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In defense of messy, ill-conceived nonsense

When I was in high school I used to have this recurring dream.

(Is there anything less interesting than other people’s dreams? Alas, we soldier on…)

In my dream I am always sitting in the backseat of a car, something halfway between a cab and a limo. I am sitting faced forward and looking at the rear head rest of the driver’s side seat.

It is quiet. The car is humming along. There is a small rocking back and forth. It is night and very dark and headlights bob ahead in the distance.

I am sleepy. Heavy. And this is the moment I notice the person to my right.

We are close and it is warm and cocoon-like in our nearness. The backs of our hands are close enough to feel the hairs brush past each other.

And then with suspension and a breath catching softness, that person and I decide to hold hands – my right in their left. Soft and warm and simple. We do not look. We simply touch and ride and shake in the gentle back and forth of the darkness.

And that’s when I wake up.

When I usually tell this story, I put a postscript on it. I say the person was different every time. I say that there was nothing overtly sexual in what was happening. I say I can feel the feeling of holding their hand like I can hold an object right this moment. I know it with a palpable familiarity.

These are true things.

There were a startlingly various number of people that held my hand in the back of that car. Alan Lewis who played Jesus in Godspell my freshman year. Octavio Lara who had a thin mustache and worked at a Starbucks near to me. Isabel Lazo who’s family owned an awesome Mexican restaurant in downtown Chicago.  Sara Swain, my 8th grade best friend. Tom whose last name I don’t remember who played Smee in my community theater’s production of Peter Pan and called me “Wendy, Dahhlling.”

I also used to say that the person sitting next to me was always someone I was in conflict with. I always explained this dream as a subconscious effort to resolve some sort of internal dispute. It was my way of working out something that was bugging me about that person. It was my lizard brain’s way of getting over a grudge.

That’s the part that’s not totally the truth.

I think that I add this last bit when explaining the dream because of this: it felt so real. It was so intensely emotional an experience. It seemed like there had to be some higher reason for it. What happened after I held hands with someone in that car at night was that I felt like I was in love with them.

I don’t mean in a 16 year old crush-y kind of way. I mean this intense red enveloping ensnaring feeling of love for another human being. And though there were people like Alan that I was definitely feeling sexual about (oh beautiful Jesus/Alan and his curly curly hair) this feeling was something a bit unlike anything I had words for. I would wake up and feel this sensation from the tips of my toes right through those fingers that had falsely felt that other person.

It seemed that I had become one with this random set of semi-strangers. I loved them. I felt like I knew them. It seemed as if we had shared something deep and tender.

But of course, “we” had shared nothing.  I had felt moved by this wave of emotion, but that wave only existed in me. It was intense and consuming, but it wasn’t something that the person and I had in common.  So it was a little awkward to meet up with these folks in real life, feeling so intensely about them and wanting to re-connect to that magical feeling of one-ness. Almost a little like the feeling of getting a bit drunk with a friend and proclaiming an eternal bond and love. In the moment it’s so palpable and that next day it’s all a bit of a fog. A cheap trick of the wine.

I think I put that PS on the dream because the feeling was so real and meant so much to me, that I needed to explain it somehow.

We do this with our works, don’t we? We do this when we see things that move us. They make us feel so much that we believe we must make sense of them. We must understand what in them is doing that. We have to make sense of why we’ve made them and how they work on us. We must explain to others what we’ve done.

I want to make a case for removing that PS in our art practice.  I want to make a case for just enjoying the hand holding, regardless of what it might mean.

I could invent a reason that I’d have to resolve something with Tom or Sara, but that was put on after, it wasn’t really part of the dream. The real message wasn’t some deeper intellectual machination. It was the beautiful and encompassing feeling. It was the fact that I, as this young person, for the first time felt opened up to being filled so full.  The feeling was the point. It was the totality of what was happening. And by pretending that it was about something else – a hidden desire to resolve interpersonal conflict that doesn’t really exist – it makes the thing that it really is a bit less mysterious and lovely.

Sometimes our work is just that, two people holding hands in the back of a car in your dreams. It’s not there to explain or “do” anything else. It is meaningful because it allows us the opportunity to open up to feelings we’ve never known in our actual lives. Perhaps they’re feelings we couldn’t know outside of this place. And I think there’s a pressure often to want the work to be more than that. I think that especially as Americans we want to know that we’ve gotten to the bottom of the thing, achieved whatever goal is there to retrieve. And feeling for the sake of itself is a tough sell.

Sometimes a color or a sound or a movement doesn’t have to be unpacked. It is simply something that springs from us. And when it springs, let us be brave enough to simply share it, to let another inhabit it so that they might know it too. Let us dare not to explain or dissect. It may be messy. It may make no sense. But it is of us, and from us, and to try and fit it into a box may squeeze out of it what was wonderful.

The problem with my PS to that story is that it leaves no room for you.

Without the add on there is a chance that I could tell this story and through its sheer force you too might imagine yourself in that car with a person you barely know and for a moment imagine that liquidy, heated, big fat and filled up feeling coursing through you.

But the PS pulls it away. It puts it behind glass and makes it a specimen of my brain that is a product of interpersonal influences A, B and C.

It means that the feeling I had has to have a reason. It means that when I tell it, there’s no chance for you to fill in the how and whys of that feeling in yourself. There’s no space to be in that car and see what that feeling might be in your own body.

As if that isn’t enough.

As if the ability of a creator to give another person the chance to sink into a love or a sadness or a change in breath isn’t a tiny miracle in itself.

– Adrienne

Auditioning

Maybe I’m just too sensitive. Maybe it’s a function of operating inside a tiny bubble of an already tiny artistic sphere. But I’m pretty sure I have no concept of what “quality” means when it comes to choosing people for auditions.

Or alternately, and perhaps better, put: as I sit here looking through the 230 or so submissions for Shakespeare in Clark Park this summer I’m feeling rather tired. It’s all a bit overwhelming and mostly, I wish I didn’t have to see them. I wish I could just ensure the people I personally know will get through and then hand the whole business of value sorting off to someone else.

I won’t do that, largely because I think that it’s important for me to see all those faces. I suppose I feel like I ought to know what the decisions I make will mean to the many people who won’t carry on with me. I also want to look at them. I want to know these people who are two pages of potential attached to each email.

My problem is that I don’t have faith in this system to evaluate worth. I admit that I can look at a page and tell “professional experience”. I know what different theaters in town indicate and the kinds of “talent” they can demand. I know how to spot if the person will come in knowing a bit about the process that I use compared to the standard regional model. But it’s important to note that knowing these things is different than knowing the artist’s value and quite possibly unrelated to their potential.

One of the luxuries of being a deviser is that I don’t do the audition thing very often. When I do them at all it’s much more of a “let’s all hang out for a few hours and see how this goes – are you interested in me and vice versa, are we the right match at this time and place, etc” kind of thing. When I ask people in, I’m trying to see if the piece could grow from and through them, since they are the ones who will be helping me create it.

What I am totally unused to, what I feel so unprepared for, is the much more standard style of audition.  This is one of those things that is so omnipresent and really weirds me out about “play play” theater. The idea that I could in any meaningful way assess collaboration in 3 minutes seems absurd. It feels like what it’s possible to see and know is so little of what I actually need from a fellow artist. But it’s done all the time. And no one else seems to think it’s so weird and reductive.

So like I said, maybe I’m too sensitive. Maybe I need to suck it up and just separate the wheat from the chaff.

But then I think about some of the people I have met and created with and love, love, loved. I think about the people I met when I had nothing like 230 choices, when what I had were the 10 people that showed up that day. I think about the times I had never met someone before and just said “Yes, I will make work with you.” These people are the ones I come back to again and again.

Could I simply have been astronomically lucky? Is it possible that I just happened to find the best ones almost every time? How did I know to use so many of these people, many of whom are not “good on paper?” People who came to me by chance and without qualifications. Creators I didn’t know I needed and yet now are my artistic family.

What if I had sorted them out of the pile?

I had the experience a few years back of watching a performer I love as she auditioned in a cattle call setting. She came in with her headshot and resume and did her 3 minutes in front of a room full of people. Her resume was neither particularly impressive nor red flag inducing. There were parts of her monologue that were funny and interesting. There were sections that were uninteresting and cliché in context of the many many others we’d seen. She was a neutral note in a long and unending afternoon of people.

The actress I know is wild and idiosyncratic and extraordinary. She is full of punk and funk and spirit. She has a penchant for sequins and stories about worms. She can take strangeness and difference to an ecstatic artistry that flips it in into a confident dominance. She is sharp and platinum and makes me laugh incredibly hard.

But for a moment I saw her as my fellow auditioners did, and I was struck by how much of her they would miss. That they wouldn’t know why she inspired me to create a seething, writhing, sexy Darling Nikki in Purr, Pull, Reign in 2009 or understand the laughter she could elicit in leading a group improvisation. That they, as I did for that moment, saw her only in the frame of a headshot and resume, both of which made her seem so small.

Amanda Damron (if you hadn’t already guessed) will likely forgive me if I say publicly that she is much bigger than these things can show. And seeing how much of her didn’t come through, how much I wanted all of them to see all of the things I knew were hiding, I kept thinking about all those people that I’d already seen and how much of them I must be missing. That this headshot in front of me could be a marathoner throwing a football pass and I was grading them on a scale that totally misses their potential strengths.

If I were a director that had a preconceived world I needed to slot the best Miranda or Antonio into then maybe it’d be useful. But I just don’t direct that way. I don’t know how to “cast” a show. I have often wished I could, but alas, I just don’t. Instead I find a group of people that are interested in tackling a creative problem with me and through our combined searching, something will come into being.

I see these people and the possibility of a work that could come from the uniquenesses of them. And every time, a new world begins to open up before me. Each potential person who I might collaborate with is a force that will push and pull the vision towards something new. So when I look at every one of these 230 beautiful faces, I must imagine a new version of the piece. The instinct I’ve honed is to grab onto these unspooling threads and start to weave them. It is tiring to try and decide so early whether they need to be cut. There are 150 or so I will have to cleave off before I even meet them, before I have the chance to test the alchemy of elements myself and this person might make in a room together.

It feels like an absurd thing to try and do well. And I am left feeling hopelessly incapable of the task.

In the end, there are methods one uses. There are patterns that you must make assumptions from. If a person has never worked outside of a college. If their experience is limited to theaters that are not “professional.” It’s the clearest line to draw. It feels at least a little bit fairer, whatever that means.

It’s not really making it any easier. I don’t know if it’s making it any better. But at this moment, I’m not sure what else to do…

A

Philadelphia Cultural Fund: A Call To Action

Swim Pony. A happy grantee of:pcf_logo02_03

One of the long frustrations I have had with funding in the arts is emphasis on product. There are a lot of artists that bemoan this. On the ground level it seems clear how we’d run the funding world – we’d directly fund artists/companies that make art and not simply the art itself.

Some might think this is a selfish want. Some might think that by focusing on product, you keep the emphasis on the quality of the work. Some might think that by having to approve the outcome, by outlining and justifying budgets before you make anything, it keeps the arts lean and free of waste forcing “unnecessary” expenditures to get cut.

In my view, this is a way to staunch the innovation that many funders say they want to inspire.  In my view, this is a well-intentioned but ultimately destructive trend.  In my view, if you want to make the best art at the end of a process, the very last thing you want to do is only fund the outcome.

Because, in my view, to create real and meaningful innovation you have to actually ask questions that don’t yet have answers. I’ve talked about this a bit before, but the point is, to create real innovation you have to have room to fail. To truly invent, you’ll need a way to make something that doesn’t yet exist anywhere in the world, and you’ll have to figure it out as you go. The opportunity to be surprised by outcome is the only path to real learning.

The biggest craziest ideas are the ones that lead to the biggest chance. Without failure, in a situation where pre-defined success is the only way to resource, you will stifle the biggest, craziest ideas. If you set up a system that prizes result (result that is envisioned before anything begins) you are only rewarding knowable success.  If you have to succeed, you are disincentivized to do things you can’t succeed at. The things you know best you can succeed at are things you’ve already done.  They’re also the easiest to describe, because they’ve already happened before.

What’s the hardest thing in the world to write a grant about? Something I literally can’t imagine yet.

What’s the most exciting creative project for me to tackle? Something I literally can’t imagine yet.

This is why I make the case for real research and development – laboratories for testing and trying things that are likely to fail. Google knows this. Apple knows this. The companies we hold up as the most creative are those that do the most R & D. They try and fail and try and fail better. And they put their money into that over the long haul, without an expected reward every time. They know that to create revolutionary and unimaginable things, you need to create space for things that haven’t been imagined yet to develop. Many things we can’t imagine won’t become anything, but some will. And those will be the things that are revolutionary. That requires room. That requires un-restricting some funding.

I think this is also a massive difference in the way that the grant world funds science and the arts.  In a science lab, you ask a question, you make your best guess about what will happen, you carry out an experiment and then you use the results to interpret the answer. But if a scientist says based on past evidence they can predict with certainly exactly how the thing will turn out, you know what will happen? THEY WON’T GET THE MONEY. Why? Because if you already know what the result of a given process is, why bother carrying it out? It’s already a known quantity. Being able to know ahead of time means we’re not actually resulting in any new information.

In the case of a science grant, you’re funding questions and the people who ask them. The more mysterious the outcome, the more important it is to continue to delve into.  If you get a wildly different answer than predicted, that’s a sign of more work needing to be done, not a failure on the person who carried out the experiment.  In the arts this is also true in practice. Anecdotally, artists know that the best parts of our work are the things we could never have known to write into a project grant. But we have to pretend like that’s not true when we write a project proposal. Because there aren’t funders who want to hear you say, “The things that will be the best about this I cannot even conceive.”

The only time this is NOT the case are the precious few grantors who offer general operating support. There are lots of amazing things one can say about general operating support. For one thing it allows me the time to write those project specific grants. It fills the gaps that spring up for the multitude of things that a creator has to buy and do in the spaces between rehearsals.

But I think the greatest thing it does is provide artists with capital that can promote that unrestricted exploration. It allows us space to follow those inexplicable impulses that lead to the greatest and wildest discoveries. The most important step in a radical new idea is the first one, the one that is the hardest to make the leap to, not the final one, when the chain of inevitability is at its strongest. And that first step is the one that you’ll never be able to write a project grant for. It’s one for which you have to have money on hand to just go and try something crazy and see if it’s worth pursuing further.

I would bet that if every funder trusted artists to put the money where they believed it would best be used, we’d all have better work. And with that in mind I’m asking you all, right now, for 15 minutes of your time to make the arts in your city better.

Whether or not you know it, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund is one of the most amazing grantors in the region. They are one of the few places locally still offering unrestricted general operating support. No advanced defining where you need the money to be used. No stipulations as long as it’s used legally and legitimately. They look at the strength of your organization and track record of creation and trust that you know where best to allocate the limited dollars they have to offer you. They give general operating support to artistic companies of every kind in the city of Philadelphia. And they are the ONLY organization that offers it to artists at an early developmental level.

If you have ever seen a Swim Pony show and liked it, you are benefiting from the  experiment-driven development I’ve been able to include in my process. This is a creative freedom I’ve been given because of PCF’s general operations style funding.

What you also need to know that as a city government funded organization, you personally can affect how much money PCF will have next year.  Over the past few years their funding has been drastically cut. If you want great art – through your role as a maker or a viewer – then you MUST write a letter to the Mayor and/or your council person to let them know that you are part of their constituency and that you believe deeply in the necessity of what PCF does.  Show them where you want your tax dollars to go. Show them that you believe in the good of the arts to drive the economy in our city.

And in the bargain, you’ll be adding money to one of the few funders that offers money in a way that best fuels art making.

Below I’ve attached a sample letter for a board or volunteer for an organization. If you are a supporter, audience member or past co-creator with Swim Pony (or ANY funded artist of PCF) copy it, add your name and some of your own personal details and mail that sucker to Mayor Nutter and whichever Honorable council person belongs to you. Then send it to 5 friends and make them do it.  15 minutes. That’s how long it took me start to finish.  You have 15 minutes to make everything better for artists in our city.

How many letters would it take to make them take notice? Swim Pony has over 300 fans on Facebook. I bet that would be a good start.

Do it.

A

———–

PCF SAMPLE LETTER:

January 31, 2013

The Honorable (Councilperson’s name)

Philadelphia City Council

City Hall, Room XXX

Philadelphia, PA  19107

Dear (Councilman or Councilwoman):

I serve on the board of/I volunteer for/I am an audience member of (pick one)   the (name of your organization) whose mission is to (include mission or other program information here).

I believe that arts and culture make an enormous impact in enriching our lives.  The arts play a vital role socially, psychologically, and economically in the lives of Philadelphians.

I gladly invest my time, my skills and my financial resources as a board member/audience member/volunteer (pick one).  It is my civic contribution to Philadelphia.  My service has not only advanced the work of this organization and provided much needed programs and services to my community, but has given me personal satisfaction and gratification.

The support that we receive from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund is essential to the success of this organization.  It is not only financial support but recognition of our contribution to the quality of life in Philadelphia.  We are deeply grateful for this crucial endorsement of our mission, programs and service to the community.

I urge you to support the Philadelphia Cultural Fund with an increase in funding for FY 2013/2014.

Sincerely,

(Name)

One at a time

5th

When working on SURVIVE! in 2010 my team and I watched a great video about how to imagine higher dimensions.

There’s a spot around 4:30 minutes in where the narrator explains one of the ways we can look at the 5th dimension, the dimension above the one we perceive as time, as a series of timelines of ourselves that split. These splits are determined by choice, chance, and external influence and collectively contain all the possible outcomes of from a given point.

In other words, if time is a path we perceive as a linear series of events, the fifth dimension are all the potential variants of that path. Each time we choose vanilla over chocolate, we twist and shift through the fifth dimension.

At least, this is how I understand it. (Physicists, feel free to correct me, it’s hard to know if you’re Youtube source is credible.)

Anyway, since watching that video, and creating a corresponding scene for SURVIVE! from its influence, I can’t help but visualize myself in this way. I see myself at every moment as branching off into a new path, distinct from another one I might have taken each time I make a decision.

Right now I could continue writing this blog or I could leave it unfinished, empty my bank account and head to Fiji.

That Adrienne who is whooping it up in Fiji feels like she lives right next to the Adrienne that continues to sit here and type these words. Once that alternate version of myself is in my head, it’s like I can’t “un-see” her. She’s just there hanging out next to this me creating an avenue for comparison: Shall I write this sentence or drink a Mai Tai?

Luckily, as I sit here, I don’t mind comparing myself to “Fiji Adrienne.” I can’t know for sure (I’m not her) but my sense is that I’d prefer to keep my savings unharmed, my job intact, and my cat alive rather than ditch ‘em all for a few weeks of whooping it up. While it might not be quite as fun at this moment, I imagine that blog writing Adrienne’s life will turn out better in the long run.

The thing is, there are so many other times when I don’t have that kind of clarity.

A detour:

A couple weeks ago I went to see The Diary of Lisa Q, a pop up performance by Brat, at Quig’s pub. It was a wonderful experiment, the kind of theater I love – a quick and dirty event in a strange and fun space. Actors getting to play, an audience that gets to move around and no one pretending like they couldn’t see me.

And it all would have been so perfect but for that 5th dimension!

So at the start, each audience member was assigned a group with which they will rotate through the 12 stations in the performance. I am, by chance, put in a group with Citypaper reviewer Mark Cofta. I don’t know much about the guy, but of the reviewers in town he strikes me as thoughtful and cogent. Unless I’m remembering wrong, I don’t think he’s ever officially been assigned to one of my shows. I know him by sight (you know, like you do) and I invited him to come see the Giant Squid this last time around. This is the extent of my interaction with this fellow human.

When I saw him I started thinking about what I should say. I do this in advance because I get really nervous in small talk settings.  I’d wanted to say something nice, (because you know, professional courtesy) but I didn’t want to look like I’m being too nice (because, you know, professional courtesy).

One scenario through the fourth dimension:

“Hi, I think I know you. I’m Adrienne, you’re Mark, right?”

An alternate one if I were to twist through the 5th:

“Hi Mark. Nice to see you’re here.”

These may not seem terribly different. That tiny 5th dimensional split lay for me in trying to decide whether he’d know who I was – i.e. should I acknowledge that we are theatrical colleagues or should I forgo a potential awkwardness of him not remembering me and introduce myself.

While I was busy figuring out what I wanted to do, he proposed a third timeline and said: “Adrienne right? I’m Mark.”

And I, caught off guard in that instant, created the most socially awkward melding of all alternatives possible:

“Oh, you’re here… I know who you are.”

Just like that, with the emphasis on the “you’re here” and “know.”

“Oh, you’re here… I know who you are.”

Why did I say that?  Because each piece was a bit of each timeline I was imagining.

Damn you 5th dimension! It now sound like I have some inexplicable beef with someone I barely know.  If you’re out there Mark, sorry for being a weirdo.

This problem is not limited to random encounters with theater reviewers. I, like a lot of artists, copious amounts time imagining my potential other lives. When I first started making stuff I would get SO attached to a particular vision of a show’s outcome. I just couldn’t imagine that fourth dimensional line shifting in any direction other than the one I had planned. I remember when an actor had to drop out of the first iteration of Joe Hill and I cried like a baby. It’s sort of funny in retrospect, but also a little endearing that the vision of a creative product was so firm and strong that to twist away from it could cause such pain.

I don’t ever do that now. You grow up after a few of those. You learn that there are always other paths the work can take. In fact, I find that I stack several alternate versions of the future next to each other so that if one becomes untenable for whatever reason, I can just grab the next one off the pile.

There are ways this is useful. It certainly makes one more flexible. It inures you a bit to inevitable disappointment.

There are also ways it’s not so useful.

While I don’t exactly want to go back to crying over actors, there is a problem with spending too much time with the various possible versions of oneself – it actually removes you from the self you’re currently being.

This happens a lot planning my upcoming work schedule. There is a certain amount of betting and hedging that is always going on. I have to weigh the probability that this project will get funded or that one will fall through. I need to juggle the off chance that this thing will really be worth it versus the money that it will make me. And I can feel sometimes that the betting keeps me a little removed from really investing in any of it. It means I try to take on more things than are possible, such that I can’t really do either to the level it deserves.

You know that feeling when you are considering taking on two projects that will overlap

On the one hand there’s the you that does project A to the best of your ability. That “Project A” you is palpable – you can imagine the you doing that thing and getting a lot out of it. Maybe it leads to a nice review, more work with that company, or pays well. You can feel that best case outcome of Project A version of yourself.

Then there’s “Project B” you. That “you” is also just as imaginable. Maybe this you gets to do the project with collaborators you love, takes more interesting risks, or forwards your aesthetic. Project B’s imagined awesome outcome for yourself is similarly something you can imagine and see.

At that point you’re faced with a split through the fifth dimension, just as I was a moment ago when thinking about Fiji. These two outcomes are both possible. And when you can so concretely see and feel why each outcome is something you want, it’s hard to give up either version of yourself. You want to be the “you” in both Project A and B. The problem with that pesky 5th dimension is that you can feel the alternate versions of your life so close at hand. It feels like we can be both of those selves. It feels like we can do both.

But when you don’t actually choose (by choosing both) you’re actually not getting both versions of reality. You’re just creating a third timeline of a “you” that never has to admit they can’t do everything but probably isn’t really getting to be either of the two imagined outcomes.  Because the outcomes we imagine are predicated on really being able to give our all to the thing we’re working on.  Like my response to Mr Cofta, you can be so distracted by the idea of what you imagined that you end up with a bastardized version of both.

In doing this we’ve committed to both and neither. We’re not quite living in a world where we give our all to any one thing, but create an amalgam where a little piece of everything takes up our attention. Why did that show turn out so shitty? Well, it might be any number of factors. But if everyone involved was doing eight things at once, it’s possible that it’s because no one really planted their feet on the floor. That everyone’s mind was half in the room and half in the other thing they were also doing later that day.

Humans don’t have dual processing power. We can’t run too many scenarios simultaneously. We get caught in between option A and B and the result isn’t equal to either.

“Oh, you’re here. I know who you are.”

Being an actor or designer one gets in the mode of always having to juggle the potential number of things they could be doing (or sadly, not doing) in a year. No one wants to cut off potential opportunity. No one wants to see lines in fifth disappear. But while Fiji Adrienne is an idea that I can imagine, I can’t actually be in two places at once.

I don’t think we can really be in two artistic places at once either.

Maybe I am a dinosaur. Maybe there those of you out there that really can do it. I don’t know, though… I can only speak for myself. But I know my best collaborations have come when the people involved only had to do one thing. When that singular work was the only thing demanding their creative attention. When in the off hours they could dream and ruminate on it. When everything around them could become a potential answer to the creative questions we were seeking.

It’s difficult to ask. It’s rare that it’s possible. But I think it makes way better stuff.

“One at a time” is my new rallying cry: Everyone in the room committed to just one creative timeline. Though we can feel the call of those alternate selves, the ones who do any number of exciting potential things, let us remember that we can’t be all of them at the same time and be our best. When we spread our “selves” out across them, they all are a little less strong.

A

 

You will not read this straight through to the end

You may have already looked at something else. It’s ok, I don’t judge you. Go ahead, do it again. Click on your email. Look at your phone. I think there’s a facebook status that just popped up.

Even writing those words makes me want to do them. So go ahead. Give in.

And when you come back, can you feel it? It’s so small, that little bit of work, to pop away and back. It’s just a tiny little bit of jarring sensation, a pinprick really. Just an infinitesimal out of sequence bit of information that your brain now has to shuffle.

We accumulate the effort it takes to live life out of sequence. It is painful to manage so many streams of information.

You want some sources?

Here’s one

And another

And another

And another

I (mostly) read all these.  I vaguely remembered hearing this info and it felt anecdotally true, so I looked up a few that seemed semi-reputable and there they are above. I know at some point I read something about how “linking” culture specifically fragments the attention span but a 5 minute google search wasn’t fruitful fast enough to find the study, so you’ll have to take my word. I did find another article that is basically saying what I’m saying right here at this very moment.  So if you don’t like my presentation of the subject, you can use that one.

You feel like you already know this. You, like me, might have read a few articles about it. You haven’t actually read the studies. Who reads the studies? Clearly the article’s source did (right?). Usually, you are made to feel bad about this. You didn’t really do your homework about brain stress from the internet or organic vegetables or the studio musicians on that band’s last three albums.  And chances are you don’t need it anyway, because increasingly, to paraphrase a comic I enjoy, knowing and not knowing start to feel like the same thing. Better yet, why have me paraphrase? Just watch him say it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQ4o1N4ksyQ

I didn’t even watch it to the end. (Be honest, you didn’t either).

Don’t feel bad. Even if it’s in your field. Even if it’s something you really ought to do. The effort you waste in reloading the page and skimming two sentences and putting it back into the unread category in your email is a waste. Don’t mourn not getting back to the really important person on time. You didn’t. Oh well.  There are so many potential articles to read it becomes over whelming to think about actually taking the time to sit down and get through 30 pages of anything.

We cannot all be experts about everything. We cannot even be experts about all aspects of the thing we ARE experts on. Perhaps the word expert itself becomes meaningless in an age where the gap information and knowledge grows wider and wider. Is it better not to know if you don’t have time to actually understand? Is the surface “got it” level depth of information even meaningful? When there is so much information is skimming to stay on top of it all helpful? I make lists of lists of information I need to gather some day.

In the midst of all this whining I propose a meditation:

There is glory in a timed exam.

It is a defined period of time in which, regardless of the preparation or lack thereof that has come before it, there is a single goal and no possibility to engage in any other activity.

I, for my part, have always loved them. I love a ticking clock. I love the feel of a fast approaching buzzer. I love the butterflies in my stomach as I wait to begin. I love a defined set of questions that I will throw myself at to the best of my ability and walk away knowing there is no more I can possibly do.

In college during organic chemistry exams I kept a store of pencils because I would write so hard I would break them, one after the other, when I wasn’t paying attention.

A timed test is a kind of perfection. There is a single thing, and I am the single person to do it. Regardless of what I might wish to have done in the past to prepare, my job at this moment is to concentrate on the data I have taken in, use it towards a measurable end and offer back my evaluation of it. In its highest form it is not a assessment of information, it is a meditation on understanding.

The glory of a test is the grandeur of an interview in which one person sits across from another in an actual time and place and looks them in the eye and reflects on their being and potential worth.

It is the splendor of the sporting event where a group of people meet for a defined period to accomplish as many defined physical targets as they are able.

It is the miraculous beauty of live performance in which entertainment or grief or boredom cannot be exchanged for an alternate experience.

These are the moments when our attentions are required. There is no question about what needs to happen. These events “are”, they require us to “be” in them and because of that rareness they are a kind of holiness.

(Now, you know you want to, go ahead, do it, check your email.)

When I graduated from college a professor at my school named Barry Schwartz spoke at our baccalaureate.  He is famous for his writing on “The Paradox of Choice.”

I know he has a TED talk.

I know he has a book.

I know he’s written a ton of articles.

These are not the things I remember. I remember that I saw him in person. I sat there and I had to listen to him saying something that I remember as:

You graduates may feel like you have infinite options before you. Trust me, I know this, infinite options will paralyze you.

And I know that right now it’s the only aspect of his output that I’ve absorbed. This is the take away.  Not that we are doomed. That we are the potential saviors. Listen: Performance is a rescue.

It is a life line. In every work of art there is a defeat of the infinite expanse. To make anything is to conquer the potential of everything.

Specificity is a victory.

People’s minds in a room together for a defined space of time is triumph.

To require attention in the face of every other possibility is success.

This is why live performance is necessary. This is why volume doesn’t matter. Because in a world where the difference between knowing and not knowing is negligible, what we can offer the world are experiences that cannot be summoned on command, that demand us to engage. To make us sit there and force us to watch, perhaps even move us against our will.

A theater that is live has this power.

And it asks us to experience that power from the beginning all the way until the end.

Talking To Myself

Hi Adrienne.

Hi.

What is this?

An interview.

An interview with whom?

With myself, I guess.

Why would you do that?

I dunno. It was an idea I had. And I was getting bored with the essay format. Why don’t we just see how it goes?

Ok… First question:  Adrienne, who are you writing for in this blog?

I’m not sure. Myself, mostly. And other people that, like me, are afraid.

Afraid. Interesting word choice. Why afraid? Afraid of what?

Yeah. I guess it’s a strange word to use. It’s how I feel more days than not: afraid. I think it’s fear but also anxiety, which is a little different.

I’m afraid that I don’t understand harsher realities of the “real world” very well. I’m afraid that I went into a profession in the arts with some very lofty ideals about changing the medium and connecting to people. I’m afraid that those two things put together will make me unhappy.

A lot of the time I’m afraid that what I want to do is impossible. I’m afraid that the only people who will ever go to the theater are rich people, and even they are getting bored with it. I’m afraid that regardless of the spirit of the art form, in practical application the best business people are the ones that succeed.

I’m afraid that not being rich, despite my belief that it shouldn’t matter, is such a huge hindrance that for a vast majority of people, and that it is the bar one has to clear to achieving a kind of stability that will make it possible to stay in this profession. I fear that the only ones outside of that category who succeed are either exceedingly lucky or exceedingly ruthless.

What if I’m not exceedingly lucky? I don’t think I can be exceedingly ruthless.

Do you really think that is true of your profession?

Yes. Sometimes. Sometimes, I do.

What about talent and hard work?

I vacillate between thinking I’m incredibly naïve and thinking that I’ve become too jaded. I would really like to believe that those things matter. I think they do to some degree. But the reason I’m afraid is that I fear they matter less than they should. I think I’m talented. I know I can work hard. But one can’t work hard in a vacuum. You need opportunities to work towards. It seems like you have to work hard in the right place and time on the right thing.

I’ve tried to figure out ways that I can see these supposed “disadvantages” in the opposite light. What does having to work a day job, needing to constantly hustle, having less time than I’d like to make my artwork potentially offer as a lesson that I can use?

And? What are the lessons?

Empathy. Determination. Getting over things you fear. That’s something I’ve had to learn because of those things.

But?

But I am afraid that I’ve developed other things that might overwhelm these positive things – an awareness of limitation, a slower impulse to try anything, a bigger fear of failure.

And you think those things are bad?

They are a product of practice. I have lost a lot of money making shows. I almost couldn’t buy my house because of one, and that was, creatively speaking, one of my best works. A bad critique from grant evaluator can follow you around for years. It makes it harder to try something really out there, you can’t help but shift what you’re making to what you think they might want.

Maybe you just need to say “fuck ‘em” and do what you want, regardless?

In theory, true. But I like to eat. Food, specifically. I also like to pay my bills. On time, preferably. I’d like to make my “career” the same thing as the “job that makes money.”

It can feel one or the other sometimes. So it depends on which scares me more: making something I don’t care as much about, or potentially making my art just a hobby and not an income.

New topic. How about something more positive?

Sure. I agree. This is getting really depressing.

What’s exciting to you right now?

Right now I want to make a board game.

Really? That’s weird.

I know!

Why a board game?

It’s something really different. I don’t know how to do it, so I get to learn a lot about something new, which I like. I don’t know enough about board games yet to be too harsh a critic, and I like having a space where I can just enjoy something without too much self-critique. Plus they’re fun! And cheap!

You don’t need any actors.

And you can start one any time. You could conceivably go anywhere in the world with it.

What else?

I like symbols and codes. I like tiny objects that you store in perfect little containers. I like to organize and create rules. Games do all these things. I like the idea of a controlled space in which we can use metaphor to explore bigger questions.

Also, a game can include a party that surrounds it. I like to cook and have parties.

What are the best board games you ever played?

Well, recently, I’ve played a game called “Ticket to Ride.” It’s a turn based strategy game about building railroads. It’s a lot of fun, though not terribly interactive. It’s the game we’re going to play at tonight’s Swim Pony Game Night.

I also like “Settlers of Catan” which is another “German” style board game.

German?

Yes. It’s a style of game (though, I should note not all “German” games are board games and not all “German-style” board games are from Germany).

What makes it a German game?

Well, Wikipedia says they “generally have simple rules, short to medium playing times, indirect player interaction, and abstract physical components.”

And “emphasize strategy, downplay luck and conflict, lean towards economic rather than military themes, and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends.”

The thing about these kind of games that I think are the most interesting  is that they don’t emphasize a few aspects that  “American-style” games do: luck, conflict, drama.”

Hmm… Not to get too deep with you on this, but those sound like similar things that give you anxiety in your real life profession.

What? You mean the luck part?

And the conflict.

I said ruthlessness.

Same thing really.

I guess. Maybe.

Not the rich part.

Yeah. But I don’t like drama in theater either. Ha ha.

What?

Drama. In drama.

It’s a joke.

Anyway. Do you think that playing these games is a way to work through your own anxieties in life by putting them in a controlled setting that you can manipulate?

Uh. I didn’t – I didn’t mean to do that. At least, not on purpose.

Are you trying to see if you can create a world, however small, that removes the luck and conflict, so you can find a system you CAN win, based on the morals you believe in?

But when you say it that way, maybe subconsciously – I think I just want to play a board game with some cool people.

Whatever you say. Any other games that you want to play?

There was a game I had as a kid called Mall Madness. You had to buy a certain number of things on a shopping list. You swiped a credit card to buy the things at different stores, but you had to be careful because if you used up your money on things that were too expensive you had to go back to the ATM and that takes a lot of time.

I thought you said you were using credit cards.

Yeah. That bothered me too when I looked up the rules recently. But when I played it I was 10. I didn’t have a deep understanding about how credit financing works.

So what was so great about this game?

At the center of the mini-mall was an electronic voice over that controlled the random elements like a SALE or CLEARANCE. Every time you pushed the button to end your turn there might be a surprise.

My dad, sister and I used to imitate the woman’s voice with each other:

“There is a SALE in the SHOE STORE.  There is a CLEARANCE in the FASHION BOUTIQUE.”

Sounds like fun.

Yeah. It was. I’m not sure what the moral of game was… Buy a lot of stuff? Get out of the mall the fastest? But I liked playing with them.

Well, I think that’s about it for today. Thanks for sitting down and talking with me.

You’re welcome. Maybe we’ll do it again some time.

 

A

Stick in the Mud

insanity-workout-shaun-t

Man, some days I just feel like this guy.

Ok. Follow up on this post.

I’ve been working on a statistic project on gender breakdowns in roles in theaters in town. It has expanded in a massive way. I’m planning on unveiling some time next week but it’s become much much larger a project than I anticipated. It’s going to have pie charts and line graphs and all that awesome data driven stuff my left brain loves.

And I was working out yesterday had a moment where the video I do totally jogged this big question in my mind about doing this. This moment made me think, “I really hope that this project is productive.” It made me wonder if there was a way to show this information to the people included in it so that it feels like a positive step forward and not an attack. Because as a fellow artist, I don’t really want to attack. I just want to make Philly theater more equitable in the future.

All of this comes from wanting to make our whole community better.

The workout, INSANITY, is marketed as high intensity circuit training. I could spend a lot of time unpacking why I like a workout that include a buff person screaming at me to move. (Actually, I don’t need to spend that much time. I just like someone kicking my ass. Working out is totally shame-based for me.) Anyway, INSANITY is short compared to their parent company’s more popular P90X series – a mere 40 minutes to the 60 or 90 that I had to commit when doing the later. P90X is hard. INSANITY is basically the plyometrics (aka cardio) day of P90X with all the air sucked out of it. The super fit people in the background of these videos ALL look wasted by the half way point.

I say this to set the scene for this moment, one in which the instructor “Shaun T” walks over to an incredibly shredded woman named Shanita who is placed near the front of the group. She is in midst of a circuit and roughly 35 minutes through the 41 minute video.  She is throwing her arms and legs up into the air and has a tough time talking when he asks her a question. The camera closes in on her and Shaun T corrects her form:

“Get your knees up Shanita.”

She looks pissed.

Shanita is working hard. She doesn’t feel like listening to Shaun T. She would clearly rather concentrate on getting to the end of the set. She probably already knows her form isn’t perfect. So she hikes the knees up for a sec and then says she needs a water break. Shaun T looks out at us in the audience and says something about how you have to get the form right, realizes what Shanita just said and then looks back at her and says:

“You want to leave? Ok, go take a break.”

He goes back to the front and picks up the routine. After a moment’s pause (well, fervent jumping in heavy breathing silence) Shaun T looks at the camera and clearly intending to reach both Shanita off screen and the viewers at home says:

“I’m not trying to hurt you, just trying to make you better.”

I feel this way a lot when I talk to peers about some of the issues I bring up in this blog, ESPECIALLY when it comes to gender inequality in the arts. I don’t know if Shaun T gets tired of correcting form. I feel like a stick in the mud.

Is there a good way to tell someone you think they are acting in a biased way?

“Hey, I know this isn’t what you want right now, in fact, I know this is probably going to make what’s already tough seem even more difficult, I know you’re barely keeping your head above water and you probably feel like you can’t use any critique, let alone one from someone who’s supposed to be a supporter, but you’re doing something wrong, and I think you need to fix it.”

No. There is not.

Or at least, I have not found it yet. I have not found a way to talk to people about these issues in a way that doesn’t seem like an attack. I’m not sure how to address a problem without putting people on the defensive. And it can be tiring when you feel like you are constantly stopping the crazy frenetic pace to raise your hand and say “Sorry to be that person again, but I really think we need to deal with this.”

Like Shaun T, I see some problems. His are with knees and getting your butt down in the squat. Mine are sustainability and the imbalance of women in theater.

And I would wager that a little more concentration on the form and not the race to the finish would fix it. I actually don’t believe it would take nearly as much extra effort as we think it would. But it will take some thought and it will be a little harder for a while. And that eye roll from Shanita says it’s not at the top of her priority list. She’ll listen and go along for a minute, but when he’s not looking, she might just go back to what’s easier.

It feels like general reminders don’t do anything. It feels like you have to be specific. It feels like you have to call people out.

Not “Hey everyone let’s remember to work on keeping our knees in the air.”

But  “You, person in front of me, I see how you’re doing the exercise and I think you need to slow down a little and re-learn some aspects of the form or you’ll always do it a little wrong.”

Shanita doesn’t want to slow down. She wants to get to the end. And I understand why. I’m the same way. I need some calling out to fix some problems. Because, like Shanita, sometimes you’re just tired and not paying attention. But Shaun T can’t let her get away with it. He knows Shanita’s going to short herself in the long run, that next time she does this circuit she’ll do it wrong again if she doesn’t fix it now.

And, maybe I’m investing way too much of my own personal struggle into an exercise video guru but I think that the real reason he makes her get it right is that she’s out in front.

She’s the badass person that you see first in the video. She’s the one showing the newbies who are just getting started how it’s done. I think he knows you are going to watch her and that if he doesn’t point out what she’s doing wrong, others will copy it. They won’t realize that it’s the wrong form, even if she does. So you can be pissed that Shaun T singles calls you out. But you’re out in front because ostensibly you know what you’re doing. If you’re the model, you’re more prominent, and if you’re more prominent, the more getting it right matters.

All silly and light-hearted exercise metaphors aside, I really wonder what to do sometimes. What is the way, that with care and kindness, with love and belief in the ability for improvement, that you say to a peer:

“Hey, from where I stand, it looks you’ve institutionalized some seriously discriminatory practices. Lots of people copy your model. Young creators look up to you. When you do it, it encourages others to follow suit. And it’s no longer acceptable that you continue to let it happen.”

It isn’t ever fun to be the stick in the mud. It feels like getting in other people’s way. It is getting in people’s way. Because you think it’s the wrong way. My feeling these days is that kind or not, people need to know. My feeling is that institutional leaders can (and might) keep doing it the way they always have, but at least they’re going to have a voice in their head telling them that they’re doing so with an intentional oversight. And when people watch what they do, they’ll have to display it knowing full well that the oversight is there, not because they were too busy and out of breath to pay attention. And that’s only possible if a stick in the mud bothered to point it out. Which I think is what we all need to commit to.

“I’m not trying to hurt you, just trying to make you better.”

And then it’s on Shanita to be better.

A