Put the money where the people are

I was working this morning on some research and prep for Swim Pony’s upcoming re-working/re-mount of The Ballad of Joe Hill for the Live Arts this fall and I started thinking a bit about the stage hand strike (IATSE Local 8) that’s currently in progress at Philadelphia Theater Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre.


I have read the small bits of info that are out there for the public:



but beyond this surface level of information, I can’t say I know a lot personally about this particular situation. I don’t really know the ins and outs of this company (lord knows they are not in any rush to hire directors creating out of the box devised ensemble work) so I don’t really want to speak to the conditions at the place.

I have worked on both sides of the producer/gun-for-hire dividing line. I know the intense weight and pressure that a producer has in keeping the boat afloat. I know the resentment of feeling unfairly compensated for your work. I think both of these emotions are understandable. I also think both sides ought to experience the others’ shoes for a few miles. I bet it would go a long way towards decreasing anger and frustration on both ends.

Unions are imperfect animals. I certainly have steered clear of AEA on many occasions because I find that they often make it impossible for me to create in any way outside of the traditional system. Artists create works in many kinds of ways, but there is incredibly restrictive limits on the kinds of contracts I can engage an actor in. In a devised process the difference between training, research, writing and rehearsing is super muddy. That’s what’s wonderful about it, that the work is so unique to the participants, but it can be near impossible to work that out with a union rep. It’s often exhausting and not possible to create in the standard 40 hour week. 8 hours of generating isn’t doable. It just isn’t. But for AEA, a week is a week. I could cite any number of other irritations and frustrations (don’t get me started on site specific work and the equity cot) but the point is this – in theory a union should allow the workers to lobby for rights that serve them better in the professional world. That world of theater is changing rapidly and the union in some cases can actually hold an out of the box thinker back. This is one example of one union. I’m sure you could cite a multitude of others in the arts with just as anger inducing rules.

That said, in a system in which the employee has little agency – a situation which the traditional regional theater model can often engender – I totally understand the feeling of being an expendable cog in a massive system. The truth of the arts is that the supply versus demand equation is often skewed – there are too few employers and far too many people looking to be employed. Add to that a labor force that generally isn’t in it for the money. It makes sense that as foundation endowments disappear and budgets shrink that a producer might feel that ANY job is a good one when there are scant alternatives. It’s hard to bargain when you have little leverage. A union is a way to gain that amass that leverage.

Everyone knows there’s no money in the arts, right?


Here’s the thing. I don’t disagree that it’s reasonable not to expect to be making Wall Street money any time soon. But in the past few years I’ve sat on a few grant panels, and I’ve taken up the habit of really digging into the financial records of the companies I’m asked to evaluate. There was a trend that really bothered me, especially with small to mid-sized companies. More times than I’d have liked, I saw a company make a slow steady growth in budget size and increase the external features of the company – the amount of money spent on advertising,  materials for set and design rental, expense of space rental, etc – but keep the actor salaries consistent. I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk too specifically (for a whole host of confidentiality reasons) but I will say you can learn a lot in the 990’s that non-profits make public.

At the NPN conference last month I heard a representative from Doris Duke say that all artists worth their salt will be undercapitalized. If you have imagination you will always dream bigger than your resources. Or as I would put it, the idea expands to money allotted to it. And when we first start leaving that DIY phase we often immediately start dreaming bigger with the little cash we have. It’s so satisfying to put that money towards outcomes we can see and receive praise for – better theaters to rent, cooler lighting effects, fancier set pieces, etc. What’s harder is to do remember that the work someone did for free last time is worth more than free. Ditto for way under paying as well. It’s doubly hard when you are paying something to be objective about what that work is actually worth. I once worked at a company where the base actor salary hadn’t been raised in 10 years.

I get it. We acclimate. It is hard to pay more for something and have the product be the same. Which is why something I almost never saw in those grant panels was the same level of production value and an increase in salaries for the people they were working with.

There’s the old “industry standard” line that I hear floated around. Look, the simple truth is that $250 or $300 a week is not a living wage.  But I hear people actually excited about numbers like this all the time. The truth is we’re often working far more than our income alone would justify. We do it because we love it. We do it because we care about the companies we work for. We do it because we’re asked for favors. We do it because it’s what everyone around us is doing.

But if we institutionalize and capitalize on that, we get artists and crew who always feel like they’re doing too much for too little. And that, in turn, breeds resentment and burnout. It’s the thing that starts making one hold a little part of themselves back from a process because you feel like you’re being taken advantage of. Or get unreasonable about schedule changes or breaks or little things that in most professions wouldn’t be as big a deal. It’s easy to get lazy or pissy when you’re on the defensive and when you feel like you can’t be honest about your needs.

Let me say I am all for entrepreneurship. I understand that a company that has just started will have to go through a “I’m paying you less than you’re worth phase.” It’s like any start up: you begin with blood and sweat and tears. The difference though in the arts, is that we institutionalize that initial phase. We make business  models of over working and over extending. That’s fine when you’re just beginning but when you are hitting year 5, 10, 20, you shouldn’t be hearing the same kinds of complaints. We stay in the “do more with less” model forever. As Andrew Simonet of Artist’s U says, “Let’s start doing less with more.”

We producers need to really take time to think about the reality we’re asking our peers to take part in. Can you really afford that show if doing it means everyone involved needs another job in addition? Is that actually covering your costs? Even if someone will do that much, do you want to be the person that asks them to? We should be asking the people we bring on what it’s like to work for us and then really trying to listen to them.

I think we all need to seriously put our money into the people. Your set design will shrink or expand to the money you allot to it. Clearly, we can adapt, because we all had to do it after the housing collapse. What if you just committed to $50 more a week to the actors in the cast? What if you just promised to pay a TD a little more each time they worked for you? What if you gave a designer enough so that they could really just concentrate on your piece? Each of these shifts might be a couple thousand dollars. In the larger picture, it’s really not that much. I know this is hard. I raise every single dollar that gets paid out by Swim Pony. I stare at budgets all the time. But if you want it to happen, you can do it. That’s why you’re in the arts, you get shit done.

You might say that now is not the time, with the economy the way it is and so many companies reeling from the fallout. I say now is exactly the time when we need to get clear on how we want to operate, now when there are so many forces that might push us in the opposite direction. And while we can’t all jump immediately into the ideal situation, we can make incremental changes Because the truth is, if we endow people and not product now, we pay into a long term stable investment. If we begin from trust and principle, then we have a place to start talking from. If your workers know you have consistently valued them and their work, they’re going to be a lot more flexible when you come to the table with them in the future.


UPDATE – Just saw this posted and figured I’d add it to the mix


Running and Crying

Today is the 30th day. Somehow that seems impossible. The 15,000 challenge has become nearly 33,000 words and it seems like I’ve barely scratched the surface. So when I sat down today, I wanted some kind of summation of what I’ve gained, gleaned, gotten out of taking an hour (or two or three) each day to sit and write about what I do. If the goal was to force myself to think every day about why I make theater and what I want from it, what was the conclusion?

Throughout this month there was a story that kept coming up for me that I never found a way to fit in. I kept sensing that it belonged in the conversation somehow, but could never quite decide exactly what message this part of my history should proffer or in what larger topic or category it should fit. But since today is the last official day of this writing project, and I haven’t found room for it yet, it seems like there’s no choice but just to get it down and see what happens.


When I was 23 I learned to run. Or rather, at 23 I took up running because I didn’t know what else to do with myself.

I had, much to my chagrin, found myself rather suddenly and violently in the deep thickets of a very messy romantic entanglement.

The messy part, at least initially, wasn’t my fault.

I had met someone online and fallen very hard in a very short period of time. It was, in retrospect, a pretty standard infatuation, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt unspeakably new and inevitable all at once. It was like a melody I was humming every moment of every day. Lot of long emails, a date that started as coffee over a couple hours but went on for 12, a person’s new smell and taste. These things reminded me of my capacity to grow bigger and contain them.

I felt like I was really alive at a time in my life when there weren’t many things doing that. I was out of school, working on theater that wasn’t my own, working a job that wasn’t terribly challenging and wondering where all this would head. And then all this feeling just flew into every day. It became a kind of purpose.

This: wanting to cook someone dinner, striving to be the most spectacular version of myself, finding a way to speak about my life and experiences with interest and meaning, it was a palpable sense of physical closeness to someone, but also to the idea of seeing myself as the very best version possible. It felt like I was becoming. And that sense of drive gave me back the part of myself that I had been seeking. The part of me that can feel purpose like a tangible object, soft but strong and pliable, like velvet in your hands.

It was that violently blissful sense of self that shook off the drudge of “just living” and rocketed me back into a sense of possibility and get shit done-ness that I so desperately wanted and needed. And in that phase I started to imagine a life so big that it could contain everything that I wanted and needed and imagined for the future.

So when I found out that this thing that I had not only placed my eggs in but had made my basket had a fiancé in another state I just about lost my mind.

Just like that bliss before it, I was stuck with a new constant sensation: an inversion of that previous emotion that cut into my belly and my chest like a sharp knife.  It was hard to believe that this feeling was so viscerally physical. I thought some days, “This is going to kill me.” I actually felt like I might die it hurt so bad.

One night at 3 am, in the midst of this tumult, I was thrashing around making myself miserable. My bed smelled like him. It was making me nauseous. I wanted to put this thing back together. I needed it to be fixable, not just to hold onto this person, but so that I didn’t need to let go of the version of myself I had found, the better, more infinite, version of me. I couldn’t breathe. And I knew that I literally couldn’t stay in my own skin for another second longer.

I stood up and said, “Stop it. This is all of this you are allowed. You need to go.”

So without knowing exactly what I was doing I put on my gym shoes and a hoodie and a hat and I stretched for a minute and went outside into the winter night and I set off running. I was not a runner. I did not “run” in that easy blithe endorphin-rushed way you think of in Nike commercials. It was awkward and painful and cold. And did I mention the crying? Just running and crying like this big nasty, snotty, wet train barreling down the streets of Philadelphia.

But it was also distracting. So wonderfully distracting that without knowing what path I took or retaining memory of how I did it, I managed to trek from my house at 6th and Washington all the way up to the Art Museum at the end of the Parkway. And I stood on the steps and the feeling started to rise again. I threw up. And then I took off again and ran home.

I ran a lot that year.

Though it was no fault of mine for finding myself in this situation, that I continued to stick around for another year to torture myself most definitely was. But I used the running as a way to distract enough from the present to hold onto that vision of myself as huge and massive and awesome. And I also used it to distract myself from the growing crap pile I was swimming in. Literally and figuratively, I got myself on the move after two years flailing around trying to find myself as an artist. I spun into a productive fervor of need and idea and creativity and hard ass work that launched me into the orbit I’m in today.

Which is why I am deeply conflicted about how to analyze myself in this context.

I read this now and it makes me feel weak and stupid. I hate that this is a part of my history. I wish it wasn’t part of who I am. I feel like I should be better than the person who took off running to try and escape. I wish often that I could have cut that longing off. That it doesn’t still bother me. That I could smooth that experience out enough so that the raw edges don’t still catch at me once in a while.

And there’s another part of me that still wishes that I had been amazing enough to make it turn out different. Because the truth is, I still want to believe that I could be awesome enough to do the impossible, so that I can recapture that feeling of being so incredibly full. There is a part of me that still wants to believe there is enough in me to grasp what I want  and through sheer force of will reclaim it and that feeling of potential in its most potent form. There are times I wish I still had enough raw need and emotion and hurt to need to run and work and create in the blind panic I did then.

I wish both of those things at the same time.

I like to accomplish things. Hard things. I do not like the idea that I cannot achieve what I set my mind to. It is the reason the best of my works are the best of my works. It is the reason I can find myself in a moment in a process saying “I have no idea how to solve this. I have no idea where to find an idea where to solve this.”  And yet each time, somehow, I found a way to do it.

The reason that year-long entanglement went on as long as it did was because I really believed that if I wanted something badly enough and was patient enough to wait it out then what I wanted would become what everyone wanted. But amazingly in that one case, it didn’t happen.

Which is why it still bothers me.

Which is why when I finally got close enough to see the giant STOP sign emerging, when I got so far away from the shoreline from what I wanted to happen that I couldn’t even write a map for how I might get to where I wanted to head, it didn’t get easier. There was not a comfort in finally forcing myself to move past it.

I still want to be awesome enough. For… what? I don’t know. But I still want to believe that there is work for me that is so fulfilling it can make me grow larger every day. That there is a life that vast. It is that need to reach that inspires me to do better. But the despair at the distance between infinity and myself is also the thing that started me writing here to you all in the first place. The thing that made me look around at certain amount of stasis in my career and the field in general and wonder if I can tolerate it when parts of it make me feel so small.

Hmmm. Is that a conclusion?

There’s still one part of the running story I left out:

One the way home from that first run to the Art Museum, I suppose from all the cold air and crying and deep breathing, I got a nosebleed. A gusher. I had assumed that people giving me the terrified wide berth on the streets were doing so because my ugly and obvious feelings were so ugly and obvious that they were scaring pedestrians.

In fact I was just covered in blood. All down my face and all over my hoodie, completely soaked through to my shirt.

And when I finally got home tasted iron on my lips and looked down my very first thought was not the sadness. It was, “Some day I’m going to write a story about this.”


There we are.

The need to achieve the impossible, to get that hit of ecstatic delight, is likely a race one can never win. That feeling is really an idea of perfection that helps us move forward. And it’s up to us to figure out how to negotiate it.

And I guess that’s all we can do.


PS – I’ll be back soon.

I have a feeling that I’ll still be writing here with fair regularity, though likely every couple days instead of every single day. (Who wants to read that much anyway?)

I’ll take a day or two and let you know when I get back.

“Play Play”

Can I admit this? 29 days in, I’m finally ready.

I don’t know what to do with plays.

I make most of my living in making theater and I pretty much never deal with them. You’ll notice, if you comb through Swim Pony’s website or press kit that the word “play” never appears. It’s not an accident. It’s always “show” or “performance” or “piece” instead of play. Even “theater” makes me pretty nervous. It’s why I went with “Swim Pony Performing Arts” instead of “Swim Pony Theater Company.”

“Play” and “Theater” conjure up some very specific ideas in my mind. Red curtains. Plush seats. Proscenium stage. Fly system. 3,000 seat houses

Google image search the word “Theater.”

No really. Do it, I’ll wait.

No really. I need to prove this point.

See what I mean?

I know that’s a little reductive, but I think that’s probably what most people think when they think theater. I think it’s probably what most theater audiences think when they think theater.  I almost never work in spaces like that. And the few times I have, I’ve spent all my time wishing I was back in a dirty warehouse or in a de-sanctioned chapel space or outside. These spaces feel so filled with another era’s idea of performance that I spend most of my time trying to get the play to undo everything the space does. So much of what I make is about teaching audiences that the performers are aware, that they aren’t separated by an imaginary wall, that this is about communing with each other and personally, I feel like this:


Just gets in the way.

Some may maintain that the concept of theater is bigger than the building that shares its name. Maybe, in theory. But I’d counter that until the specter of that building (and the many nastier, sadder, dirtier, worn out, step down versions of it) gets out of our minds Theater the art form will stay synonymous with Theater the space.

So back to the p-word.

What do you do in a theater? You do Plays with a capital P.

Plays are written by someone who is impervious. They must be, because we are not allowed to change anything they say. Plays can be pulled apart to study their dramatic arc and action. The best Plays’ plots are incredibly clean and wrap up neatly at the end. Big things are revealed in Plays. Plays are about words. They have monologues and juicy scenes where the best actors get to show off their emotions. Plays suggest blocking with stage directions. Plays take four weeks to rehearse.  Brilliant Plays deserve standing ovations. Plays are done in Theaters that look like the one above.

These are my stereotypes about “Plays.” I call them “Play Plays.” Aka – stuff that is exactly what you think of when you think of a play in a theater.

My problem with the traditional system (playwright writes a play, company produces it, director directs it, designers design for it and actors act it) is that at every level it’s so hard to connect the parts of the chain. When your job is super clearly defined, why think about anything else? When the system is too well defined, it gets hard to innovate. If there’s a single way to do things, people whose talents lay outside that box tend to stop participating. Some artists get around this and force their niche into Plays and Theaters.  But many end up feeling alienated from the majority. I know I have.

There are lots of super talented people who do Play Plays in Theaters. Their talents can translate into the larger messier definition of the word. But some of my worst collaborations have been a result of working with people when their idea of theater and mine are different. I know I break a lot of the rules that matter a lot in the Play Play system. I don’t break them to be a jerk. I do it because I think there are lots of things about a “Play” that prize only a few aspects of live performance. I often want to explore the rest. Sometimes to give the other elements the floor you have to change the way you do things. And if a creator is so entrenched in one way of doing things, it gets exhausting to explain or apologize why you want to do things differently over and over and over.

I talked early on in this space that there are things theater is awesome at. I believe that many, dare I say most, scripted shows minimize opportunity for a lot of these things to happen and hold onto a lot of the things that I think keep theater shackled to versions of itself that I want to shed:

That actors perform the script exactly the same every time.

That ideas should developed in the head of the playwright for most of its conception and development with other elements only added on top of this foundation.

That once we hit opening night, the time when the director and actors could in theory learn THE MOST from how the thing works with people, the play has to stop getting changed.

That words are the predominant driving force (and they kind of have to be if they are the thing that you get handed at the start of the process) and sound, movement, visual landscape, are all lower places at the table.

That words on the page are the best way to begin.

That italics between lines are enough to describe what else should be there.

That you can create a set, sound and light design for a finished script.

That actors should have to make sense of and say every word that’s written.

Sure, there are playwrights who think about those things. But they have to think about words more. That’s why they’re playwrights. They think about words more. And while there are some pieces where that makes sense, I think most people don’t realize that’s a choice, that a play could equally start from an impulse of sound or physical space or movement. When was the last time a sound designer’s name was as high up on the playbill as the playwright? We’ve enshrined one way to build a theatrical experience, and we’ve taught our audiences that way is THE way that things are done. And that “Play” way has lead us to one dominant way of thinking about “Theater,” a way that doesn’t often serve other elements taking the lead.

I’ve worked hard to develop a theatrical eye. But that eye happens not to be well served by being handed a script. I need to be able to question the playwright, just like I question all the other elements, and encourage others to question me. I need to see the thing formed in process. I like the option to have a piece start from music, or an actress I love.  I don’t think I’ve directed a fully staged “Play” since college.

As I near the end of this 30-day experiment, I wonder if I’m not sick of theater, just “Theater” and that I do like making plays, just not “Play plays.”

The former, to me, feel like something I can add to. The latter I think will have to change if it wants to survive.

Teaching Voice

I still don’t know how I feel about teaching. I find it very fulfilling and incredibly tiring. I remember and talk about my students  often. I fall in love with my class a little bit every year. I have learned so much more about the subject I teach from working with my students. They are incredible developing people. Every year they surprise me. The ones that I think are going to be the biggest pain in my ass turn out to be the ones that shift my heart and mind in a major way.

The class I teach most consistently is an intro level theater class with the stiflingly boring name “Voice and Articulation.” The participants are almost never theater students any more.  It’s an interesting trend that’s grown stronger each year I’ve taught it. I’m not sure why, perhaps word of mouth?, but each year I find myself in front of more engineering, business, and education majors to the point where this year not a single student identified as a theater student. Strangely, having to think about what it means to teach “Voice” to people that aren’t at all interested in delivering a monologue or projecting in a traditional performance context has really changed the way I think about what voice can mean in that original context. I’ve changed the kinds of things I teach a lot both in class but also in rehearsals. I’ve re-found the necessity  in basic technique and simultaneously discovered how much the person is the same thing as the voice that comes from them, and that voice work is really self work at the core level.

As one student of mine wrote to me last year, “I feel like this class isn’t just about changing my voice. It’s about changing me.”

I don’t ask them to be amazing vocalists on any objective measure. Truthfully, I don’t really know any more what measure that would be. I tell them it is not hard to get a good grade. It’s one of the few places that creatively that I’m just not interested in being a hard ass. It seems beside the point to be a drill sergeant. They might “respect” me, but it won’t get them to the place that they can be vulnerable enough to actually change the sounds they make. I start my classes every year saying this, “You have to physically be present and you have to be willing to try and you have to do your best to be honest.”

I always begin by telling them that it is not a lecture and that they will make sounds out loud by themselves. And by the end of the first day they have all sung in front of each other. I wish I could record this first day and play it back for them at the end the way I require them to write about their voices, what they love and hate about the way they speak on the first day. The “final” is to hand them back this writing and reflect back on whether they still agree with all the things they initially wrote. These papers are always the highlight of the semester because we both get to realize how far they’ve come.

So what’s the problem?

It takes a lot of me to run my class. I finish my three hours on Mondays in the winter exhausted and jacked up on adrenaline. I come out thinking about each person and how they dealt with the week’s exploration and what they will be confronting the next time I see them. I fall in love a little bit with them all. And it takes a ton of energy.

Many of the things that I get out of teaching overlap in a major way with what I get out of being a director. And when I’m doing one, I don’t have room for much else. I’ve luckily never had to do both at the same time, but I think that if I had to, one would suffer for the other.  And as teaching becomes a bigger part of my life and income, I worry that it will become the only thing that I do, the only thing that I am.

I have had a lot of amazing teachers in my life. But the ones that were the best at teaching, were not doing an equivalent amount of art making. I’m not sure how to resolve that. So for now I keep them compartmentalized in my life and hope that the amount of me that is needed for the one will not use up what’s needed for the other.




Catfish is a terrible TV show.

I hate that I love to watch bad TV. I regiment the amount I’m allowed so that my brain doesn’t turn into mush, but if I’m home alone eating dinner or doing the dishes there is no easier way to get me out of my over-analytic brain. Trashy shows are like an input of garbage that momentarily stalls the output of to do lists and anxieties that normally flow like a constant stream through my thoughts. I take an especially perverse glee in watching “Intervention” with a nice big glass of wine. So it surprised me when I found myself genuinely empathizing with a person I saw in a new MTV reality program.

It’s clearly crafted for short attention span, shallow adolescent minds that feed on gossip. The show follows people who have met online and “fallen in love” and now, for the first time, are about to meet each other. The show’s host faux befriends them, asks them to recount the turbulent (and usually insane red flag inducing) stories of meeting, researches the people love, inevitably exposes the lies said loves are guilty of perpetrating in their profiles, and then films an eventual meeting/show down.

Like I said, terrible.

The episode I watched begins by meeting a woman named Kya from Missouri. As Wikipedia says:

“When Kya first met “Alyx” online, she used a fake name and fake pictures.”

This is the understatement of the century. The woman in the show was morbidly obese. Very sweet, incredibly vulnerable, and likely upwards of 400 pounds. The pictures she posted on the Vampire Freaks website were of an insanely hot Goth chic with boobs the size of my head.


“Alyx” was like-wise an insanely hot Goth guy, well muscled and trendy, despite the brooding smirk and black clothes who lived in Switzerland and was thus completely locationally unavailable.


Suffice to say these pictures bear no resemblance to the actual people that posted them.

Kya reveals that several months in to lying she told him the truth and Alyx forgave her. It actually hurt to listen to the honeyed words of praise showered on a person who actually looks beneath the surface because of true love. The host, an impish guy who seems intent on colluding with this poor girl in a clearly delusional scenario, subsequently is SHOCKED and HORRIFIED to find that “Alyx” is also an avatar for the actual person with whom our heroine Kya has been conversing. Suddenly the excuse that Skype doesn’t work on Alyx’s computer seems a bit thin and we are left to worry what deep secrets he too holds. Hypocritical reflections about truth and openness ensue and finally Kya finds out that in fact “Alyx” is Dani, a transgendered person making the transition from female to male.

The reason I bring all this up is that as the cameras followed Kya to Dani’s house there was a point in which I put down the dishes and sat on the couch.

She knocks on the door and waits, uncertain about how she will react when the inner world she has been carrying finally is placed in an actual external context. Dani emerges and shaking says hello. Kya responds in kind. They hug. It is awkward. There is a disappointment mingled with need and anticipation that is intensely palpable on both sides. Kya asks, “So how come you didn’t tell me the truth?”

Amazingly, the two meet and talk, carefully, delicately. Their faces are a funny mix of furrowed brow and pursed lip. This is not what either had imagined and you could see the work it was taking to decide if they could settle for this, if not less, wholly other person from the fabrication they unquestioningly accepted.

The other day I was talking with someone about working in theater and bemoaning, as per usual, the crap that consumes my days. I remarked how a similar thing had happened as I progressed along my chemistry career – how I loved the initial stages and the depth of learning as I delved into more complex concepts, but that I left it because I couldn’t ultimately see myself in research. I didn’t head down that path because the way that one is a chemist didn’t seem to be much in line with what I loved about chemistry – the theory and problem solving. It was workaday, detail driven, minutiae. And I said it scared me that so much of my time these days feels like that.

“So there’s this ‘bullshit,’ for lack of a better word, that goes along with this thing you’re doing now?” they said

“Yeah, and I just miss the time when I was doing the thing and not the bullshit. And I wonder if there’s so much bullshit I ought to do something else.”

And rather than assenting, the person said, “Well. What if there’s just a certain level of bullshit that goes along with anything you’re going to do?”


Why, why, why is this such a bitter pill to swallow? Perhaps because I’ve had a taste of the rush of unfettered work in an educational setting – aka in a totally non “real world” scenario. It really seemed early on in my professional career that the problem was that I was young and there was a magical time when I got older where I’d have less crap to deal with, when I’d just get to be an artist in love with making art and could stop worrying about all the other stuff. I really thought that older, experienced artists lived that way. And I think part of the malaise of the past year or so is me realizing that unstated assumption is just a shiny picture of a hot person that doesn’t exist.

In the LTR I’m having with my art form, am I hitting the moment where you realize there’s NOT a better person in the world for you? That there’s NOT some magic that you can unleash that makes what you’re doing as awesome as you remember if first being, when you KNEW you’d be doing it forever. Where you look at the thing and see there are things that you can change, but that there is no smoking hot perfect person who will love you, of all people, and unflinchingly offer everything you ever imagined or needed.

Oh. So it’s just… this.

Which isn’t “bad,” (question mark)? It is very different than the glimpse of perfection or the ethereal possibility held in potentiality that I fell in love with. The life I have is actually in front of me, far more authentic than the idea I held in my head as a beginner. Which is why I felt so bad for Kya and Dani. Because I’m also biting my lip and looking at the thing I’ve got and deciding if I can deal with losing the fantasy. I have to decide if I want to take what I’ve actually got or keep searching for another shiny thing…


So tell me what you want

spice girls

Really, Adrienne? Have you lowered yourself to a reference like this? Is that what you really really want?

Yesterday I wrote a little about some external measures that I think too often become the definitions of success. For me it’s helpful to write those things down and really say to myself “That’s not what you need to worry about.”

But Robert Smythe also pointed out in the comment section that like a previous post, it’s useful to define what you want concretely, rather than just focusing on the things you don’t. If it’s not a fellowship or a grant or a great review that I seek, what is it? So, challenge accepted, here’s my list of personal goals for my theater works, results that actually mean something to me whether or not the projects ever achieve attention or acclaim.

– I want to make theater in which the audience has an experience of intimacy and necessity. I want them to feel as if the piece would not be the same if they had not attended.

– I want to make things in which the line between performer and viewer is not completely obvious.

– I want to make work whose process is hard, work that requires all of my faculties. I want it to be something that fails as much as it succeeds so that I know I am always reaching past my previous successes.

– I want to tackle something every time that I don’t know how to do when I started.

– I want design to be an integral part of my exploration processes and not something tacked on at the end. I want to think of designers as co-creators the same way as my actors and playwrights.

– I want to make ephemeral spectacle.

– I want to make things in which there is a possibility for change in the product every single performance.

– I want to create work that is experienced viscerally, something that makes your body react. I want to affect people on the level of breathing.

– I want to choose collaborators with whom I feel a sense of chemistry. I want to surround myself people who are able to strike the balance between speaking and listening. I want co-creators who are willing to argue with passion when they believe they have to and are able to listen and compromise when it’s necessary.

– I want my rehearsal room to be a place of learning and discovery. I want to be able to go off on theoretical discussion tangents. I like being brainy and feeling like the work is the way to discovering a new concept or pattern. I want to be around people that like to do this too.

– I want a space in which true innovation is possible. In which the outcome is intentionally not pre-defined. I want my theater to be an experiment in the most scientific sense of the word: a question is asked, a hypothesis is offered, the materials are set up and run to their logical course and then the result is evaluated. In that scenario, you genuinely discover.

– I want an art making process in which the participants are able to focus on project at hand, one project at a time.

– I want to find people who have never been to theater and make them love it.

– I want to change the rules so there’s no more sitting in a seat, reading a program and waiting for the lights to turn out.

– I want to create a space filled with theatricality and spectacle from the moment you walk in the door, maybe even before.


Means to the end

First off.

I’m pleased to see that my post from yesterday has generated a little bit of heat. I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts about this and would love to keep the conversation going in the comments section.  I’m definitely looking forward to see if there’s a way to capitalize on some of that momentum. I’ve got a few ideas in mind and have been trying to expand some of my thoughts into some more concreteness. It’s gonna take me a few days to get there, but stay tuned because I think I will have some exciting stuff to share.

Anyway, on to today.

Things have been in an “evaluate and change” theme for me the past few days. I started writing here every day in part because I’ve had a general sense of dissatisfaction with my work both on the personal and larger context level. After getting more than three quarters of the way through my self challenge, it seems like what it really boils down to for is this:

–          It’s fine if my work is an irrelevant niche art form that I do because I love doing it so much that I don’t care because I can’t imagine doing anything else.

–          It’s also fine if my mission is to change what theater can mean and be for the world – reaching out to audiences I don’t yet know, tackling content that isn’t represented, and doing it in ways that change what theater means so that I can help-redefine the art form for the future.

One of those things is really personal (artist’s relation to self) and one of those things is about responsibility to a larger whole (artist’s relation to the world). Both of them can be at play in the same person. For me they often are. At their core, neither of these impulses is really about many of the trappings of traditional success: money, acclaim, awards, notoriety. They are goals about either pleasing my own artistic impulses or seeking out and affecting people with the work I make.

What I’m finding problematic is that the people with whom I’m most often negotiating with about how my work gets made are not either of these two categories. They are intermediaries: funders, presenters, artistic directors, renters of space and equipment, critics. These people help work get made, that continue to move the cycle along.  They are usually the people that mete out the things that usually define success. But their job is not to negotiate the relationship of this artist to themselves. Or to negotiate my relationship with my potential audiences of the future.

Their jobs are to give money and present work and program seasons and rent space and critique shows. Their job is to do their jobs. And it’s nice if their jobs align with my goals, but there’s not really any reason for me to believe that working with them will do so unless I am making sure of that.

It occurred to me today there is a world in which I completely drop out of the usual theater success track and do everything I want to. A world in which I never seek out another commission or presentation in a festival. A world in which I don’t write grants or put pieces up for review. There is a world in which all of that could go away and I could still make my work.

I don’t actually need them. It feels like I do. It feels A LOT like I do. It feels like I spend almost all of my energy trying to make sure that they are feeling fulfilled and getting what they need and want from me. And I am not spending nearly the same kind of time making sure I am fulfilling the things I need. I am not spending the time to ensure these partnership are useful to the actual thing I’m trying to achieve.

Which is not a blockbuster sized audience.

Which is not an amazing review.

Which is not an expensive set.

Which is not an award.

Which is not free stuff to use for my productions.

Which is not a giant grant.

Which is not a catered opening night party.

Which is not a huge fellowship.

Which is not an invitation to an international festival.

These things are not ends. They are not the measuring stick. They are only possible means to do something I consider meaningful. They also might not be. I have to know the difference. It is not their job to do it for me.

And it’s my job to make sure I’m gauging by my own actual intentions and not the means by which I am trying to get to them.


Project: Create your arts code of ethics!


In middle school I had an amazing teacher named Wendy Kotrba. On the most literal level she taught my class about things like distopia novels and about mechanical stresses when building bridges from toothpicks. What she was less obviously giving us were lessons in how to take initiative and think for oneself, learn how to solve complex problems and get shit done.

“Knowing everything matters a lot less than you think it does. If you sit in the front row and nod, teachers will assume you’re smart.”

From that moment I used this technique ALL. THE. TIME. I now make sure to say it to my students whenever I can.

When her class bemoaned our vocab books for their mind-numbing repetition and rigid structure, Mrs. Kotrba told us to create our own. And so every week following, one of us had to create a lesson based on the 10 words they selected from the dictionary and a test that included a random mix of all the words we’d learned that year. Want to know the best way to teach kids what words are most useful? Make them write an essay in which all their words have to appear.

But my favorite lesson of Kotrba teachings was about goal setting. She made it clear that goals are the path to making things happen and the best goals had clear, obvious measurements for success.

This is why, to use a timely example, I think most New Year’s resolutions fail.

“Goal: Lose Weight”

How much? By when? For how long? Through what means? By what measure?

If your metrics for evaluation are vague, so will be your assessment of success. It’s a lot less satisfying to toil, to deal with the discomfort that your new habits engender, if you never know when you’ve achieved something. And if you don’t have a way to find satisfaction from the new routine or habit, it’s probably a lot less likely to continue. I think it’s also why artists find themselves in sticky situations of being taken advantage of or overtaxing others. I think it’s why we too often see the very people who rail against larger theaters taking advantage of the little guy, turn around and adopt the very same practices when they have to take charge.

I know that in theory we all believe in fairness, in appropriate wages, in treating each other with respect. We all want kind working conditions and productive and fertile work. So why are there so many people who feel like they despair at getting these things? Why do I hear stories of burnout from the best of intentions? Why are we so often over worked and under paid for projects we don’t actually care about? And why do we inflict the sins visited upon us onto others?

It’s not because we’re bad. It’s not because we don’t care. There are too many wonderful people with good intentions in our field for that to be true. None of us went into theater for the money. So why do we end up letting money make us do things we don’t want?

I propose it’s because we never take the time to write down what we believe and why we believe it. Just like unclear goals, ill-defined codes of conduct and ethics are hard to evaluate. “Be kind to your creators” is like “Lose weight.” It’s a good general idea, but in the nitty gritty of reality you need clearer rules to apply. What is your definition of kindness? How does it manifest? Does it relate to payment? Is it about the kinds of words you use? What exactly do you define as a “living wage?”

If we haven’t defined what our values are clearly, how do we know if we’ve stuck to them?

In high school I learned about a psychological phenomena called cognitive dissonance.

You can read this pretty interesting summary about it here.

The idea is that we as humans strive towards what’s called cognitive consistency – aka we like to believe that our actions and principles are in accord with each other. We are made uncomfortable or put into “dissonance” when we are forced to confront a state of conflicting beliefs and behaviors within ourselves. We have our theoretical ideals and we have our actual actions. When they don’t align it’s uncomfortable and we are wired to find a way to reduce that cognitive dissonance. There are two ways to restore consistency: change the behavior or change the belief. We either have a strong enough principle that we need to stop the behavior or we keep the behavior and shift the values to align.

Can you guess what the psychologists demonstrated people doing all the time? Especially when money was involved in the experiment?

There are lots of times when situations arise in which outside factors exert pressure on us to do things that violate our principles. Those pressures can be really strong. And when we find ourselves doing things that result from that pressure it’s easy to tweak those principles just a tiny bit to include our behavior in what’s “acceptable.”  In the reality of daily work, these external forces are made incredibly tangible and specific while  our principles stay in that vague soft and touchy-feely place. Humans are highly adaptive creatures. Don’t underestimate your ability to acclimate. You can’t afford to move through your work unthinkingly. You must be a part of the change you seek.

So here’s a challenge for the new year: create a set of working codes that’s as strong, as badass, as those external pressures. Define how you believe art making should happen so that you know when it’s not. Write them down and keep them visible. Share them with your peers. Compare and contrast.

If you’re dependant on others to create, really write out what you think is acceptable. How many hours for what kind of pay? What kind of work do you want to pursue and what work is a drain? What kind of qualities do you want from co-creators? What happens if someone doesn’t have them? How many negative tendencies are you willing to deal with before you need to walk away? If you don’t define for yourself what is and isn’t acceptable in the creative process, how can you ever know when to tell someone that it’s not.

If you’re a generator or producer, think about how you would want to be treated. What are the things you complained about? Or better still, if you had all the money in the world, what’s the way you’d want to treat everyone? Where’s the distance from that you can live with? What’s the art community you want to create for the future? How are you working to make it possible? How are you building more than just a single play, but a place that people trust and look forward to returning to?

Don’t be afraid to get down and dirty with numbers. Put dollar amounts in there. Write down the hours you’d like to work in a week. Define the role that you want to play in a process. Think about the amount of leadership you desire. What kinds of physical comforts actually matter and improve you as an artist? Write down the people that consistently make you crazy and stressed and unhappy in process. Define the qualities you need from others and the ones you promise to display yourself. Then create the ranges of each of these things that you think move you towards happiness and sustainability.

Whatever you believe in, whatever things you hold as principles in how art should be made, these are the things you need to articulate clearly and with specificity. In ways that you can measure so that you know if you’ve stepped out of bounds. And then you can use that cognitive dissonance to really show yourself all the little places you undermine them. And hopefully, those principles will hold stronger, and though it’ll be hard, you can actually find new ways of working that stick to them.




Some people have all the luck

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

There are times when I hear about people’s successes and my first instinct is to figure out how I could get a hold of the same opportunity. There are also times I despair at the seeming lack of luck, a random set of factors that make their stuff trendy and my stuff totally prohibited from some desirable professional stepping stone:  I don’t do straight plays, I don’t have an MFA, I’m not great with Shakespeare, I don’t act, I’m not part of an ensemble, whatever. It’s harder, not easier, the closer the people are to you to stay happy for them. With a partner in the same field, you know a lot about what those successes mean and how much you’d like them. And it’s hard not to let that ambition and desire to get your own work made not tarnish what the other achieves. It’s hard with anyone close to you not to calcify that feeling into anger or resentment.

We have to resist impulses to wound each other. There will always be factors that change what kind of opportunities are presented to you. You can lament a lack of trust funds or degree in accounting. You can get pissed you’re an introvert and that social networking will never come easy. You can justifiably be mad that your niche of artistic interest has few roads to success, that your particular skill set isn’t popular right now, that your look isn’t what’s sought after. What you’re upset about is almost always totally valid. You are probably assessing the situation completely correctly. There is a naturally logical frustration in seeing the system you take part in unfairly benefit some, especially when it feels random or unmerited.

But you still have to cut that shit out.

There’s a mantra I learned from a mentor. Repeat it to yourself whenever you feel this feeling: “Other artist’s successes are good for me.”

You have to say it. And you have to keep saying it until you believe it. Because there’s no other sane way to live.

My fellow artist spouse has a fable his father used to tell him:

A man owns a farm and his prize mare runs away. His neighbors tell him what a shame, how terrible to lose the horse. He says, “Who says it’s terrible?”

Three days later the horse returns and following her are two massive wild stallions that the man has now acquired. The same friends stop by and say “How lucky! What a wonderful thing to have happened.” The farmer says, “Who says it’s wonderful?”

Two days later the farmer’s son is riding one of the stallions and is flung off. He breaks many bones and is told by doctors he will have to be in bed for months.  His neighbors stop by and express their condolences, “How sad, how awful, we’re so sorry this happened.” The farmer, of course replies, “Who says it’s something to be sorry about?”

The following day, the country’s major general rides into town and declares that he must enlist all the able bodied men. The farmer’s son is spared.

This could go on and on.

The point is that, like the fable, we just don’t know how one thing leads to another. Not working on a project might lead you to having free time in which you conceive of the deepest work you’ve ever created. Or allow someone to approach you for something else you didn’t know you were in the running to be a part of. Not getting a grant might mean that you are forced to take the time to develop something more and ultimately make something far stronger. Maybe someone getting the thing you wanted puts a fire under your ass that you’ve needed for a long time.

Creators have dropped out of my works because they’ve gotten better offers. I’ve privately wept, tears from my face, because I was so attached to the vision of the piece with them in it. But that’s not the reality I was going to live in. So I kept saying it, until I could finally start to mean it. “Their successes are good for me too.” I don’t yet know why or how, but they must benefit me in some way as well.

I remember the first time I ever read over a grant proposal for a friend who was applying in direct competition with me. I kept thinking, “Am I an idiot? What if they get it and I don’t because I helped showcase their work better?” And I just had to believe that if that did happen I’d be ok with it. And that helping them out was worth it because I wanted their work to be better. The same way mine had gotten better because of others who had helped me.

There are lots of ways in the long run that it’s going to be better for you, for everyone if someone else kills it. They report back about whether things are worth doing. They give advice about how to get the same opportunity. They introduce you to the people they’ve met. They talk up your work. They connect presenters or bring important people into town. They raise up our entire community’s visibility. None of this can happen unless we’re all on board with looking out for each other.

Sometimes it’s not your piece of the pie. Just wait for the next one.