A totally blank canvas


White. Open. Unknown.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I thought, “This is terrifying.”

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

I thought, “Listen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hey all,

Know it’s been a bit. Some (VERY EXCITING) new things on the horizon that have to do with the recent hiatus. That said, I thought I’d re-post an oldie that I was reading over again recently.

We’ll be talking soon…


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 is what “professional” looked like.

After a bit more than a decade of an actual life as an artist I’ve slowly morphed into…

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federal copy

This is where you start

The life of a creator can be tough between projects. It can be especially frustrating if you feel like the work you make is dependent on others being around to help you do it. Some days it feels awfully tough to “direct” all alone in my apartment. And on days like this it can feel like my work is dependent on so many factors out of my control to come into being.

I recently had a convo with a friend who was in a slump, feeling down about the announced seasons of most of the local theaters (the perennial “No parts for me” frustration), wishing that could she saw a creative outlet on her horizon. Like I said, I know the feeling. But I also wonder sometimes if we don’t unconsciously do ourselves a disservice thinking this way –  giving ourselves an out from really going after what we want. If it’s up to others to determine our creative fate, it’s not our fault if we don’t feel ourselves moving ahead.

This blog is the product of one of those long stretches between rehearsal processes. It was a way for me to put all that energy I had into something even if it wasn’t a show. This space, this writing, has been a reminder that there is a way to keep a practice active and moving even when you can’t work it in exactly the way we might wish. Like taking up rowing after getting a bad sprained ankle. Doing something similar but a little different might mean, as I’ve found, a challenge is also an opportunity to find that one’s output doesn’t have to be so narrowly defined.


In this spirit, I’ll try to share ways that I find to keep the research and performance work alive in these interludes between the work. And to start I’ll share a small theatrical experiment.

This is a walking sound journey. It’s rough, a very first draft, but a style I’ve been really interested in playing with recently. This piece came out of a two day exploration at Headlong’s Dance Theater Camp with Amy Smith on “Experiential Journeys.” The goal was to research how to create experiences that bring people into their environment in new and different ways. I wanted to try a solo experience that integrated the real world with an invented narrative. The way that I feel when I’m walking down the street and the music I’m listening to suddenly, serendipitously, syncs with what I’m seeing around me.

So here’s what you do:

1) Download the two files at this link and put them onto your phone. (Or if you get decent service you can play them online.) Grab some headphones.


2) Go to the northeast corner of Broad and Federal. Stand next to the mailbox.

3) Before you move, orient yourself. For this experiment you will walk east on Federal, take a left on 13th, another left on Elsworth and then a final left onto Broad as you pass the diner. You’ll essentially make a loop around the block and end up back where you started.

3) Start playing the first track. Then go for a walk.

4) When you finish track 1 go back to the mailbox. Start playing the second track and wait until it tells you to “Start walking” and repeat the same path.

That’s it. You’ve just participated in a little work in progress.

Feel free to let me know what you think.



Hey folks,

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

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

Let’s decide this isn’t the case.

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

Hope to see you next Sunday and Monday.

– A

mon Some people have all the luck

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

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

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

First this one

Then this one

And finally this one

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” she says back and smiles. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I ask something first?”


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

Everyone giggles for a second.

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

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

Our mouths collectively hit the floor.

The next class I watch again as the students enter.

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

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

She goes back to the accent.

Because she has the choice.

– A

One small thing (that’s also huge) that you can literally do RIGHT now

I’ve spent a lot of time the past couple weeks writing about my feelings. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the things that I’m trying to do to make Philadelphia a more equal place for artists who are women.

Today, instead, I’m asking you to do something.

Take a look at the websites of your favorite performance companies. See what seasons they have lined up. Or see if they haven’t announced them yet.

And for ones that are still undecided, and ESPECIALLY for ones that have announced seasons with imbalance toward men, send a quick email to the Artistic Director, Managing Director, and head of their board.

Tell them you are their audience base.

Tell them you want to see women employed by their company.

Tell them it matters to you that this happens.

You can do this today. It might take you 15 minutes It could change an entire year of programming.  That’s how powerful your voice could be.

And if you aren’t feeling creative, I’ll even give something badass and awesome to cut and paste into an email:

“Dear _______ Theater Co/Ensemble/Theatre/Whatever,

I love your work.

I also love female art makers.

And I’d really love to love both of those things at the same time.

I want you to know, because of how much I care about your company, that I’m concerned about the inequity of representation for women artists in next year’s theater season. As a member of your audience base, I’m letting you know that one of the ways I will make choices about what I will or won’t see will be based on whether I see women getting the space on stages they deserve.

I care about seeing female characters. I care about hearing female voices. I want to see women in directing and design positions.  And because I want to believe you want this to, I’m reaching out.

I’m asking you, as an audience member, as a fan, and as part of the community your mission seeks to serve, to please look long and hard about the work you’re bringing me next year and make sure that gender parity – for playwrights, for designers, for directors and actors – is a priority in the work you present.

Because I know it is for me.

And I hope you make me proud.”

Steal, change it, do whatever you want, just DO it. Right now, this very moment, you could make a difference.

– A


cooltext1368115366What time is it? LADY-FESTO Time!

Mark your calendars friends. It’s official.

From 7 – 9:30pm on March 23rd and 24th at Headlong Studios (formerly the Arts Parlor) The Awesome Lady Squad will write it’s Lady-Festo.

“What, pray tell is a Lady-Festo?” You might be asking yourself.

A Lady-Festo is the document that will lay out the ways our Squad will carry out it’s awesome missions and how we promise to treat each other as Awesome Lady Squad members.

I’ve also recently contacted the Squad with some updates about our goings on and you can read all the details here. The long and the short is, we want your ideas. So come one night or both. And if you can RSVP to swimponypa@gmail.com so we get a sense of the group size.

If you want to join the Squad email list, have no fear, you can do that RIGHT NOW.

And later this month hammer out a document that will change the face of ladies in the arts for eternity!

Stay awesome.

– A

Dispatches from The Awesome Lady Squad #3: In which the vision grows and begins to come into focus


Did you feel it?

On January 26th at 9pm did you sense the pulling undertow of a wave the coming change? Or perhaps it was subtler, more like an aftershock. A tiny rumble under the feet that you almost could have missed.

Did you sit back and say, “Hey… Did Philadelphia just get a little more… Awesome?”

Well whether you noticed or not the unequivocal answer to that question is a big fat defiant “Oh, HELL Yes.” Because on January 26th the Awesome Lady Squad gathered again for the second time. We chatted some more, shared topics and questions with those who couldn’t make it to the last meeting and even more excitingly began to come up with ideas for how we begin to spread.

Today’s mission on the blog: a recap of the last meeting.

Tomorrow’s: a roll out of some potential projects for the future.

So let’s get to it!

Below is a summary of the three main questions we talked about in the general order we tackled them:

i) What is your work? Does being female affect you as an artist/creator? Does it change the kind of work you make or the way in which you make it? If applicable, has that shifted in any way over time?

ii) How do you get it made? How does your female identity intersect with the ways you get your work into being? Do you think being a female artist differs from being a male one? If applicable, has that changed in any way since you started your career?

iii) What should the future look like? If money, time and other people’s attitudes were no barrier and the world could be exactly as you wish, what would be the working theater community look like? Try and answer as often as possible with “It would have –“ or “It would be – “ versus “It wouldn’t – “

And, as with the notes from the last one, these are some of the things we expressed, written down to the best of my note taking ability and grouped together by my own intuitive categories.

Making Your Own Work

–       I’m curious to know how many people didn’t want to make their own work but started to because of lack of opportunity? (About half the room raises their hands.)

–       My dance company really values showing the opposite of the expected, of the equality inherent in our values. The women also lift the guys because we want to show that women are equally capable.

–       One of the reasons we started making our own work was to look at our perspective as women, especially as sexual people. Turns out that’s very hard and very complicated. I’m 36 now versus 26 when I started. Now I feel a stronger commitment to these issues now than when I was younger. Now I’m seeing more people, especially women creating their own work

–       Does being female affect the work I make? The way I make it? Has it changed over time? Yes. Yes. and Yes. The reason I founded a company was to create opportunities that were lacking in my life.  I wanted to get away from a spirit of competition that was not welcome to me. Philly has always been different than so many other places that I’d done theater. I picked here because that kind of competition wasn’t here when I started.

–       I run a summer theater camp, about 2 years ago I started writing a children’s musical, the lead character was a guy, the best friend was a guy. I realized, I don’t think I’m telling a story that I as a little girl could identify with. So last summer I made sure that the two leads were both female.

The Need to Impress

–       I recently had two young interns, one male and one female. And of course this is anecdotal, but I was so struck how the young woman spent almost all her time trying to impress me and figuring out how to help me do things and the young man spent all this time asking questions about things he wanted to know.

–       It’s the audition paradigm. I feel pressure in this inherent idea that you have to impress. That even when you’re doing the work, good work people like, you’re still auditioning every day. That paradox, that are in tension with each other plague me wherever I go.

–       My personal experience is that you’re applying for a job or going after a role and you’ve got 80% of the stuff they want, a man will apply. But women will say that I don’t know 20% of the job and not apply. That instinct to focus on the 20% unknown versus the 80% we do is part of the issue. In particular as a younger woman I get nervous about speaking something that is truthful for fear of offending. I wonder if maybe the outcome is not as bad as we fear.

–       I was at an audition sitting with 4 or 5 actresses and we’d all done the work of reading the show before showing up. As we were talking we realized that we didn’t love the play. In fact, it was pretty bad and the female roles in particular were really bad. And as we’re talking about it, an actor that works all the time comes in. I asked if he’d read the play (no) and later found out he booked it that day and we didn’t. The point isn’t that I didn’t get cast. It’s like, why did I do all this work on something I didn’t care about? Why show up and get judged for something I don’t know that I even want to do. Young women want to impress. You’re constantly trying to insert “I am smart and just as good” into the conversation but you have to think about who you’re having the conversation with in the first place.

–       Often I’m auditioning for a piece I didn’t conceive, for fewer female parts and parts I don’t really like. So now if I read it and I can’t sit in a comfortable place with it, I remember I don’t have to submit for it. If I’m not enthusiastic about it then why am I doing it? I would rather have les work that I’m more passionate about.

Being on the Management/Administrative Side

–       I feel like I come from a different place because I’m a managing director, my experience has been that I came in and there were too many men. I’m really glad I’m here because there are now women. It’s a constant conversation in the office. The way that plays and playwrights are talked about. There’s something really strong advantages to “oh you’re here and at the table.”

–       In the dance world there are a million female dancers, and so many times I see people get to a point where you have a company and working with all women, and then feel like they have to bring in a male dancer to legitimatize dance or funding or get audience

–       I come from a different context, a new discipline, and when I decided I wanted to make performance, I was the only person doing that in Philadelphia at the time. There was no place that could support my work because I need aerial rigging. So we had to make every opportunity for ourselves, had to educate all our reviewers and audiences, and because all our work is inherently about women’s bodies and shapes, I don’t feel conflicted about that at all. I do feel disconnected sometimes but I’m free not to have to have someone else’s conversation.

–       WHY do grants for women always seem to have to have a social change aspect??

Being A Spokeswoman

–       In my company I became the self-appointed gender watchdog. I always made sure that there were equal female playwrights and directors and designers and roles. Sometimes I could feel eyes rolling.

–       As a brand new company doing classical work, I want to help this company and tell these stories equally. But it’s really hard. What I need help with is figuring out how do you talk about it. What to do when I feel the eye roll. What to say when just a little attempt is not enough. How do I be assertive and say this is important? To get out of the place where I feel like I need to apologize.

–       I am trained as performers and show my feelings. And that ends up hurting me sometimes. This matters to me and I hate feeling myself getting red and blushy and upset.

–       I want to find ways to have open and non-defensive discussions about this. Getting men to understand that they don’t understand means more advocates on our side. It’s not a fight against, it’s fighting to bring them with.

–       Being young, I’ve been in a position of having to learn a lot. If I get a gig I take it, if I take it then it seems like I have to deal with anything that happens. I’ve been doing a lot of backstage work – set design and carpentry. There are physical and weight carrying aspects that I see people not letting me take part in. I want to find a way to voice that I’ve not been treated like the others, that people won’t let me be the same. I’m trying to figure out how to voice this as a student, who admittedly doesn’t know as much.

Talking About How Identity and Labels Play Into the Work

–       I struggle with having to make work about being a woman. Can it just be about me as a person, who happens to be a woman, or does it have to be a statement?

–       It’s something I think about a lot. When I’m making work, I’m trying to think of things about sex and romance and body image, female topics, it’s something I struggle with internally, “Here she goes again talking about her hips.”

–       No guy says “Am I just doing this because I’m a man?” I see so many women come in and apologize

–       Because I’m Latina, I have to do Latina work. You don’t have the freedom of being a white man, it’s like being a white canvas, as soon as it’s a white woman, there’s more paint, with a Latina, there’s more even more paint

–       Sometimes with women who’ve had to fight SO hard there’s a sense of I had to bust my ass and get here and you should too

What we’d like to see instead

–       Funding targeted for women that doesn’t carry a social change element

–       Female director and actors in equal numbers

–       A genuine curiosity in discussions we have with people about these issues. Not assuming the worst.

–       Women in funding positions, in places of deciding power over the work that gets made.

–       A chance to practice these conversations and develop language that I am confident in ahead of time.

–       New ways to fund and produce work that could subvert some of the power systems that currently undercut the issues we’ve discussed. Starting a conversation “this is the way that funding has worked” and “here’s how it might work in the future”

–       A re-frame of how we look at each other, remove the model of scarcity, to a model of abundance. That no matter what work I make, not matter what economic level I make it at, to know that we are not in competition.

So there’s what we said. And tomorrow, check back in for some ways that we (and hopefully you too) can start to take action.

– A

Dispatches from The Awesome Lady Squad: #1

At the start of 2014 I made a resolution to become a superhero.

I made a resolution to seek out and form a superhero-style team of bad-ass ladies who are art makers to help spread our art and bad-assery across the city of Philadelphia. I began forming a group that will henceforth be known as The Awesome Lady Squad.

Oh, excuse me. I meant to say:


First thing you ought to know: there are a lot of us.

I didn’t need to send out a bat signal. I only had to put up a single facebook post and a note on the blog. Almost as an afterthought. I thought I’d get a handful of people. A dozen if I was really lucky. Instead I found 40 people gathered with me last week for two hours to talk and share and start to plan. Clearly, there’s a need to be filled here.

Because from what I can tell, these awesome ladies are just the tip of the iceberg.

So here’s what we, the Awesome Ladies of the Awesome Lady Squad, did in our first gathering:

1) We put out a whole bunch more chairs (Because there were, you know, a lot of us).

2) I said hello. I said that I was excited (Because I really really was).

3) We went around and said our names and the kind of awesome stuff we make.

4) I shared a vision.  It went something like this:

Hi, I am Adrienne.

And you are all awesome.

You are all awesome ladies.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about what it means to be an awesome female artist and the rewards and challenges that come with that. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, in lots of different ways – through writing, through conversation with friends and colleagues, in the back of my brain as I do my work each day.

I think part of the reason I’ve been thinking about this so often is that one of the most powerful developments in my artistic life of last few years has been finding other women who make work. I’ve found women further along in their careers who have experience that inspires me. I’ve found brand new artists who come to the table with a whole new perspective that invigorates and uplifts me. And in meeting these creators, I’ve been craving a way to take all the interactions and thoughts and excitement generated with them individually, and collectivize that into something more power than any of us singularly might be able to achieve.

I believe in talking about problems and highlighting them. I’ve done a fair share of that over the last year. But even more, I want to assume that there are concrete things we can do, that with effort over time, can shift the problems we see into solutions.  I believe very strongly in Philadelphia’s strength as an artistic community. I think we are different than most places in our support of each other as not only as creators but as human beings.

Which is why I’m inviting you to join me in a lofty goal: To make Philadelphia a model city. A model of the way we believe that female artists should be treated, a model for the kinds of work that’s possible when such awesome artists are allowed to access their full capacity, a model for how an imperfect situation can be shifted through collective effort and a will to do better.

What I want to do today is ask a series of questions that I hope will be useful in the future. I want to use your responses as a kind of divining rod for what work we should be doing.  For what it’s worth, my assumption is that there is no such thing as a singularity of perspective. I think there is no such thing as “a” female creative voice. So it’s great if you share someone else’s experience. But I think it’s interesting and useful to hear a multitude of opinions even if they differ. We begin from a place of respect and support. So feel free to respond to a question however you want to, even if you are a minority voice. That’s the Awesome Lady Squad way.

And for today, you’d prefer to just listen, that’s cool too.

I think we ought to get started.

And then we moved onto the last part of the meeting:

5) We got down into the dirt and started digging.

The two-hour conversation that followed, it flowed, it morphed, and it moved all around. It was, I have to say, pretty damn awesome. These are the three main questions we talked about in the general order we tackled them:

i) What is your work?

Does being female affect you as an artist or creator? Does it change the kind of work you make or the way in which you make it? If applicable, has that shifted in any way over time?

ii) How do you get it made?

How you get your work into being? Does being a female artist differ from being a male one? What are the advantages or disadvantages? Are there things you crave or stuff you wish could be different? If applicable, has that changed in any way since you started your career?

iii) What should the future look like?

If money, time and other people’s attitudes were no barrier and the world could be exactly as you wish, what would be the working theater community look like? Try and answer as often as possible with “It would have –” or “It would be – ” versus “It wouldn’t –”

And these are some excerpts of what people shared, grouped roughly by my own intuitive  categories:

Making it work in the current system or setting off on your own

–       When I started working, I was auditioning in NYC with a million women and 5 men who all got cast. It was a constant feeling of, “God I hope there’s a part for me.” That was the model for a long time. But at some point I decided I wasn’t willing to sit and wait around for theaters to call me. That all changed when I started making my own work.

–       I stay away from classic pieces. I don’t like the kinds of women in those stories. They aren’t familiar. They aren’t modern. They say things I don’t agree with. And yet, a lot of modern drama, I don’t see myself in either. I think this is why there are so many creator-slash-director-slash-performer-slash-I do everything people here. Because it’s an outlet. If I’m always going to be assigned this kind of play through the traditional spaces, I’ll just go make my own.

–       It’s a real privilege to be able to make one’s own work, to self-produce and get space and money, etc. In addition to gender both race and socioeconomic status factor in. It can be shocking how segregated theater is.

–       A few years ago I did this show that required me to bring myself to the work. It was a turning point in my life. Men have had a big voice for a long time. I see the context of this moment in this room, of women finding their voice. We are getting closer. The younger people in this room, I wish I had come out of college like you saying, “Yeah I can do whatever I want.” And it makes me hope this room may not be needed 20 years from now.

Juggling identities, finding one’s place in the artistic world

–       There’s a catch 22 sometimes.  The roles that are available are fewer, and they are more likely written poorly or as a stereotype. But if you protest how women are represented you’re not supporting the director’s vision. It’s actually a very patriarchal system by its nature. I want to work and it feels like I’m choosing between being seen or sticking to principles.

–       I have kids and lots of life in addition to my identity as an artist. I have to juggle so much more compared to men. My sense is that unlike men I see who just say yes when opportunity arises, I have to “check” to see if there’s a conflict with others’ need for me.  I’ve started embracing the doing of everything. And realizing I just need to say yes rather than check.

–       I have been lucky in not getting cast by “regular” theaters. It’s meant I primarily have a resume of projects that are devised rooms full of women that are awesome and not “normal” roles. Go up for things that aren’t me, I always felt really strange at the auditions. That strangeness and otherness that kept me from getting parts became the work I’m now known for.

–       As a young artist, I sign on for projects because I want to be doing. But I think I have to look at it and saying, do I really want to be doing this? Maybe I just can’t be a part of this. Ethically sticking to our guns will matter in the long run.

Strengths and challenges in being a female artist

–       I notice that I’m often asked to be nurturing. I’ve never seen actors ask a male director ask for that.  I’m not looking to be cruel, but I don’t want to be required to have a motherly element.

–       I think it’s important to remind myself sometimes that I believe in listening and being attentive. That’s my strength as a creator. It took a long time not to feel bad about it.

–       All of the working models were very male. Very auteur mindset. I get so tired of that word. But its useful to remember there are things that style can’t do. Collaborating, cooperating, being sensitive, working differently with different people, facilitate for collaboration. Those are artistic strengths. And I think we need a model that celebrates that.

–       Collaboration that is very deep produces different art. It can solve problems in new ways. If you don’t have to worry about the desire to put a stamp on everything as “mine” you have room to find the actual best idea.

–       Creating a warm and collaborative environment has demonstrably powerful effects. Collaborators have told me it’s an easier space to work in.

Habits, situations and problems that need to change

–       I hate saying sorry. I hear sorry a lot. “I’m sorry can I ask this question?”  “I’m sorry but have you noticed this?” I’m sorry but I think that maybe there’s another way to do this.” I hear myself making excuses before even start talking.

–       I also can get mad about the fact that if I were a man I’d be working more. And when I see scripts that say shitty things about women I get mad that I can’t direct them. Because I want more work, but I also can’t do that play.

–       This is the trouble with being a “mercenary” working on other people’s shows. Lately I feel like the representative woman in the room. I become acutely aware if I end up seeing something I disagree with. I only want to put my name on things that represent my ethics but I am young and don’t want to overstep bounds. I don’t want to “not work” because of this.

–       I’ve been told that I didn’t have enough vision as a director. I think what’s actually going on is that I don’t articulate “vision” in this masculine way.

–       I also don’t know why but I get worried if my work feels like a stereotype. If I explore gender in my art it feels like a stereotype. Why do I feel defensive about exploring genuine questions for myself?

–       It’s tricky to try and start these conversations. I don’t want to punish people who don’t realize what they’re doing but it’s tiring. It feels like I’m doing calculus on this issue and they’re doing arithmetic. At a certain point it’s hard to be impressed that they can add simple numbers.

Getting the support to get your work made

–       A huge aspect of this also comes into play with the funding community. Often you’re forced into writing about your work in male language. Can we talk to the funding community about how the way their language is gendered? The most insidious glass ceilings are in the semantics of that language itself.

–       I dealt with a funder who just didn’t think the work I did qualified me as an artist. And I had to realize they don’t hate me, they literally just don’t understand.  That took an enormous amount of energy and engendered a world of anger in my life. I am tired of feeling like all the dudes get opportunities. I am tired of thinking “This is no fucking fair.” I don’t want that rage to take up all that space in me.

–       It’s also important to stop seeing status that doesn’t matter to you. It’s easy to get caught in what other people tell you are important. How can you say no to this thing that other people would kill for? I’ll tell you how, because I don’t value it.

–       The funders, the presenters, they need to change. We also need more women in these roles and need to become aware. Eventually they have to die. But we also have to get into positions where we can make them change the system.

And finally, we ended the conversation by starting a list of things we’d love to see, things  that might be a good place to start if we’re trying to make an awesome future:

–       I wish Philly had a grant for women that was not linked with social change

–       I want to see equal genders represented in directors, actors, plays, etc.

–       I’d like a world where we stand up for each other.

–       I want more resource sharing – of space, info, etc

–       I want more women becoming the new gate keepers of festivals, funding, etc

–       I’ve never seen a woman direct, never assisted, etc. I want to see that.

–       I want funded apprenticeship with younger artists with older female artists.

–       I want to offer and accept opportunities, not just wait for things to come to me, but actively give whatever I can to folks coming down the pike.


What comes next?

First thing: another meeting. This will either be Sunday 1/26 or Monday 1/27 in the evening with the same format as meeting #1 to give 9 – 5ers that couldn’t get to the first one a chance to share their thoughts too.

And then?

Well, I’m going to think long and hard about how to take these awesome thoughts and feelings and translate them into a setting where we can start to take action. This is really where I think the Awesome Lady Squad really will become a superpower. I know that we are capable of changing some of the problems we see and my hope is to come up with a plan for how to do that. If you have ideas, feel free to send them along!

That’s it for now.

Oh, and thanks for being awesome.

– A

52 Weeks, 52 Plays: Week 1

Back in high school my theater department’s office had a giant catalog of scripts. My senior year I decided that I would read a play every week for an entire school year. A lot of those plays I’ve forgotten, a few have burrowed into my brain very deep. But I think the real lasting impact was less any particular show, and more the fact that I felt like it gave me a concentrated bit of time to sit and ruminate on theater, on how I would stage that play, if I would stage that play, what I thought the playwright wanted and whether I would want something similar or different.

2014 has, at least nascently so far, been a year of initiatives.

A few weeks back I was thinking again about plays. Scripts, specifically. Being a deviser I so rarely read “finished” scripts. And I thought that it could be interesting to check back in with the writer-first world that most of my profession lives in. I wanted to know more about contemporary playwriting, what trends are out there, and who the outrageous creators were. But I also wanted that sense again, the time to look at someone else’s idea of theater and to just… react. So I put up a post on the old book of faces asking for play submissions, bound only by the stipulations that it should be something from the last 3 – 4 years with a bonus for female playwrights.  Happily, I got a ton of response.

The public-ness of this blog, another formerly nascent initiative of its own, was very helpful in  keeping me on track with getting writing out back in the earlies of 2013. A rule lover by nature, I liked knowing that I was in a little way publicly accountable for doing what I’d set out to. So I liked the idea of trying to catalog this idea of reading a play a week for the entire year of 2014. I made a list, started thinking about how to organize the endeavor and I start off the very first week with a copy of a play called The Noise by Rachel Bonds.

Here’s the thing though…  I don’t want to write a review of this play.

I am incredibly aware of how subjective a given random day’s awesome-ness or shitty-ness affects my view of a thing. I am also aware that reading an assessment of another’s work will bias future people about that work because you’re either reacting to or against their positive or negative assessment.  So while I don’t think I’m incapable or unqualified to read a play and assess it, I kept thinking, what end am I aiming for? I am certain that this project will not result in Swim Pony suddenly deciding to produce new young American playwrights. I also don’t particularly want the responsibility of advocating for or against another artist’s work. This space, for me, it feels like it’s really for something else.

So I’m trying to shoot instead the kind of feeling that I had back in high school: using a particular play as a springboard to jump start the way about the way I think about theater, what I want to make and see, and how it reminds me of the possibilities of what are out there and what I can imagine could be out there if I were to make it. So without further ado, Swim Pony musings from The Noise.

A synopsis in a just a few lines: The plot of The Noise centers on four characters – Ellie – a 28 year old math teacher who has lost her mother, Amos – a 30 something history teacher with whom Ellie becomes romantically entangled, Bert – Ellie’s father recently remarried and finding a sudden need to tend the garden his last wife once kept, and Janice – Bert’s new wife who is trying to deal with his blocks in processing his previous wife’s death. Ellie and Bert both work to try and deal with their feelings at the loss, Ellie by guarding herself against new love, Bert by an obsessive need to rebuild to the vegetal life his wife once tended. It’s a story about people searching for connections to each other. Added to this is an eerie/magical presence of The Noise – a form that emerges from darkness and beckons Ellie into the most quiet, silent and still places in the world and in herself.

This is in many ways, a play about grief – a daughter who has lost her mother, a man who has lost a wife. But for me it was equally as much a play that explores darkness and silence. I was captivated by this idea throughout the reading, how we can create a performance that invites an audience into such a deep and still place. I wondered as I read if it possible to ask the audience to do what The Noise asks of Ellie, to invite them into a “moment of utter and complete stillness.”

There’s a kind of anticipated rhythm of drama that I feel in most of the theater I see. Working in the field you can sometimes start to sense a kind predictable structure. Even in the messiest of emotions, there is a kind of arc that becomes ingrained – the anticipation of the lights going down, the building action of conflict, the perfect timing of a character coming to catharsis, knowing just when you’re supposed to cry or laugh as an audience whole. It’s funny how in a way this journey can become incredibly familiar, perhaps even to the point of banality. It’s why, sometimes, a person in the audience coughing can so thoroughly draw attention of everyone in the room – because such events stubbornly refute the tempo and timing we expect of the moment.

Such an occurence, pedestrian as it may be, is living by the pulse of some other kind of world. It rubs so coarsely against the slickness of a polished piece, it is so imprecise and un-theatrical, that it can stubbornly demand our attention.

Reading this play I wondered, how long could you ask someone to sit in the dark and close their eyes and just… be?  Talk of such stillness in concert with dialogue so sharp that it snaps (Which this piece has, by the way. If you want a scene for young actors that is smart and sweet, the first pages of this play are quite fitting.) such contrast highlights my hunger to really experience such a sensation for myself. What if you created a space where a room full of people were asked instead of watching someone listen for the most perfect silence possible, actually were invited to find it for themselves. Silence is of course, a kind of sound, one end of a spectrum, and as a creator who very often lives in my ears, I love the idea of taking a moment with a listener to turn off the lights and work at awakening this sense. The Noise is a play filled with the sense and absence of sound, with vibrations and reverberations that move in and through us, and as a director it makes me wonder how one might take this impulse even further.

The other element suggested in the staging is The Noise itself, a kind of fantastic presence that emerges from and pulls others into darkness. The playwright notes that she first imagined the presence as a girl (10 – 16) standing in a doorframe unmoving from a nightmare she used to have as a child (can I just say, I’d love to see this nightmare?). She instructs the reader to seek an ageless quality but not an overly heavy creepiness. Like Victorian child in a frilly dress. Which is funny because it’s exactly what the others who read the play mentioned envisioning.

The Noise appears in the shadows of streetlamps with an unsettling howl. And though nothing in the play suggests it, for some reason all I could imagine was a picture from a friend’s facebook profile that looks like this:

The noiseI kept imagining the character one part jaunty animation and one part black oil from the X-Files. And it made me wonder how to create such a thing in a live performance setting. Made me want to try and create a presence out of the kind of things that theater does very well – where a thing that has no life or seems very ordinary transforms into a kind of magic.

And last, this play made me wonder about my taste for messiness.  It made me think about how strong the impulse to tie things up neatly can be and how perhaps our work, like our lives, might benefit from a bit of nasty bits left in.

So there’s week 1.

Here’s to another 51.

– A

PS – For those interested here’s her website and a bit of info on her recent work with the Arden Writer’s Room.