Failure of Imagination

It was really hard to get myself to start working this morning.

I woke to a Facebook newsfeed of arguments about gun control, rebukes of Donald Trump’s ongoing islamophobic statements, posts crossing out #PrayforOrlando in favor of #PolicyChangeforOrlando, members of the LBGTQ community expressing personal fear and outrage, and on and on. Even posts on the positive end – plans for candlelight vigils around the country and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s powerful sonnet at the Tony’s – just served as reminders of what happened this weekend in Orlando, of the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

Often, I can convince myself that the best thing to do after such events is to keep living my life, to not let fear or anger or sorrow prevent me from that. But today it was hard. Today it felt like a day spent revising a grant, drafting residency documentation, confirming conference travel plans, and researching game mechanics, was pretty meaningless: who am I kidding, arguing for the importance of art when there are people being shot and killed senselessly at a place of joy and community and celebration?

Then I remembered something: I’ve had this conversation before. Back in December, the San Bernardino shooting happened halfway through a Cross Pollination residency with Adrienne, Mark Lord, and Shelley Spector. The next morning, they spent a long time talking about how unimportant some of their explorations suddenly felt in the face of the way the world was going, and what they could do to make sure that their time spent together was genuinely worthwhile.

Then Mark shared something that’s stuck with me. When The 9/11 Commission Report was released, he read the whole thing. In one section, they talk about four failures as the root of that attack being possible: failure of policy, failure of capabilities, failure of management, and failure of imagination. Failure of imagination, Mark explained, means that no one imagined that such an attack could happen. The CTC (Counterterrorism Center) never even considered that aircraft could be used as a weapon, so they never did any analyses for what that could look like or how to prevent it. There was no level at which the 9/11 attacks occurred to them, even though it’s their job to think from an enemy’s perspective.

For the failures of policy, capabilities, and management, The 9/11 Commission Report offers pages and pages that discuss how to use political science strategies to make changes and prevent other attacks in the future.

For failure of imagination, there were no suggestions.

If this was one of the primary failures that allowed 9/11 to happen, Mark explained wondering, why are there not more thoughts on ways to solve it? How do people become more imaginative?

Through art. Through creativity. Through a willingness to look at the world from a fantastical lens. Through an experience that transcends reality. Through music and performance and storytelling and visuals that make you feel things or consider perspectives you might never have come to on your own.

I’m not saying attending a couple more plays would have magically given the CTC the creative powers to imagine every possible terrorist attack scenario. And I hate that the kind of imagining they would need to suspect that kind of attack requires believing the absolute worst of humanity. But regardless, the capacity to imagine, whether it’s a happy dream or a nightmarish possibility, is essential. Cultivating the ability to see the world from a multitude of perspectives fundamentally rewires people’s brains, both in how they problem-solve and consider issues in their own lives, and in how they see and respond to other human beings.

And that’s why I have to keep doing this. It may not be a direct response to the horrors that happened this weekend, but creating art that opens minds, develops imagination, and encourages compassion has a role to play, however, small, in making the world a better place to live.

– Sam

Laying Fallow

I arrived yesterday at a residency up in Vermont late in the evening. I check in and take my bags to my small room in the living quarters. Taped to the wall above the desk I see this:

tiny cal sq

It’s a tiny January calendar cut out and taped to the wall.

Because it might be difficult through just the picture to get a sense of size here is the same tiny January calendar as I see it if I back up a few feet:

tiny cal with desk

See? So tiny.

From the moment I saw it, this tiny little calendar tickled me. Centered as it is above the writing space it is both a focal point and a small bit of data in a vast empty room. In moments like this residency time can feel this way – present but distant and contained. In spaces like these my sense of deadlines and schedules is always more fluid. I feel myself moving on the order of human to human rather than human to institution.

When I lived in Paris for three months while studying Roy Hart voice work I became a kind of monk. I woke every morning at 6:30am and made myself breakfast and lunch in a slow methodical fashion. I placed a book and a notebook in my bag and got on the train for classes. At the end of the day I rode home and placed these same items on a table in the exact same place. Every Wednesday, our one half day during the week, I opened the notebook to a list of places I’d determined would be interesting to see and I went to one of them. At night I exercised according to a schedule taped to the wall, made myself dinner and drank a glass and a half of wine, listened to a podcast and then wrote in a journal before going to sleep promptly at 10:30.

The three months I was in Paris I was cleaner than I’ve ever been in my life. Each weekend I washed my tiny apartment from top to bottom. I cleaned floors and backsplashes and under beds. I made all my meals (but for two at the start and end) by hand. I ate slowly. I took an hour on Sundays just to stretch. I walked a ton. I wrote and wrote and wrote.

When thinking about my days there was a kind of familiarity in such repetitive scheduling that was comforting. There was a way in which I never had to plan beyond a 12-hour stretch at a time. I made small changes to my workout schedules, added or took away attractions on my list. I listened to an extra podcast or wrote only a few lines of “I have nothing to say today” if it was true. And I say this to point out that this routine didn’t feel punishing. Quite the opposite. It was perhaps the calmest I’ve ever been.

In certain kinds of ways it was a very productive time. I wrote a lot and learned a lot and thought a lot and was in great shape. But it was also a kind of fallow period. I had lots of projects on the horizon that I knew I would return to but I didn’t make much contact with those collaborators. I didn’t write up plans and ideas for rehearsals. I didn’t think much about the specifics of the actual pieces.

I just sort of readied myself to be ready.

I wonder if I hadn’t been in classes, hadn’t had an obvious check mark for the “I’m being productive” box, if I could have given myself that kind of schedule and time to be ready…

I wonder if I’d tried to fill every moment outside of those classes with high intensity activities and meetings and stuff if the class work would have sunk in quite as deeply…

I wonder if the insane burst of things that came after this quiet fallow phase would have been quite as insane or quite as much of a burst.

If I look at the past few months there are ways in which things have had a similar shape to that time in France. My days are filled with the deepest kinds of interactions and lessons and then I stay in most evenings. I have been cleaning far more often and with far less angst than usual. I stand over the sink and wash each dish and feel the water on my hands. I eat carefully, with great choice, and make almost all of it from scratch. For the first time in a long time I read for pleasure and catch myself talking in long slow monologues and writing and writing and writing.

And, weirdly, I worry if this is enough of a life. If such smallness is catching. If I must stare at the clock and the calendar and rev myself up for more.

For now I will content myself to stare at this tiny calendar that will carry me through the weekend and thank whoever left it for making it so small.

– A

Taking Up Space

When people ask me what I do for Swim Pony, I tell them it’s a little bit of everything – some admin, some stage management, some writing and research, and so on. That’s part of what I love about this job – I get to flex all different parts of my brain and constantly rotate tasks so they stay fresh and interesting.

For Cross Pollination, I manage a lot of logistics – schedule meetings, book spaces, pick up supplies, and process payments. I’m also the documentarian; I go to every meeting and residency gathering and take copious notes that get turned into the public-facing documentation for the program. For the former, I live in a very rational, categorical brain space. For the latter, I let that go and do my best to be aware instead of the emotions and rhythm of the space and the artists.

The incongruence of these two roles isn’t particularly difficult to resolve; as a stage manager, I’m happiest working with directors who encourage me to have creative opinions in addition to detailed prop tracking charts, so maintaining artistic awareness while keeping everything organized isn’t particularly problematic. However, there’s also another layer.

The part that’s hardest to balance is what I see as being “good at my job” with being a human being.

Let me unpack that for you a bit.

Cross Pollination is, almost unfailingly, an incredibly intimate space. Often, the trio of artists are exploring the most foundational motivations between how and why they make art and making the choice to share those with people who in most cases were strangers not long before. They spend a large amount of very concentrated hours together, talking and experimenting and having to open themselves up to things they don’t know how to do or succeed at. Questions like vulnerability, family, and meaningfulness are dug into deeply.

I’m there for all of it, but I’m not really a part of it. Occasionally I participate: often exercises that are led by one person and are completed individually or that are collaborative but not generative feel okay for me to be a part of, because they’re not actively part of discovering the artistic center of the triangle that the trio of artists form.

But mostly I do my best to stay an objective outsider. The point of me doing the documentation for Swim Pony instead of Adrienne is to have an outside eye who can write about the experiences of all the artists as intimately as possible (hence my always being in the room) without the bias of being one of them myself. I don’t participate in most conversations, and I observe the collaborative, creative exercises that take up the majority of the time.

Now, let me stress that I’m not complaining in the slightest: I’m very aware of how fortunate I am to get to be in the room with so many amazing people. I feel like I’m gleaning secrets about being a lifelong artist that take most people ten or twenty years to discover for themselves. Every day I’m in a Cross Pollination gathering, I feel like my mind is firing on a million different pistons as ideas I never even thought about spark from things people say. I often compare myself to a sponge, constantly absorbing as much as I possibly can.

But every once in a while, the sponge gets oversaturated. One week, an individual exercise I thought I could participate in and then withdraw and take notes about during the recap instead gave me an emotional breakdown. Another time, I found myself crying in the midst of a conversation before playing a game and had no idea where the tears came from.

I always feel guilty in these moments. I feel like it’s selfish to draw attention to myself or to take up emotional space when I’m supposed to be the objective observer. I feel like I’m losing respect by not being able to keep it together and deal with my shit on my own time, when these residencies aren’t about me. I feel unprofessional, sometimes even immature or childish.

Nobody’s ever told me to feel this way. Adrienne would never tell me I’m not allowed to have feelings; these are personal expectations I’ve internalized for myself. In fact, often I like and even prefer to operate this way: as a stage manager, being required to be the one who stays calm and solves the problem is often how I actually do become calm. Fake it ‘til you make it, you know.

But apparently that doesn’t always work. And in this case, maybe it shouldn’t. If I’m going to really understand what’s being discovered in each residency and be able to document the process with any accuracy, I have to let myself be part of the room. I have to let myself be raw and open and affected, just as the artists are. I have to stop setting myself standards of total objectivity and think of myself more as an anthropologist. Anthropologists don’t do research by watching people like zoo animals; rather, they integrate themselves into communities while also maintaining an outsider’s eye.

Because taking up space isn’t about being one of the artists in residency. It’s about being a human being.

The Best Kind of Tired

When I visited Barcelona a couple years ago, one of my friends decided she was going to use the opportunity to remember and practice all the Spanish she’d ever learned and refused to speak English to any of the locals we met. Likewise, most of the people we interacted with at stores or restaurants wanted to practice their English when talking to us. It was hard work at times to cross the communication barrier, as neither side was fluent, but when a whole conversation was achieved with understanding on both sides, it was always extremely satisfying. My friends and I would return to our airbnb rental at the end of the day, and we’d be completely exhausted, not just from the physical activity of exploring new places, but from the  mental openness required of being immersed in a different culture and trying to communicate in a different language.

Cross Pollination feels a little like that. This week, Adrienne is working with sculptor Shelley Spector and theater/dance dramaturg and deviser Mark Lord. Adrienne and Mark both work in the theater world, so in some ways they speak the same language, but they approach their form so differently that they’re definitely using different forms or dialects of it. Meanwhile, Shelley, as a visual artist, is often speaking another language entirely. But all three parties are constantly asking questions and seeking answers from the others, and the moments where everybody reaches equal footing and understanding, whether it’s by participating in an exercise led by one artist, or by conducting interviews that let the others ask in-depth questions, are every bit as satisfying as when Jess had whole conversations with Spanish shopkeepers.

But while I could often let go of the Spanish conversations when I left them, Cross Pollination has a much more lasting effect. The conversations are so dense and openness and authenticity so sought after that I always leave mentally exhausted. But to add to that, not only are the Cross Pollinators communicating across different languages, but their explorations don’t just consist of walking around a city or hiking up a mountain; they’re often trying totally new things, using muscles that they may  not even know they have. The work may not be difficult, necessarily, but the newly discovered muscle can end up feeling sore just because it’s so out of practice.

But soreness is exciting when it means you’ve achieved something. Communicating in another language opens the world so much more than being isolated in your own. And Cross Pollination may leave us exhausted ad oversaturated, but it’s the best feeling there is.


Cross Pollination Squared

[Let me start with a moment of clarification: I am not Adrienne. I’m Sam, and as I work full-time for Swim Pony, I have now become a more regular blog contributor alongside Adrienne. She’ll still be writing as much as ever, but as there was some confusion when my last post was published, I just want to make sure I’m not given any false impressions. Also, thanks to MJ Kaufman for the snazzy title to this post. Onward!]

We are knee-deep in our first week of Cross Pollination right now, with Chris Forsyth and MJ Kaufman. My job for the project is logistics coordinator and documentarian; I schedule meetings, book spaces, coordinate bringing in outside artists to help out, purchase supplies, process paychecks, and manage much of the social media and web presence. At the end of each Cross Pollination week, I’ll also be writing and publishing Swim Pony’s official documentation of the residency. All this allows Adrienne to be fully invested in cross pollinating as an artist, without having to simultaneously stress about micro details that take her out of the process.

For me, it also means that I have the fascinating observational perspective of getting to be at every meeting and every rehearsal for every group, to soak in and take notes on the conversations that happen and ideas that develop. The whole idea of Cross Pollination is to bring together artists who would probably never all be in a group or collaborating. Therefore, I am continually struck by surprise over how many parallels exist across different groups, even in these early stages.

Some parallels make sense, of course: with Adrienne as a common factor in each group, it’s not surprising that I’ve heard about storytelling through collage, aversion to plot, and an interest in gaming systems as a way into audience integration in almost every meeting. However, much more interesting are the commonalities that have come up in unexpected ways, which seem to say a lot about how Philadelphia inspires people and the questions that artists of all kinds ask themselves.

Each group starts with a preliminary “coffee date,” where the three artists grouped together meet and do some initial getting-to-know-you chatter to make sure there’s not a horrendous personality clash. Then there are two more preparatory meetings before the group’s Cross Pollination round, which allows time for more concrete conversations about what might happen during the week in terms of both content and form (allowing me to make sure they have an appropriate space and any supplies they can think of ahead of time).

One of our groups, Mark Lord and Shelley Spector, along with Adrienne, had their first of the two preparatory meetings last week. There was a lot of interest in marking art from found objects and spaces, particularly those found in a space that is a really tight, specific container, such as an Amtrak train. They talked about a core value of audience takeaway, about building something tangible and offering a tactile experience, and the desire to work in a space that’s not neutral. There was a conversation about “interventions,” an art term for something existing in a place where it’s not supposed to be (such as when Shelley and her family were offered a hayride in the middle of Philadelphia). The group hit a stride on the topic of undercutting American consumerism, things that could be done in or relating to retail spaces to poke fun at them, or alternatively to bring tranquility into holiday shopping spaces (especially since their residency will be the week immediately following Black Friday). Then they veered back to the idea of objects’ stories and the spirit of gift-giving that exists alongside the rampant consumerism come December. We all left the meeting with heads spinning, excited and inspired to let the thoughts simmer and talk more next time.

The next morning, Shelley sent us a follow-up email that offered a new proposal that brought together many of the ideas that had been discussed: translating the idea of a train into the more diversified subway, and building a collapsible tent or “store” that gives gifts of objects or performance to subway riders. Adrienne responded with interest and curiosity in what can make something on the subway a “gift” in a way that genuinely offers a positive experience rather than bothering people. The conversation ended there for the time being; it will come up again at our final prep meeting, and it’s anyone’s guess if we will ultimately end up doing anything close to that, given the number of ideas that float around in all the Cross Pollination conversations.

But regardless of whether it happens, that idea is out there. Now, let me talk a little about this week… Adrienne, Chris, and MJ’s prep conversations were very different. Topics included family, education, structure vs. freedom, what it means to be “productive,” funders, event coordination, making theatre feel like a rock concert, artistic inspirations, and collaging of different elements in one space. We went into the week with a lot of topics of interest but no concrete plans. The week started with some slow explorations, but towards the end of the second day, we landed on an idea that inspired the rest of the week.

Chris, MJ, and Adrienne tried a couple different ways of layering all their expertises on top of each other: Chris playing guitar, MJ writing, and Adrienne directing all at the same time. One of the later experiments explored the question of how to bring instrumental music to the foreground instead of it always being supplemental to text/plot. Two actors were asked to read from a long, non-dramatic text that MJ had written previously, a sentence at a time, with long gaps between each that let the music swell and exist as the priority. The result was something that felt like a live podcast, with the way the music interwove with snippets of texts in a powerful auditory (but visually relatively unstimulating) experience. The group connected this to a comment Adrienne had made about particularly enjoying listening to music in the car, as part of a journey. So we talked about maybe making this “live podcast” a performance piece in the back seat of vehicles: what if we called an Uber driver, then a musician and two actors got in and suddenly were providing art to the driver?

The next day:
-So, are we riding around in a car today?
-Cars are a little small; we couldn’t all fit…
-They’re also unsustainable.
-…Yeah, driving a car around totally aimlessly is probably not a great idea.
-What if we do it on the subway?

And with that, we were off. We spent the rest of the day riding the Market-Frankford line back and forth, particularly the elevated section going all the way out to Frankford Transportation Center, and experimenting with ways to bring performance into a subway car without it feeling overly intrusive, like something we were offering to the riders but not forcing upon them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t; there’s still more to explore and tweaks to work out.

But all I could think about was how, totally unexpectedly, we’d ended up doing something so similar to what Shelley had proposed for their week. Artists of totally different mediums, in very different ways and for totally different reasons, hit upon the idea of working on the subway as a public and meaningful place/opportunity to share different kinds of art with people.

As I said, I don’t know if Shelley and Mark’s week will result in subway art at all. But at this moment, the connectedness of these experiences – the fact that each week of Cross Pollination doesn’t exist in isolation but is fed by shared inputs of the same city and issues in the world – feels both serendipitous and meaningful.

In Progress/Process

Recently, Swim Pony began work on a new project called THE END. Designer Maria Shaplin, Sam and I all gathered together to start imagining how we start a conversation about what it means to die. It’s rare that I write publicly at these earliest stages of process. Normally, this time is something protected, delicate, and I worry about exposing it to the light of the outside world.

When I write grants for THE END I start by saying things like this:

THE END is a blend of theater and game.

THE END is a personalized journey.

THE END is a meditation.

THE END is a performance for an audience of one.

THE END begins with an invitation:

An elegant letter arrives in the mail. It offers instructions for the first contact (“Sit in a quiet corner for three minutes in silence, then email the address below with the first sentence that comes to mind about mortality.”) At the bottom of the paper is a date and these embossed words: “This will be THE END. What happens between then and now is up to you.”

This kind of writing exemplifies the state of mind that I am in when I first begin a project. I start by defining the very biggest containers I sense the work will fit into. I write what I think I know to be true. I state what I hope the work will provoke. These large scale definitions, things like “meditation” or “journey,” help me define the texture of what is to come. I often talk about creating a litmus tests for the work generated: in the earliest phases I want to know if the play should taste like lemon, feel like sandpaper, or sound like the wind. At the other end of the spectrum live tiny moments, flashes of a stage image or the feeling of a particular moment for the audience, that I sense must fit in somewhere even if I don’t quite yet know how. This is how I can sense that I must create a fancy invitation or include a particular piece of music.

The work that follows these initial impulses is the slow meeting of the largest and smallest imaginings. The process is the slow and steady progress of filling in the middle.

My collaborators and I begin by playing a game called My Gift of Grace. In it, we ask each other questions ranging from what fears we have about playing the game to what we want done with our body after we have died. The questions provoke conversations. They spin off into wild forests of feelings and beliefs. We can never manage to get through more than 7 cards in a sitting. There are 47 in the deck and we have made it to #23.

We write about death in 30 minute increments. The topics range from friends who have passed away to our beliefs about the afterlife. I recall the experience of seeing Paris’ Catacombs and nearly having a panic attack. I pull out the journal I kept at the time and transcribe words from six years ago:

It felt like palpable fear. Mostly, I just wanted to leave. I wanted to think of something ready to say about it (a real skill and crossbones, SO MANY FEMURS!) in case asked but mostly I wanted so much to be out and away. I simultaneously wanted to be close to the people I love most, to hug them, mesh into them, to prove we are in love and vital and alive and life seizing and at the same time throw away everything, my family, my relationship, all of it, and find something more REAL, to embrace and confront any doubt I’ve ever had and know that I’d feel more secure having been willing to give everything up to find the truth.

Later I make a list of all the things in my life that I remember dying, roughly in order:

  • My father’s father
  • My mother’s grandmother
  • My mother’s other grandmother
  • A kitten named Diva (hit by a car)
  • The class rabbit Thumper (in our backyard while we had him at home for the summer)
  • A caterpillar we wanted to grow into a butterfly
  • Another kitten named Diva (sick when we got her)
  • Two girls from my middle school killed in a fire (we sang for them a song in the choir concert)
  • Two green anole lizards whose names I don’t remember
  • A frog
  • Several fish
  • A cage of gerbils
  • A mouse
  • A boy from my high school (committed suicide)
  • My iguana Iggy
  • The plants in my college dorm room
  • A girl from my college (car accident)
  • My childhood cat Koko
  • My childhood dog Barkley
  • The plants in my first apartment
  • My childhood cat Jojo
  • The plants I planted in my south Philly backyard
  • My partner’s father
  • My partner’s grandmother
  • My partner’s childhood cat Mandu
  • My partner and I’s cat Tallulah
  • My childhood cat Bill
  • My mother’s mother
  • My partner’s grandfather
  • My father’s mother
  • My mother’s father
  • My mother’s sister

We play with spending 5 minutes in silence just allowing ourselves to think about a particular aspect of this topic and then writing in online dialogue with each other from different spaces.

passportsWe create questionnaires that try to capture the information one might need if they were to take a journey into such a land and create passports for confronting the underworld. Like some kind of Olympian god deciding the fate of an adventurer, we are uncertain about whether the player should be assured a road back out.

And by the end of these hours of initial work we send an invitation out to others to come and see some of what we’ve made. Tomorrow we’ll find out what works and what doesn’t, what gaps we made a little progress in closing, and which need more work to bridge all that space between the largest and smallest known quantities.

This is the way the work gets made, not in single genius leaps but in tiny incremental progress.

In process.

In practice.

In slowly figuring out how to take what is inside and make it manifest in the world.

– A

What century is this?

It’s been a long time since I saw a big “Broadway musical.” But I was offered free tickets to the national tour of Bullets Over Broadway at the Academy of Music yesterday, and since I had a free evening, I was happy to accept. I knew nothing about the show, but I generally enjoy musicals and I figured it’d be an enjoyable night out.

What I did not expect was for it to rile me up to the point of shouting about it to my roommate over breakfast this morning. Which is how I knew I should probably explore the root of that irritation, and what we can do about it.

Bullets Over Broadway is a big glitzy musical set in the 1920s, about an emerging playwright/director bringing a play to Broadway through the assistance of a mobster financial backer. The show opened with “Tiger Rag,” which featured a group of leggy women in skimpy tiger costumes performing for a bunch of gangsters. The song offered no exposition towards the plot, and seemed to serve merely as a chance to dress some pretty chorus girls up in sexy costumes.

As those thoughts flitted across my mind in the first minute after the overture, I also had the strong sense that  I’d be in for a bumpy ride. And I was right. Not only were the female ensemble only ever used as flappers/”gentlemen’s club” dancers/sexy train conductors to give unnecessary exposition about what new location the story was moving to, but the leading ladies were no better. Let’s assess.

The Women of Bullets Over Broadway:

  1. Ellen – The playwright’s girlfriend from before he makes it big, who gets so little stage time in the first act that we hardly even care when her boyfriend strikes up a love affair with his play’s star. She almost gives women a little independent agency when David confesses his affair and she responds by saying she’s cheating too and doesn’t seem at all upset about his infidelity. But then along comes the finale: just as David’s lover dumps him, Ellen returns and says that she has realized she’s much more interested in their steadfast love than the passionate sex she was having with her man on the side. (Yes, really.)
  2. Helen Sinclair – The darling of the theater who David recruits into starring in his show. Has the authority/independence to do whatever she wants, but mostly just comes off as an alcoholic diva bitch who destroys David and Ellen’s relationship and then dumps him.
  3. Olive Neal – The mobster’s girlfriend who lands a role in David’s play because the mobster won’t give him financial backing if he doesn’t cast her. Your basic Lily St. Regis: lots of pink clothes, lots of blonde hair, and lots of stupidity. Her voice is so annoying and her talent in David’s play so lacking that the real audience enthusiastically applauded when she got shot.

Those are the female roles in this musical: a ragdoll who comes running as soon as the man who cheated on her is available again, a scheming bitch, and an obnoxious dumb blond. If you’re not one of them, you’re a chorus girl at the gentleman’s club, or an insecure and irritating supporting actress with a pet dog who has his own therapist, or if you’re lucky, the assistant director with only one line.

I tried to tell myself that maybe it was sort of okay, that the show was just a product of its time. For example, I have a lot of problems with the way women are portrayed in South Pacific, but because it was written in 1949, I give it a little leeway in its contents. (I have questions about why anyone still does shows that are problematic because of “their time,” but that’s an issue for another post.) This musical, set in the 1920s, felt akin to the old classic musicals, very much in the world of Guys and Dolls; since I’d never heard of it before this tour, I thought maybe it was a 40s or 50s piece that had been revived as a fun touring option.

And then I looked it up, and found out that Bullets Over Broadway premiered on Broadway last year.

What? WHAT? WHAT?!

Why are we still making show like this today? It’s bad enough when productions of the classics maintain the inherent sexism and racism that so many of them have, without thinking of ways to update them to be relevant and useful for a contemporary audience, rather than memorializing the problems by refusing to acknowledge they exist. But why is anyone STILL making NEW theater that only treats women as objects of men and the butt of their jokes? Why would we offer a play like this a Tony nomination for best book? Why would any actress accept a role in such a play? How could Susan Stroman, a director/choreographer who is more than successful enough to turn down bad offers, be pleased with directing other women in a show that treats them like this?

Of course, one of those answers is obvious. The women performing in Bullets Over Broadway, leads or not, are getting credited for a national tour, probably being paid quite well, and honestly probably having a lot of fun with all the dancing and singing. With factors like that, it can be easy to bask in the personal growth opportunities offered from being a part of such a great gig and ignore the bigger picture of what the musical is actually saying and doing to women.

I get that. I really really do. I question sometimes if I made the wrong choice by not going for an apprenticeship or ASM/PA job at a big theater that could fast track me to a professional career in stage management for large-scale, big-name shows. But then I see this production, and I know that I will take all the challenges that come with my path to make sure that that’s not the kind of theater I’m helping put into the world.

For many audiences, this is all they know that theater is or can be. The perception of money equating to quality and that good professional theater has to originate from New York that many people have means that, most likely, there are hundreds or even thousands of Philadelphians who only really go see shows at the Kimmel Center or Academy of Music, and maybe the Walnut if they’re lucky.

So many people laughed at the expense of the goofy female characters in this musical. So many people were so impressed by the moving car with real headlights that appeared on stage for less than ten minutes total and probably cost more than the budget of any single Swim Pony show. So many people clapped or cheered when David and Ellen got back together again at the end, even though it took away any measure of independence she’d built up. I walked out of the theater with all these people around me, and I felt so sorry for them, that they’re content to shut off their brains and consciences and enjoy without asking questions.

It’s no wonder that young people, people who care about the way women are treated in art and entertainment, and who want to be able to express their opinions and engage with what they’re seeing, don’t care much about theater and go to see it in such minimal numbers.  Because honestly, if this show is what traditional theater is offering, I’m glad it’s “dying out.”

Not everyone has to make shows that are immersive and participatory and site-specific like Swim Pony; there are many excellent traditionally structured plays and musicals that I get excited about. But new musicals that play into old stereotypes are not on that list.  I hope that all artists can accept and find work not just because it’s likely to be good for their career, but instead because they care about it, about what its saying and how it’s saying it and what impact that will have on an audience.

Because if you don’t believe in the art you’re making, then why are you making art at all?


A little guest directing, a little guest blogging

Adrienne and I are starting off fall working on something a little out of the ordinary for Swim Pony: a “play play,” as Adrienne likes to call them. Adrienne is guest directing The Children’s Hour at EgoPo Classic Theater, a 1930s period drama about an all-girls boarding school, one girl who doesn’t quite fit in, and the destruction she wreaks with a slanderous story about her headmistresses’ supposed secret love for each other.

Despite the heaviness of many of the scenes, there is a lot of laughter and joy and support in the rehearsal room as we unpack these characters and their stories together. While we work on the show, Adrienne is doing a little guest blogging for EgoPo as well…

 Check out her first post on their company blog!


Coming Soon: The Summer of Play Play!

There’s this term I use for plays that I think epitomize the passive theater experience: Play Plays.

In the past, when I’ve used the “play play” term I‘m generally making fun of a kind of play that exists in a very narrowly defined idea of theater one that, in my opinion, doesn’t makes the full use of the superpowers of a live medium. I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “play” in the last couple years and in particular about the ways our “plays” contain very little “play” for the people we invite in to experience them. I’ve been looking to games as inspiration for how theater might learn to do things a little differently. Lately, I’ve realized I need to do more than just read about these ideas, I want to put them into action.

So! This summer Swim Pony is going to re-define it’s own snarky definition.

We’re launching “Play Play”: an exploration of theater and games in collaboration to find whatever engaged and play-full experiences might be possible. We’re inviting anyone interested in the intersection of games and theater as an avenue for play (play) to join in on an open-source six week research and exploration project. What exactly does that entail?

Throughout June, July and August the Play Play team will meet up six times for 2.5 hours, the first half for research and discussion and the second for on the ground trial and error in the real world. This is pure research, no final products in mind here. We’re just interested in learning more about what’s out there, and conducting some simple experiments in real time. Swim Pony will offer up a meeting space, some snacks and a little cash if an idea simply needs some resources to come to completion. Meetings will be lead collectively and topics of interest decided together.

So if you’re already looking into game and theater hybridization or if you’re just intrigued by the idea look at the dates below and email swimponypa@gmail.com with your name, preferred email and a few sentences about why you’re interested.

Participation is free and selection will be first come, first serve-ish. (What does that mean? Mostly, if you email first you’re in! That said, we want to create a balanced group, ideally with a variety of perspectives and experiences so we’re just being upfront that we reserve the right, if we have to cap, to pull from responses with an eye for group diversity.)

Can’t take part! Have no fear. We’ll chronicle the work and share a post on each week’s discoveries on the blog.


DATES: Mondays June 22nd & 29th, July 13th & 20th, August 3rd & 10th. All from 10am – 12:30pm. YOU MUST AGREE TO COME TO AT LEAST 5. Everyone gets one off but the idea of this is to get a running convo, which isn’t possible if it’s too hodge-podge attendance-wise. If you need to miss one please indicate the date in your email.

LOCATION: TBD depending on size. We’ll let you know.



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:


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…