Randomness

The Undertow

Several months ago I sat staring down a mountain of work – meetings, grant deadlines, classes to plan, papers to grade, research for projects to be done – and I had an overwhelming desire to read a poem by Walt Whitman.

I didn’t need to read any one poem in particular, just the sense of Whitman and the spaciousness of his writerly vision. I felt so small and trapped and overwhelmed that I simply wanted to sit with words that invited me to spread myself back out, to imagine that there was something in the race I felt myself running that was not merely productive but also grand.

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Two days ago I sat in a circle with a room of friends at an Awesome Lady Squad meeting and shared my experience of sadness, of wondering, of questioning what it is that I am supposed to be doing with this life I am living. At the end of that meeting I shared a brief exchange with an artist some number of years ahead of me in which we both wondered if the kind of art that seems to be the predominant one being made is valuable in this moment, in this world, in the ways that a thing becomes meaningful to a life.

Today I sit in front of my computer, plenty of work waiting for me, but unable to splash the proverbial cold water on the face, brace up and get down to the business at hand. Instead I feel the need to write about the way my understanding is awash in questions about how to be useful to the people and places around me, about whether I can be honest in such questions, and how exactly to get started on the path that I sense lies ahead.

I have been working these past months on an art project about dying called The End. It has, in so many ways, become a provocation to me about what it means to truly live. To wholly accept that the time I will exist as finite, to understand that in truth I can only contribute a single verse or two to the larger song, that the song itself in is much larger than I can possibly be, if I am to honestly do that it feels like I might need to do something different. What that different thing is… well…

The near daily contact with such a fundamental fact does not make me sad, exactly. Rather it stirs up something I am still trying to give name to, something that has been in progress and process for a rather reasonable amount of time. I’ve written before about tectonic shifts, stepping back and walking around and away. And those are all some way of trying to name what’s emerging, a thing that feels like an undertow.

It’s a pull away from the shores of “excellence” and towards something more genuinely communal. It’s a drift from the need to control and hold those things I define as dear to me. It’s a willingness to allow what comes to unfold.

A little over a week ago I wrote a letter to my friend jesikah in California and thanked her for sending me a poem by Neruda in commemoration of my wedding. In the letter I tell her that the poem makes me think of a Georgian chant titled Shen Xar that was used in a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (directed by my collaborator Catharine Slusar) that I worked on at Bryn Mawr College. An ancient Georgian wedding hymn, the song survived the cultural purge of the Communists due to a notable lack of traditional religious imagery in its lyrics. This recording by an all male Georgian trio is a wonderful version I’ve listened to often these past few months.

I tell her that “I love this song and the way it cycles through the same quiet melody over and over again like a string of rosary beads, a slow working of its message that washes over you like waves.”

I tell her that I had some feminist qualms about the particular language of the letter in the scene the song was used, but that in the moment of performance, “one where an impossibly young college student stands on a rock amidst a pool of water holding a piece of paper in a quiet blue light, trying to give back to the world the love she know she holds, [the song] was so beautiful it didn’t matter.”

I send her the Neruda poem (left) written out next to the lyrics of the chant translated (right): neruda-shen-xar

The following week I teach the song to a group of my students at Pig Iron’s School for Advanced Performance Training and it feels like the right thing to be doing in the first moment I see them after the national election.

I notice as I near the end of this writing that it feels unfinished, that the thesis seems still not to have emerged. I see that I am caught holding myself up in this moment, feeling the unrest between wanting to do something helpful, to be on the side of righteousness, and to simultaneously wrap a life’s meaning in something impossibly beautiful and grand and sad.

Today I know that I really want to live my life before I die; I want to know I have spent my time in this world like the Georgian sun – shining, brilliantly, myself.

And today, too, I can accept the heavy pull of towards the knowledge that says I am still trying to understand what that means.

– A

Everything old is new again

everything_old_is_new_again_by_ekzotik-d4cdlz3The process of change is so slow we barely see it.

This is how it is possible that I am sitting with a dear friend and fellow creator on Friday and realize in the midst of our conversation that I am… happy. That I am open and new. That in front of me lays fields of possibility. That the anger and confusion and pain that I felt not so long ago is actually melted and revealed something quite unexpected and different.

Do you ever wish you could sit down and check in with a version of yourself from the past?

I can.

“I need to know it’s worth doing this art, in this way, at this time,” says Adrienne in December of 2012.

The truth of the matter is that the works I’ve made are things I’m proud of.

The truth of the matter is that I increasingly lost an internal sense of why I needed to make them.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t really care what anyone else thinks “theater” is or if I’m “good” at it.

The truth of the matter is that my “theater” is simply a means to a deeper question about connection and understanding and thoughtfulness and desire and finding a way to make sense of what I’m doing here.

The truth is that for a while I got a fair bit better at making “theater” as other people define it and a bit worse and making sure it was still answering the deeper questions I wanted to be asking.

The last year and a half has been a concerted and nearly constant effort to realize this and get myself in a place where that was no longer the case.

It has been hard.

I have felt like a failure often.

Most of the time progress was slow to the point of imperceptibility.

But today, for whatever reason, it has hit me: the work I’m in the midst of making now is worth doing. This work. In this way. At this time. And for the first time in a long time, I feel really really free.

Today it seems I’ve gotten far enough from there to really see the distance.

Random snapshots from recent life:

Friday: I am randomly invited to a conference on game design in Boston the next day. I drive 6 hours the same day to get there. The next day I have conversations about ethics and narrative structure and audience agency. I feel like I am talking about my theater.

Two weeks ago: I hand in the first draft of a study plan that predicts the next two and a half years of reading and artistic practice which will make up my self-directed graduate degree in interdisciplinary arts. I know almost nothing about anything on my reading list. I am ecstatic. I wish there was more time I could add to the universe because the list is already too large for the time I have to tackle it.

One month ago: I decide that I need to do something creative that requires my hands. I decide I need to learn to play the piano. I start downloading beginner’s sheet music. I spend 30, 40, sometimes 60 minutes a day with Für Elise and simple chord progressions. I love being a beginner.

This week: I chat back and forth with a painter and novelist about the possibilities of a week’s worth of collaboration and experimentation for Cross Pollination. There is a little trepidation about what exactly we will do. I do not know. I do not care that I do not know. I do not, as I normally would, make a bunch of plans of things I do know how to do so that the trepidation subsides. I decide to wait until I genuinely think of something I want to do.

Today: I watch a video by game designer Brenda Romero about her “The Mechanic is the Message” series. I hear her talk about her love/hate relationship with her ascension into the ranks of “professional” creator. I hear her speak about a nascent need to remove herself from the industry of her craft, to make things by hand. I hear her explain how she took time, extensive time, away from digital design to play board games. I hear how she begins to make games about things she never imagined possible, games explore deep and vast tragedies. Games that challenge the player to examine their own agency and choice in participating. Her elements are handmade, deeply personal, unreproduce-able. This is the point, it seems to me. It also seems to me that in the end, the rewards her games reap are equally unique, meaningful and rich. They fill the creator’s soul rather than the professional’s resume.

Thursday: I have two conversations in the same day about ideas for new projects. One is a piece for only two people at a time and the other for a potential 2,000. One takes place almost entirely inside the mind of the viewer, the other could cover most of the city of Philadelphia. They feel like the same kind of inquiry. I feel like I can start working on both of them tomorrow, by myself, if I wanted to. Not researching, not imaging, literally, making stuff that will go in them. I like not having to wait to get started.

Six months ago: I decide I want to write. I decide I want to write fiction. I decide I want to write a novel. Every few weeks I pull up the document and write furiously for a few days. At last count I am up to 170 pages and 39,949 words. I also decide I can show it to people someday or not. Either way it won’t matter. I just need to write it.

And so it is that I find myself at this moment feeling the most vibrant and true expression of my theater-related creative impulses into forms that look almost nothing like what “Theater” would typically be defined as.

And so it is that I find myself confronting new projects that are amazing and daunting and unknown in almost every way.

And so it is that I have met more people and had more new conversations about creativity in the last few weeks than in the last few years.

And so it is that I have stopped feeling so crushed and frustrated.

And so it is that I don’t worry about whether what I’m doing is right.

And so it is that I know the only thing that matters is if it’s what I feel myself needing to be doing.

And so it is that finally finally finally… it seems I’ve found what that is.

And so it is that I stand in the shower today thinking about my conversation on Friday and realize that it feels like something I have to share and so I write this, hastily, before I run out the door because it is also clear that it has to be done today, right now, before I lose understanding of it in just this particular shower-inspired way.

And so it is I share it with you.

And run.

To be late.

To the next amazing thing.

– A

52 Weeks, 52 Plays: Week 2

So first off I want you to know that I’m aware it isn’t the second week of 2014.

I have been reading a play a week. I’ve just been a little backlogged in getting thoughts about them onto (virtual) paper. And I say this mostly because I am super judge-y of folks that start grand resolutions and barely complete the opening stages. And because I assume everyone in outside world is the same as the voices in my mind, I want to appease your judgments.

Clearly, there are times it’s a dark place in my brain.

Anyway.

For the second week of the year 2014 I read The Play About My Dad by Boo Kellebrew. For the uninitiated, a reminder that I’m intentionally not reviewing these works (you can read about why here) but instead free associating on the theatrical elements or ideas this play proposes or makes me think on.

The Play About My Dad is indeed, as the title suggests a play about the playwright and her father. It is also about Hurricane Katrina and the way in which we think about epic disaster on both the very small and personal and very large and overwhelming scales. The piece weaves past and present by jumping between conversations between the playwright and her father, ostensibly writing the play for the audience in this moment in front of us and three other perspectives on Long Beach Mississippi, a town very close to the Gulf and massively affected by the storm. The three other stories center around Essie – a woman who raised Larry (playwright Boo’s father), Neil and Kenny – a pair of EMTs who knew the family when Boo was young, and Rena, Jay and Michael – a family who are caught literally and figuratively over their heads when they try to ride out the storm and who meet Larry (a doctor) when they arrive at a local hospital.

Unlike the play from week 1, this piece is satisfyingly messy in lots of ways and doesn’t wrap up storylines in neat packages. There are little bits scattered through the play – the rift between Essie and her daughter – in which the playwright hints at connections between these characters and the turbulent relationship between the playwright and her father. The show is clearly a metaphor, but an incomplete one, one that seems not wholly processed or understood. I liked this about the work, that like most of us, our deepest interpersonal relationships are not ones that we often have completely sorted out and that this complexity is brought into sharp focus most when we are confronted with extreme calamity.

From the moment it begins there is a meta device at play in this play, one in which the playwright’s father is supposedly speaking to the audience. We hear “Boo” (the playwright’s same name) tell her father to stop putting on his “acting” voice. Later the same character points out the theatrical devices (changing lights to indicate shifts in time) that underpin the staging.  “What a funny thing,” I thought as I read, “to draw my attention to the insincerity inherent in acting by one who is in fact acting and therefore inherently insincere themselves.” I looked up the show’s past production to note that in fact the performer was not the playwright’s father (nor did the playwright appear onstage) a fact the audience would ostensible know. It requires a fair amount of mental calculus I think to ask us to become aware to some aspects of the “falseness” while still blissfully suspending our disbelief for others.

This theater trick, one that happens a lot, falls under a category I call: The Betrayal of Fiona Shaw. A while back I saw her at BAM in Rime of The Ancient Mariner. At the start of the piece Ms. Shaw emerges from the wings in a track suit and tennis shoes. She walks out into the house and begins to talk with people one on one. Some are clearly friends she knows, others are strangers she greets and chit chats with. It was literally electric in its effect on the audience. It was one of the most amazing moments of theater I’ve seen in recent memory. She began to bring up men to the stage, one at a time, to try on a hat and strike a pose, ostensibly to take a small part in the story she was about to enact. Her simple presence, us knowing who she was and the fact that she was out among us made the entire room focus their attention like lasers on her. Small children’s arms almost pulled out of their sockets as they vied for a moment onstage. Men around me furtively chatted with their wives about whether they ought to throw themselves into the selection pool. It was fabulous.

And then. And then. And then.

And then Ms. Shaw brings up a guy with a super fake looking trench coat. He clearly has never worn such a coat in real life. She goes through the same motions but this time there’s something awfully rehearsed abut the proceedings. All of the energy and immediacy is gone. I notice he has dance shoes on. I look in the program and I can see there is a second performer in the picture of the show. And he looks exactly like this guy.  Back in the performance she pretends as if she is dissatisfied and has him sit, not back in his seat, but in the front row while she selects a few more.

This, what I can now see is a charade, enrages me. All the things that I loved about the moment before now seem fake and tainted. I feel as if I have been tricked and I want to expose the trickster for doing so. So when, as I knew would happen, she goes back to the young dancer man with the shoes and the bad coat, I am nothing but smugly disappointed that I knew the whole thing was a lie.

This is the Betrayal of Fiona Shaw.

It isn’t that theater requires me to pretend. It’s that you take advantage of that generous instinct when you expose or undercut the fantasy with such antics but then require me not to go too far. Get me to think that I might get to be a part of the stage show, then make me feel foolish for have invested the energy to believe I could be in it.

Ms. Shaw’s Betrayal made me want to point out that I know that the actor playing Larry is not actually Boo’s father, nor is Boo actually Boo. Would it be impossible to truly put that person onstage? Maybe… There is something compelling about a “non-actor” (as one sees in some characters in a Wes Anderson movie or a piece like Beasts of the Southern Wild). As a group we discussed what it would be like in a play like this to work with the actual father, discussed the trickiness of this, because unlike a movie you not only have to pull this moment out of someone but get them to do so consistently, over and over again, that this is the endurance power that a theater maker needs.  We settled on a wish for another layer for the work that says “I’m not actually the father but I’m going to act as if I am.”

What is barely indicated in the play is sound, a recurring fascination of mine, an element I think would also change this work intensely. I hear the sound of the storm as I read this play and I imagine it coming from everywhere. Again like the previous week’s play, the sense of the rhythm of this world as created by sound that surrounds the space, makes it more than a disengaged visual and binds the bodies of the viewers into the space. Unlike the previous week, the sounds of this world seems to need to be human sized and I kept hearing a chorus of voices rising and falling in layers of sound beds as the piece continued.  In this vein, I love the idea of a performance in a place that was as anti-theatrical as the instinct to put the father onstage, to expose the workings. Perhaps it is a room where we see all of the things that make the play happen, capitalize on the power of theater to transform the pedestrian into the magical. Or perhaps we are in a space where there are dark corners and things that can hide unseeable but in plain view. Either way it feels like entrances from wings and “offstage” undercuts the feeling that all of this is happening right now around and among us, that there is no escaping and that we as the audience, just as the characters are bound to ride out this experience until its end. There are no places we can escape here.

Throughout the reading of it, this work made me think about the texture of water. Its undulating, slow amassing, its pelting cold, its fetid stagnation. Water is everywhere in this play – both in the imaginations of the characters and increasingly surrounding them as the story continues – and as a stager of plays I kept thinking, “In performance what would be more powerful if that presence were real or implied?” For the pair of EMTs stuck in an ambulance marking the level as it slowly raises around them, I really really wanted to see and feel real water. And contrastingly, with the family stuck in their attack, I wanted just the opposite – water that is implied through light, through sound, a presence that is ominous and lurking, but never actually visible.

There is something delicious about water in a theater space, an element that feels simultaneously alive and inhuman, one that is so incredibly un-controllable. Its presence en masse seems almost decadent. Why else do we coo at the thought of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses in a pool? It feels like some of the purest kind of spectacle, almost cheap in its ease at satisfying our craving for theatrical effect. While discussing this play I came across a company that created a silent version of The Tempest for DC-based Synetic Theater.

Try and tell me that without the water that production looks half as interesting. In college, I created my first devised work on the Greek myth of Ceyx and Alcyone. It was one from the Zimmerman Metamorphoses actually and tiny Adrienne was so hungry to create in her own rehearsal room the lush grandeur that I saw in that production (three times, no less). In performance one of the buckets of water that we had placed onstage slipped out of the performer’s hands and covered the theater floor in an inch of standing water. The scenes that followed – one lover fighting another not to leave, a god destroying a tiny boat as its occupant’s families watched, the transformation of a sail into the giant wings of a bird – were all utterly transformed as water clung to the bodies and fabric. It was the moment I learned that as creators we must must must accept our lucky accidents. That we must be open to creative gifts that we haven’t planned. It elevated the thing I was trying to tell in a way I didn’t know I absolutely needed.

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Theater always looks better with water. (Hey that’s Ben Camp in college!)
 

But I also wonder if that kind of clear and poetic and beautiful water is the same water of Kellebrew’s play. The kind of water in these pictures does indeed seem somewhat cruel but it is also achingly lovely. It, like a Baudelaire poem, is an image whose savagery is blunted by its beauty. And so perhaps to give us that poetic water is an easy out, a way to shield us from the real horror of such an experience. The other thing that I felt so intensely in this work is the suspense of waiting. Early on in the play, the semi-omniscient Kenny reveals that today is the day that he and Neil will die. In another space, this could be maudlin or silly, but here it truly sets the tone of anticipation. Of the sense that one’s outcome is determined and all that is left now that the wheels are in motion is to wait and wait and wait.  So I wonder if the staging, like the play, doesn’t also require us to wait for that water, to want to feel its beauty at the same time we fear its power and perhaps, as Essie is released near the end, to use that loveliness when we need it most: in the midst of our most difficult moments, when we need to create poetry out of the depths of our despair.

And I think that’s about it for this one. Week three soon to come!

– A

And if you want a little bit more info about the playwright you can get her bio from her company CTown here:  http://www.collaborationtown.org/whos-who.html