Hey folks,

Since there are so many newbies to the Swim Pony blog joining us for our month of lady artist awesomeness, I figured I’d re-share a post from last year that garnered a lot of attention.

It’s not specifically related to being a female artists, but I’m sharing it because I think it’s going to be one of the major principles laid out in the Awesome Lady Squad’s manifesto (coming this weekend!). One of the ways I think we all get cheated out of the arts community we really want is by being sold on the idea that there isn’t enough to go around. And if there isn’t enough for all of us, we end up feeling like we have to fight each other to get any.

Let’s decide this isn’t the case.

Let’s assume there’s enough Awesome for everyone at the table.

Hope to see you next Sunday and Monday.

– A

mon Some people have all the luck

I will admit it. It’s really hard sometimes to be happy for your artistic peers. There are times when someone you know well gets a job, or some big funding, a fellowship and you just think to yourself, “Damnit. I am just as good as them. This is not fucking fair.”

There are times when I hear about people’s successes and my first instinct is to figure out how I could get a hold of the same opportunity. There are also times I despair at the seeming lack of luck, a random set of factors that make their stuff trendy and my stuff totally prohibited from some desirable professional stepping stone:  I don’t do straight plays, I don’t have an MFA, I’m not great with Shakespeare, I don’t act, I’m not part of an ensemble, whatever. It’s harder, not easier, the closer the people…

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So I’ve been reading the many articles that have been appearing on HowlRound recently about women directors

First this one

Then this one

And finally this one

All of these to some degree are about the language we use as female directors in our rehearsal rooms.  I’ve been thinking, brewing, about this for a few days now. Thinking about my own rehearsals as a female director. Of my responses to the article and responses to the responses, and then if humanly possible my response to the response’s response.  I’ve been formulating my own opinions about how I feel in response to these articles. And it occurs to me this afternoon that to explain my feelings about how to talk about language, I need to first talk not about words but about voice.

This semester I have a student named Maranda who has the most amazing voice.

Her sound is generally placed pretty low in her chest. It’s not raspy or throaty but it’s lower and further back than the typical standard of placement for most American speakers. I should probably mention she is Jamaican and sports a relatively thick Patois accent, too.

She is usually one of the first to arrive so on the days I teach at her school, I watch students walk into the black box for voice class and greet her sitting in the second row of the seating area.

“Hello, Ma-RAAAN-dah,” most of them say.

“Hello,” she says back and smiles. 

So far this semester I’ve led Maranda and her classmates in exercises on playing resonance in different parts of the body, in articulation exercises, and projection. I’ve tried to give them skills to open up access to all the sounds their voices are capable of.

One of the first realizations to come in my class is there is no such thing as a person’s “voice” in the singular sense. Around week 3 my students always begin to write about their voices in plural. They talk about how their sounds change over a range of different contexts and in relation to different people. The voice they use for a boss or teacher is quite different than the one they might employ for their friends, entirely different from the one they use with their parents, and different still than one for performance. These voices, they are begin to realize, are not the same. Consciously or not they are employing different sounds to try and achieve a different relationship with the listener.

And it is around this time that they read an article about vocal habits and explain what the author Patsy Rodenberg means when she says that habits are only a problem when they are no longer a choice. It is also around this time that I begin to hammer home a point that I will make through the rest of the course, a moral that underpins everything about the way I approach voice work: there is no such thing as a voice that is “better” than another voice. Ethically, morally, aesthetically, there are no “bad” voices.

There are simply voices that are useful in communicating and achieving what you want, and voices that aren’t.

Which means a high-pitched tiny “girly” voice can be fantastically useful in some contexts just as much as a low basso commanding one. A quiet sound just as powerful as a loud one depending on what you’re using it to do. It just depends on what you’re after.

Most of the students, to some degree, read the article and understand that the point I’m after is that your voice, your tendencies, your style is just as “good,” as long as it’s serving you to get what you want and as long as it is your choice. So when they start making sounds that at first feel funny in their bodies and mouths I say that I don’t care if they talk that way, but I do care that they have the option. When I make them stand in front of each other and speak I ask them constantly what they are trying to make the audience think and feel. The class and I collectively listen to each person and think and talk about ways we can use the voice to get us to the goal the speaker is aiming for.

Each vocal quality is a different choice that will provoke a different effect. That effect is their choice to make. I’m simply trying to give them tools to have as many ways to do that as possible.

This is what I think about when I think about the conversation regarding language and female directors. Each kind of language is a choice. Each one will elicit a different response. Each one is useful in some ways and not in others. It just depends on the tactic the particular directing is using to get to the end goal.

Can assertive language be effective? Sometimes. It can also be aggressive and off-putting.

Can accommodating language be perceived as weak? Sometimes. It can also be welcoming of a variety of perspectives and lead to an open and collaborative environment.

There are processes where I mostly ask questions. There are others where I mostly tell everyone what to do. And I don’t think the answer is picking an answer as to which is “right.” Because inevitably that “right” won’t be right for some people and some works of art. What troubles me in the task of trying to define the best type of female directing language is that it actually removes the choices that we so desperately seek to empower these female artists with. Better, I’d say, to ask whether the kind of language you use is getting you what you want. Better, perhaps, to ask if the language you use is one that you feel you own and have agency over. Better, I’d propose, to ask if your language is a habit over which you have choice.

Most recently, my voice class has been focused on an assignment where students bring in pieces of text that they have to present in front of each other. The text cannot be their own writing and this means that each of them must think about how to shift their voices to best communicate the language they have chosen to share with their audience. Last week, when Maranda went up she looked just a tiny bit nervous.

“Can I ask something first?”


“The character in my book… Do you care if I talk like a white girl?”

Everyone giggles for a second.

“You can present the text however you want to.”

And Maranda’s voice, with its resonant and lilting Jamaican accent that has charmed the class for weeks, transforms into a nasal flat Midwesterner. Close your eyes and you literally wouldn’t believe it was the same person.

Our mouths collectively hit the floor.

The next class I watch again as the students enter.

“Hello, Ma-RAAAN-dah,” they say as always. And she laughs as I tell her it’s obvious they are jealous of her sound.

And she smiles because she I can see she knows it is true. And I’d guess it’s not only because of the beautiful voice that comes naturally but also because she has the power to shape the way they hear her. She could sound a different way if she wanted to. She can be those other kinds of voices when she chooses. She can go to all the places my exercises ask her to. But when she finishes, she doesn’t stay in those other sounds.

She goes back to the accent.

Because she has the choice.

– A

Talking about talking

So I’ve been thinking a lot in the hours since my last post about how to have this conversation.

I’ve been thinking about how we can best begin to discuss issues of unequal representation in a way that both is honest and straightforward and is also productive and provokes dialogue instead of defensiveness?

In other words, I want to start by talking about how we talk about this.

I find it easy to provoke and push when the target seems large and imposing. I find strength in feeling myself becoming a David in the face of a Goliath. My guess, without having been there, is that this was the awesome power of what happened at #thesummit. It was a moment where the folks on the stage, the ones with some degree of sway and power and perhaps a degree of unknowing complacency, had to take in the might of opinion and feeling of the voices sitting on the other side.

But in a business as tiny as this, in a community where community is key, when networking and positive relationships determine your ability to get a job or a grant next week, month or year, it is easy in the micro-moments of inequity to excuse the tiny things. Too often any one moment or choice or thought seems isolated or small enough to swallow.  And as the distance between we and the “giants” gets smaller, the harder it is to see them as the Goliaths they once were. Little things amass because it’s sometimes hard to know what is and isn’t a battleground.

And let’s also point out that these are really hard conversations to have.

Because so often I see an cry to battle dissolve when it has to translate into the daily implementation of such ideas on the nitty gritty detail level. Based on the conversation in our few meetings of the Awesome Lady Squad I hear female artists find the balance of when and how and where to try and bring these issues up the biggest barrier to change. “Do I really want to make this tiny line or scene or interaction a soapbox?” “Do I want to be that actress today, tomorrow, through this whole process.” “Am I really seeing this or am I being overly sensitive?”

It’s exhausting constantly trying to parsing it out in the moment.

And even if you are sure and you do know it’s an issue, it is so so so so so so so much more difficult to say things that are tricky and sticky to people we know and care about. It sucks to be a watchdog. To be a nag. To feel like you’re stopping everyone’s fun. To put people on their guard. It can feel like the opposite of the artistic impulse, where we want to feel open and accepting of each other. And I think it’s so hard because to have that conversation is also to acknowledge that the ills of our culture, the biases and darknesses that float around us all the time, also make their way into our brains. That we are sometimes making choices with little pushes from beliefs or stereotypes we’d never support if we said them out loud.

I wrote a while back about a study that showed how academic scientists displayed preferential treatment of men when filling a position for a lab manager.

In that post I explained how candidates in the study were never seen in person and scored based on identical applications save for the gendered first name of the potential employee.  I underscored that this bias was shown in both men and women assessing the candidate.  And I made a particular point of noting that none of the decision makers felt their choice had been affected by the applicant’s gender in any way. They all felt they were being totally gender objective in their assessments.

In other words, you can display bias and stigma and stereotype even when you don’t subscribe to them, EVEN when YOU are the negative recipient of them.

It is scary to think that stuff is in us. Even scarier to come to terms with the fact that it can affect our actions despite the best of our intentions. And when confronted with it, defense is natural. From the outside it seems ignorant and bigoted. But my guess is that the real cause is that no one wants to find in themselves dark things they didn’t ask to be in there. So sometimes it’s easier to believe they aren’t.

And it is here I want to point out the latent superpower we are missing: Yes, this is hard. Yes, It is tricky to talk David to David rather than David to Goliath. But.  The closer we are, the more potential impact we are likely to have. The closer we are to them, the more likely we can get people to let that guard down. The closer we are to the offending source, the more likely we are to find a safe space to excise these demons with their hosts intact. And if we can win them to our side we grow our army of soldiers. The less it looks like a war and the more it looks like a conversion, I think the faster the battle will be over. If we have to kill them all, we may still do it, but I bet we lose much more time and resource and energy.

So I think we should begin with two assumptions, even if it may seem idealistic or naïve:

1)   No one intentionally wants to make harmful choices to women artists.

2)   Everyone imbibes some level cultural crap that will predispose him or her to doing so.

So when we look at the choices of a company, or another artist (or in our own work for that matter) and we see something that makes us feel squicky, our goal should be to remind them of #1 and help them see where they might be displaying the crap of #2 (pun by the way, totally intended).

To do that I think we start by asking these questions:

Is it conscious? – i.e. Does the person or company know and realize what they’re doing? Do they identify their behavior as a problem or are they truly unaware of it and its effect?


Is it conscionably contextualized? – i.e. Have they passively presented potential problematic material/decisions or have they taken steps (even if imperfectly) to justify them through dialogue or contextualization? In other words, do they balance a guy heavy Glengarry Glen Ross with another play with mostly female cast? Do they perform a problematic cannon text in context of a conversation series about historical representation of women in history to point out the potential in conflict with the morals we have today?

How we assess the answers to these questions will help set the stage for the modes through which we express our concerns and I think also help start to identify the solutions. And in tailoring it in this way, I think we get closer to coming to real understanding of what’s at play in each specific case. Because the devils really are in these details. And if we don’t treat all offenses alike, I think we’re likelier to find specific tailored solutions, likelier to find and commit the people who are ready and wanting to change but may not yet be brave enough or know how on their own to do so.

More on this tomorrow…


PS – For some other awesome follow ups to #thesummit look to this from babelwright and this from Tamara Winters



I am bad at twitter. I don’t tweet much or well. Call me twit-illiterate. It’s also been a heinously busy couple of weeks. Which is why it’s taken me a bit of time to catch up on #thesummit.

More than a few people have passed along thoughts about this. More than a few have asked my opinion. But I wanted to wait until I felt like I’d really read enough about it to have an informed opinion before responding. If you haven’t caught up check out this for an overview. And this for the much commented on tweets in-situ. And here’s the quote from Ryan Rilette quoted from the DC Theatre Scene article:

“It’s really hard, and here’s why it’s hard.  I think it’s hard because there’s not enough in the pipeline right now.  …There are a lot of new plays that are getting produced by small theatres that are by women.” 

He went on to discuss how there are not enough plays by women produced in New York City and not enough in London (although he credited London with doing a great job), and said that a theatre needs something that’s going to help sell any play they put on.  He said one can’t choose a total unknown, and that to find three plays a season by female playwrights would require them to have name recognition or something else to draw audiences, if one is not going to go the route of using star actors. 

He said there are “not enough yet in the pipeline” and that “it’s gonna take a couple of years… a decade… before it’s going to shift, but it’s going to shift.”

A decade. Wow. I’ll be in my 40’s then.

That would be awfully… depressing to have to wait that long for more opportunities to arise. Probably depressing enough to just stop entirely. Something I see an awful lot of my female counterparts begin to contemplate around this age. It would be something I’d contemplate if I actually believed it would take that long. If I really thought my female peers had to wait around for these folks to use that whole decade’s worth of time to see some progress.

But I don’t buy this. And I also don’t feel like waiting.

Which is why what’s far more interesting to me, and what seems to have shifted this forum out of the standard and unremarkable bias women artists see and deal with all the time, is the final provocation of the night from Elissa Goetschius from Strand Theater that included a series of statistics:

  • At Signature, since the 2005 season, only 10 of 90 credited writers have been women, with women directing 2 of 54 productions.
  • Since Ford’s reopened after renovations, 2 out of 29 productions have been directed by women – the same woman.
  • At the Shakespeare Theatre, since opening the Harman in 2007, they have produced 51 shows – none of which have been written by a woman. 3 were adapted by women, and 9 were directed by women.
  • At Arena, since the 1998 season, 44% of productions have been directed by women. However, three women account for over half of those woman-directed productions, while 49 different men have directed here. The plays and lyrics that have appeared on Arena’s stages reflect the work of 110 men, but only 35 women.

When I read that and I thought, “Sounds familiar.”

I’m guessing, like myself, she’s been having this conversation for a long time. And as I went digging into her online presence I found this from March 2013.

I went back and checked my own blog for my statistics project on representation of women in Philly theaters. The dates of these posts? January 8th, 2013 AND February 7th, 2013 AND Febraury 8th, 2013.

Just about a year… Just about a year those facts have been out there. Hard numbers that do not lie about the state of the art we are in. Mine in Philly and Ms. Goetschius’ in DC.  As a former student of chemistry, I really thought when I threw my info out there it would set something off in other people. But it’s been a year now and not enough is different. I still think numbers and data are useful; they are a tool to wield. But they are not, as it turns out, enough on their own.  I admire Elissa Goetschius for going to #thesummit with numbers but I believe it is her fortitude to require their presence in the conversation that really started the firestorm.

Is it odd, do you find it strange, that within weeks of my post about gender parity in Philly theaters last year that another female director in another large America city was taking up another numerical compilation project in much the same way?

I do not think this is incidental. This means that it is clearly time to be having this conversation. I think it’s a sign we are gearing up for the real deal fight. I think it means the troops are gathering the tools we need to start taking this on. The numbers are a beginning. And now it’s time for all of us to make the response to them a necessity.

Elissa, if you happen to be reading this, I want you to know we are having this conversation in Philly too.

Like you, I am not waiting 10 years. I’ve already waited one, and not enough has changed.

So, like you, I’ve decided we’re having it now.

Which is why in honor of last March’s statistics project, I’m devoting this entire March’s blog to this issue. Every day a new article.

Every. Day. A few hours of time devoted to thoughts or actions to tackle this shit.

Cause it is shit.

Which why it stinks so badly.

You can expect more updates from The Awesome Lady Squad soon.

You can expect more thoughts about how we can critique and work with critics to change the way we frame women in theater to our audiences.

You can expect more observations about the myriad of ways we undercut women in subtle and unintentional ways.

You can expect more on what we can start doing NOW to make next year look different.

And hopefully by the end of March, by the time my 3/30 birthday rolls around, I’ll get a big fat present in the form of some actual movement and change.

I’m not giving it a year to start moving.

I’m giving it a month.

Are you ready?

I am.

– A

PS – Also worth reading is the fateful final question-er Elissa Goetschius’ thoughtful response and Brett Steven Abelman‘s as well.

52 Weeks and Flux

I used to put pictures up with my posts a year ago. Does that make them better?
I used to put pictures up with my posts a year ago. Does that make them better?

A year ago I wrote this.

One year.

It sort of seems impossible.

Dear reader, in some ways it feels as if that person and her impulse to write could have been me both 10 years and 10 minutes ago.

Yet, in thinking about this past year, I also sense a slow tectonic level type of shift. And while this movement has quite possibly been in the works for a very long time, perhaps since the start of my creative career, it also feels like a wave finally beginning to crest.

And troublingly, I don’t quite know how to say any of this. Not in a way that feels specific enough. That feels like it really articulates it. I just know that there is a high level of Flux in me right now.

I like this word – Flux.

First searched in the dictionary Flux is listed as this: “A series of changes.” And also “continuous change.”

Back when I was studying science I learned about Flux in the context of physical passage: The amount of a defined thing moving through a defined amount of space in a defined amount of time.  In this context Flux is a rate. Something whose motion feels closer to a verb than a noun. I remember in particular a problem on a multivariable calculus final in which bees were flying out of a hive at great speed.

Flux is not the hive. Nor is it the bees. It is a measure of them as they pass from one place to another.

When I get to ruminating poetically, the Flux in me feels like the measure of something moving internally from the person I was to the person I am meant to be.  And right now that feeling, that rate of movement of stuff from one place to the next, that series of continuous changes, all of it feels as if it is being pushed very hard. Like a swift current, the force is visceral. It is gathering momentum.

This is why it is so funny to read my thoughts from a year ago.  Because so much in me feels like it is in motion, but so many of the words remain applicable. Most notably from that year ago, the question of what I am doing and why remains.

Most days planning spools further and further away from the present: a year before I can re-apply to this or that, to get funding to start on the next thing, maybe more before I might be ready for this other opportunity.

And at the same time, the passage seems so quick: A year, an entire year of life and what really is different? What do I have to show for it? Is it enough?

So to the feeling of Flux I must ask: Have I actually, tangibly, changed or does it just feel that way? 52 weeks later what can I say to the person who asked if I could define what I want out of art and cut out the rest of the crap to “really concentrate on making what matters”?

A year ago I was looking for change that was easy and obvious to show myself. I thought about changes in location, in career, in love, in life. I ultimately decided that these weren’t the changes I actually wanted to make.

But perhaps there are other changes. Things that are invisible forces. Changes that are harder to see with the naked eye but that move continents if given enough time.

Here is what I do know:

I don’t feel the need to make a new “play” any time soon.

I might be done making “plays” for a while.

But I do want to make something, and I need to figure out what that is.

And while all my creative impulses are terribly impractical from a producer standpoint, for the first time in a while that feels like fun and not a hindrance.

With luck (and hopefully likelihood) I’ll read this in a year’s time and see what Flux has forced me to find.

– A

Fuck You Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Holly Golightly: Did I tell you how divinely and utterly happy I am?

Paul Varjak: Yes.

A few months back during Fringe season I went and saw a show inside a real house. It was a lovely play with breakfast and beautiful writing and was based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (The book not the movie, in case you were wondering.)

This is a post I’ve wanted to write this post ever since then.

Not because the play was bad, because it wasn’t – it was wonderful actually, one of my favorites of the season – and though I loved the staging, the writing, the actors, so much about the experiment in dramatic form start to finish, despite all this afterwards when I sat in the car with my partner in viewing-crime discussing what we’d seen all I could think was:

“God I detest that female character.”

Not the actress, not the writing of her part, but that faux feminine charming and carbonated, silly yet exotic, tiny pink banged and attractive and mysterious and wild and ukulele playing, Natalie Portman-esque, devoid of any actual humanness cypher of girlishness. Film critic Nathan Rabin put it far better that I when he called her “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Fucking manic pixie dream girl. I hate her so much.

I didn’t write this post back then because I liked the people who put the play on and I didn’t want to hurt them by bashing it when so much of it I truly enjoyed. Especially when I really didn’t have anything more to say on the matter than the fact that I really detest this trope, one I see as rooted in all kinds of shitty ideas about girls and women and the kinds of people they can be, one whose recent “emergence” in this particular form is cloaked in a kind of faux liberation. I think versions of her have been around far longer than we realize. The manic pixie dream girl (or MPDG as I will call her from here out) embraces a “seize life!” zeal but only in so much as it is thrown at her pent up male would-be partners. And while I find this odious and tedious in the extreme, while I have in many ways created my sense of aesthetic and artistic purpose to fly in the face of the MPDG’s twee triviality and lack of substance, at the time I didn’t really have much more to say on the matter. I just had my silent fervent hate.

However, this summer into fall, I have been spending an awful lot of time with women a fair bit younger than myself. Amazing, bold, incredible young women. Women whose ideas and humor have surprised and delighted me, who brought choices into classrooms I could never have predicted and who found inventive slants on characters I have seen performed dozens of times. I look at these young women with their incredible talents and wild and weird inner lives and it fills me with joy.

I admit that many of these fantastic people I underestimated upon first meeting. And I think that’s in part because it took some time to find the strange and silly underbellies that were hidden within them. Wild and wondrous senses of daring, humor and ridiculousness that I suspect are not often enough given space to be explored. And I wonder if this lack of space isn’t partly what constrained my seeing the wholeness of them. And then I think about the kinds of roles they will have available to them in a year or ten year’s time. I think about the shows that I have seen recently, the struggles of my female friends who are performers, the distance between the roles that they have truly loved and the ones they have had to suffer through to keep a face to their name in the acting world. I race in my mind for plays that I could bring to these lovely young ladies, works could lift them and their wildness up.

I have so much trouble doing so. There are more than none. But there are certainly not enough.

In high school when I got really serious about theater I committed to reading a play every week for two years. I raided my theater department’s library in hopes of finding the great roles that I wanted to inhabit someday. And while I found a few, I also realized that more and more there were plenty of stories that intrigued me, that tantalized and pulled me in, but had no women in them or only a few or none I personally wanted to be unless I was cast across my gender. And slowly over time one half of a dual cast narrator from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the hyperventilating Alma from Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Widow Begbick in Brecht’s Man is Man, even the beautiful and frustrated monologues of love from Twelfth Night’s Viola, these roles, despite being some of the best I could ask for, just didn’t feel quite enough any more. They were the stories that were made available, but none of them felt exactly enough mine to continue telling. And somewhere in the midst of this it occurred to me that I could tell some of the stories that excited me through the performers onstage even if I didn’t actually have to be that body up there in front of people.

This frustration was the one of the forces that ultimately pulled me out of acting and into directing. In the latter space, one in which the stories I told were not limited to the options others presented to me, it felt like I had more I could say and more ways I could say it. And I found the plays, fewer and farther between than I’d have liked, that highlighted the female roles I’d wished I’d been offered. And when I eventually realized that even beyond these lay the opportunity to create new stories that were entirely of my own imagining, I finally believed that there was enough substantive food for a life of digging into artmaking.

The problem I see with the MPDG and princess and all the other lame female counterparts in much of our contemporary storytelling is that they teach women (and the girls who grow up to become them) that these are the extent of the roles that we have available to us. In art, and I think also in life. I read a study about how the greatest predictor of the number of girls that will grow up to work in science and technology-based fields is hugely correlated with how many women are working in these fields in their community. Not even how many they personally come into contact with, but the number that exist generally in their sphere of being. I would guess that the increase has something to do with a young person’s sense of awareness that such a thing is possible.

It is hard to imagine beyond anything that you know of or have seen. Our narrative context fuels so much of the imagination we later have available to us. So what you see and what you encounter in the stories you take in, especially in formative artistic years will inevitably shape the possibilities that you allow yourself in the future. I fear and I worry that the amazingly bold and smart and incredible young women I have met will be limited to becoming the most amazingly bold and smart and incredible versions of MPDGs and princesses and nurses and ingénues rather than applying those same forces of will and intellect towards the multitude of other avenues that might be available to them. I worry that if some aspect of them is too hard to squeeze into those narrow shapes that they will be excluded. I worry that if they do fit inside them that some of the other incredible parts of them will be pushed out so that they fit more neatly within.

My first year out of college, when I had so few moorings, so little outlet for the stories I wanted to tell, I flirted with becoming the MPDG. I became enraptured with a boy and then became enraptured with my ability to construct a persona that I thought was charming and alluring. And I, despite my feminist upbringing, despite my experience crafting my own stories, despite my sense of myself as a strong and independent person, found it easy to default to a narrative that seemed pre-designed for me. I could sense this trope and its effervescent power and in little bits and pieces I began playing and becoming her. I felt her narrative pull and began to conform my outer self to match it. Then one day this boy gave me a movie and told me that a character in it reminded him of me. And at the end of that movie I realized in no small amount of horror that he wasn’t wrong, that I had made myself to resemble this precious punky person and that I had created a vision of my life in my own mind in which I was a side character.

It was only when that version of my life story and the caricature of myself that I’d formulated within it began to fail that I realized how little of my whole self I’d really offered.

This is the power of art and narrative, whether we make it or consume it. It shapes our sense of ourselves in the world. It can limit not only our sense of being in the works of art themselves,  but it can transform our ability to conceive of ourselves in the world at large. A new incredible story at its best helps us change the way we think. It offers us a vision of a world that we might hope to live in. And when we limit our narrative selves to these paltry simplistic women, we limit the kinds of women we imagine we can be. And by passing those stories on, we teach our younger female counterparts that this is enough to be satisfied with.

I worry for these young ladies that I have met over these past many months. I worry that their outward forms will dictate so much of their inner artistic work. I worry that they have grown up on these stories that do not contain the entirety of them and I worry that they will be forced to shrink themselves down to fit inside the ones that are made available. I want to grab them and tell them that they should demand huge spaces in their artistic lives. That the stories we tell are the way we make sense of the world around us. That creating visions of how we can be is how we begin to become that. That they owe it to themselves and the women they will become.

That they are more than MPDGs and her static character counterparts. For she is singularly dimensional. She does not advance through the course of the story. She is there to shift the inner workings of others. She is inwardly inanimate like a rock. The manic pixie dream girl has no opportunity to change or shift or grow or move.

There are a lot of reasons that I make my own work. This is one of the biggest ones. It’s why I write this post now, several months later, not because my singular dislike of this character matters very much, but because I want to tell them they are not like she is. That they can do so much more than any of these things.

– A

Getting to “Fuck It” Faster

If you’ve been standing within 100 feet of me in the last month or so, you’ve inevitably heard me go on and on about my most recent directing project.

It is, in essence, a project that does not adhere to any of the rules that I follow in my “real” work. It is one that I traveled almost two hours a day to get to and from. It is one that rehearsed at odd and tiring hours after full days of other work. It is one that paid me far less than the salary I set for myself in my own company’s work. It is one that I embarked on with little choice in content, space, personnel or schedule. Never in a Swim Pony project do I allow designers to be assigned to me. Never do I cast a massive ensemble based on a day’s worth of auditions. Never do I work in a tiny and oddly shaped theater space. Never do I do so many of the things that I did for this recent production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at Arcadia.

Yet, I can hardly recall a time in recent memory when I have been this excited to get to rehearsal, felt as free in pushing and playing with my actors, as wildly open to trying any and everything that my mind could conceive.  And ironically, I can also hardly recall a time when encountering things that did not go the way I expected where I felt so easy in adapting to the new circumstance and believing that success or no, it would all still absolutely have been worth it.

I thought about this yesterday as I semi-moped about my house feel post-partum performance let down. I thought about what it might mean that I have been so very happy these past weeks and what I might need to do to capture this feeling more often.  And as I was semi-moping I thought about the times in the past when the work has felt the most fraught and when it has felt the most free. And collage-like came a cascade of things people have said to me that feel strangely similar:

A written comment from a vocal jury performance: “Adrienne Mackey is a wall of sound”

A reader of this blog: “It surprised me to realize that you could be that vulnerable.”

The remark during a training session for Roy Hart work: “Adrienne, you are like a golden tank. Beautiful but bulldozing over everything in your path.”

In a therapy session recently: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes I find you very hard to read.”

And as these thoughts fell through my mind over the course of the day, they began to layer into the shape of something resembling a realization. Not an earth shattering one, in fact something that I’ve pretty much always known, but one that I realize I haven’t totally acknowledged as a problem: that when I really intensely care about something, especially when I’ve had the chance to stew about it for a long time beforehand, I often psych myself out of really enjoying it. When I really want to do my best, when I am trying my hardest to do that, I often over-think myself out of doing what I want and having a good time.

Often in school, in training, in life, in my work I have these moments where I want so badly to do well and I feel myself failing. And this failing becomes this nasty spiral where I want to do well so I push too hard or work too much and then feel the falseness of that work, feel the desperation of it, and end up falling farther down the hole. And so I try to relax and not care, but of course, I know this too is a lie, that I do care, that I want to do well, and so feel guilty about trying not to do and bounce back and forth between half measures of forceful pushing and uncommitted frustrating motions of trying to disengage from my angry and needing and deeply caring self.

Almost always when I get to an incredibly exasperated and dark place at the bottom of this spiral I say, “Fuck it.” And only then in hopelessness despair do I finally give up trying.

And this, inevitably, cliché-ingly predictably, is when I finally break the cycle and start making the stuff that’s really good, the stuff I wanted to make the whole goddamn time.

It is so recurrent that I can even know that I have to get to “fuck it” and in mind boggling-inducing meta levels of self-sabotage manage to try too hard at finding the feeling of “fuck it” until I give up even at this and rage at the gods with a hearty “fuck it trying to find fuck it!”

And then, of course, the work gets good.

Perhaps external measures of success have become so entangled with my own sense of worth, with my own sense of desire, that when I think about it I genuinely feel like I don’t actually know what I want. Maybe I am so often in my head that I start to game out every strategy ahead of time and this removes me from actually experiencing anything in the actual moment of its happening. Or possibly the key to really loving something is the delicate balance of knowing when it’s time to try hard and when to let go.

Maybe it is all of these things.

The real gift of the process I found with my students at Arcadia was that I walked in and had absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. I was doing a play with no one to impress in a style I have almost no expertise over on a subject I pretty much didn’t give a shit about. And somehow that gave me freedom to do exactly what I wanted. Which was lovely and freeing and incredibly important to me. And by the time I realized how much I cared about it, I had already found the permission to keep doing it. And in so doing, saw the freedom and permission that all of my lovely darlings gave themselves so that together we all set ourselves free.

This is what I thought about yesterday in the afterglow of a lovely process.  And sitting here now a day later thinking about those thoughts I think this:

What the fuck (it)?

Because, really, what the hell do you do about that? What do you do with the knowledge that when you try hard you are trying too hard? That when you try not to try you end up trying harder? That you’ll keep going around that until you despair and give up and then stop trying and then you’ll finally do it right? That this always happens unless you magically manage to end up doing something where you don’t realize that you care until its too late and you’re already doing a good job?


If I look back at my past, I see this pattern emerge everywhere. Beginnings are so often the most joyous place for me. The moment of beginning, the time before I know enough to know enough to know when I’m messing up is usually when I manage to subvert the work and get to “fuck it” faster. It is the moments when I don’t realize what I’m doing or I go into it not thinking much at all about it that I am able to just relax and really let rip.

This is how I discovered a theater of devising rather than scripted plays.

This is how I became a funk-a-delic back up singer.

This is how I started teaching new approaches to voice.

This is how I found myself loving so fully a production of Midsummer.

This is how a person who has intense personal space issues looks at a hoard of college students and cannot help herself but to hug them, to grab them about the ears and kiss their faces. How a person whose persona is thoroughly entrenched in wanting and needing and demanding respect in my field and from my peers can have no shame. How she who is so studious and careful in letting people in has no trouble showering these students with all the feelings that I am filled with when I see them in voluminous words unprepared ahead of time (so as to ensure they accurately describe the true depth of my feeling). And how in such total lack of preparation I find truer expressions than in the many times in the past I have tried with hours and days of writing and re-writing to say something right from the core of me.

Even here. Even in this space, it feels just a bit forced trying to pin it down in words after the fact. And I am trying as I write these very words not to hit the back button, but to allow myself the luxury of letting these thoughts tumble out just as they come.

And I don’t exactly yet know just how I will do it, but I think this is the work I must be doing now. Finding my way to “fuck it” faster. Figuring out how I can be as generous with myself as I am with them. How I can give myself the sovereignty over my artistic space, to do whatever I want simply because I want to, because it makes me happy, and believe that this happiness is the key to my artistic success.

– A

Sad truths about art, as imparted to an eight year old

The other day I was walking to the store to buy groceries. As I approached a park ahead on my right I heard a small voice emanating from the impending entrance and soon after saw that a young girl was standing on jungle gym equipment singing to herself.

She was maybe 7 or 8, the age before you’ve honed the full sense of shame and just how far your voice can carry in public. She clearly had no awareness that any passerby might notice her as she bent over in concentration swaying back and forth in pink high tops and purple pants to an almost trance-like beat within her. She raised her head to the sky and belted out words in her tiny voice as if her life depended on it. The song, a syrupy pop devotional, proclaimed a hunger for a romantic love that was clearly far past the understanding of someone her age. It was obvious however, that she wanted, nay needed, nothing else in the world but to feel that feeling that she sensed in the music. Her little voice strained to capture the fullness of an adult’s embodiment of love.

It was absurd and laughable, this. And also inexplicably cute. And I might have simply smiled to myself and kept walking had I not noticed something else. I might have kept going were it not for something that happened at the end of the phrase I happened to hear as I passed.

As this little girl made her way through a predictable downward cascade of arpeggiated notes – “So give me lo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ove” – she hit a stinker. In this pattern mimicked from the radio or her sister’s ipod was one big nasty note that stuck out. I turned my head for just a second as I walked past and witnessed the full force of artistic anguish in this poor little girl’s face.

And that’s when I stopped.  Just past the gates, out of her sight.

She let some fifteen or thirty seconds pass in silence, just enough time for me to almost begin walking again, and then took a breath to sing the phrase again.

“So give me lo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ove.”

Again a bum note, different this time, earlier in the progression, but unambiguously not part of the intended effect.

And from the sounds that followed I can only presume she jumped to the ground and stamped her feet in rapid alternation to the frustrated bleet of “Ugh! UGH! Gah! GAHHH! AGHHHH! I never get that riiiiight! I. Can. NEVER. GET. THAT RIGHT!!!!”

Stillness for a moment. And then crying.

“Oh no,” I thought. “You’re in for it.”

Little girl of 7 or 8 that I passed on the street who I do not know and who I caught singing bad pop songs in the on park – you’re doomed. Doomed because there’s a secret that no one tells you when you first start making art. It’s a dirty bit of knowledge those tattered survivors fail to impart on the younger set: this feeling will never go away. You think you can’t do it now because you’re small and new. And while it seems tolerable that your level of taste starts out far higher than your talent, the truth is it never quite catches up.

That feelings you have in the explicitly “learning” phases of life – the ones that say, “I know I haven’t quite mastered this yet, but I know that someday, I totally will be like the people admire and imagine have landed. Yes someday in the far distant future I know that I’ll know what I’m doing.” – you think that disappears.

Sorry, it won’t. In fact, you realize one day that you don’t ever get to get there, whatever you’ve imagined there to be. And then maybe just like now, you also will cry and stamp your feet because you feel like you don’t know how to do what you’re trying to do. Eventually, you just get better at hiding it. You might feel a little cheated that no one told you that the feeling of inadequacy that you think comes from being a student is something that not only doesn’t disappear, but grows. That feeling of faking it is something that simply become a fact of existence punctuated by glorious and terribly brief periods of belief that you actually know anything about anything. And that you too will likely hide in plain sight in front of younger artists who might even think you have landed and that you will perpetuate this facade.

Little girl of seven or eight, let me give it to you straight:

Imagine whatever you believe the end point to look like. Capture a distant island of “artistic success” in your mind. You think you can see a journey. You think you are building a boat to that island. But that too is a mirage. And by the time you’ve sailed your ship that far out to sea you’ll realize that there is no there there. There’s just you and an ever expanding horizon of what is possible. That note won’t satisfy you in the long run little one. For a moment or two, but not for a decade or more. There will be other notes you’ll get hungry for soon enough.

And were it not weird for me to presume that this tiny blonde thing needed my life coaching…

Were it not odd indeed for a professional theater director of ten years to stop a child on the street to give her advise on a life in the arts…

Were this little girl not likely to be justifiably scared of some adult woman stopping her on the street and projecting her own insecurities and fears and failures onto the song that she heard and liked and doesn’t understand but just wants to sing because she thinks it will make her feel good…

Were all those things not the case, I might have walked back a few steps and looked at her and said:  “Keep trying. You’ll get that note. And by the time you do, you’ll have found something else to worry about. And that is both the loveliest and most frustrating truth of the artist’s life – that if you really want it, you likely won’t ever really believe you’ve done enough. You will have pride and accomplishment and satisfaction. But you likely won’t ever feel like you’ve arrived.”

And then she would likely have looked at me and said:

“Lady, I just like to sing. And I’m eight. And you’re scaring me.”

She’d be right. But so would I.

But because it was odd for me to do all those things I just listened to her stamp her foot and start again. I thought of my day’s own frustrations and furious workings to beg a thing that seemed so obvious and simple to please already just come into being.

And I figured best to just continue on and buy some bread.

– A

The Ballad of John and Jen

When I started writing on this blog, it felt like I was pouring out a lot of the things that I had been feeling for a long time. The first posts were thoughts and arguments I’d been having a lot – internally with myself and externally with others – and were pretty well formed in terms of their reasoning and logic by the time they went onto (virtual) paper.

In the last few months, however, things have slowed. That’s partly (perhaps largely) due to my busier schedule of work. But I think it’s also because I’ve started to dig deeper into some of these things, I’ve begun to get at the stuff under that stuff. I’ve started to get at the things way down that one may not really realize. When you really start to pull apart your choices you start to see the unnammables that work on you, the things that you didn’t totally even realize were there. When you get down into the real muck of it, this stuff is less formed and harder to parse out. You start to pull apart shit that is often much much trickier to unravel and reason through.

I think this might be where some of the real scary stuff is.

I think this is where the less polite stuff is.

I think this might be where people could get a little upset.

But I think this might be where some of the real work is. And I think this might be the place where you start to tackle the issues that really might make a difference. All of which is to say that this post is coming back around to some of the women in theater/gender parity stuff.  This is a first step at trying to dig into the muck.

Let’s begin with the truth: we have some major work to do.  Even those of us with the best intentions aren’t really fixing this problem. Those of us with cursory intention are likely perpetuating it. We can blame the theaters that continue to produce plays with way imbalanced seasons. We can bemoan the writers that continue to create the plays. We can lament the market for having a glut of women. We can do all these things. But it isn’t going to get us anywhere. And if we actually want to get somewhere we have some “money where our mouths are” choices to make.

Backing up a bit: I had an argument back in mid-April, right around the time I wrote this post slamming a few Philly reviewers for their presentation of women in Shakespearean roles. This argument, one that had seven months ago is still picking at me and has been ever since I had it. It would randomly surface in my head in the middle of rehearsal, while driving, watching TV, I just couldn’t let it go. Couldn’t let it go because at the time I had it I was trying and failing to say something, something that I felt with incredible force and vigor and anger and fullness, something that felt like it implicated me and in the way I make choices about my work, and frustratingly was also something I felt totally unable to articulate.

The argument was a sweeping one, the kind that starts with a couple offhand comments and ends up gobbling up an entire afternoon. It was the kind of argument you can only have with someone that you really trust, because you actually start to uncover defenses. It was the kind of argument where you talk about the things you believe deep deep down inside about yourself and the world around you. And my sole caveat here is that it’s totally impossible to try and reconstruct all the things we said. But basically, it came down to this hypothetical:

If you have a slightly better male artist and a slightly worse female one, should you pick the worse one to help achieve better representation of female artists?

In the moment of the argument, it felt like I had no choice but to argue for the latter. It felt like a mission from on high. Like my entire life depended on making the case for that female playwright. That there was something deeply stacked against her. That I was the only way she was going to get a chance and if I couldn’t find a way to make that choice seem reasonable and obvious to my argument partner that she and no female writer after her would ever get it.

Which of course I failed to do.

And of course there are (and were) many reasons one could counter the position I took. Rational, reasonable, intelligent and thoughtful positions that we went back and forth and back and forth about. I almost ended up in tears because sitting there I felt so torn between the opposite side’s reasonableness and some kind of irrational deep down feeling that said there was something very wrong about taking a side other than the one I was on.

Neither of us could be moved. We left it unfinished.

But as I said, this question and the debate that ensued has continued to stick, continued to hang out in the back of my mind, needing to come to completion. It’s been this nagging incomplete thing trying to resolve itself for seven months now.

Over time, small details begin to accrue:

An review for a work of my own in which women played “men’s” roles

Writings from the dear Katherine Fritz

A book on the virtues of affirmative action

And then finally this: a study in PNAS about gender in the sciences that both control for and show statistically validated evidence of bias from Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues at Yale. It was this last one cracked something open that I can hopefully finally start to put into words.

Here’s an intro from Sean Carroll’s blog for Discover:

Academic scientists are, on average, biased against women.

I know it’s fun to change the subject and talk about bell curves and intrinsic ability, but hopefully we can all agree that people with the same ability should be treated equally. And they are not.

What the researchers did a randomized double-blind study in which academic scientists were given application materials from a student applying for a lab manager position. The substance of the applications were all identical, but sometimes a male name was attached, and sometimes a female name.

With me so far? I swear, this comes back to the arts.

So half of the applications were Johns and half of them Jennifers. What the findings showed were that the faculty members rated John significantly more “competent and hireable” than an identical female applicant named Jen. These participants also selected John to receive a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to this male applicant.

And the real kicker? It didn’t matter if the faculty member was male or female. Both were “equally likely to exhibit bias” against Jennifer and viewed her as “less competent.”

A depressing graph:

graph 1 PNAS

How about another?

graph 2 PNASIn her great Scientific American blog post about this study, Ilana Yurkiewicz appropriately writes:

Whenever the subject of women in science comes up, there are people fiercely committed to the idea that sexism does not exist. They will point to everything and anything else to explain differences while becoming angry and condescending if you even suggest that discrimination could be a factor. But these people are wrong. This data shows they are wrong.

The thing that stuck with me about this study, maybe even more so than the disturbing results themselves, is that, as Yurkiewicz points out, the scientists didn’t view gender as a factor in their decision-making. They thought they were using objective data for their assessments – rationally reasoned, non-gendered arguments – to determine the strengths of this particular candidate for this particular job.

I’d bet my house that were I to get into argument with those interviewers of Timon of Athens that the points they would have countered with would been rationally reasoned, non-gendered arguments. And my point is that just because you don’t obviously act like a sexist or consciously espouse anti-female philosophy doesn’t mean it isn’t working on you. And even the benefit of experiencing that disadvantage is no shield from inflicting it on others.

Does anyone want to guess about whether I think this pattern might be found in other contexts?

If it can happen so sneakily in something as cut and dry as the representation of skills on a job application with the exact same credentials but a difference of –en versus -ohn at the end of a J…

If there are forces that bias us against thinking that a woman is as capable and intelligent as a man in doing a job in such a carefully crafted scenario of objectivity

If that can happen in a field whose express purpose is to remove bias from its methodology

How can we possibly imagine that we can create object assessments in all the incredible number of variances and nuances and details about what makes a better work of art?

So of course if you knew for one hundred percent sure that you were absolutely judging the work objectively then yes yes yes yes yes you should absolutely pick the “better” play. But I what I’ve come to finally articulate these seven months later is that I just don’t believe there is anyone in the working world that can honestly say that they can do that.

If you have a slightly better male artist and a slightly worse female one, should you pick the worse one to help achieve better representation of female artists?

The problem isn’t your answer to this question. The problem is that this is how the question seems to always be framed.  And I don’t buy this scenario is really the one that any of us is objectively encountering.

So when I hear “It just turned out that way,” I’m calling bullshit. When I hear, “The season line-up just ended up male heavy,” I’m calling foul. When I see foundations that just “happen” to be given to a majority of male-driven companies, I’m not going to say “Well that must have just been the applicant pool this year.”

We all know the odds are already stacked against women because we see it manifest all around us. And while the scientist in me wants to document and collect all the evidence I can to try and display this finding to the world, the maker in me says I need to find a way do something about it now. I don’t have time to wait for a fix. I don’t have time for more research. I’m making my work right now. And there’s no thinking theater artist I know who would truthfully declare gender wasn’t an issue on the general scale. Where we break down is whether we are willing to acknowledge that it’s happens in our own personal choices.

Intentionally or not, like it or not, we are all making a million tiny anti-women decisions and justifying them with million other reasons.  The troubling implication from that PNAS study is that we not only judge women’s past work less fairly but that the bias impedes the potential for future opportunity. And without opportunity we are less likely to create new examples in which people can start to see anything different. Every performer or writer or director knows without a chance to make anything you can’t get better at making things. Even if you wanted to work way harder to achieve the same perception of success it’s going to be way harder to find the opportunity to do so.

And here’s where I’m going to get honest with you all.

I think a lot about this. I try very very VERY hard to root this shit out at the source. But I know I do it too. I wish I didn’t. But it’s just… in there. And were I able to somehow analyze my seemingly objective rational non-gendered artistic decisions I bet I’d find that I too have subtly undercut women in my process or in the field as a whole. Though I might not see exactly how those predisposed biases slip in, I know am not immune. And neither are you.

And in knowing that, I have felt myself at a cross roads where it seemed like I was asking this question:

If you have a slightly better male artist and a slightly worse female one, should you pick the worse one to help achieve better representation of female artists?

And increasingly, over the last decade of my career I’ve forced myself to do the thing that felt, in some vague and hard to define way, the slightly less artistically “right” choice because I believed it was the better moral one to make.

Just so that I’m totally clear about this:

I’m saying that I have steered projects in artistic directions that I might not have otherwise had I not cared about making a less imbalanced world through my theater. I have often picked the slightly “worse” artists because I believed it was the morally right thing to do.

And I do it constantly. I do it on projects ALL the time. Not just on the ones where it seems obvious. I make myself go against my gut in lots of choices because I think it’s better for theater as a whole.

I don’t often don’t say that out loud.

In fact, I don’t know that I’ve said it to almost anyone before now.

And part of the reason for my artistic public persona – my warrior-queen-who-get-all-the-grants-and-deserves-them-because-I’m-a-badass-take-no-holds-creator stance – is to show that despite doing this you cannot impeach my creative process. I want to demand that people acknowledge my artistic worth. And I do that because I secretly fear that people will see what I’m doing and think less of the work. Because deep down in the muck I fear that most people think women are not as artistically capable or that their stories are not as interesting.

In the past I’d get really hung up about it. I’d worry that I was losing my sense of artistry in order to make a point. And though I still believed it was worth it, I fretted about the cost.

I used to think that I was trading quality for principle when I did that.

Now I’m just going to think, “Jennifer.”

Perusing the outcomes of those choices here’s what I find: way way way more often than not, the person I picked was able to bring something to the table that was tangibly better. For obvious reasons, I am not pointing out specifics here but suffice to say, when I went with that slightly non-gut choice, I was often rewarded back in spades. And even when I wasn’t, if I could remember to view the failure in context of the qualities of the artist’s work and not simply their gender, I almost always saw that the real issue had little to do with them as women.

I’m not saying you have to pick terrible performers. I’m not saying you can never work with who you want. But I am saying that creative worth is totally squishy. I’m saying that we make artistic assessments for all kinds of totally ridiculous reasons. I’m saying that the way it’s usually is done is a massive amount of momentum pushing you towards a choice. I’m saying that we’re probably wrong as often as we are right about how a collaboration or an artistic impulse is going to work out. That failure is built into our creative growth.  I’m saying we might as well start being “wrong” for the right reasons.

I’m saying that if you do this for a living, you have to know that so much of the time the difference between two options in the scope of a whole process doesn’t mean that much in the long run. I’m saying the difference between “really good” and “just a little bit better” is likely negligible. And perhaps not actually there. And even if it might be, at a certain point, the artistic benefit no longer justifies the outcome.

I’m saying if you’re at all considering a chance to give the opportunity to a female voice or person or story you should do it.

I’m saying if you actually care about doing anything about it, you have to do it. Even if something is pulling you away from it. Maybe especially then. Because that thing that’s pulling is ugly and dark and mean. And it hides in reasonable arguments’ clothing, it hides in gut reactions we don’t quite unpack. The only way to exorcise it is push in the opposite direction. Even when it seems strangely hard to do so. Even when it makes you feel a little funny. Activist-y. Moral high-ground-y. Like you’re doing the wrong thing-y.

Trust that you’re an amazing artist. Trust that this small push in the other direction will not harm your work. Know that it is a better thing for the world to have done. And see that your work is no worse off for it.

And then perhaps we can start actually getting this shit fixed.

– A

You can

Is it just me or do people seem tired lately?

I don’t mean standard issue Festival post-partum malaise. I mean an industry-wide heaviness that is seeping into a majority of the conversations I have with people these days. A lot of people seem really weighed down, overwhelmed and ready to cut and run. I’ve been thinking about this weight, the sadness I sense in others and creepingly in myself. I’ve been thinking about how to tackle it and where it comes from.

First, a story, or a confession rather.

About a year ago, I was on the relationship rocks. Not through any kind of infidelity or betrayal. No, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with my partner and I. That said, through nit-picking and bickering, through the penumbra of apathy and assumption that LTRs can sometimes attain, I’d found myself in a place where nothing felt particularly right either.

I was bored, I felt trapped and I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted my future to look like.

The long and short of all this was that I had to ask myself some hard questions. I had to be honest about whether I was actually living the way I wanted to. I had to really own up to whether the choices I’d made were ones that I really wanted to continue with.

Basically, I had to decide if I wanted to stay or I wanted to leave.

Here’s the thing: as scary as that realization was, it occurred to me for the first time in a long time that I had a choice in the matter. Having to contemplate the very real possibility of not assuming the things I had would always stay that way meant that I really looked at them closely.

And for the first time it occurred to me that some of them were things I really didn’t want to lose. And it also occurred to me that there were things I was doing that were not making that terribly easy. In the midst of this very dark time I had to look at some choices I was making and some habits I was holding onto that were working against some of the things I professed to want. Contemplating whether I really wanted these things kicked me in the ass a bit about getting in gear to go get them.

Another confession, while this was happening in a lot of areas of my life at the time, the LTR I was really most worried about was with my identity as a creator.


We’ve all found ourselves in the midst of a lot of work that we don’t much care about for, work we don’t really even seem to like. And in those moments it’s easy to say to yourself, as the proverbial Talking Heads saying goes, “How did I get here?”

I, clearly, didn’t throw in the whole towel. But I did throw out a few things and I gave myself some mandates on what had to change. I decided to let go of some things that were making me tired. And I decided that when I get to the end of a project, as I have done just now, I’ll have to think not only about what the outside world tells me in terms of whether the work is good or bad, but whether it’s making me happy, whether I’m really doing what I want.

Another full disclosure: I really liked working on The Ballad of Joe Hill. There were a lot of great things that happened for the show.

But I’m pretty sure the Festival wasn’t the right vehicle for the piece.

That’s hard to write.

It’s hard to write because I spent years courting them and building my reputation as a creator worthy of presentation. It’s hard because there’s a measure of success that comes with being presented by a big name. It’s hard to write because without something like the Festival, I’m on my own to find the people I want to see my shows.

But I still think it’s true.

I’ll give the required caveat: I really appreciate everyone that came out to see Joe Hill. A lot of people really responded to the work. I am thankful to them. I appreciate them. I am happy that they came.

But I still don’t know that they are the people I wanted to reach. And I still don’t know that I totally achieved what I set out to do.

That’s even harder to write.

But I still think it’s true.

What I set out to do what get people that might never see a “play” to come and see this thing that I made. I wanted to find the folks that are a little rowdy and rough around the edges. I wanted to find the people that are into a dare, a risk, a potentially strange, dare I say, unsafe experience.

That’s what I really wanted. Because that was the promise the 2006 version offered to me all those years ago when I first made the show. That was the LTR that I signed up for: an off-road practice of the theatrical experience. A chance to honestly and actually shake up an artistic medium.

What I wanted out of Joe Hill was to get actual NEW theater audiences into the seats. To pave the way for a future definition of theater and theater audiences that are more in line with the ones I want to make.

And I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t get that this time.

Which doesn’t take away the success the show did achieve on other measures of success. It doesn’t take away the pride I have in what I made. But it also doesn’t excuse me from what I really want.

And unless I want to end back up in the heavy place, I need to keep reminding myself of that, and I have to be honest next time I start thinking about where I want my work presented whether it’s going to have a fair shot at getting me where I want to go.

See, there’s nothing wrong with failing. But you have to be honest at the get go about what the goals are and whether you’re really working towards them. And when you aren’t, you have to be ruthless, even when it’s hard, about pointing yourself back towards the where you want to head. This is the divining rod we all carry around in us as artists, that  magnetic pull that tells us whether we are truly inside the truth of our work. And sometimes fear or failure or poverty or allure of praise can push us off that course. Sometimes a compromise isn’t a bad thing. But there are times when it isn’t what we really want and we can feel it, deep down, when when it’s actually at odds with what we really need to be making.

Look, if you’ve already made it as far as a life in the arts, it’s pretty clear that no one is forcing you to live any way but the way you want to. Last I checked, there was no theater artist acting with a gun to their head.  And the bold, startling, scary but ultimately empowering truth is this:

No one in the world will be a stronger advocate for your work than you will be. No one will better articulate and know what you need than you do.

Which means you have no one else to blame if you aren’t doing something you love. Which means that if you feel your work is selling out or getting too middle of the road you are the one that is letting it get that way.

But which also, happily, means that the only thing stopping you from exactly the work you need is yourself.

“But the money Adrienne! The Money!!!” You cry.

“Really?” I reply “Is it really the money? Is the money so good that it’s worth it?”

I just don’t think so.

“But the structure! The company! The audiences! I’ve worked so long and hard to get it to this point. What will I do if I have to leave it all behind.”


Pew doesn’t know your work. Fringe Arts doesn’t know your work. Independence, William Penn, that big name donor, that huge fancy festival, that amazing company artistic director, that opening night party tray sponsor,  your viewers, even your long term collaborators, not a single one of them know your work better than you do.

Only you know the work you need to make.

They want a lot of things all those people. But for you to want them, you have to, have to, have to also want to be doing the thing that they want or your collaboration with them will always be you wishing you were doing something else. And no matter how happy or supportive or structured or monied these things get you, it still won’t be worth it.

I think this is the fatigue. I really do. I think it’s years and years and years of trying to ignore that the difference between what we have and what we actually want to be doing. You can feel the honest to god joy when you really fucking nailed it on the goddamn head with exactly what you were meant to be doing and who you should be doing it for. And you have to chase that shit like there is no tomorrow.

You do not have to take that role if it’s stupid or offensive.

You do not have to apply for that grant if you hate the terms of agreement.

You do not have to have expensive costumes if the fundraising stresses you out.

You do not have to seek out wealthy audiences if they aren’t the folks you really want there.

You do not have to do any of the things that others tell you. You can do what you want to do.  And only when you do that will you start figuring out if and how that is possible. And it is possible that it isn’t possible. But at least you aren’t pretending that it is and that you’re actually doing it. At least then you can decide if you want to do something else. Or maybe, maybe likely, maybe amazingly, you’ll take that incredible wealth of talent and actually figure out how to do that thing you really wanted to be doing.

Too often I hear my peers talking about work they don’t love with companies that don’t pay enough with people they don’t really want to be around. This is what’s making us tired. And I’m tired of it.

You don’t like the work you’re doing. From now on, it’s on you.

Because you can change that.

Your leverage is your presence in their company.

Your leverage is your work in their festival.

Your leverage is your name on their grant.

Your leverage is your kindness and intelligence and heart in their life and you CAN use it to stem the tide in the opposite direction.

You may say to me, “But my leverage is nothing. They don’t care if I leave, they’ll just find someone else.”

To which I say, then is that really the system that you want in on? A world in which your presence has no value whatsoever? A place in which the uniqueness of what you bring to the table is completely devoid of significance? A system in which your abstention on the grounds of monetary or moral grounds doesn’t mean anything?

Is that worth giving up your happiness for?

No it’s not.

And if they don’t appreciate it, maybe especially if they don’t, if you don’t feel satisfied, if you aren’t getting enough to make the thing worth it, it’s up to you to use that leverage in the other direction. To show the folks what you’re really made of.

You can, nay, you must.

If you don’t, no one else will.