How do I do this?

Re-conceptualizing Gameplay as Play Play

Sam here. As Swim Pony’s new Artistic Associate, I’ll be taking on some of the company blogging alongside Adrienne.

I grew up playing video games. Since my brother is only seventeen months older than me, we spent most of our time together as kids, and in addition to building LEGO cities and biking around the rotary at the end of our street for hours, that meant a lot of video games. First, it was Cruisin’ USA on the Nintendo 64, Super Smash Brothers Melee on Game Cube, and every generation of Pokemon. Later, we were more into epic role playing games like Fire Emblem and the Tales series, as well as real-life simulations such as Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon… and the occasional round of Mario Kart.

At a certain point, I developed more of my own interests and gradually played fewer and fewer video games. Ironically, I think my falling out with the hobby coincided pretty directly with diving into theatre full-throttle in middle school. For a while now, I’ve thought of gaming somewhat nostalgically, as something I really enjoyed and wish I could have time for again.

So starting work for a company interested in the hybridization of gaming and theatre feels more than a little bit like coming full-circle. Over the past few weeks, we’ve started Play Play meetings, where a group of theatre artists gather and share ideas/games/research links that explore the whole game/theatre mash-up concept – and it’s more prevalent than I thought. Key players in both industries are becoming more and more interested in immersive experiences that welcome participants into the world of the game or the performance, and therefore it’s clear to see how the two can meet in the middle.

Our conversations so far have focused largely on games with hyper-realistic role playing and thus real world believability. We talked about Sunset and Gone Home, two short computer games that place you in a hyper-realistic world where you role play as a character and have to explore your environment to solve a mystery. They’re what are called “real-time art” or “story exploration games.” By default, you’re forced to interact with your environment as you would if it were real: open drawers, turn on lights, read notes. The ability to interact with the world in a real way is as important as the plot in creating a sense of immersion, if not more so.

But digital games aren’t the only form of “gaming” out there. Another popular genre is LARPs (live action role plays). When this topic came up, I realized that I have a huge amount of misconceptions about what LARPing is today – partially due to ignorance, and partially because I’ve just never really thought about it. I considered LARPing as sort of a physical take on fanfiction: players dress as their favorite character(s) from existing games or stories and act out alternate universe/continuation plotlines.  In some cases, this is accurate; LARPing can be as simple as a group of friends getting together and fighting with foam swords, inspired by characters or scenes from fantasy worlds.

But I have recently learned that LARPing is a lot more than that. Adrienne shared a clip from a Nordic LARP called Delirium, in which 36 players portrayed couples in a mental institution for fifty hours. The environment was designed so that it was impossible to escape from your character; if players tried to rebel against non-player authority figures or the set expectations for a situation, the scene would reset and they’d have to start over. The experience was much more intensive and immersive than my preconceived notions of LARPs.

Though this is considered a game, since people choose to play and to take on roles, it feels very theatrical; there is a set, costumes, lighting, rehearsed actors (playing doctors and other authority figures), and so on. It seems a bit like a sneaky way to get shy audience members to become participants in a large-scale immersive play, by tricking them into thinking they’re playing a game rather than seeing theatre.

One of our Play Play conversations brought up something else that is, technically, a LARP. Several members of the group talked about times when they were assigned to play out societal roles in middle school as a practical lesson. One “game” involved first, second, and third world layers; the small first world group had a Nintendo, Doritos, and air conditioning, while the third world classroom was jam-packed with no entertainment, money, or hope for escape. Another school had “Immigration Day,” where they spent the whole day standing in line, and were more successful at getting through quickly based on the characters they’d been assigned and how they dressed and acted correspondingly. These cases were very successful at getting participants to engage and play their roles because the setting was created with real in-game rewards and punishments for role playing appropriately.

My question after hearing about these scenarios was whether the participants, as middle schoolers, were aware of the lessons they were supposed to be learning or if they just felt like they were playing a fun game. This led to agreement that debriefing about the lessons learned was an essential part of the experience. But in thinking about actually devising a theatre/game hybrid, is there a way to ensure participants are aware of the plot being created around or by them while they’re actively within it? For that matter, is it more effective/useful to aim for an immersive and complex world or to prioritize the plot you want the participants to experience?  How many branching storylines are you able to realistically incorporate into live theatre, when each change affects the real world and the variables are harder to control? How can the digital element of video gaming be incorporated into live performance? Is that a necessary part of game/theatre hybridization?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of our conversations and the questions they brought up for me. I’m excited to see where we go from here, both at Play Play and Swim Pony at large.

And I think my brother – who never stopped playing games — will be proud to hear I’ve started again, and that I even get to consider it part of my job.

-Sam

8 Steps To Actual Actual Innovation in Arts Funding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And while I’m at it:

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

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

And lastly:

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

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

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

That’s all for now…

A

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

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

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

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

Are you an artist who thinks this? Probably.

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

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

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

You know what my first thought was after watching that?

“God you’re lazy.”

You know what my second thought was?

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

Can I just say, what the fuck is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

It’s actually necessary for the work.

Seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– A

Week 1: The Logic Model

Here. Listen to this while you read. It’ll help you know what to feel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I dunno.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(first days are funny things)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you do to warm up?

 

 
What are the mechanics of what you do?

 

 

 

What are the restrictions?

 

 

 

 

Can I try?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that the average age of a classical music audience member in 1995 was 55 years old and today it’s 75 years old? The same people have been listening to classical music for the last twenty years.

 

 

What’s gonna happen when they die?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here.
Take this survey.
It’ll tell you what to think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t worry it opens in a new tab so you don’t lose us.

Also keep the music playing while you do it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And don’t worry. I logged on with Facebook too.

It’s secure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Y’know what, I lied. I didn’t actually log on with Facebook. I created a password and used my e-mail.

 

 

 

 

 

But I’m sure it’s still secure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you feel like the survey answer was true to your personality type?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

….did you even take the survey?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it would be better if I drew a picture to show you what the week was like…

Here.
photo-10

 

 

A. The beginning, and questions about beginnings. An empty room promising [perhaps overwhelming] possibility. Three people sitting on the wooden studio floor, knees up, notebooks open. What if…?

 

 

 

 

 

B. 

 

 

 

 

 

C. 

 

 

 

 

 

D. Laughing and weaving lies. Stealing from artist statements, personality quizzes, and the Chinese zodiac. What if we winked at the ways we try to tell each other what to think and how to feel? What if we gave the audiences a survey and then assigned them a “personality type” at random?

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s next for you?

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

Local is local is local

pin

 

What is local? What do we mean when we talk about all politics being local? The value of supporting local art?

To the internet!

As an adjective “local” is used to mean belonging or relating to a particular area or neighborhood, typically exclusively so. As in words like community, district, neighborhood, city, etc. As Google so helpfully points out, one can research things like “local government” or “local history.” Also, this word is used as an adjective in the sense of being at hand, near, close by, easy accessible, convenient and handy. One might eat at a “local restaurant” not only for its quality but also because of its proximity to oneself. Also as in serving or related to just a particular defined area – a local bus, a local infection. In this sense, the word local perhaps more restricted, contained or confined.

As a noun, a “local” is a person or thing, that inhabits such a local area or place. An event might be filled with “locals” as opposed to outsiders or visitors. Local here means inhabitant, resident, native. The “locals” complain when outsiders come in and make a mess.

A local lives in the local place doing local things in their local way.

Local can be small. Local can be confining. Local can be networked. Local can be supportive, limiting, loving, stifling or neutral.

It can be any these things. It just depends if the locality that’s local to you, the local, is locally working in the way you wish.

Lately my impulses have been feeling awfully local. I think about the fact that I am in the midst of a number of localities, when you think about it:

  • My local city Philadelphia with its governance and policies
  • My local neighborhood, block and street
  • My artist community at large with its myriad of members
  • My specialty of theater arts in particular and the generative/deviser/collaborative/weirdo/whatever-you-want-to call-it subset within that
  • My community of administrators and advocates for sustainability
  • My network of Awesome Ladies
  • My circle of artists also working other jobs to survive

The list goes on. These are not large-scale national interests, for the most part. There might be theater happening in New York and D.C. that I see and appreciate but until I am literally taking and making my work there, it’s still a reference point. It’s not something impacting me in particular in a day-to-day way.

This is the thing about the things around me. They are close. We share space and place and resource.

They are local.

This is why I think I feel the need so greatly to talk and reach out recently. There might have been a time when I would have said, “Ah, yeah, those people do things I’m not crazy about but they don’t affect me.” More and more though it feels like this just isn’t true. I can’t swim in the pool and not get touched by the water. I am in the mix. I am affect, even just as a ripple, a current of what’s in the soup around me. And unless I am to bounce myself out, I must respond with the currents. I can swim into them or against them but I am linked with them through nearness.

My nearby community is (literally) around me. And like it or hate it that will always be true unless I leave it.

It’s like the saying (that I just made up this moment) goes: Local is local.

So I’ve been asking myself this question: how do I take the things that I love about being a local and deal with the things I really don’t?

And something that frustrated me at first was an ability to even begin making headway on such massive and all consuming problems like arts sustainability or the funding community or the meaning of a career in this field or trying to tackle gender inequity. It seemed like there’s just SO much to do. It seemed so hard to even begin to think about where to start.

And then I thought: just start with yourself and work outwards.

These are the projects you’ve been seeing from Swim Pony:

  • The Awesome Lady Squad
  • Cross Pollination
  • Residency-based theater works like WELCOME TO CAMPUS
  • Site based plays like THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL
  • A soon to come Adjuncts Soiree

I am tackling artistic and advocacy based questions one at a time through projects that start close to me and begin to push outwards from this center. In a way it feels like I’m taking my many kinds of local-ness and smashing them all into the same super tiny space and making them reckon with each other.

For many years I did a lot of work separating out these different communities by compartmentalizing them in myself. I became a local in each locality without require the others to enmesh. But these new works buck this method. They are projects that are active attempts to put my worlds up against each other and begin to make them touch. It’s a way of easing the work I do within my own brain and heart, by letting the outside world begin to hash this out. It’s meant putting one perspective into view of the other and seeing how they both shift in relation.

So that rather than trying to constantly be outside of the place I am in for one reason or another, I can slowly grow the space just beyond my own personal physical borders into a locality that can contain all the aspects of what I define myself as local to.

So that some day the city and community and women’s group and art community are all able to be in the same space without conflict: when local is local is local in me.

– 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

Are you a habitat or are you an animal?

animal-habitat-activities-for-kids

Are you an animal or are you a habitat?

Rambly Friday thoughts…

I’ve been pondering a bit about the last post on non-profit boards and the artists that do (or don’t) love them. Many of the response people have posted back on the old Facebooks have been rather positive (effusive even) on the ways in which the board has supported and pushed them further than they could have gone on their own.

Point taken.

For some, clearly, a board structure can work well. If you are an organization with an alignment of mission and artists within it and a board constructed in the right way, the power structure that worried me in the last post could be a non-issue, leading to a super helpful and beneficial relationship. So it’s nice to hear from these folks and take inspiration from what they’ve done that’s working.

There are, of course, examples to the contrary. (And I’d guess these folks are probably a lot less likely to proclaim it to the internet public.) And something I’ve realized that goes along with this question has something to do with the role of the artist in the non-profit sector more generally.

I think of it as the trade off between being an animal and being a habitat.

Ok, so first off, let me admit that I know that this metaphor was something I heard from someone else at some point in the past year. But for the life of me I cannot remember who or where and for the internet of me I cannot find a source to help reference. So fair warning that what you’re about to get is a rumination on someone else’s concept, possibly expanded or re-imagined out of its original context.

So back to animals and habitats. When we examine people involved with generating works of art we start to think about their place in the field by examining two extremes.

On the one hand we have artists: the lone writer slaving away on a novel or play, the painter in their studio, the choreographer crafting a movement sequence. These people are the animals – they are individual beings with individually motivated goals. Animals consume resources – they want studio or rehearsal or office space, they need money for their own time and possibly that of a collaborator, and stuff to make what they do like clarinets or clay or costumes – and mostly they only want those resources for themselves.

And on the other hand we have habitats. Habitats are places that animals occupy, sometimes for a short time and sometimes for their whole lives, to obtain the resources they need. We can think of an arts organization like a habitat – places artists occupy to get the resources they need to survive. The same way that a deer occupies the woods and takes advantage of the trees and streams and soft downy leaf beds, a doe eyed creator might plug into an arts org in order to get access to space and stuff. Audiences are also occupants in this imagined world in the sense that they come into the habitat to receive resource – namely the art that – as well. And for organizations that mix the arts with other kinds of services (social change, youth programming, education) there are likely other occupants with needs and influences on this place as well.

In the simplest scenario, a lone master painter (the animal) makes work and then a gallery (the habitat) exhibits and helps sell that work to the adoring public. A theater company presents a new ensemble’s work. A residency program houses a new novelist in the midst of their writing process. Animal gets resources to help sustain it and the habitat is made more vital through the animal’s presence.

So though they often work in tandem, it’s important to see that the larger goals of the habitat and the animal are different. The animal’s goal is to survive and get as many resources directed at it as possible to be comfy and well fed. The habitat’s goal is to support the ecosystem of all the animals and plants within it.

To extend this saccharine metaphor just a bit further, you can think of the non-profit board like a conservation club. They themselves enjoy the habitat and see the beauty and usefulness of it to the creatures in it even if they don’t directly pull resources from it. They may work actively in that habitat to keep it tidy and unpolluted. They may raise money to support and extend its boundaries. They may simply go and admire its worth and encourage other animals to take advantage of all the habitat has to offer. The board’s job is to make sure that the habitat is sustained for the many kinds of animals that interact with it.

The kinds of things a board does are good for the habitat as a whole. And generally that means it’s good for the animals in the habitat as well. But let’s say there’s a drought. It’s possible to keep the habitat from drying up completely a board would change the number and kind of animals it offers shelter to. If there’s an influx or if one kind of animal suddenly goes through a massive increase in its appetite, it may have to cut off a certain group for the good of the larder whole. They may even shift some aspects of the habitat to help ease the burden on some parts of it. In short, the goal of the board is to sustain the entire networked ecosystem into the future.

In my view, the vast majority of creators just want to be animals. But many of us at some point find that there are a scarcity of habitats in general or of ones that are hospitable to us in particular. And so we begin to start operating a little like habitats. Some people make that switch and realize that they actually like being habitats. Some even end up finding that the tired and constant scrambling life of an animal is happily left behind. For others, they are animals who don habitat clothing for a while in order to feed themselves in particular.

The problem with moonlighting in habitat world in order to support your animal self might now start to become obvious.

To run a habitat requires different skills than being an animal. To keep the habitat going you have to pay attention to the other animals that are interacting with your resource. And if you are one particular individual animal, the concerns of the habitat may or may not align with your own individual goals for survival and thrival. (I know thrival is not a word. But it should be, no?). To succeed at keeping the habitat going, you may end up making choices that cut off your own food supply. Your conservation league, with the best of intentions, may end up saving the habitat a little animal started at the expense of the animal itself.

Which is how, I think, some artists end up starting non-profits that feel like they lose their control over their work. Your aim to become more habitat-like to serve your individual animal self is for naught because you ended up killing the animal. These are the cases, I think, where artists can end up hating the boards that they serve under. It’s not that either is doing anything wrong. They’re just aiming at different outcomes. One is trying to sustain a place; the other is trying to sustain themselves.

The closer your goal is to being an individual artist and making work that is essentially the output of your singular vision, the less the work feels like a “public” good. What happens to you if your mission is to create works of a particular edgy theater or cultural dance style and you suddenly realize you want to start shifting your focus into something else? If you’ve built a habitat out of a mission, assuming you the animal will always belong there, you might find yourself frustrated and at cross purposes. And though one of the most wonderful things about the artistic impulse is its desire to innovate, change and grow this isn’t always possible in a habitat. And even when it is, it takes a far longer time and laborious amount of effort.

Which I think behooves the creator to really think hard about what they are trying to do before they sign that 501 c 3 paperwork.

Do you want to become a habitat or an animal?

And make sure you’re making choices that help you become that.

– A

A post in which we examine fairness and give Samia some cash

You know what I hate?

I really really hate it when I see an email from someone that I haven’t talked to in a while, someone who maybe I might not be super close with, and I start reading an email that feels like a trick.

It always starts super personal – Hey Adrienne – and starts telling me stuff they’ve been up to. At first I think, “Hey, I didn’t realize so-and-so was doing all this stuff. Well done so-and-so!” Around a paragraph in I think, “Gee. It’s interesting that they are going into such detail about the project.” And then about halfway in I say, “Oh, I get it. This is a kickstarter campaign letter.”

All that earnestness, I believe it’s heartfelt, but without a warning it can sometimes feel just a tiny bit like a bait and switch. So, here’s fair warning so that you don’t feel like I do when I read those emails: I think there’s some interesting and heartfelt stuff explored within the following thousand or so words. There’s also a gentle ask at the end of the post as well.

So. That’s out of the way. Now on to talking a little bit about fairness.

Here is a truth of the universe: success in the arts not always fairly won.

Perhaps that seems obvious. I know we all joke often about “those” creators with all the connections or resource coming into the game. We joke and dream about a life without the necessity of a day job. We talk about the work we’d get done if we didn’t have non-artistic work as a requirement to survive.

It seems silly, almost, to say it. A statement so duh-inducing it’s almost banal.

But even if we know, sometimes we forget to really internalize the truth of it. Even if our brains remember, our hearts don’t always realize. When I’m not careful I catch myself feeling “less than” because recognition is slower to come than I’d like. You might be frustrated that the grants are not rolling in. It may feel sometimes like we are stuck in the drudgery as others jet set around the world.

It’s hard not to compare, no?

And this is why it’s worth reminding ourselves the system is truly NOT solely set up to reward those with the greatest artistic prowess. That’s part of it, of course. But it is in NO WAY the entirety, maybe even the majority, of how the artistic field rewards its participants. The truth is that we all make use of whatever advantages we happen to have, some of which are artistic and some of which are not, to try and get a foothold in this insanely difficult career.

When I sit down with newbies to Philly and chat about how they will find their way in the world I often get asked questions like “How do I begin making my own work?”

I’ve taken to saying this: “If you ask me specific questions about how to get cheap risers or what fiscal sponsor I think is best I will be happy to answer those. But the honest answer to the question ‘How do I start making my work?’ is that you have to figure out how you will be able to make and support your work by using whatever is available to you.”

I can see it is a frustrating answer, even if it’s true.

But because our system is so chaotic and uneven in its distribution of resource, because it is so thoroughly unfair at times, especially at the start, I believe it’s a useful answer. To begin as an artist without a high level of resource is to be a person who has to come to terms with that unfairness. Perhaps not to subscribe to all aspects of the system that supports inequity, but to learn to at lest live with it. For in order to stay, we all learn to scrape and deal and do the best with what we do have. And we do our best not get to sour about what we don’t.

I think all the time about a many things for which I am intensely grateful.

I think about the fact that I studied science. That I spent a lot of time with complex math. That when I had to learn accounting and budgeting and report my company’s data, I had a familiarity with something roughly similar. That I never had to worry that what I was trying to do what too hard for me because I figured it couldn’t be more complicated than multi-variable calculus. (Though there are days… There are days…)

I think about the fact that when I made my first play I had a large network of family who even though not rich were stil willing to donate a little – 5, 50, 100 dollars – to help me pursue this thing that I so desperately wanted to make.

I think about the fact that I came to my career with high-level writing skills. That I’d been pushed to articulate difficult concepts and formulate arguments about creative works in the past. That grant writing wasn’t such a bear because again, I’d had experiences to prepare me.

I think about the fact that I did not have a crushing amount of student debt. That I had my share, but never so much that I felt I couldn’t take a risk on a low paying job or use a bit of my savings to buy a prop or a costume I needed.

I think about the fact that I have been surrounded by mentors who made me trust my own self worth, my vision of my creative product, and that this confidence allowed me to walk into a major historic site at the ripe age of 23 and ask to stage a play there with almost no money to offer in exchange.

I make myself think about these things on the days when I get frustrated about not having rich parents. I think about them on days when I think about how much more successful I might be if all my time could be devoted to my career of theater and not jobs that help to keep me fed and housed. And I try and remember that these things were gifts to me that may not be givens for others. That without that access to just a bit family support or set of math skills or a confidence boost I could be in a very different place in my career.

This is not to say that such things cannot be overcome in the long run. This is not to say that those with advantages at the start will always prevail. This is not to say that those who come into the work without trust funds should give up. But it is to say that we should give ourselves a break sometimes in trying to measure up. And it is also to say that when we can do something personally to help level the field and give someone a leg up when they need one, we really really ought to do it.

So here, at long last, is that plea for cash.

It’s a plea for an amazing and talented young person who deserves access to the kind of support one needs when they’re first starting to make their way into their work. Samia, Sam for short, is a phenom. She is a performer, a designer, a soon to be graduated student, and a truly lovely person. This is what she looks like:

samAnd because I stole this picture off facebook she doesn’t know that her thumbs up is now being used as a subliminal code to you readers to thank you in advance for help her out.

Sam is seriously awesome.

When The Berserker Residents and I teched The Giant Squid at Arcadia Sam won our onstage “squid raffle.” As she took the steps up to the stage she literally brimmed with joy and screamed “I won! I won! I won!”  I never laughed as hard at any of the subsequent audience participants as I did when I saw her face realizing her squid “prize” has mysteriously turned a tank of water into boiling ink.

When she played Hermia in the Midsummer I directed last fall she worked with a ferocity and grace and humility that I have rarely seen before in a college student. A colleague I invited to the show saw her and said, “She’s amazing. She’s really going to do this thing for real.”

And now, as a surprise to no one, she’s won a national award for puppet design and needs a little boost to get her to Las Vegas to take part in an 8-week technical theater intensive that comes as a prize with the award.

Look again at this amazing human in a cardigan:

sam and ian

Admit it. She’s adorable.

Who would not want to donate to that face? A face that’s also confident. And smart. And hardworking. And kind.

I have every belief that she’s going to be one of the Amazing Ladies of this community’s future.

So click this link Philadelphia creators and give this awesome little lady a couple bucks. In the spirit of helping another amazing new artist. In the spirit of giving her some gifts that she seriously deserves. In the spirit of making the artistic landscape just this tiny bit fairer. Because she deserves to have the chance to take advantage of all the amazing opportunities afforded her.

HERE IS THE LINK YOU CLICK SHOULD BUT BIGGER THIS TIME.

Do it.

– A

PS – Thanks to Alisa for setting up this amazing cheerleading squad!

Tired

How best do you root this shit out?

I have been seriously trying to think on this one in the past couple days.

I keep thinking about #thesummit and I’m still not sure how best to proceed, both when it comes to talking with folks who are semi-anonymous AD’s I don’t personally know and with my close friends and peers. There are a couple of recent specific incidents that have sparked this post’s train of thought, but it’s also an issue that I’ve struggled with for a while, and, based on convos from the Awesome Lady Squad, a phenomenon that I think is much much bigger than just me.

It’s easy to make a list of female directors. I’m glad I did it. But it’s harder, by a lot, to actually get people who are making artistic choices, to take that list and hire them. I really believe that almost everyone, in theory, supports that list. Is there anyone in this community who would admit they don’t want women to hold an equal place? But somehow, seasons get chosen, shows are cast, and it continues to happen. If we all agree it’s bad, how and why do such inequities persist?

The problem, I think, isn’t that any one choice is particular misogynistic or horrifying. I think that’s actually pretty rare in this community. What’s more likely and perhaps far tougher to solve, far more problematic, are singular well-reasoned, well-intentioned choices across many many companies that still add up to a gender inequity in the community as a whole.

The problem, I think, isn’t intentions, but a lack of culpability for outcomes.

Which is why trying to tackle such a thing is so tricky. You don’t want to feel like you’re attacking any particular person or company, any particular choice, because of course those people have well reasoned and thought out plans for why they’ve chosen the way they have. It feels mean. It feels punitive. But then what exactly are you supposed to do about the fact that women are still vastly under-represented on and off the stage in almost every theater in this city? How in particular does one try and make a dent in this?

I’m trying. I’m trying to throw darts at what I think might be the board. I’m trying to initiate conversations with a fair number of different people on both the very tiny and very large scale of company sizes to see if I can get them to engage. I’ve been having this conversation everywhere, from theater lobbies to parties and even in my own home with my own fiancée who has his own company.

But I’ll be honest, right now, I think I’m failing. Right now, this morning, it’s feeling like a real uphill battle. And at this moment, it’s feeling a little defeating. Because despite trying to be intensely careful about my wording, despite continuing to reiterate my respect and admiration for folks, it still feels a little like I’m the one who has to constantly justify what I’m seeing. That if I perceive an imbalance that I want to unpack or converse about, I have to ensure that I’m completely grounded in my observations before we can engage. That it is my job to make sure I don’t put people on the defensive, even if my aim is to provoke and question an aspect of their work. That I better walk in knowing an awful lot about the person or company and their reasons for doing what they’re doing or I’m doing something wrong. It feels like I’m the one with the onus to prove there’s a bias.

And that’s hard to do. And it feels a bit like an impossible task at this moment. It’s hard to know everything about why someone selects a season, why someone has picked a particular play. It’s hard to be sure that under intentions, there are less obvious things that still might be worth addressing.It’s hard to know exactly how the issue is feeding into the situation, especially the closer in you zoom.

What I do know is that as I’ve looked at a few companies, I still see that fewer actresses will get cast and fewer female playwrights will be produced next year. That’s what I wish I could fix.

When I talked about this conversation with my fiancée he said this:

“The thing is, I just think it would be sad if people felt inhibited to talk about things. Or if their imaginations were squashed because they were trying so hard to be careful.”

I thought,  “I feel that way so much of the time.”

I feel that way whenever I try and bring this up. That if I’m not so terribly careful, I’ll make people feel unfairly labeled and then I’m the bad guy. That I’m not giving them a chance to show their side of things. Sometimes I so get tired of always having to hear the other side of things first. Because my aim is never to put people on the defensive but it feels like regardless of my tactic this is always the result.  And many times, the risk of alienating someone doesn’t feel worth it in a given moment and not bringing it up is the only way I can ensure someone won’t get their hackles raised.

So sometimes I don’t.

And sometimes when I do, the result doesn’t always feel that I’ve been able to communicate what I’d hoped. More times than I wish, I’ve walk away feeling further from the person I wanted to engage than when I started. And this in particular makes it harder to do the next time.

This must be part of why these things persist, no?

I don’t want to squash the imagination of others. But it sometimes feels to me, and I hear from other women that they feel this too, that this problem squashes us all the time. And it’s hard to know what to do when I don’t think people aren’t trying to do it. It’s hard because it feels like for me to ask for what I think is fair, I’m also punishing or taking something away from someone else.

We’ll have to think on this one a bit more…

– A