that nonsensically becomes something nefarious rather than the EXACT SAME INSTINCT you yourself had?

And of course it is because they are black.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize this.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize that I do not want this in me.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize that even though I do not really think this, something about the world I live in has made this the gut instinct.

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

I think, Why on instinct do you not 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 this not the story you instinctively picture?

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

I think about all this and I am ashamed.

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

This is not darkness, I think. You cannot think of the terrible thing that feeds the bad stories as darkness. You need to think of it as evil and hatred.

I am ashamed of the story that emerges from my brain without my asking it to appear. I hate it and I stand at the window and I look at the people walking by and imagine a new story. In the new story I can 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 these instinctual stories out of yourself, to find their roots and pull and pull and pull. You need to create new stories that are better to plant in their place.

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

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 fight 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.

I am sad because every year there is a female Gandalf.

I am sad because there are a million female Gandalfs it seems. I am sad because though I have seen students play sponges and mutants and demons and even a human embodiment of a font, though every year I see so many of my female students find power and depth in speaking like Ian McKellen playing 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 would find something exciting and inspiring about speaking words originally intended for a woman.

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

I am sad because if the first story that comes to my mind when I see a group of African-American men reacting to a gunshot the story that I have for them is the worst kind of story. I am sad because this is not the story that should be brought to my mind. If it is this must mean we are not doing well enough in the stories we have for them either.

I am sad because I know that I get so tired hearing stories about women that conform to all the stupid and terrible gender norms. I am 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 must do 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 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.

I think about how we are literally wasting people’s lives by casting them in shitty stories.

I think about how even a million female Gandalfs can’t outweigh 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 are not doing this, what good will our stories be? At this moment, as storytellers, we must take responsibility for the telling. If we don’t, what on earth are we here for?

– A

In the interest of honesty, or, Can we all just agree to stop beating ourselves up?

It’s always this time of year, as the early cold and un-springlike “spring” gives way to the actual warmth and sunshine of early summer that I think back to my days at the end of college. I often think about this time with a rose-colored view of myself – highly engaged, copiously productive, and focused in a way that I often long for in the present tense.

I think back on the way I think I was back then and I get jealous. Of myself.

There are days now where I wonder what I exactly I’m doing with my time. There are days that I think about other artists and I am certain that they are getting so very much more done than I am. There are lots of days where I think that I am wasting the precious little life I have available to me by not doing more and getting more and being more than I currently am.

Are you an artist who thinks this? Probably.

Because chances are if you are a creator there are a million more idea seeds then there will ever be emotional, physical, mental resources to carry out those initial impulses to conclusion.

This, despite all emotional evidence to the contrary, is as it should be.

I was watching some show the other day on successful show runners for TV and listening to people talk about the insanity of that process. In one case a showrunner described the schedule for the creative product he worked on and then concluded by saying that humans have the capacity to do 90% of what he just explained. The last 10% were fumes and exhaustion.

You know what my first thought was after watching that?

“God you’re lazy.”

You know what my second thought was?

“You’ve only taught a class, written an essay, and spent 45 minutes on a creative project today. This is like a vacation day. Tomorrow you’ll do a real amount of work.”

Can I just say, what the fuck is that?

Because the other part of the show, the one that I think is the most perverse kind of pride, is the strange way that these creators talk about being miserable. They talk about loving the show so much that they sacrifice their lives, their loves, their actual in the moment living for it. What exactly is all of it for then? What kind of art will you make when you have no life other than art to draw from?

This is possible in short term bursts, perhaps. Maybe sometimes even preferable. But this is not a plan of artistic longevity. I don’t just mean that you’ll be tired and exhausted. I mean you literally will have no time to fill your creative research stores to make anything else worthwhile.

I don’t know about you but I want to be creating in 10, 20, 40 years. I don’t want to burn out at 35. To do that I’m going to need some opinions and stories beyond the ones I have now. If I miss all of my life and use up all the creative stores of inspiration in a mass and panicked frenzy of making, what will be left?

There is a complex, I think built in some part by our own internalized sense of worthlessness mixed with a Hollywood idea of fame and success, that tells us that the only version of productive creativity is one that exhausts the creator. We aim for the stay of constant producing, of being pushed to the very limit of what is possible, of working and working in a fevered dream state until we are used up and left empty husk shells at the side of our works.

This is the idea of creativity as inspired and frenzied genius – that it is something that possesses us, that we are nothing without it, that it is only through work that we can prove our value and work.

I know exactly zero people who actually work this way all the time.

I know about a million who work really really hard, then fart around watching bad television and doing nothing of “substance” for big stretches in between.

Of those million I’d say, oh, ALL percent of them feel shitty about the downtime.

Even writing these words, right now, I am thinking about the myriad of actual things I could be doing. I could be writing something that will go towards a brilliant novel. I could be practicing my piano and vocal improvisation skills. I could read one of the giant pile of books on game theory that I’ve amassed on my shelf. I could grade the mountain theater journals sitting next to me.

I could theoretically do all these things and if I try to weigh what I am doing in this moment against all the potential things and their potential values and usefulness, I will always always always come away thinking I haven’t done enough in enough time for enough people.

Does this sound familiar?

As you read this are you simultaneously saying, “Yeah, sure but she can say that because she’s actually doing a lot and I’m actually lazy” because my guess is you are.

I have been busier this semester than I have been in almost any time in the past 10 years that I can remember but I still watched a lot of bad TV. I still found time to fart around on the internet. I still found time to play video games.

And I think that part of the reason I was able to do so much wasn’t in spite of the down time but because of it.

We need to give ourselves a break once in a while.

It’s actually necessary for the work.

Seriously.

I look back at that person I was in college and if I am honest with myself I realize a few things. The first that I never worked as hard as I want to remember. There were long days of producing nothing, of taking time and cooking meals or searching match.com. I also know that I worked hard, but often far less smart. I spent hours and hours on things I can knock out in 20 minutes now. This is what comes with experience, the ability to get down to the heart of something and really do it and be done.

So in the interest of honesty, I’m going to stop pretending like it’s possible to work all the time. I’m going to stop pretending like a 30-minute lunch break is for quitters. I’m going to stop acting as if I don’t have phases where I just need to mess around on the internet. This is actually part of the way that the creative work gets made. The farting around is part of the work.

If I step back and really look at my body of work, I can see that boredom is a necessary part of the process. It creates room for new ideas to form. It allows space for us to consider something we don’t already know.

If you’re perfectly productive, you’ll never get bored.

So next time you think you should be making or doing something but instead you take a walk or a Netflix, don’t get so mad at yourself. I won’t.

Because if there’s one thing I really shouldn’t make time for in my schedule it’s the constant self-flagellation.

– 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?

Singing

Close truthLast night I finished recording backing vocals for a second album with Johnny Showcase.

It is a funny thing, this.

Funny to think that there might be people in the world who pick up this object or pull its digital instance out of the interwebs, and might see my name and think, “Oh she’s a professional singer.”

This strikes me as so impossibly strange.

How can I explain why?

Well…

It is funny to me because this thing has always been something of a joke on the audience. I’ve always done it in a kind of air quotes way, as if to say, “If I were a singer, and I knew how to sing, and I were someone who did this, this is what I’d do.” When I sing I play act at a character who is a singer who thinks they are amazing. I pretend as if I am someone who is fierce and believes fully in her own ability. I play someone who is almost bored with this endeavor and wears the virtuosity of performance with an almost disdainful air.

I can sing in this way because it is so pointedly not me. So not me that I delight in showing it, like a magic trick, to those who have seen the “real” me and watching them meld these two disparate pieces into a messy collage. They know me as an intellectual, a thinker, a director, a serious type. The sequins, the makeup, the eyelashes, the hair, these are costumes yes, but they are also talismans of transformation. They are portals that allow me to transcend the self that I tend to walk around in and become free. And their power feels tied to the audience. Without a power that summons them forth, they have no meaning and they are not able to be filled.

In the spaces before the transformation, in rehearsals and the studio, I am a hybrid half formation. I am not onstage, I am without my armor and I am so much more clearly myself. It is here that I can grow nervous and tense. It is here that I have to take responsibility head on. It is here that I am simply a singer trying to sing a song. And it is here that I feel like a fraud and a fake who has been getting away with this for a long time. It is here, every time that I hope that I will not expose myself too much as a counterfeit.

Something that I have learned: every other person in the room knows more about this than I do.

This is not false modesty. It is simple objective truth.

If you ask me what things I can claim some level of expertise at I will say that at one point in time I knew a lot about a particular bit of chemistry. I currently know a lot about a particular brand of theater making. And as with anything, the more one learns, the more one realizes that there is so much more to know. But in theater the confrontation of the unknown has become itself something familiar. I know that I can walk into a room and run a rehearsal. I know better how to take comfort in the early stages of a process. I don’t fear my capacity to produce a show.

On some deep level, somewhere along the way, I gave myself permission with theater. As a director, I can say that I really do believe that my “right” is just as right as another’s. And so my work flows from a place where I see that the formal structures I began with are scaffolding that eventually can fall away if I need to build in a new way.

Not so with singing.

I have pursued music with a kind of “Really? Ok… If you think I ought to” attitude from the beginning. I sang mostly because people said I had a nice voice. I sang because I was rewarded for doing so. But I don’t think I can say that I sang because I loved my voice. I didn’t sing because I needed to, I sang because it seemed like something I could use as a way to be special or impressive. All my singing was for other people’s ears.

And so my measure of musical success was also in the ears of others. My sound was “right” only in as much as it was valued externally.

My formal study of voice was plagued by constant uncertainty. I did not have a terribly developed ear, pitch matching and recall were middling at best. I had little aptitude for music theory and too little time or space to really devote to its study. What I did have was a decently developed instrument for my age and a keen facility to hide faults in my sound. So when I sang in groups, rather than really learning to read music, I often relied overly heavily on mimicry of those next to me in choir and eventually recordings of other singers for solo works. I did whatever I could to sneak by without being noticed as out of tune or worse missing the melody entirely.

What this did was develop a tendency in me to pull back when uncertain. To really sing out only when I could be totally sure of success. It meant that I never asked for help or gave myself permission to be a learner. Instead I would get quiet or drop out and then go home and furiously try to fix the problem alone where no one could see my mistakes. But there are times when this is not the most efficient way to solve problems, and it often means that the underlying ear training isn’t addressed. It meant that I could not be in my body and sound around others, it meant that I incrementally pulled my identity as a singer inside of myself. It meant that I only wanted to sing when I could be perfect and therefore meant that I never allowed myself space to learn.

What makes me a good director, I think, is not that I come into the room with all the best ideas ready and laid out. It is that I am able to watch and listen and respond and try things that fail and discuss and then try again and fail again and try some more. I think my directing skill is tied to an ability to risk and reap such risk’s rewards. I do not take negative response as a referendum on me but as useful information to help the thing I’m trying to do get closer to what I think it’s capable of.

So when I look back at that fledgling singer who was so afraid of disappointing it seems clear that her need to do it right got in the way of her ability to genuinely grow. When a flaw was exposed it was like a raw nerve. It was the part of me that I had worked so very hard to keep secret. And so it meant that such vulnerability was often debilitating to the point of paralysis. I cried in solo lessons, the one place that I truly couldn’t hide, almost as a matter of course. I learned bad habits of tensing my body, my jaw, my mind, in an effort to force out the right thing. My senses were focused only on the listener, gauging their interest and assessment rather than actually figuring out how I felt when I made these sounds. I did not trust myself, ever.

But I comforted myself by saying this was not something I “really” did. Singing was a hobby, a side project, one that I loved but knew that I didn’t work hard enough at. I wasn’t a “real” singer but I took solace that if I ever actually had the time I could have tried “for real.” If I’d actually buckled down and focused on it, I would have done better. I would have done it right.

I made my way through music in this fashion though middle and high school, through auditions and jazz choirs, through madrigal ensembles and state competitions, through musicals and recitals, through college scholarships and choral solos, through diction coaching and operatic arias, through Brahms and Mozart and Puccini and Stravinsky and Wagner and Bach.

The first three things that occur to me when I think about my four years studying voice in college are this:

  • Not being allowed into the chamber choir because my vibrato was too big
  • Being called a “wall of sound” in a vocal jury
  • Not having enough time to learn the Russian for the Rachmaninov set in my senior recital

So it seems the height of irony, if to no one else than myself, that I am known in my community as an expert in voice. That I have carved out a tiny niche of experience in a technique whose central tenet is exploring the edges of vocal sound, the pieces that we normally exclude and cover up and refine out. That I have the excuse that it’s supposed to sound ‘bad’ has been the out that I have given myself.

I remember when I first learned that Roy Hart’s early work was driven by a deep desire to be a classical musician, that he had a facility in this regard, that so much of his exploration was in part motivated by a wish to be validated by the classical community. I remember hearing this and thinking, “Ah. Yes. We are the same in this regard.” And it is such a funny thing that I spend so much time as a teacher trying to instill the very thing I still struggle to find for myself. A belief that one’s voice is worth hearing. A trust that the sounds that come naturally are not broken. That the failure is the most useful part of the journey because it begins a conversation about where we can grow.

I have this exercise I often do with students where I ask them to take everything we’ve done and forget it. I ask them to improvise song or speech or sound with no other goal than to simply voice something that pleases them. It is often the most difficult thing. It is this exercise that most often makes people cry or laugh or shake without knowing why. This is the most radical thing it seems – to express a sound for no one but ourselves.

So much of my experience with classical training is one of need and fear. A desire to do right, to be right, to sound right, to know the right notes and almost mechanically find myself able to become a vehicle for them. What is the sense to make of all that formal training? Is it just necessity that we fight and fight and fight with ourselves to internalize these rules only to find ourselves desperately needing to throw them away later?

I think of the experience of what it feels like to have to drill as scale again and again and again. To run the same sequence in a recitatif ad nauseum in a lesson until it becomes unconscious, until it is in me and of my body. Until it is simply a pattern than has become carved deep into my being. I can see that in the best moments, in the ones when I could just give myself permission to be deeply “wrong,” I could finally open enough to try until I finally got to something new and that felt like an opening. That felt like deepening. And it was these kind of times when I felt like maybe I wasn’t such a fake, that I was just a learner trying to master something currently bigger than myself.

The sections of those long ago songs that came easy, the bits that I could get on the first or second try, these musical sequences have faded in the ten years since I stopped singing classically. But those asshole passages with tiny twists and bits that ensnared me so deeply and so thoroughly, the ones that made me cry, these are the same ones that I can remember perfectly now. These are the ones I will know in my bones until I am nothing but.

Last night I found myself at the end of the evening having to make up a harmony with no prep time, on the spot, with people much more skilled at this than I. It was clear that it was harder for me to find my spot that the others. And normally this is a very hard place for me. I often lock up and resign myself to taking the work home and trying to drill it in alone with no one to hear. In the first album’s recording session I stayed in a state of abject terror over whether I was the problematic sound. But over these past few days, I have told myself to just try, earnestly without judgment, as best as I am able.

With the laser specificity that is a recording session I have come to see that I am not the only one who sometimes strays out of tune or misses a note when really trying to get it perfect. I have realized that in the years at this I am actually getting better. I am not perfect, but I am also not the total fraud I fear.

I am exactly where I am, with some degree of facility and a lifetime of learning more in front of me.

And this is sort of what I wanted to explain, I think. That we must give ourselves the gift of failure. That we must come to believe we need it or the need to deny it will take us over completely.

– A

Everything old is new again

everything_old_is_new_again_by_ekzotik-d4cdlz3The process of change is so slow we barely see it.

This is how it is possible that I am sitting with a dear friend and fellow creator on Friday and realize in the midst of our conversation that I am… happy. That I am open and new. That in front of me lays fields of possibility. That the anger and confusion and pain that I felt not so long ago is actually melted and revealed something quite unexpected and different.

Do you ever wish you could sit down and check in with a version of yourself from the past?

I can.

“I need to know it’s worth doing this art, in this way, at this time,” says Adrienne in December of 2012.

The truth of the matter is that the works I’ve made are things I’m proud of.

The truth of the matter is that I increasingly lost an internal sense of why I needed to make them.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t really care what anyone else thinks “theater” is or if I’m “good” at it.

The truth of the matter is that my “theater” is simply a means to a deeper question about connection and understanding and thoughtfulness and desire and finding a way to make sense of what I’m doing here.

The truth is that for a while I got a fair bit better at making “theater” as other people define it and a bit worse and making sure it was still answering the deeper questions I wanted to be asking.

The last year and a half has been a concerted and nearly constant effort to realize this and get myself in a place where that was no longer the case.

It has been hard.

I have felt like a failure often.

Most of the time progress was slow to the point of imperceptibility.

But today, for whatever reason, it has hit me: the work I’m in the midst of making now is worth doing. This work. In this way. At this time. And for the first time in a long time, I feel really really free.

Today it seems I’ve gotten far enough from there to really see the distance.

Random snapshots from recent life:

Friday: I am randomly invited to a conference on game design in Boston the next day. I drive 6 hours the same day to get there. The next day I have conversations about ethics and narrative structure and audience agency. I feel like I am talking about my theater.

Two weeks ago: I hand in the first draft of a study plan that predicts the next two and a half years of reading and artistic practice which will make up my self-directed graduate degree in interdisciplinary arts. I know almost nothing about anything on my reading list. I am ecstatic. I wish there was more time I could add to the universe because the list is already too large for the time I have to tackle it.

One month ago: I decide that I need to do something creative that requires my hands. I decide I need to learn to play the piano. I start downloading beginner’s sheet music. I spend 30, 40, sometimes 60 minutes a day with Für Elise and simple chord progressions. I love being a beginner.

This week: I chat back and forth with a painter and novelist about the possibilities of a week’s worth of collaboration and experimentation for Cross Pollination. There is a little trepidation about what exactly we will do. I do not know. I do not care that I do not know. I do not, as I normally would, make a bunch of plans of things I do know how to do so that the trepidation subsides. I decide to wait until I genuinely think of something I want to do.

Today: I watch a video by game designer Brenda Romero about her “The Mechanic is the Message” series. I hear her talk about her love/hate relationship with her ascension into the ranks of “professional” creator. I hear her speak about a nascent need to remove herself from the industry of her craft, to make things by hand. I hear her explain how she took time, extensive time, away from digital design to play board games. I hear how she begins to make games about things she never imagined possible, games explore deep and vast tragedies. Games that challenge the player to examine their own agency and choice in participating. Her elements are handmade, deeply personal, unreproduce-able. This is the point, it seems to me. It also seems to me that in the end, the rewards her games reap are equally unique, meaningful and rich. They fill the creator’s soul rather than the professional’s resume.

Thursday: I have two conversations in the same day about ideas for new projects. One is a piece for only two people at a time and the other for a potential 2,000. One takes place almost entirely inside the mind of the viewer, the other could cover most of the city of Philadelphia. They feel like the same kind of inquiry. I feel like I can start working on both of them tomorrow, by myself, if I wanted to. Not researching, not imaging, literally, making stuff that will go in them. I like not having to wait to get started.

Six months ago: I decide I want to write. I decide I want to write fiction. I decide I want to write a novel. Every few weeks I pull up the document and write furiously for a few days. At last count I am up to 170 pages and 39,949 words. I also decide I can show it to people someday or not. Either way it won’t matter. I just need to write it.

And so it is that I find myself at this moment feeling the most vibrant and true expression of my theater-related creative impulses into forms that look almost nothing like what “Theater” would typically be defined as.

And so it is that I find myself confronting new projects that are amazing and daunting and unknown in almost every way.

And so it is that I have met more people and had more new conversations about creativity in the last few weeks than in the last few years.

And so it is that I have stopped feeling so crushed and frustrated.

And so it is that I don’t worry about whether what I’m doing is right.

And so it is that I know the only thing that matters is if it’s what I feel myself needing to be doing.

And so it is that finally finally finally… it seems I’ve found what that is.

And so it is that I stand in the shower today thinking about my conversation on Friday and realize that it feels like something I have to share and so I write this, hastily, before I run out the door because it is also clear that it has to be done today, right now, before I lose understanding of it in just this particular shower-inspired way.

And so it is I share it with you.

And run.

To be late.

To the next amazing thing.

– A

Writers of Stage and Page: Erlina Ortiz and Kirsten Kaschock

erlina and kirsten

Two more “coffee date” creators! Today we have:

Erlina Ortiz (directing, playwrighting)

Kirsten Kaschock (writing, choreography)

This particular brand of cross-pollination feels unique.

Unlike almost all of the other pairings we did in this round, these two are creators (at least partially) in the same medium. And yet in most every other way – cultural influence, stage of career, form in which your words are expressed – their works differ. Couple this with me and my own burgeoning sense of language and you have three pretty different wordsmiths. The panel and I really liked the idea of a conversation between writers at different ages, of different races and cultural backgrounds, using different kinds of means to communicate language. And yet, despite those differences we do have a common a background in some kind of live performance form either theater (for Erlina and I) and dance (for Kirsten).

Erlina, third from the left

Erlina, third from the left

What struck us most in Erlina’s application was the review by Citypaper for her piece Minorityland. That the reviewer admits to all her preconceived notions about what Erlina’s work would be and how she would assess it, that she admits to not wanting to participate in the issue that the work is addressing and that she then flat out says that she was totally and completely wrong on every count… What a powerful testament to a young creator’s ability to transcend the powerful stereotypes that others will put on her as a young woman of color. What great evidence that her writing is something we should be paying attention to.

For Kirsten it was clear that she’s hungry to take your writing in new places. And how exciting to find a writer in this place after a Sleight-356x535successful career with a large body of output, how amazing to be on a precipice of something wholly new. I loved the bit from her novel Sleight, loved the slow burning build of tension that the back and forth between the interviewer and subject creates. It’s a lovely and quiet power. One that made me guess at answers in advance, trying to anticipate the person I felt myself in conversation with.

I think… well, I think I sleight because I always have. My mother sent my sister Lark and me I guess for poise and I was good. And when you are good and a girl at something you stay with it—maybe for all the goodgirl words that come. Goodgirl words like do more, keep on, further—instead of the other goodgirl words—the if-you-are-you-will words—be nice and softer and you don’t like fire do you? – From Sleight

It was this sentence from Kirsten’s application:

“So far, what I have not been able to achieve as a writer is a creative (rather than scholarly or documentarian) relationship with the performing arts. Because I have a background in dance, I often wonder if I have shied away from more text-based theatre because I felt more qualified and educated in movement techniques.”

that made me think of this pairing. Because it would be so exciting for Kirsten to offer Erlina the gift of decades of experience and vice versa for Erlina to offer the memory of the gusto and daring of first setting her words free on a stage. It would an erlinainteresting mash up to see how these two writers might write together. How their differing experiences and approaches could inform each other. How their experience with their respective strengths might shift each other’s sensibilities.

Erlina’s application describes her creation process in a sample convo with her collaborator:

“Wait! Omg.. what if she was her daughter!?”

“Oooo that’s good.. omg I can’t wait to write that.”

A typical conversation for us.

Needless to say, we are very open to change.

"thread" right over the heart

“thread” right over the heart

In person, it was clear Erlina is excited, articulate and energized. She’s a young director/creator/writer I met last year and one who I think Philly ought to be watching. We should all be psyched about where her work will go. And Kirsten is a language island of sorts – the writer in a dancing family. Her seamless transition back and forth and back and forth between language and movement (having worked and studied as both a writer and choreographer) are like a ballet in themselves, one that weaves and binds these two disparate elements together. Can it come as a surprise that she has the word “thread” quite literally written on her chest?

Pick three adjectives that describe what you make:

Erlina: Entertaining, Scary, Real

Kirsten: Visceral. Unnatural. Haunting.

What was exciting about this conversation was the fact that we span such a range of experience levels. Erlina is literally just embracing that role of playwright with her second piece for the Fringe this year. Similarly, she talked about how it was leaving home that really inspired her to embrace her Dominican heritage and begin to use it as the fodder for her artistic expression. I am a director who came to writing semi-unwillingly, creating scenes for language initially out of necessity and then discovering non-fiction writing as a means to express in the in the long in-betweens between shows. And Kirsten is both a poet and novelist – one who talked about needing the distance that fiction provides, that getting too close to reality weights and drowns the work. She often employs the metaphors of science fiction to create an othered world that can allow us to examine our own.

From Erlina’s play Minorityland:

Deb: (sighing) You know… I don’t think bees were every meant to sting humans.

Otis …what?

Deb: I think one day some stupid bee went astray and stung some human and now, that’s all anyone thinks bees are good for. And everyone started running away from all the other bees and the bees said well fuck it. I may as well sting humans too…You make your own enemies by assuming the worst out of everyone.

We also discussed the intersections of language and performance, about authenticity and the difference between movement and story. I think that there could be lots to do in this group, plenty of interesting experiments to try. There was also a lot of talk about convention – for example the choice made from necessity for Erlina’s company to cross gender cast or cast young actors in roles that are older – and how it changes the performance, whether the “real” thing is actually better.

Thanks to you both for meeting with me!

A