Motivation

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

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

One more small thing you can do RIGHT NOW

How often does an Artistic Director get a heartfelt email, call or letter about their company?

Probably not as often as you think.

It seems like a lot to take the time out of a busy schedule and send a missive. Despite the ubiquity of communication in our technological world, if I don’t actively seek their opinions out, it’s pretty rare that I get to hear directly from folks who aren’t my friends and colleauges about my work.

Which is why if one person writes a really impassioned thoughtful email I really pay attention.

Yesterday I gave you a tiny task: email the heads of theater companies you care about and let them know you’re watching their season selections for gender parity.

Today you can take that a step further.

Every one of you has people in your life that go see theater. Chances are at least a few of them are also non-arts professionals. And chances are also that many of them probably also care about seeing equal representation of women in the arts. 

Today, I want you to reach out to one or two of them and ask them to speak up for the role of women in the arts as well. Ask them to write to an AD or a board member or a Managing Director (or all three). Send them the letter I gave you yesterday to make it easier for them to do so.  Maybe look up the email addresses of the people they’d send that letter to so it’s even easier.

And then sit back and bask in the knowledge that you’ve just made a huge difference. Because I promise, such a letter will definitely mean a lot to those folks who receive them.

– A

The Problem Still Exists

Hey All,

I recently wrote a little something for TCG’s blog on gender parity in the arts. Obvs, I figured I’d share it here as well.

If you prefer to read it on an orange background with a silly picture of me sitting backwards in a chair you can click here. Otherwise, the full text is below:

———–

The Problem Still Exists

 (This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

Diversity & Inclusion blog salon: Gender Parity in the American Theatre

JACQUELINE LAWTON: Year after year, research shows that approximately 17% of all plays produced in the United States and the United Kingdom are written by women. We’re stuck at this number and it’s hard to comprehend. Last year, Forum Theatre convened a symposium to investigate the gender imbalance in theatre and posed this question: Is there a female dramaturgy (ie. a specific point of view that female writers bring to theatre)? If so, what does it look, sound and feel like?  Who holds the agency for it?

ADRIENNE MACKEY: I think that any artist can’t help but create out of the materials of their own experience. Being a woman in the world means dealing with assumptions about how women are and can be.

I work in the devising community so my plays don’t come fully formed and ready for rehearsal. The space between the story/material at the work’s center and those tasked with representing it is a much smaller one and therefore less tricky to navigate. What is the makeup – it’s look, sound and feel – of the female dramaturgy in these works? Its the mixture of the women taking part in the process. And the agency for it is held by the particular women creating that particular piece at that particular moment.

JL: Where do you live? How do you feel your community has addressed the issues of gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to practice your craft?

AM:I live in Philadelphia where it feels the artistic community exists in two spheres – the half that works in the traditional regional theater mode of season programing and the half that works in a generative and original collaboration style without a set amount of content to be produced. Though the two halves are very fluid (many performers traverse between these two worlds often) I make this distinction because I see gender parity playing out very differently depending on which of these two worlds you’re operating in. Most of the women here in Philly, myself included, who feel a high degree of ownership over their artistic output and less at the mercy of others’ biases towards women artists are making their own stuff. They are self-generators and self-producers and they aren’t stuck waiting for roles or slots in a company’s season.

Last year on my blog I surveyed 12 different season-based theaters over the past six years in Philly for numbers on women directors, playwrights, performers and designers.  (https://swimponypa.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/true-story/) The results were mostly skewed towards men in all categories (generally with 2 men for every woman) and were most pronounced in this regard the larger the budget size of the company. I see how the weight of that imbalance can simply corrode a person’s soul after a while.  So I feel lucky that I am mostly in control of the work I make and my ability to create and program plays that are representative of a world where female narratives are an important part of the conversation. The only real barrier to feeling total equal is my sense that funding organizations may also be mirroring the trends we see in the theaters. My next project probably ought to be the number breakdown on funding sources and whether their support is equally gendered across their grantees…

JL: Do we need gender based theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?

AM: I don’t know if I think we need gender based theaters per se. I think it’s an impulse to equalize the numbers and while I have nothing against it, it doesn’t help integrate the female perspective into the spaces that need it most. We need women in all theaters so that the next time a work has potentially misogynistic imagery or themes, there are women interested in talking through and discussing them. I personally want to give our male allies the eyes with which we see these works rather than simply secreting away.  I believe this will pave the way to true equity faster.

Better, I’d propose, to create financial incentives for companies that consistently display a parity of representation in its performers, writers and directors. Reward the outcomes not just the intentions. Try and tell me that a $25,000 grant at the end of three seasons of equitable gender distribution wouldn’t motivate AD’s to find themselves plays with more women writing, directing or performing in them.

JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?

AM: Assume the best intentions of all creators, that no one wants inequity. So when you have these conversations, work hard on both sides to remember not to pull into defensive postures or aggression towards the folks that might want to change but just don’t know how yet.

Find measures that are quantifiable that you want to meet and share them with others.

And while I don’t necessarily advocate for only doing all-women works, I do most definitely advocate for creating an all-female spaces to discuss and strategize how to tackle these issues. It is nothing against one’s male colleagues to say there are certain struggles they just can’t really understand. There are times you need to talk to people who have dealt with the same issues and one of the unfortunate outcomes of an unequal field is that if you don’t seek it out, it’s rare to find that many female creators gathered in one space.

Most recently in Philadelphia, my company Swim Pony launched the Awesome Lady Squad – a forum to meet and use the collective brain power of women to systematically tackle the inequities we see here in our community.  In two short meetings I created a longer list of actionable steps to start working on this issue than I have felt able to do on my own in the past several years.  (https://swimponypa.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/dispatches-from-the-awesome-lady-squad-4-on-the-topic-what-wed-like-to-see-instead/)

JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?

AM: Because the problem still exists.

When it’s done – when I see an equal distribution of female artists across the theaters of Philadelphia – I’ll stop talking about it.


Adrienne Mackey is the founder of Swim Pony, dedicated to works that are loud, strange and never seen before on earth! She has directed SURVIVE! – a 22,000 square ft installation exploring the universe and LADY M – an all-female take on Macbeth. Most recently, Adrienne directed THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL at Eastern State Penitentiary boasting a completely sold out run and a profile on NPR’s Radio Times. She has received two Knight Arts Challenges, an Independence Fellowship, a Live Arts LAB fellowship and New Edge Residency. Adrienne also sings backup vocals as “The Truth” for Johnny Showcase and the Mystic Ticket.


Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com

Connor’s Story

When I first started doing theater I was in 7th grade. It was a way for me to get out of my own skin, skin I wasn’t super comfortable in yet. It was a way to escape and be someone else. It was also a chance for me to be with other people, to find community. I liked having what felt like a secret club of people who got together to create something bigger than any one of us individually.

When I first started doing theater the stories I told didn’t really matter: Annie, The Music Man (twice) and Neil Simon’s Start Spangled Girl. But it was the act of telling them that made meaning for me of my experience, the act of being together with people. In high school, I wanted very much to be Bernadette Peters, to have big hair and a big voice and a fancy costume and to be very good at what I did. Somewhere in the midst of that time my desire transformed from simply wanting to be a part of something to wanting to be a part of something amazing, to create it at a high level of skill.  So I trained in music and acting and having always prized myself a very good student, I threw myself into that study with fervor and drive.

When I first started doing theater I thought that the purpose of it was to raise myself up to the level of the creators whose works I was enacting. I thought that playwrights and composers had some kind of magical skill. I thought that their works can from some nebulous place that was very different than the kind of place I pulled my own artistic feats from. And it wasn’t until I first found myself making a piece of my own that I realized that I too had that capability, that capacity. And it wasn’t until then that I was really really hooked.

When I first started doing theater, my experiences shaped my ideas of what the end product was supposed to look like: fancy, professional, expensive. When I first started making theater my experiences shaped my ideas of who the audience for that work was supposed to be: increasingly large and anonymous groups of people who come to see me and my works because of my skill and excellence. It was an impulse to impress. And when I first started doing theater I thought that my job was to try and tell the stories that matter to the most people. To try and create as universal a message as possible. To create a Great American Play.  To try and reach people I didn’t know and pour into them the experience of my greater artistic truth.

I don’t really think that any more.

If your plan is to see Welcome To Campus and you haven’t yet, don’t read this next part. If you’ve already seen it, or know you won’t make it, go ahead and proceed.

There’s a moment early in Campus where the student tour guides, who have been up to this point manically presenting Drexel in a shiny brochure-style intro, crack just a little. They are listing, as one ought as a highly school spirited representative, their favorite letters in the word DREXEL. Student Cami, a go-getter, chooses D for its primary position. Garth relates his choice of the E as the “workhorse” of the word. And so on through L and X. And then just after Dean has also chosen D (without which he would “just be EAN”) there’s an awkward pause. A sort of looking around and then realizing “Oh right…” kind of moment. And then Lexi breaks the uncomfortable tension with a plaintive, “Connor’s supposed to be the R.”

Through the rest of the play – a walking tour in which the students relate their actual college experiences in the locations in which they actually occurred – Connor and his obvious absence are hinted at and remembered. His return is promised and reiterated. And while we grow closer to Lexi, Carl, Cami, Garth and Dean, our sixth tour guide Connor remains an enigmatic mystery. The audience knows only that he seems to have been rather important to our tour guides and that clearly he isn’t going to be here.

The stories the tour guides tell (once having broken their shiny personae) do not relate to him really. They are stories about their experiences from their actual college lives. They are stories of a kind that no traditional tour will give. What the actors and I aimed for was to find a way to share the intimacies and strange details that really make up their experience of higher education. And yet, in these moments in between performances of the most awkward dates of one’s life or ruminations on feeling terribly alone in a new place, they all keep hinting at this other unseen person.

An outsider to the show might wonder what exactly the decision process was behind including such a motif through the show.

I could create a fancy and artistic sounding justification. But the real reason is this: there really is a Connor and he really was going to be a sixth tour guide. He also doesn’t  go to Drexel any more.

I taught a class last fall in preparation for this show. All the tour guides in the performance were part of this class. We spent 10 weeks together talking and playing and writing and reading and sometimes farting around trying to create an idea for a play. Over the course of this term we found together this idea of a college tour, an offshoot of an initial idea I’d proposed, one that included their own personal stories. And for their final I prompted them to give a theatrical tour of an actual moment from their lives in a non-theatrical space, ideally the actual location if possible.

One of the last ones we took was Connor’s tour, which happened in a large and scary building called Drexel One Plaza (Garden Level for those in the campus know). On a cold day late in the term we walked from the black box theater over to the building, tried the back door with no avail and then walked around to the front to be told by a security guard that the building wasn’t open to the public after 6.

We got in anyway; the group managed to sneak in through a side door after one of the students confidently declared he could find a way to get us in. When we did get in,  filled with excitement and giddiness at having outsmarted the proverbial castle guards, we walked through the empty building’s halls. And though I pretended not to notice the security cameras lining the ceilings, I did gently encouraged Connor to get a move on with his tour.

We walked through the strange windowless floor to a simple and unremarkable classroom. Connor’s story was relatively straightforward. It talked about feeling a distance from the Drexel. It talked about being displeased with the administration and academic environment. It talked about how his long distance girlfriend and her support was really the only thing standing in the way of him throwing in the towel on this version of the college experience. And then he told us about the day that she sent him a text message.

He told about a recent day he had been sitting in this classroom and how he had been looking at the board (the one we were now looking at just then) and how he had been holding his phone (the one he was now holding) and how he’d received a text message. He told us that reading the text he knew he would break up with his girlfriend later that day and how he knew when it happened he was going to have to leave Drexel.

It’s how I found out he wouldn’t be there next term.

And we all sat there. Sat and stared at him and his phone and the room and each other. Each thinking about the fact that this was the room where that choice had been made. The same way you stare at the walls of Versailles knowing a king used to sleep in a bed there. It was a weird kind of re-enactment, one where you become aware of just being. Aware of your being in a place where someone else’s being has just been.

As I was sitting with the class thinking about all this a security guard arrived and told us we had to leave. We giggled and pretended to be sorry for breaking rules we clearly weren’t sorry to have broken at all.

This is one of my favorite moments of teaching, ever. I still have trouble putting into words quite why.

I really like the play I’ve made with these Drexel students. I think that Welcome To Campus is a really lovely play. But it’s funny sometimes when I watch the audience. I think about the fact that to them Connor is just some name. That even though the actors and I went to the trouble of re-creating the whole thing – mentioning Connor’s absence, staging a security guard denying us entry to a building, building in a covert break in, telling the story of the text message, the sitting in silence and getting kicked out at the end, all of it – there’s some part of me that is sad that they don’t know that what they’re seeing is just a re-creation of the real moment that has stuck so hard with me in this process.

A few days ago Connor came to see the show and I got to watch him watch his scene.

This is one of my favorite moments from teaching, too.

I didn’t direct this play solely for this moment. There’s more in this piece than just this particular layer. But it felt like the right kind of full circle. That finally we had an audience member who really knew what the journey of this play had been. Because even though he wasn’t there when we built so much of the later parts of it, he was an insider in one of the moments that sits at its center. And now I could watch this insider see the thing as an outsider. See a creative voice get to be an observer of the artistic result.

Connor is the opposite of the kind of person I used to want in my audience. He knows more about the moment of his personal scene than I can, than I ever could, understand. But that scene feels like the kind of gift I feel my work needing to be – a way to see our own lives reflected back to us, to parse them out for meaning and beauty – through the help of the artistic process. And while I don’t want to deny the anonymous who see the work their place, for the few I’ve met have been lovely and effusive, I wonder in a piece like this if the point is not for this insular community to create a message to send to the outside world, but for us to use the work as a way to understand our place within it.

How do we open our process to an audience that will not only be our external viewers but our internal community? How do we bind them to the building of the thing? How do we share in the depth and power of expanding and filling our stories with shape and craft?

I don’t yet know. But it feels like the calling.

– A

Dispatches from the Awesome Lady Squad, #2: In which the ladies plan to meet for a second time

cooltext1368115366I’ve been feeling lighter lately.

I’ve been walking around with just a bit more bounce in my step.

I’ve been feeling, well there’s just no other word for it, rather awesome indeed.

I believe I’ve been feeling that way because for the first time in a long time it seems like change is imminent.  Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about finding my place as an artist in the world. I’ve worried about whether I was doing the right thing. I’ve worried about whether a choice I made would get me on the right path. I’ve worried if I’d ever land in the place where I was supposed to be. But you know what? I think I’m finally, finally, finally, realizing that the whole idea that there is a right place, that there is one just path, that there’s even a standard of measurement that is anything close to absolute is a load of crap. And that realization is part of what I think is making me feel so awesome in particular about the Awesome Lady Squad.

After the last squadron meeting I felt the positive power of defining a new perspective. About refuting the idea that there is an absolute when it comes to what’s “normal or that there is a fixed set of disadvantages and that there are givens that stay given about the way that things work.

I thought about the way I run my theater company: as a hybrid artist somewhere between non-profit and individual who is able to make the kind of creative work that doesn’t fit easily into categories and still manage to pay my collaborators the same level as many mid-sized theaters in town. I’m pretty sure that if I’d asked my mentors first coming out of school if such a set up would be possible, they’d have all said no. My guess is that at that time they would have told me there wasn’t funding or structure or opportunity for such a different way of doing things.

At the time, there probably wasn’t an obvious route towards what I wanted.

Now, there is. But that’s only because I found it.

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 fretting about whether it’s possible to change how women are treated in the arts. And as one of the attendees from the last meeting said, it’s a feeling that has taken up a lot of space in my life. I’ve felt mad that things aren’t the way they should be. But at this moment, I’m a lot more interested in putting that energy towards actually getting them so they are.

Right now, the route to doing that isn’t obvious.

But after we do it, other cities can look to Philly and see that it was there all along.

The resolution I want you to join me on in 2014 is this: you have to know – not desire, not wish, not hope – but deep down truly know that there is a future world where the Awesome Lady Squad doesn’t need exist because we’ve solved all the problems we’ve identified. And we need to know that it’s going to become reality, and soon. Gathering people and realizing that you are not alone, that your perspective is one that is shared by many, that your view of the world need not be rage-inducing or isolating, that you can indeed find a space where every person around you also starts from the same set of ethical givens, this is the first step. It’s an important one. Because it’s the one where we all have to stop and say, hey, the things that I disagree with are actually NOT truth. They are NOT givens. Not in this room. Not right now.

And once we carve out a little bit of space to stake our the Awesome Lady Nation, we’ll be able to invite the rest of the world in as citizens. One by one, we’ll make them all denizens of our Awesome new world.

Charting that course is already underway and you can check out our first scouting mission here. On Sunday January 26th from 7 – 9pm at the Arts Parlor (1170 S Broad) we walk just a little further down that road.

We’ll use the same format from last time, me asking some big questions, and you guys sharing your big answers. For a few hours in a few square feet of space we’ll create a world where people believe in equity and fairness and respect for female creators. And if we can make it true in a room at the Parlor for a few hours at a time, there MUST be a way to expand that perspective, that new sense of reality past that room and out into the world.

Hope to see you there.

An as always, thanks for being awesome.

– A

Getting to “Fuck It” Faster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, of course, the work gets good.

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

Maybe it is all of these things.

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

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

What the fuck (it)?

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

Ugh.

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

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

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

This is how I started teaching new approaches to voice.

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

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

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

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

– A

Amateur is Latin for Love

Over the past six months my life has taken a radical shift. I went from the intensive grinding gears of two large scale projects – one a gig for Shakespeare in Clark Park in which I worked as a director for hire as wells as The Ballad of Joe Hill a work created and produced by my own company Swim Pony – into a far more predictable series of teaching gigs – a new post as voice teacher for Pig Iron’s APT, a residency at Drexel, coaching a mostly non-actor set to coach med students interpersonal skills at UPenn’s school of Medicine and directing a production of Midsummer at Arcadia.

As I headed into the summer I felt a sense of relief and apprehension. Relief that my time into September was booked with work that I both believed in and had found a way to appropriately compensate myself for. I felt a sense of pride at having booked myself solid for the first time ever with 6 months of artistic work alone while still paying a mortgage and socking away from money for savings. I thought and felt, “Finally, we are approaching a place of stasis, a solid foundation upon which a life can be built.”

And as I left the month of September, reasonably compensated, well received by press and peers and patrons on my work over the past months, I still felt somehow just a little unsettled by I can’t say exactly what: a sense that I’d done well but… With a feeling that I’d created two works of which I was proud, one that I felt was the first appropriately resourced self produced piece I’d ever been in charge of but… That I’d made shows that I think showed my professional skill, that highlighted many aspects of my  expertise, plays that made me proud as a professional creator, and yet…

Yet, still, something niggled at me. The audiences were a bit timid at one. The energy not quite right in another. The joy, the abandon, the feeling, the… what? the… love.

Yes.  That’s it. The love was what I felt missing. That underneath the polish and skill and work was just a little bit less love than I went into all this seeking. Somewhere in this summer of incredibly hard work and tiring hours and beautiful images and incredible ideas I was missing a little bit of amore.

Look. The people with whom I created my last two professional projects are ones that I adore. They are my core creators, most of them, the people that I will work with in many cases for the rest of my life. But something about these last two shows left me a bit cold. Not through any fault of my co-creators, but perhaps because I myself allowed myself to be swept up in the accomplishment of professionality, of the implied self worth that doing a thing at a “meaningful” level of competence and expertise did I let myself hide a little of the messy and silly and sometimes uncertain and ridiculous person that I love myself to be in a process. I doubt these co-creators would admit it, but I bet deep down they felt it.

I could not have spoken this to myself then as I do now. But I think I knew it. We all wanted a bit more of that love in our work.

So it was at this juncture that I looked into that stretch of fall to winter months with no “professional” work in sight. Here I found myself in a sea of students of varying ages and skills sets and talent levels ahead of me. It was here, with a chip on the shoulder and a block of doubt in the stomach that I set off into the wilds of “amateur” theater. I went to auditions and first classes and training session with zero expectation of artistic fulfillment, looking instead to do a decent job, make some connections, steel myself against the antsy feeling being out of “real” rehearsals. I intended to let life be simple for a bit in order to plan my re-emergence back into the “real” theater scene soon enough.

So I went to my classes with their small number of students in order to get them on board with the weirdo piece I wanted to create. I went to rehearsals to direct play that I have loathed for a very long time expecting to wade through language I could care less about. I went to work to train folks on characters and skills I have repeated ad nauseum over the last few years. I went to these things expected a heavy heart and soul. I went there ready to be frustrated with amateurism and a lack of professional rigor.

I went there expecting these things. And I found that I was wrong. I found myself, suddenly realizing that I was happier than I have been in months, possibly years. That heaviness and weight of proving myself and my worth had been freed from myself and that for the first time in a long time I have re-found a kind of love. Yes amazingly, I find myself at the near end of this time more inspired, more buoyant than I have in perhaps years. I went expecting amateurs and what I found was love.

So often we define the amateur as the absence of talent skill or training. Back in late October I read an article by Todd London about innovation in which he points out that the word Amateur comes from the Latin root for “love.” When I read this, something dropped in me. An “Ah ha” kind of moment. A moment where I realized that the amateur is not solely, as is so commonly assumed, defined as one who does something at a “non-professional” level but one who does it for no other reason than a deep and abiding love. The amateur can have no other reason for doing the thing other than the pure and true love of it, for they have no other compensation to reward them. How often we degrade it, define ourselves in opposition to it, in order to prove our own worth. How often, I realized, I myself was working, creating and doing things in so many ways simply to prove that I was most certainly not an amateur but a professional, a person worthy of time attention and thought. Worthy to be seem by foundations to presenters to peers this need for professionalism had infected my spirits. It had stopped me from silliness. It is true that over the past several months I have created things and worked with those that on almost any level one would not call “professional.” But in exchange I have found something that might be worthier still: Love.

And after months away from it there are moments that I cherish

–       The act of creating ritual, silly and ridiculous and childish

–       The moment of discovery for the very first time in a scene or a word or a movement

–       The undaunted display of failure, the expectation that one is at the beginning of a journey, and the sense that one is not worth less because they have not yet mastered the way how to do something

This thought, this core of the work as an exploit of love has lifted me. And now that I find myself nearing the end, I wonder how I take these with me back to the land of professional living. I wonder how I take the happiness and joy and love that I have lived with over these past months back to my work and my life and my collaborators.

And were this any other post here, I’d find some way to neatly wrap all this up into a perfect bow of professional conduct and meaning. But I don’t think I’ll do that just now. I’ll leave it ragged and happy and unfinished. And just be satisfied with that.

A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So give me lo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ove.”

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

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

Stillness for a moment. And then crying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d be right. But so would I.

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

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

– A