Response to Other Art Forms



My niece Alice loves using her grandmother’s label machine.

She likes to spell out words she knows and affix them to the things around her. “Bunny” is somehow made more concrete and real once it has an official status indicator and “Baa baa” is better for having been appropriately categorized.

This is a natural trait, this need to put things in a box, to classify them to help us sort out where they go.

But labels having been causing me agita lately.

Back in the early aughts, when I had just finished my first year of college, my Dad picked me up with the clear the purpose to foster a father daughter bonding session on the long drive from Swarthmore back to Chicago. My father excitedly told me that he had borrowed a whole stack of CDs, all musicals, from the library. It would be a chance to bond over theater, my extracurricular interest that had expanded into actual curriculum in recent months.

It was sweet, immensely so. And yet, even at the tender age of 19, I felt a little weird about the gesture. It was because even by the end of freshman year I sensed that “Theater,” at least the thing I meant when I talked about it, was not the same kind contained in the CD’s he now so excitedly proffered.

And indeed Adrienne Mackey’s brand of “Theater” would turn out to be something else entirely.

When I tell the vast majority of people what I do I usually get responses that either include reference to Shakespeare or Broadway. Once in a great while, I get someone who went to the theater often who’d mention some great American play like Streetcar or Death of a Salesman. When I try to explain what I do, I usually feel weird. I have such a hard time articulating it. I have often found myself talking about what I am not doing – “I don’t work in traditional spaces” or “I trying drop conventions of linear narrative” or “I like to use the voice in non-traditional ways” – rather than what I am. And that always feels weird to me, because I never think about my work that way when I am making it. I never think of it as a reaction against anything. I just think of it as the way that I make stuff.

Over time, it started to depress me to talk about so and so’s cousin who played Mrs. Potts in the Beauty and the Beast musical or the latest production of Hamlet that stars some famous guy. In my twenties I would get mad about this, frustrated at this “muggle” response. But after too many instances of even the most patient parental types glazing over or looking confused about how to take the thing I was talking about and reconcile it under the label “Theater,” I think I’ve realized that it’s a little unfair to ask someone not to call up any of the most obvious reference points for the word.

A lot of the time when I talk about my work now I find myself saying something like, “It’s theater, well… sort of. It’s kind of like theater. But not like you think.”

Which makes me wonder: Am I doing “Theater”?

Some days I just don’t know.

I know that I was trained in theater. I know I’ve read a lot of plays. I know a lot about the history of the art form and have lots of opinions on its contemporary practitioners. I know that I see a lot of it. I know I talk to people about it a lot.

But I really wonder if I’m actually interested in doing it as almost everyone in the world defines it. When I don’t like being in a theater building, when I’m constantly trying to get off “stages,” when I rarely want to work on plays as most people define them, when I want to shake up the audience actor relationship, when I increasingly expect people not to sit and watch but participate, when my work starts looking more like a concert or a game or a tour… is it still theater?

When I was in residence at Drexel this past winter and created a traveling performance piece with the students I had the luxury of following behind the audience and hearing them talk in live time about the show.

One kid whispered, “What’s happening? I thought this was a play but the actors are everywhere and we’re outside. What is going on?!”

Another said to a friend, “You know the first time you watch cartoon network and you don’t understand what you’re seeing and it’s really weird but you think that you like it? That’s happening now.”

This tickles me, surprising these kids with an experience they didn’t expect. Some part of me was really proud to say, “Hey! I reclaim this crazy theater word and make you rethink what it is. And because you saw this and liked it you will now include this in your definition of what a play can be!”

But another part of me feels like maybe I’m doing a disservice. If that cartoon network quote kid really likes the thing he just saw, I don’t know that he’ll necessarily like “theater” as a whole. I heard a lot of these student audience members say they don’t like theater but they did like our play. I actually hear that fairly regularly. And when I describe my work I often say that I want to make theater for people that don’t think of themselves as a traditional theater audience.

And so I’m often loathe to use the word because the people I want tend not to be “theater people” and the audiences that tend to have a tradition of going to the theater aren’t often interested in the kinds of experiences I want to offer.

Some days trying to court “theater” audiences feels like advertising a folk performance at a heavy metal concert. Both audiences technically want to hear “music” but really there’s a point of diminishing returns in trying to treat the viewers as one in the same.

And, look, I know there are some labels for the different kinds of theater out there, but they are far fewer and far far less codified. Do the words usually attached to my kind of work – fringe, experimental, devised – actually say anything of substance? I don’t think so. Certainly not if you don’t know what that kind of work already looks like.

So I’m contemplating whether or not I’m going to call what I do “theater” at all. I’m contemplating how I can be proactive in labeling better. Because I think if I want a word for what I do that isn’t 90% not a good example, I’m going to have to find one for myself.

– A

Cross Pollination Unveiled

spLOGOIs there anything lamer than quoting a David Foster Wallace commencement address to help make a point about artistic awareness?

Probably not.

Which I guess means I’m going to do one super lame thing today. And right after, do something else that’s super not-lame to counterbalance.

Ready for that quote?

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,

‘What the hell is water?!’

The point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about…

– David Foster Wallace

As artists, working in different genres, sometimes in sub-sets of genres, sub-sets of sub-sets of genres and so on, there are lots of givens about how we work that we take for granted. There are times when the way our work is made seems so self evident that it is almost as natural as breathing the air around us.

Sometimes our working methods can be like the water.

One of the greatest gifts that came from my time a few years back as a Live Arts LAB fellow was to have the chance to talk to my fellow fellows who were dancers. There were more than a couple sessions as a group where it actually blew my mind a little to learn that some of the assumptions I make about creating were totally different than theirs. Things that I take for granted were sometimes just not part of the conversation these other amazing artists were engaging with. Sometimes things were the same but employed in different ways. Sometimes the focus and priority were radically different.

There were times these conversations reinforced my assumptions about art, made me that much more sure in why I did things the way I did. Other times it inspired me to shift my own process and just try what it would mean to create without certain conventions about narrative or structure or audience responsibility. In all cases, these conversations made me more aware of the water around me. Gave me choice about what kind of givens I was swimming in.

I finished that LAB period thinking:

“Wow. If the creative process for two mediums that are almost identical in most aspects can be so different and thought provoking, what would it mean to have this conversation with creators who are even less alike?”

And also:

“Can a visual artist teach a singer something about music? Can a chef give a dancer a chance to unseat their idea of what it means to move? Can a light designer change the way a writer thinks about their words?”

And then finally:

“I really want to find out the answer.”

And luckily, thanks to the Knight Arts Challenge, I found a means to do just that. The result is something I’m calling Cross Pollination. It’s a project that actively seeks a way to dump water all over the floor. It’s a chance to explore without the pressure of a full performance or product. It’s a chance to get paid (and reasonably well, I might add) to open up one’s horizons and cross breed with another artist. It’s a chance to find some crazy mutt hybrid mash up that the world has never seen before. It’s a chance to find out more about the water you’re swimming in.

And I’m so so so excited to begin.

Want more details? Click below. It’s all in there…

Cross Pollination Artist Application

And if you ever need to quickly get to that application without searching the blog just CLICK HERE!

And of course a HUGE thank you to the John S. and James L Knight Foundation for making this amazing project happen.


– Adrienne

Flamenco Hoy

Small detour from talking about ladies today folks. I’ve been asked by the Philadelphia Flamenco Festival and Pasión y Arte to write about this film “Flamenco Hoy.” Check out their other articles here.

Here goes.

montreal-jazz-festival-2012-lineup-flamenco-hoy-My first encounter with Flamenco as an art form came back in 2008 when I was creating and staging Echo – an entirely musical retelling of the classic Greek myth – with local company Tribe of Fools.

For the piece I was exploring sounds that fell into a few categories. I wanted music that blurred the line between declamation and structure – sounds that blurred the difference between structure music and the noise a person screaming to the Gods above them. I was seeking the heightened sound that such a plea would provoke but also a form in which the musicality, the beauty, and the depth of that need to express were also heard.

I also wanted a music rooted in chant. I wanted to underscore the feeling of storytelling that is passed along from person to person over many many many generations.

And lastly, I wanted a musical base in which feminine beauty is can be seen not only in the light pure and clear sounds we hear in most western music forms, but that includes the depth and experience and texture that life can bring. And I wanted to find a sound that came from a human but was so deep and richly felt that person it goes beyond their human form. I wanted to hear the sound of a human channeling the Gods.

So when a friend passed along a video of Carlos Saura’s 1995 movie Flamenco and I heard this woman for the first time I had no doubt I’d found that sound.

What a treat then to be asked to return to Mr. Saura’s work for Flamenco Hoy in watching this filming of a live stage piece exploring Flamenco both past and present.

There’s something pulsing underneath the work on display in this film. It’s akin to the gentle clapping pulse that underpins so much of the music. The performers of Flamenco Hoy are a study in tension and release:

Two men carrying large sticks drum the floor in alternating bursts, each like a tiny message or challenge that builds. The energy of the face off is palpable. And then, simply, easily, they step forward, closer into waiting pools of light and begin again.

A woman (the stunning Patricia Guerrero) bounds across the stage bending in impossibly long lines. She is holding a fan that snaps open and shut like a tease between her and the audience. She is fluid and graceful one moment with fingers that flutter over each other. The next she squats and jumps like a rebellious teenager.

This alternation of hardness and softness is what makes the form so interesting for me to watch. It is this inherent conversation between rhythms that that creates stories between bodies and within voices even when they speak words I cannot understand.

And the pounding of the floor. Can I just say that it must be impossible to hear it too much. I am most sad, perhaps, not to be in the room with this performance in this regard. To feel the vibration of the floor under my own feet, to feel the rapid pulsing vibration of their feet beating into the ground and resonating through the hall and in my bones.

In what was for me the most stunning solo of the entire piece, Nani Paños (who looks charmingly similar to Zachary Quinto and had me imagining Spock as a Flamenco dancer) emerges in a modified, almost painted on, Torero outfit. The tightness of his clothing means that every quiver, every breath, every twitch is visible to the audience. The guitarist plucks out a melody that almost seems designed to taunt the poor, serious looking, dancer. He slowly begins to gently move himself across the stage. Then suddenly without warning the music seems to capture him and his feet explode. He wildly shakes in the throws of it until again without warning he is completely still but for the deep need for breath he is clearly trying to hide.

The effect is one of a human battling with supernatural forces. And this battle of the dancer and this tension between stillness and a need to fling the movement out of himself is completely engrossing from start to end.

And there’s also something captivating about the way that the staging often does not attempt to integrate the disparate parts – the singers, musicians, dancers, and those that simply take up the subtle punctuation of palmas hand claps. It is refreshingly simple to see one part of the whole watch and enjoy the other when a dancer simply listens in to the free flowing cascade of notes from a singer. It is almost as if the whole cannot be contained by any single of its component pieces.

The only admission I must make is that in the pieces where more modern elements are incorporated – projections of lines across the stage as a group of men with pained faces dance, or a nod to 1940’s noir, or a mix of jazz saxophone and the lilting rhythms of a flamenco singer – for me, they fall flat by comparison. I see the interest and desire for such an experiment. But they lose just a touch of what makes the other pieces so magical. The ease and depth and plea to the gods in these pieces, somehow gets a just little lost in translation.

– A