Feelings

A totally blank canvas

blank

White. Open. Unknown.

This is the feeling I had this morning. This is the premise of this project: Starting from a totally blank canvas.

Not even a canvas. The idea that something has to be painted on. The idea of paint. The idea of having an idea to paint something at all.

Because really, where do a visual artist, a theater maker and writer and harpist logically begin if they want to try and make something together?

foot

This morning I walked into a room with two creators I’d met only once before. I had butterflies in my stomach, big fat ones, like first day of school jitters. We started, carefully, delicately, hesitantly to… What? Carefully try to suss out exactly who the other is and what exactly we might find in this insane thing we’ll be doing.

I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”

I thought, “I have literally no idea what is going to happen.”

I thought, “Do your best not to fall into things you already know how to do because they are easy, or familiar, or you know how to make them work.”

I thought, “This is terrifying.”

I thought, “It is really tough to know where to begin.”

I thought, “Listen.”

I thought, “Try and stay open to something you’ve never imagined before.”

NickIt is a pace I am so thoroughly uneasy with because it is so thoroughly rare in my regular artistic life. So rare that I allow myself permission not to be in charge, not to have the active working idea, not to try and keep the energy of the room moving forward and productive. As a director, I feel myself wanting to know the answer, wanting to show people their faith in me as leader is secure, wanting to get us on track already towards where we are going.

But all this well-intentioned Midwestern productive attitude-ery also means that you can slip into taking yourself where it’s easiest to lead, rather than really waiting until the very new, very strange, very uncertain thing emerges.

And despite my fear, despite my worry that it feels like nothing is happening, after 8 hours I can see there are some things emerging.

I have put my hands on an instrument I have never touched before. I have watched an artist demonstrate his iterative process – one that normally takes acetate and photoshop and a vinyl cutting machine – on a sideways laptop screen with a piece of tracing paper, some scissors and tape. I’ve enjoyed seeing an actor confront a harpist on stage and I’ve seen that interaction photographed and then turned into a looping gif on a computer screen with a different selection of the musician’s playing as it repeats again and again and again and again and again. I’ve talked about why a video on Vine might be a meditative experience and what it would mean to create audience customize-able art.

I’ve shared a vision for a super strange, exciting and foreign line of inquiry. And despite my fears, I think it’s pretty interesting. Even if I have no idea of how to evaluate it yet. Maybe especially because of that.

I think I also had a moment where I realized that contrary to how I feel on almost every other artistic project I work on, in trying strange, potentially crazy ideas with these two I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

I also ate a lunch of donuts and fried chicken. That was pretty good too.

At the end of the day I am tired. It is work, searching so hard across the ocean of discipline to find some common ground. But tired in a good way. In a way that makes me excited to get up tomorrow and try again.

Thanks Nick and Liz. I’m excited about more to come…

A

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

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

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

But I did it anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the stuff that dreams are made of…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little bit ironic, no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reaction seth 1

reaction seth 2

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

How on earth are we supposed to talk about it?

<sigh>

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

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

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

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

– A

 

It will be hard, but not in the way you think

hard

There’s this cliché that people always throw out to young artists, “It’s such a hard life. You shouldn’t go into the arts unless you have to. Unless you can’t do anything else.”

I hated that.

As a young person, telling me something was hard was just about the fastest way to get me to want to do it. Telling me something was potentially crushing and impossible was even more enticing.

I loved the idea of hard work – rehearsals for hours, going home and reading and writing about theater, studying and researching. This kind of all or nothing attitude towards tackling something was exactly what I wanted. I sought out to fill every corner of my life with my work in theater because I thought that this was what “professional” looked like.

After a bit more than a decade of an actual life as an artist I’ve slowly morphed into the thing that I used to detest. I’ve come around to this statement with new eyes. I think that incorporating an artistic sensibility is important for all people. I think having space to think and feel and connect with others is too. I think that there is great value in a creative impulse that is divorced from a need to sell things. That’s the value of the arts and I think everyone should take part in that. But I’ve also come to see that actually making this your life’s work and career isn’t something everyone is cut out for.

A life in the arts is very hard, but not in the way you think it will be.

Earlier this year I had an exchange with a young performer about tackling a project that I wasn’t sure they were up to. We went back and forth about what digging in “for real” would look like. I tried to explain that regardless of excitement and eagerness, that I was looking for a particular kind of bravery were I to bump them into professional level work. That for me this meant an ability to show the hard and nasty bits that few of us really like to admit are in there.

And I also said that at the end of the day, it wasn’t just about whether it was possible but that it mattered equally much that they wanted to do such a thing. Because being a professional means deciding the kind of art work you believe in making.

For those who would make this career their thing, my guess is your first encounter with artwork is exhilarating. It’s new and fresh and a little like young love. It feels big and exciting and makes the person inside it feel the same. And like young love it promises that if you give yourself over totally, this feeling, this participation in something larger than yourself will fill you up enough to sustain you forever.

And just like young love, you realize at some point that the imagined fantasy isn’t the same as slogging through the day to day. It’s like a long-term relationship – it deepens and changes and is hard hard work. When you know very little about something it’s easy to love everything about it. And just like young love transitioning into something more long term, it’s what happens when you hit the first hiccup or frustration and start figuring out how you are going to be something other than the enthralled and all consumed devotee that you learn whether or not you can stick it out.

This is why I chafe at most shows that depict the artistic process in sitcom or drama form. Underpinning a majority of the plot lines is a tacit assumption that if you love the art, if you are talented, and if you work hard then your initial definition of success will come to you.

It would be nice if that were true.

It’s not.

Talent is no guarantee of success and fame. Neither is hard work. Loving what you do so much it hurts, having feelings about your art that are so strong they are consuming, is even less a guarantee. In fact, it probably makes it harder.

Being that attached to your work makes that much harder to proceed when you have to sacrifice parts of it, radically change your conception of it, suddenly realize that no one cares about the aspect of it you do, or find that the version of it you like best isn’t the version you’re actually good at. (They say Moliere wanted his whole life to be a great tragic actor.  Good thing he didn’t stop writing comedies in the interim to never getting there.)

It means there will be moments you remember your young and uncomplicated idea of art and wonder whether what you’re currently doing is actually the same thing.

In my experience creative work is a marathon rather than a sprint. It is an exercise in sustaining over the long haul. To do that one learns new kinds of skills: Defining your own path, authoring an experience you want, requiring effort of yourself instead of it being demanded of you, pulling strength from way deep down to keep going. It’s also about figuring out that you have to be more than just an artist. That you need to develop a life that includes more than your work: things like family and friends and walking in the park and reading a newspaper and cooking meals.

With this young actor struggling over the role I talked a bit about the need to take control of one’s own artistic path, not based on eagerness or earnestness that gives away a point of view, but a willingness to get down in the dirt and make some personal imperfect choices.

And the answer that eventually rolled out was essentially, “I don’t know if I actually want to be an performer.”

I think about this a lot.

I wonder if I did the right thing.

If it’s my business to push so hard to get someone to see what the real work of the profession is.

I think so.

I hope so.

Just like everything else in this career, I just did the best I knew how.

– A

Where we go from here

Hey all. It’s March 31st and the official end of my month of blogging here on the topic of gender parity in theater. I recapped the other day some of the projects that this month has inspired and begun, but I also wanted to say a couple things not only about those specific projects but about a few bigger picture things that have slowly amassed over the course of this month on a larger, perhaps more philosophical level.

One of the lessons I feel like I’ve taken away from this month of work is the sense that it’s important to keep perspective on two scales – the very small and personal and the very large and grand.

I find for myself that when I get too stuck in the minutiae of my own little world and my own little perspective on that little world, I can miss solutions or a sense of possibility. It’s easy when we are used to seeing something all the time to assume that it will always have to be that way. There are trends of inequity that have persisted for so long they have become banal and commonplace. And so in listening to other creators, in gathering voices of women artmakers en masse, by looking at my field as a whole and branching into other mediums as well, by looking at this problem not just as a personal one but a community-wide issue, I feel like I’ve gained a feeling of possibility, of mobility that I haven’t had in a while. Stepping back and looking at the larger picture has made me say more forcefully there are things I see in my community that are not acceptable even if they are common.

Simultaneously, I have also gotten better at tasking myself with small concrete things that I can do in and hour or two with a few people. I have become more able to say, “What can I do right now to make a step towards a larger goal?” rather than getting frustrated at an inability to fix everything in its entirety. I have felt easier in making a step forward, even if it is imperfect or not totally complete and saying that something good and finished NOW is better than something immaculate that takes months to perfect.

Another lesson learned is the power of a system that can handle multiple points of entry. One of the most awesome things about the Awesome Lady Squad is the fact that there are projects starting to gain momentum that I am not the sole driver of. Projects that I am appreciative of but may not have the expertise or immediate interest in prioritizing. If the Squad is to succeed I think our responsibility must be shouldered by many. Because the truth is some day I’m going to get busy with a project or a life event. Or there will be (maybe already is) more to do that I have time to oversee. And one of my core beliefs is that we will do so much more if we all trust each other to take your idea and run further with it than you knew was possible.

And last, I’ve realized that there is nothing more powerful that one human looking another human in the eye and doing your best to speak honestly and listen to each other.

That sounds mushy.

It is.

But man, is it also effective.

I’ve written thousands of words about these issues, spent hours trying to articulate exactly how I’m feeling and what I want to communicate. And yet, one of the most impactful moments I’ve had was when I sat down talked with some other creators about how their choices affected me and listened honestly and openly to their response.

If there is anything that I take from a month of work trying to advocate for female artists it is this: we have to be brave enough to start saying what we actually think and feel. To do so assumes that real and substantive change is possible. It assumes that our views are valuable enough to be heard and flexible enough to absorb response.

It is hard to tell someone, especially someone you admire and care about, that their actions might have consequences they do not intend. It also feels like the closest I’ve come to actually shifting the way someone will think and act in relation to this topic in the future.

And in this way, let me share where I go from here:

I will continue to work with The Awesome Lady Squad in the coming months. I’ll keep you abreast of those changes.

I will return to many of the questions about sustainability and how to engage in a long and happy life as an artist.

I will send some focus to other special interest groups and work towards a community that is aware and equitable in all aspects.

I want to encourage us, Philadelphia, to start engaging in these harder conversations. The ones that scare us. The ones that are uncomfortable. The ones that might mean we really have to rethink some of the ways we do things. These are the ones that will make us the city that others look to. These are the things that will create a more sustainable and strong community in the future.

Feeling the renewing possibilities of the imminent spring,

A

Lady-festo is coming!

Hey all,

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Do you know what those giant sticky notes are? They are some incredibly awesome and hard work by a whole bunch of awesome ladies these past few days. We’ve made some awesome progress and we’re really close to a full on Lady-festo. And I wanted to share just a little of what we did in these two meetings, for those that weren’t able to join us.

As I prepped for it, I read up on a bunch of other people’s manifestos. And I thought, “What exactly is a manifesto?”

So I found a few definitions from different dictionary sources online:

A public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, as one issued by a government, sovereign, or organization.

A written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer

The word’s root is Latin – manifestare – which means to be clear and conspicuous. To be unambiguously public in these beliefs. It’s the idea that if you share the view of the world you see around you others will also become aware of it. What struck me about this is that it is not a document about wishing or dreaming or becoming. It’s about what you know, deep down in a fundamental way, to be true. Which means the things that we define in our manifesto are not our future, but the things we already know in this moment.

It’s about asserting the things we believe to be true into the world around us: that women are not lesser qualified or weaker, that our work is not niche or in addition to. It’s knowing that there is a space in which those views are supported and those intentions are believed in. It’s a promise that if we are able to articulate it, others will eventually understand the beliefs we know to be true.

So we spent time articulating these ideas as beliefs. We tried to write down all the things that we know about Awesome Ladies, even if we don’t always see that reflected in the world. We tried to articulate those things as positives (“I believe X” rather than “I don’t believe Y”).

Then we shared those first ideas, clarified and honed them. We linked the things that seemed connected and then we worked to figure out how say them in the most simple and essential ways. We put forth great effort to get to the very core of our Squad’s essence.

And soon, I’ll get to share that with all of you.

I’m pretty psyched.

I think it will be awesome.

A huge thanks to everyone who made it out to one of (or both!) our Lady-festo nights:

  • Melissa Amilani
  • Hillary Asare
  • Dawn Falato
  • Arianna Gass
  • Colleen Hughes
  • Emily Johnson
  • Rebecca Joy
  • Gina Leigh
  • Jane Moore
  • Erlina Ortiz
  • Catherine Palfinier
  • Gabby Sanchez
  • Hannah Sandler
  • Meryl Sands
  • Catharine Slusar
  • Isa St. Clair
  • Sarah Schol

– A

Reframing

Sometimes when I spend a long time talking about myself as occupying a disadvantaged position it makes me a little depressed.

In writing about women in the arts I’ve found myself sometimes feeling frustrated this past month. And I think it’s because when you define yourself in this way – as a person who is being to subjected and trying to navigate a system that is not always set up to your advantage – you can start to see the problem in everything.

In the general sense, I do think women get less of a fair shake. On average, I believe it is true that we’re under-represented in almost all aspects of the field.

But I think we can probably all agree that thinking that way is no way to live. It’s just too tough constantly imagining oneself as a victim of an intractable problem. It feels too large, it feels to impossible, it seems pointless to even try, if you spend too much time in that mindset.

At least it does for me.

This, I think, is why some pretend it’s not a problem. They have to shut out any disadvantage and just keep plugging away as if things were totally equal because it would just be too depressing otherwise. I’m not chiding these folks too much, because I understand the impulse. No one wants to feel powerless. But I also don’t think that I can join them, because at a certain point I think most female artists just see too clearly the power difference.

A few years ago I listened to an interview with the famed brain scientist Oliver Sacks. I was surprised as he spoke to learn that he in fact suffers from a variety of neurological issues himself. I was even more interested in a statement he made that was something along the lines of this: I don’t know that I’d have been able to discover all the amazing things I had if I hadn’t had an abnormal brain myself. That interview made me think back to reading Jill Bolte Taylor’s book about how a stroke’s paralysis of certain kinds of “left-brain” style thinking gave her an appreciation for “right-brain” thought processes and a new outlook on life.  It made remember a friend of mine from college who was in a serious car accident and who said that she could feel the palpable difference between the kind of person who was “normal” and the way that her mind was now different, how she’d developed a sense of both the neurologically-dominant perspective and her new one as a recovering patient.

That interview planted a seed in me that’s grown into a guiding principle: I just have to believe that all the things that I believe are my weaknesses – my introversion, my status as a female artist, my lack of trust fund, my sometimes weird aesthetic impulses, my thorough dis-interest in classical works of the theatrical canon – all these things that sometimes make me feel like an outsider, are actually my secret superpower. These things that separate me from the dominant viewpoint are the things I can uniquely wield as weapons that those supposedly more in power can never hope to employ. These are the ways that I will be able to innovate. These are the things that will make my art works full of a fuller perspective. They are the things that will give me an angle in that others just can’t see.

This is nothing new, this idea. Lots of people know this. But it’s the thing that really helps on the days when the problems feel so big. When all I can see is how much harder the obvious road will be for me than for some dude with the same skill set.

Those are the times when I say to myself, “You just have to believe that in the long run this makes you stronger. You just have to believe in the long run you will be better for seeing differently.”

It’s the moments when I look at the obvious path and realize if I just cut through the bushes I might get to the top in a totally new way. It’s the moment I realize I have a machete in my hand and can start hacking at something new.

It is a problem in one lens, and I can jump into that perspective when needed to make progress on an issue I see.  But it’s something I can also reframe in my own mind to give me a sense of strength and destiny.  And while it might seem as if all this is a bunch of self-delusion, it’s those moments where I’ve really embraced the outsider in me, rather than just feeling frustration with it, that wonderful things emerge.

Things like a squad of awesome ladies, many of whom I’ve never met who suddenly are some of my most ardent supporters.

Things like creators in different cities who I am suddenly planning to meet because of our shared interest.

Things like an interview for a national theater organization because of my vocal views on an “outsider” subject.

Things like a renewed vigor for a writing forum that I’d let slide more than I wish in the past few months.

This onslaught of new and positive activity all came from just deciding to sit down and reframe an issue as one I can use as a leverage point rather than just being something that pisses me off. It’s become a power I can wield. And I like that.

Yes, it’s still a problem. Yes it’s one I’m solving all the time, and mostly likely will be the rest of my life. But it is also in my capacity to use it to my advantage.

Even on the days it doesn’t feel that way.

Especially on the days it doesn’t feel that way.

I see this as my chance to have choice.

– A

Thank you for not assuming

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I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an Awesome Lady ally. And I think one of the first steps in becoming an ally to the squad is by looking around and acknowledging the subtle gifts, the extra little pushes, that male artists get that female artists aren’t.

In a recent article I read about the ally movement for racial discrimination, the author “nance” (I looked, I couldn’t find her real name) talks about a funny moment in which her husband rides his bike home one day faster than ever before. He wonders briefly if finally all his months of riding have paid off, if his fitness prowess is seriously improved, as evidenced by his speed and agility during the ride. Soon though, he whizzes past a flag pole and sees the way the the flags are blowing. As he stops he realizes that a strong wind has been blowing at his back the entire time.

In other words, it’s not just his improved muscle tone that’s helping the ride go so exquisitely, it’s an invisible but forceful push that he at first didn’t even realize was there.

The author also references this somewhat “classic” article on the assumptions of white privilege in which the writer sets down a list of ways her skin color gives her advantage in situations, small and large, on a regular basis.

Inspired by these articles, and the corollary of them when it comes to gender privilege I came up with a little list of my own. I call it:

BEING A DUDE IN THEATER IS LIKE RIDING A BIKE WITH THE WIND AT YOUR BACK

Or

STUFF THAT AWESOME LADY ALLIES MIGHT NOT REALIZE AND THAT THEY OUGHT TO BE AWARE OF

–       If I am a director I am most often working on material written by someone of the same gender.

–       If I am an actor I am generally in the majority gender of the cast.

–       If I am a writer no one will read my play and assume I chose the subject matter based on my sex.

–       If I am a designer I will attend production meetings in which my gender is not in the minority.

–       It will not be assumed I want to work plays that have to do with my gender.

–       If I do want to make work having to do with my gender it will not be assumed this is the extent of the kind of work I intend to make.

–       If I eventually make work about my gender I do not have to worry about this defining how people will think of me as a creator for the rest of my career.

–       No one assumes that a grant to work on projects about my gender should be linked with social change.

–       If I bring up an issue with a gender stereotype I will not be told that I’m inserting my perspective into a piece that’s not about that.

–       I am not often asked to play sexually provocative roles.

–       I am rarely asked to wear revealing clothing onstage.

–       If I am aggressive or meek no one will assume that quality comes by virtue of my gender.

–       If I work collaboratively with people of the opposite sex, no one assumes they are the real driving force behind our work.

–       If I direct a play with mostly or all women, I do not have to worry that people will assume I’m doing that just because of my gender.

–       If I direct a play with mostly or all men, I do not have to worry if I’m being a traitor to artists of my gender.

–       I do not have to worry that my successes or failures may reflect on other creators of my gender.

–       I do not have to feel responsible to other artists of my gender at all.

–       I can assume my gender will not be a factor against me getting a job.

–       I can assume my gender will not be a hindrance to me acquiring roles in which the gender is not a major factor of their character.

–       I can assume if I am cross-gender cast that people will look at this casting as an artistic choice and not a gender diversity handout.

–       I can assume when talking about the artistic canon that it is made by people of the same gender as mine.

–       I can assume that when people talk about the “Greats” of my field they will be the same gender as I am.

–       I can assume that the most produced theatrical writer in the world is the same gender as I am.

–       I can take an interest in classical works and not worry that my gender will prohibit me from getting work in this field.

–       I can assume that works in the canon represent a diversity in type of roles for people of my gender.

–       I can assume there are a wealth of lead roles for people of my gender.

–       I can assume when learning about my medium I will be studying artists predominantly of my gender.

–       I can assume my mentors will predominantly be the same gender as I am.

–       It will not be surprising or impressive if I am good with the financial side of my company’s daily upkeep.

–       It will not be impressive or remarkable if I go into sound, light or set design.

–       I will never have to suspect I’m being paid less because of my gender.

–       I don’t have to decide whether it is more advantageous to dress to accentuate my gender or not.

–       If I’m an asshole, this trait will never be linked to my gender.

–       I will never be called shrill.

–       I will never be called bossy.

–       I will never be called bitchy.

–       No one assumes I’m not funny because of my gender.

–       I don’t ever feel like I have to choose between being funny or sexy.

–       No one automatically assumes I have interest in or will be good at working with children.

–       I can assume that if I have kids people will not worry that my priorities as an artist will be impacted.

–       It will not be automatically assumed that I will be motherly, nurturing or emotional supportive.

–       If I am an actor, as I age I will likely be in more demand not less.

–       It is not assumed because of my gender that I cannot carry heavy things or do manual labor.

–       If I have no interest in manual labor or carrying heavy things (because I’m just not fucking interested in it) it is also not assumed that I feel this way because of my gender.

–       When the gender parity going gets tough or the inequity feels too heavy to deal with on a given day, I don’t have to think about it.

And finally, this list is obviously just my own opinion because I intend to invoke the final privilege of the list:

–       No one assumes I speak on behalf of all people of my gender. I can assume I only speak for me.

See you tomorrow allies!

A

Jealousy

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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