actors

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

hard

There’s this cliché that people always throw out to young artists, “It’s such a hard life. You shouldn’t go into the arts unless you have to. Unless you can’t do anything else.”

I hated that.

As a young person, telling me something was hard was just about the fastest way to get me to want to do it. Telling me something was potentially crushing and impossible was even more enticing.

I loved the idea of hard work – rehearsals for hours, going home and reading and writing about theater, studying and researching. This kind of all or nothing attitude towards tackling something was exactly what I wanted. I sought out to fill every corner of my life with my work in theater because I thought that this was what “professional” looked like.

After a bit more than a decade of an actual life as an artist I’ve slowly morphed into the thing that I used to detest. I’ve come around to this statement with new eyes. I think that incorporating an artistic sensibility is important for all people. I think having space to think and feel and connect with others is too. I think that there is great value in a creative impulse that is divorced from a need to sell things. That’s the value of the arts and I think everyone should take part in that. But I’ve also come to see that actually making this your life’s work and career isn’t something everyone is cut out for.

A life in the arts is very hard, but not in the way you think it will be.

Earlier this year I had an exchange with a young performer about tackling a project that I wasn’t sure they were up to. We went back and forth about what digging in “for real” would look like. I tried to explain that regardless of excitement and eagerness, that I was looking for a particular kind of bravery were I to bump them into professional level work. That for me this meant an ability to show the hard and nasty bits that few of us really like to admit are in there.

And I also said that at the end of the day, it wasn’t just about whether it was possible but that it mattered equally much that they wanted to do such a thing. Because being a professional means deciding the kind of art work you believe in making.

For those who would make this career their thing, my guess is your first encounter with artwork is exhilarating. It’s new and fresh and a little like young love. It feels big and exciting and makes the person inside it feel the same. And like young love it promises that if you give yourself over totally, this feeling, this participation in something larger than yourself will fill you up enough to sustain you forever.

And just like young love, you realize at some point that the imagined fantasy isn’t the same as slogging through the day to day. It’s like a long-term relationship – it deepens and changes and is hard hard work. When you know very little about something it’s easy to love everything about it. And just like young love transitioning into something more long term, it’s what happens when you hit the first hiccup or frustration and start figuring out how you are going to be something other than the enthralled and all consumed devotee that you learn whether or not you can stick it out.

This is why I chafe at most shows that depict the artistic process in sitcom or drama form. Underpinning a majority of the plot lines is a tacit assumption that if you love the art, if you are talented, and if you work hard then your initial definition of success will come to you.

It would be nice if that were true.

It’s not.

Talent is no guarantee of success and fame. Neither is hard work. Loving what you do so much it hurts, having feelings about your art that are so strong they are consuming, is even less a guarantee. In fact, it probably makes it harder.

Being that attached to your work makes that much harder to proceed when you have to sacrifice parts of it, radically change your conception of it, suddenly realize that no one cares about the aspect of it you do, or find that the version of it you like best isn’t the version you’re actually good at. (They say Moliere wanted his whole life to be a great tragic actor.  Good thing he didn’t stop writing comedies in the interim to never getting there.)

It means there will be moments you remember your young and uncomplicated idea of art and wonder whether what you’re currently doing is actually the same thing.

In my experience creative work is a marathon rather than a sprint. It is an exercise in sustaining over the long haul. To do that one learns new kinds of skills: Defining your own path, authoring an experience you want, requiring effort of yourself instead of it being demanded of you, pulling strength from way deep down to keep going. It’s also about figuring out that you have to be more than just an artist. That you need to develop a life that includes more than your work: things like family and friends and walking in the park and reading a newspaper and cooking meals.

With this young actor struggling over the role I talked a bit about the need to take control of one’s own artistic path, not based on eagerness or earnestness that gives away a point of view, but a willingness to get down in the dirt and make some personal imperfect choices.

And the answer that eventually rolled out was essentially, “I don’t know if I actually want to be an performer.”

I think about this a lot.

I wonder if I did the right thing.

If it’s my business to push so hard to get someone to see what the real work of the profession is.

I think so.

I hope so.

Just like everything else in this career, I just did the best I knew how.

– A

Connor’s Story

When I first started doing theater I was in 7th grade. It was a way for me to get out of my own skin, skin I wasn’t super comfortable in yet. It was a way to escape and be someone else. It was also a chance for me to be with other people, to find community. I liked having what felt like a secret club of people who got together to create something bigger than any one of us individually.

When I first started doing theater the stories I told didn’t really matter: Annie, The Music Man (twice) and Neil Simon’s Start Spangled Girl. But it was the act of telling them that made meaning for me of my experience, the act of being together with people. In high school, I wanted very much to be Bernadette Peters, to have big hair and a big voice and a fancy costume and to be very good at what I did. Somewhere in the midst of that time my desire transformed from simply wanting to be a part of something to wanting to be a part of something amazing, to create it at a high level of skill.  So I trained in music and acting and having always prized myself a very good student, I threw myself into that study with fervor and drive.

When I first started doing theater I thought that the purpose of it was to raise myself up to the level of the creators whose works I was enacting. I thought that playwrights and composers had some kind of magical skill. I thought that their works can from some nebulous place that was very different than the kind of place I pulled my own artistic feats from. And it wasn’t until I first found myself making a piece of my own that I realized that I too had that capability, that capacity. And it wasn’t until then that I was really really hooked.

When I first started doing theater, my experiences shaped my ideas of what the end product was supposed to look like: fancy, professional, expensive. When I first started making theater my experiences shaped my ideas of who the audience for that work was supposed to be: increasingly large and anonymous groups of people who come to see me and my works because of my skill and excellence. It was an impulse to impress. And when I first started doing theater I thought that my job was to try and tell the stories that matter to the most people. To try and create as universal a message as possible. To create a Great American Play.  To try and reach people I didn’t know and pour into them the experience of my greater artistic truth.

I don’t really think that any more.

If your plan is to see Welcome To Campus and you haven’t yet, don’t read this next part. If you’ve already seen it, or know you won’t make it, go ahead and proceed.

There’s a moment early in Campus where the student tour guides, who have been up to this point manically presenting Drexel in a shiny brochure-style intro, crack just a little. They are listing, as one ought as a highly school spirited representative, their favorite letters in the word DREXEL. Student Cami, a go-getter, chooses D for its primary position. Garth relates his choice of the E as the “workhorse” of the word. And so on through L and X. And then just after Dean has also chosen D (without which he would “just be EAN”) there’s an awkward pause. A sort of looking around and then realizing “Oh right…” kind of moment. And then Lexi breaks the uncomfortable tension with a plaintive, “Connor’s supposed to be the R.”

Through the rest of the play – a walking tour in which the students relate their actual college experiences in the locations in which they actually occurred – Connor and his obvious absence are hinted at and remembered. His return is promised and reiterated. And while we grow closer to Lexi, Carl, Cami, Garth and Dean, our sixth tour guide Connor remains an enigmatic mystery. The audience knows only that he seems to have been rather important to our tour guides and that clearly he isn’t going to be here.

The stories the tour guides tell (once having broken their shiny personae) do not relate to him really. They are stories about their experiences from their actual college lives. They are stories of a kind that no traditional tour will give. What the actors and I aimed for was to find a way to share the intimacies and strange details that really make up their experience of higher education. And yet, in these moments in between performances of the most awkward dates of one’s life or ruminations on feeling terribly alone in a new place, they all keep hinting at this other unseen person.

An outsider to the show might wonder what exactly the decision process was behind including such a motif through the show.

I could create a fancy and artistic sounding justification. But the real reason is this: there really is a Connor and he really was going to be a sixth tour guide. He also doesn’t  go to Drexel any more.

I taught a class last fall in preparation for this show. All the tour guides in the performance were part of this class. We spent 10 weeks together talking and playing and writing and reading and sometimes farting around trying to create an idea for a play. Over the course of this term we found together this idea of a college tour, an offshoot of an initial idea I’d proposed, one that included their own personal stories. And for their final I prompted them to give a theatrical tour of an actual moment from their lives in a non-theatrical space, ideally the actual location if possible.

One of the last ones we took was Connor’s tour, which happened in a large and scary building called Drexel One Plaza (Garden Level for those in the campus know). On a cold day late in the term we walked from the black box theater over to the building, tried the back door with no avail and then walked around to the front to be told by a security guard that the building wasn’t open to the public after 6.

We got in anyway; the group managed to sneak in through a side door after one of the students confidently declared he could find a way to get us in. When we did get in,  filled with excitement and giddiness at having outsmarted the proverbial castle guards, we walked through the empty building’s halls. And though I pretended not to notice the security cameras lining the ceilings, I did gently encouraged Connor to get a move on with his tour.

We walked through the strange windowless floor to a simple and unremarkable classroom. Connor’s story was relatively straightforward. It talked about feeling a distance from the Drexel. It talked about being displeased with the administration and academic environment. It talked about how his long distance girlfriend and her support was really the only thing standing in the way of him throwing in the towel on this version of the college experience. And then he told us about the day that she sent him a text message.

He told about a recent day he had been sitting in this classroom and how he had been looking at the board (the one we were now looking at just then) and how he had been holding his phone (the one he was now holding) and how he’d received a text message. He told us that reading the text he knew he would break up with his girlfriend later that day and how he knew when it happened he was going to have to leave Drexel.

It’s how I found out he wouldn’t be there next term.

And we all sat there. Sat and stared at him and his phone and the room and each other. Each thinking about the fact that this was the room where that choice had been made. The same way you stare at the walls of Versailles knowing a king used to sleep in a bed there. It was a weird kind of re-enactment, one where you become aware of just being. Aware of your being in a place where someone else’s being has just been.

As I was sitting with the class thinking about all this a security guard arrived and told us we had to leave. We giggled and pretended to be sorry for breaking rules we clearly weren’t sorry to have broken at all.

This is one of my favorite moments of teaching, ever. I still have trouble putting into words quite why.

I really like the play I’ve made with these Drexel students. I think that Welcome To Campus is a really lovely play. But it’s funny sometimes when I watch the audience. I think about the fact that to them Connor is just some name. That even though the actors and I went to the trouble of re-creating the whole thing – mentioning Connor’s absence, staging a security guard denying us entry to a building, building in a covert break in, telling the story of the text message, the sitting in silence and getting kicked out at the end, all of it – there’s some part of me that is sad that they don’t know that what they’re seeing is just a re-creation of the real moment that has stuck so hard with me in this process.

A few days ago Connor came to see the show and I got to watch him watch his scene.

This is one of my favorite moments from teaching, too.

I didn’t direct this play solely for this moment. There’s more in this piece than just this particular layer. But it felt like the right kind of full circle. That finally we had an audience member who really knew what the journey of this play had been. Because even though he wasn’t there when we built so much of the later parts of it, he was an insider in one of the moments that sits at its center. And now I could watch this insider see the thing as an outsider. See a creative voice get to be an observer of the artistic result.

Connor is the opposite of the kind of person I used to want in my audience. He knows more about the moment of his personal scene than I can, than I ever could, understand. But that scene feels like the kind of gift I feel my work needing to be – a way to see our own lives reflected back to us, to parse them out for meaning and beauty – through the help of the artistic process. And while I don’t want to deny the anonymous who see the work their place, for the few I’ve met have been lovely and effusive, I wonder in a piece like this if the point is not for this insular community to create a message to send to the outside world, but for us to use the work as a way to understand our place within it.

How do we open our process to an audience that will not only be our external viewers but our internal community? How do we bind them to the building of the thing? How do we share in the depth and power of expanding and filling our stories with shape and craft?

I don’t yet know. But it feels like the calling.

– A

Fuck You Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Holly Golightly: Did I tell you how divinely and utterly happy I am?

Paul Varjak: Yes.

A few months back during Fringe season I went and saw a show inside a real house. It was a lovely play with breakfast and beautiful writing and was based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (The book not the movie, in case you were wondering.)

This is a post I’ve wanted to write this post ever since then.

Not because the play was bad, because it wasn’t – it was wonderful actually, one of my favorites of the season – and though I loved the staging, the writing, the actors, so much about the experiment in dramatic form start to finish, despite all this afterwards when I sat in the car with my partner in viewing-crime discussing what we’d seen all I could think was:

“God I detest that female character.”

Not the actress, not the writing of her part, but that faux feminine charming and carbonated, silly yet exotic, tiny pink banged and attractive and mysterious and wild and ukulele playing, Natalie Portman-esque, devoid of any actual humanness cypher of girlishness. Film critic Nathan Rabin put it far better that I when he called her “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Fucking manic pixie dream girl. I hate her so much.

I didn’t write this post back then because I liked the people who put the play on and I didn’t want to hurt them by bashing it when so much of it I truly enjoyed. Especially when I really didn’t have anything more to say on the matter than the fact that I really detest this trope, one I see as rooted in all kinds of shitty ideas about girls and women and the kinds of people they can be, one whose recent “emergence” in this particular form is cloaked in a kind of faux liberation. I think versions of her have been around far longer than we realize. The manic pixie dream girl (or MPDG as I will call her from here out) embraces a “seize life!” zeal but only in so much as it is thrown at her pent up male would-be partners. And while I find this odious and tedious in the extreme, while I have in many ways created my sense of aesthetic and artistic purpose to fly in the face of the MPDG’s twee triviality and lack of substance, at the time I didn’t really have much more to say on the matter. I just had my silent fervent hate.

However, this summer into fall, I have been spending an awful lot of time with women a fair bit younger than myself. Amazing, bold, incredible young women. Women whose ideas and humor have surprised and delighted me, who brought choices into classrooms I could never have predicted and who found inventive slants on characters I have seen performed dozens of times. I look at these young women with their incredible talents and wild and weird inner lives and it fills me with joy.

I admit that many of these fantastic people I underestimated upon first meeting. And I think that’s in part because it took some time to find the strange and silly underbellies that were hidden within them. Wild and wondrous senses of daring, humor and ridiculousness that I suspect are not often enough given space to be explored. And I wonder if this lack of space isn’t partly what constrained my seeing the wholeness of them. And then I think about the kinds of roles they will have available to them in a year or ten year’s time. I think about the shows that I have seen recently, the struggles of my female friends who are performers, the distance between the roles that they have truly loved and the ones they have had to suffer through to keep a face to their name in the acting world. I race in my mind for plays that I could bring to these lovely young ladies, works could lift them and their wildness up.

I have so much trouble doing so. There are more than none. But there are certainly not enough.

In high school when I got really serious about theater I committed to reading a play every week for two years. I raided my theater department’s library in hopes of finding the great roles that I wanted to inhabit someday. And while I found a few, I also realized that more and more there were plenty of stories that intrigued me, that tantalized and pulled me in, but had no women in them or only a few or none I personally wanted to be unless I was cast across my gender. And slowly over time one half of a dual cast narrator from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the hyperventilating Alma from Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Widow Begbick in Brecht’s Man is Man, even the beautiful and frustrated monologues of love from Twelfth Night’s Viola, these roles, despite being some of the best I could ask for, just didn’t feel quite enough any more. They were the stories that were made available, but none of them felt exactly enough mine to continue telling. And somewhere in the midst of this it occurred to me that I could tell some of the stories that excited me through the performers onstage even if I didn’t actually have to be that body up there in front of people.

This frustration was the one of the forces that ultimately pulled me out of acting and into directing. In the latter space, one in which the stories I told were not limited to the options others presented to me, it felt like I had more I could say and more ways I could say it. And I found the plays, fewer and farther between than I’d have liked, that highlighted the female roles I’d wished I’d been offered. And when I eventually realized that even beyond these lay the opportunity to create new stories that were entirely of my own imagining, I finally believed that there was enough substantive food for a life of digging into artmaking.

The problem I see with the MPDG and princess and all the other lame female counterparts in much of our contemporary storytelling is that they teach women (and the girls who grow up to become them) that these are the extent of the roles that we have available to us. In art, and I think also in life. I read a study about how the greatest predictor of the number of girls that will grow up to work in science and technology-based fields is hugely correlated with how many women are working in these fields in their community. Not even how many they personally come into contact with, but the number that exist generally in their sphere of being. I would guess that the increase has something to do with a young person’s sense of awareness that such a thing is possible.

It is hard to imagine beyond anything that you know of or have seen. Our narrative context fuels so much of the imagination we later have available to us. So what you see and what you encounter in the stories you take in, especially in formative artistic years will inevitably shape the possibilities that you allow yourself in the future. I fear and I worry that the amazingly bold and smart and incredible young women I have met will be limited to becoming the most amazingly bold and smart and incredible versions of MPDGs and princesses and nurses and ingénues rather than applying those same forces of will and intellect towards the multitude of other avenues that might be available to them. I worry that if some aspect of them is too hard to squeeze into those narrow shapes that they will be excluded. I worry that if they do fit inside them that some of the other incredible parts of them will be pushed out so that they fit more neatly within.

My first year out of college, when I had so few moorings, so little outlet for the stories I wanted to tell, I flirted with becoming the MPDG. I became enraptured with a boy and then became enraptured with my ability to construct a persona that I thought was charming and alluring. And I, despite my feminist upbringing, despite my experience crafting my own stories, despite my sense of myself as a strong and independent person, found it easy to default to a narrative that seemed pre-designed for me. I could sense this trope and its effervescent power and in little bits and pieces I began playing and becoming her. I felt her narrative pull and began to conform my outer self to match it. Then one day this boy gave me a movie and told me that a character in it reminded him of me. And at the end of that movie I realized in no small amount of horror that he wasn’t wrong, that I had made myself to resemble this precious punky person and that I had created a vision of my life in my own mind in which I was a side character.

It was only when that version of my life story and the caricature of myself that I’d formulated within it began to fail that I realized how little of my whole self I’d really offered.

This is the power of art and narrative, whether we make it or consume it. It shapes our sense of ourselves in the world. It can limit not only our sense of being in the works of art themselves,  but it can transform our ability to conceive of ourselves in the world at large. A new incredible story at its best helps us change the way we think. It offers us a vision of a world that we might hope to live in. And when we limit our narrative selves to these paltry simplistic women, we limit the kinds of women we imagine we can be. And by passing those stories on, we teach our younger female counterparts that this is enough to be satisfied with.

I worry for these young ladies that I have met over these past many months. I worry that their outward forms will dictate so much of their inner artistic work. I worry that they have grown up on these stories that do not contain the entirety of them and I worry that they will be forced to shrink themselves down to fit inside the ones that are made available. I want to grab them and tell them that they should demand huge spaces in their artistic lives. That the stories we tell are the way we make sense of the world around us. That creating visions of how we can be is how we begin to become that. That they owe it to themselves and the women they will become.

That they are more than MPDGs and her static character counterparts. For she is singularly dimensional. She does not advance through the course of the story. She is there to shift the inner workings of others. She is inwardly inanimate like a rock. The manic pixie dream girl has no opportunity to change or shift or grow or move.

There are a lot of reasons that I make my own work. This is one of the biggest ones. It’s why I write this post now, several months later, not because my singular dislike of this character matters very much, but because I want to tell them they are not like she is. That they can do so much more than any of these things.

– A

Amateur is Latin for Love

Over the past six months my life has taken a radical shift. I went from the intensive grinding gears of two large scale projects – one a gig for Shakespeare in Clark Park in which I worked as a director for hire as wells as The Ballad of Joe Hill a work created and produced by my own company Swim Pony – into a far more predictable series of teaching gigs – a new post as voice teacher for Pig Iron’s APT, a residency at Drexel, coaching a mostly non-actor set to coach med students interpersonal skills at UPenn’s school of Medicine and directing a production of Midsummer at Arcadia.

As I headed into the summer I felt a sense of relief and apprehension. Relief that my time into September was booked with work that I both believed in and had found a way to appropriately compensate myself for. I felt a sense of pride at having booked myself solid for the first time ever with 6 months of artistic work alone while still paying a mortgage and socking away from money for savings. I thought and felt, “Finally, we are approaching a place of stasis, a solid foundation upon which a life can be built.”

And as I left the month of September, reasonably compensated, well received by press and peers and patrons on my work over the past months, I still felt somehow just a little unsettled by I can’t say exactly what: a sense that I’d done well but… With a feeling that I’d created two works of which I was proud, one that I felt was the first appropriately resourced self produced piece I’d ever been in charge of but… That I’d made shows that I think showed my professional skill, that highlighted many aspects of my  expertise, plays that made me proud as a professional creator, and yet…

Yet, still, something niggled at me. The audiences were a bit timid at one. The energy not quite right in another. The joy, the abandon, the feeling, the… what? the… love.

Yes.  That’s it. The love was what I felt missing. That underneath the polish and skill and work was just a little bit less love than I went into all this seeking. Somewhere in this summer of incredibly hard work and tiring hours and beautiful images and incredible ideas I was missing a little bit of amore.

Look. The people with whom I created my last two professional projects are ones that I adore. They are my core creators, most of them, the people that I will work with in many cases for the rest of my life. But something about these last two shows left me a bit cold. Not through any fault of my co-creators, but perhaps because I myself allowed myself to be swept up in the accomplishment of professionality, of the implied self worth that doing a thing at a “meaningful” level of competence and expertise did I let myself hide a little of the messy and silly and sometimes uncertain and ridiculous person that I love myself to be in a process. I doubt these co-creators would admit it, but I bet deep down they felt it.

I could not have spoken this to myself then as I do now. But I think I knew it. We all wanted a bit more of that love in our work.

So it was at this juncture that I looked into that stretch of fall to winter months with no “professional” work in sight. Here I found myself in a sea of students of varying ages and skills sets and talent levels ahead of me. It was here, with a chip on the shoulder and a block of doubt in the stomach that I set off into the wilds of “amateur” theater. I went to auditions and first classes and training session with zero expectation of artistic fulfillment, looking instead to do a decent job, make some connections, steel myself against the antsy feeling being out of “real” rehearsals. I intended to let life be simple for a bit in order to plan my re-emergence back into the “real” theater scene soon enough.

So I went to my classes with their small number of students in order to get them on board with the weirdo piece I wanted to create. I went to rehearsals to direct play that I have loathed for a very long time expecting to wade through language I could care less about. I went to work to train folks on characters and skills I have repeated ad nauseum over the last few years. I went to these things expected a heavy heart and soul. I went there ready to be frustrated with amateurism and a lack of professional rigor.

I went there expecting these things. And I found that I was wrong. I found myself, suddenly realizing that I was happier than I have been in months, possibly years. That heaviness and weight of proving myself and my worth had been freed from myself and that for the first time in a long time I have re-found a kind of love. Yes amazingly, I find myself at the near end of this time more inspired, more buoyant than I have in perhaps years. I went expecting amateurs and what I found was love.

So often we define the amateur as the absence of talent skill or training. Back in late October I read an article by Todd London about innovation in which he points out that the word Amateur comes from the Latin root for “love.” When I read this, something dropped in me. An “Ah ha” kind of moment. A moment where I realized that the amateur is not solely, as is so commonly assumed, defined as one who does something at a “non-professional” level but one who does it for no other reason than a deep and abiding love. The amateur can have no other reason for doing the thing other than the pure and true love of it, for they have no other compensation to reward them. How often we degrade it, define ourselves in opposition to it, in order to prove our own worth. How often, I realized, I myself was working, creating and doing things in so many ways simply to prove that I was most certainly not an amateur but a professional, a person worthy of time attention and thought. Worthy to be seem by foundations to presenters to peers this need for professionalism had infected my spirits. It had stopped me from silliness. It is true that over the past several months I have created things and worked with those that on almost any level one would not call “professional.” But in exchange I have found something that might be worthier still: Love.

And after months away from it there are moments that I cherish

–       The act of creating ritual, silly and ridiculous and childish

–       The moment of discovery for the very first time in a scene or a word or a movement

–       The undaunted display of failure, the expectation that one is at the beginning of a journey, and the sense that one is not worth less because they have not yet mastered the way how to do something

This thought, this core of the work as an exploit of love has lifted me. And now that I find myself nearing the end, I wonder how I take these with me back to the land of professional living. I wonder how I take the happiness and joy and love that I have lived with over these past months back to my work and my life and my collaborators.

And were this any other post here, I’d find some way to neatly wrap all this up into a perfect bow of professional conduct and meaning. But I don’t think I’ll do that just now. I’ll leave it ragged and happy and unfinished. And just be satisfied with that.

A

Lonely

I know that often I write about art in a general way, one that relates to most of the people working in my field, and when possible to the arts as a whole.

Today I’m not gonna do that.

Today I want to talk about being a director. And for me that can feel awfully lonely.

A few days back I was giving a colleague a ride home from an Arcadia University gig out in the burbs. Both of us have been hired by said school to direct student productions (different ones, in case that’s not obvious) for the college. And on this day when we both happened to be heading home at the same time of night we ended up in a car together chatting about the experience.

After the expected pleasant inquiries about rehearsals and how things are going, we sat in a still silence for a little bit. We chatted about upcoming works on the horizon and exchanged a few war stories about the theater scene. It was a perfectly nice way to spend 45 minutes headed home. It was the kind of conversation I have with other directors a lot.

A few days later we ended up in the car again. This time, catching up rather quicker on the status of rehearsals we were left without some of the pat topics that usually pop up. And somehow we started talking about what it feels like to be in charge.

It’s funny, it doesn’t occur to me often that this is a specific facet of the way that I work compared to the other artists I work with. It doesn’t occur to me that often, through repetition and familiarity, that many artists don’t walk into a process with that mindset. I know that when I walk in the room, I’m expected to have a plan of what we’re going to do. I know that I am the only one of my kind there to carry out the role. And I never see anyone else do what I do and therefore I have only myself to compare with.

There is a very basic power differential. The caveat, of course is that there are lots of people that try and create a sense of communal responsibility and I am whole-heartedly one of them, but it is there. And that sense of responsibility is exciting and distancing. It means you are always a few steps ahead of the rest of the room. A simple illustration: it is hard to imagine a rehearsal in which a performer or designer walked in and stated the plan of the day or one in which the director could show up and look at the others in the room with an expectation of what they are about to do. I don’t think this has to be good or bad. But it definitely is. And unless you’re a company without a director there is likely a negotiation that’s been worked out either ahead of time or during the process in which that power is defined and bounded.

However, I’m getting off topic. That isn’t really what I want to chat about. I think there are interesting questions about what might happen if we tried to change this dynamic. It might show us why that structure is so necessary or it might open up new and exciting potential. But for me, who for better or worse, is working in this way almost any time I work, it makes me realize how lonely I feel so often.

I’ve heard a lot of directors say that every time they begin a show they ask themselves, “How do you make a play again?” I thought this might be particular to devisers so it was surprising and kind of heartening to hear that those who dwell mostly in the scripted experienced the same terror. It was interesting to hear that she too re-reads her old notes from shows past to figure out how that person from the past navigated the journey from nothing to something. And I was happy and sad to see that she too spends a lot of time feeling lonely in a process.

I wonder if that sense of “how did I do this before?” is something to do with the fact that you don’t share your process in the same way. So much of what we do is before and after the rest of the room arrives and leaves. And even with documentation, it can be hard to track all the discoveries and thoughts that by necessity are shared between actors and designers and stage managers with the people they work with. One reason I so often try and go back to my old books of notes is to sense the person who was able to do this thing before and catch some of her strength.

Another strange thing about being a director, that I think may be unique to the role: you never watch others like you work. There’s only one of you in a process. Designers and actors get to see other designers and actors. They see people like themselves develop their craft. And for better or worse they have to do this a lot. And there are times when I get jealous that in doing so they get to watch and experience other directors too. That they probably know more about the particulars of other directors than I do. I sometimes ask them “What did that other person do?” not because I have some desire to copy but because I genuinely just want to know.

My sense of myself in the work is kind of like an island. I know what my terrain looks like. I know how I traverse it. And when people who’ve been elsewhere come to visit me, they can share stories of their experiences, but I know that I really have no concrete sense of what’s going on in those other locales. And while many of the directors I know get the chance to observe early in their career, there is not the built in continuation of this practice as time goes on.

When I first started in school and was just out of it, I saw a lot of other directors directing. I was in other people’s rehearsals a lot. And it provoked thoughts in me about how they solved the problems in front of them. It made me think about my process and question what I would do in the same scenario. And some of my favorites were those that were quite different from my own sense of artistic aesthetic, not because I wanted to do what they did, but because it made me really need to define why I wanted to do it my way instead. In fact, I once had a director say to me as a fledgling AD, “I love the thoughts you send in your notes. I will use none of them because they aren’t the play I’m making, but I love them.”

I learned to be a director in a room full of directors. And since becoming one, it’s been a very long time since I saw another one in the wild.

I’d like to.

I wish I had the opportunity. To watch. To listen. To observe a bit.

To travel to another island simply to try and understand the way it works in contrast to your own.

A

Philly reviewers, it is Tim-on to get your shit together

Excuse the bad joke. I can’t help it. I pun when I’m pissed.

Ooo-hoo. Adrienne is angry.  (Can you hear it in the typing? CLACK! CLACK CLACK CLACK!)  I would write in all caps (LIKE THIS!) because that is how I feel, but you would probably stop reading, and I do NOT want you to stop reading.

If you frequent this blog you likely have a sense of what I think about the role of women in the contemporary theater scene.

(In the off chance you are new here, feel free to go back and read this, or this, or this, or this…)

So when I heard that the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective (or PAC) was doing a production of a Shakespeare play – Timon of Athens – that included a bunch of cross gender casting I was interested. Interested because I will be doing a similar (even more substantial) gender re-assigning in Clark Park’s Tempest this summer. Interested to see how they handled this gender switcheroo in context of the classical cannon. But most of all interested to see how people reacted to what they were doing.

And, like one sometimes does when one is intrigued by a colleague’s choices for a production, I read a few reviews about the show to see how it was received.

And now, as previously mentioned, I’m really really angry.

First off: my job here is not to defend this particular production. In fact, I have not yet seen this play. I will, next week. But I write this now, not yet having seen this play, quite intentionally.

There are statements in the reviews of Timon assessing creative choices that I cannot substantiate or discredit.  I do not know if the actors in the various roles are interesting to watch. I do not know if the opulence and greed of the play is borne out in the staging. I do not know if some of the problems that reviewers cite around this particular staging are true. Indeed, given that some of them appear in multiple assessments, perhaps some of the points they mention are quite valid.

But then again, I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet. And my problem is not with the specifics of one stylistic choice or another.

Indeed, my problem here is quite the opposite.

I will say upfront that there are several actresses in this production I admire and respect, whose work I tend to like very much. And I am making such a long and belabored point of not knowing anything about the show’s specifics because I know that once I have seen the performance I may well be inclined to defend these performers’ specific choices. And I really don’t want that to get all muddled up with what’s really problematic here: the thing that’s really sticky and challenging.

I want to be absolutely and unwaveringly clear that my issue has nothing to do with giving specific critique to these particular people – be positive or negative – and everything to do with the blithe and blanket notions undercutting the women in this production that I see made under the banner of “criticism.”

“Them’s is fightin’ words.” You might be thinking.

You betcha.

Let’s start with Philly.com.  You can read the whole thing if you want to, but I’ll skip to this sentence starting off the final paragraph:

As director, Dan Hodge makes a tactical error in casting women in many of the male roles; it knocks the play off balance (tiny women playing cutthroats and shrill senators), and confuses the issues that have nothing to do with gender.

Ok. (deep breath)

Let’s play a little mad libs game. Pretend this statement isn’t about a play but a business. Everywhere there’s a statement about theater, I’ll replace it with a corresponding business word. Let’s see what we get:

As CEO, Dan Hodge makes a tactical error in hiring women in many of the male jobs; it knocks the company off balance (tiny women working as cutthroats and shrill managers), and confuses the business plans that have nothing to do with gender.

You wanna publish that in a newspaper and see what kind of letters you get?

I didn’t think so.

Having no women in a play doesn’t mean the play has nothing to do with gender in the same way that having a play with only white people has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with gender: about our conception of what greed is, what it looks like, who is allowed to display it, and the gender with which we associate that quality.

If the play’s issues – greed, ruthlessness, heroism unrewarded – are indeed not about gender, than it really shouldn’t matter if a man or a woman displays those things. The point of the review should be whether the specific actor embodying that role is successful in doing so.

That you make a point to say that “tiny women” should not be onstage displaying those things says to me that you have now made this a play about gender in a way that Shakespeare did not. It says to me that you don’t think tiny women, in general, as a whole, are not suited to being greedy or ruthless. That you can look at a tiny women and know by virtue of her tiny woman-ness that she is neither of those things.

You dislike this particular actress? Fine. Cite the specifics of their performance. But to lump women as a category under the “not viable to play this role” category is demeaning and ignorant.

And don’t get me started on the misogyny inherent in the word “shrill.”

The lesson here is that men playing aggressive roles have the potential to be booming and commanding while aggressive woman onstage are annoying and screechy.  Ladies interested in Shakespeare’s works, please stick to Desdemona or Ophelia or Juliet or Cordelia or Lavinia and go die because you love a dude who is kind of an emotional asshole to you.

Or go be Lady Macbeth and kill yourself.

Or go be Cleopatra and die (again) because you’re an oversexed “gipsy.”

Or be really excited to get married.

Or a witch.

Who wouldn’t be totally satisfied with that?

Moving on.

Here is what Citypaper has to say. Again, feel free to read the whole thing but I’m skipping here to the summation at the end:

And while I understand the need for good women’s roles in an ensemble company like this one, it’s still a mistake to have Apemantus and several other key male characters played by women — Timon’s wretched world of greed and infighting is, in every sense, man-made.

Is it possible that this is worse? I think it is. Worse because of the infantilizing and diminishing way that it’s phrased.  It is the casualness of these words that more than anything makes me want to punch the paper upon which the words are written:

Dan, Dan, Dan… Silly man.

Oops! I think you made a “mistake”.

FYI, this play is male-driven. You might not remember because you’ve been around so many ladies (I mean 50/50 in the cast, but come on, that’s an awful lot for a Shakespeare play).

You forgot it’s about BIG things like “greed and infighting”. It’s not that this particular female performer is not powerful commanding. It’s not that this particular actress you’ve chosen is not ferocious or greedy or money hungry. It’s not that many of the women in your show are young apprentices and might be worth evaluating based on experience or talent instead of gender.

No, no. You didn’t realize that women are not capable of such things.

This story is “man-made.”

Oh, Dan. I hope you don’t make that mistake again…

Because “while I see the need for good women’s roles,” while I see that the two female co-founders of your company are excluded from this very large and powerful portion of the theatrical cannon, while I see the incredibly limited scope of what a woman is traditionally defined as in some of these plays, while I see the subtle and casual limitations that I am placing on them, while I see the constant barrage of definition that many works put on women, a definition they constantly have to battle against, while I see that the logical extension of my argument is that because I don’t usually see women play these roles and it feels weird to me I want you to stop doing it thus ensuring that women are never cast in these roles and making sure that I, nor any audience really, will ever ever acclimate to seeing such a thing –

While I see all of these things, I’d really rather not have to deal with that.

So could you just, you know, not make me think about it?

Punch. The. Paper.

I’m out.

– A

PS –  I sincerely hope that some of these reviews are a product of bad editing. If there is a fuller version, one that addresses some of my problems with generalizing here, I’d love to read them.

And, I would like to point out and credit reviewers like Howard Shapiro who manage to give their opinion about this piece without invoking a lady’s inherent inability to be greedy.

Heavy

35.9% of Americans in 2009-2010 were considered “obese” by the CDC. An additional 33.3% were categorized as “overweight.” That means at that moment, 69.2% of the country is heavier than “normal.”

When we go to the theater what are we looking to see ourselves reflected in the stories portrayed on stage?

If so, why don’t two thirds of them look like two thirds of the country? If not, are they the images we wish ourselves to be? Or are they simply supposed to be the strongest creator available for the role, and if that’s the case, why are so many more of them than us so much thinner?

Do you notice how carefully I’m wording things here? I do. Have you noticed that I haven’t used the “F” word yet? I do. It’s hard to write objectively about this. This is such a tricky subject. It is so sensitive. But it dominates so thoroughly the vision of our stages that I’m going to stop dancing around and just say it:

It is hard to be a fat actor.

It is hard if you are not fat, but a little heavy. It is hard if you aren’t fat but could be and fear becoming so. It is especially hard if you are a woman.

There might be a few reasons that don’t point toward malicious bias. Heavily dance or physicality based works are going to require a higher level of physical strength and endurance and result in a larger expenditure of energy.  While that does not exclude a heavier performer, I think it makes some logical sense that you’ll get a higher proportion of people who are thinner, which is probably somewhat correlated to long days of exercise and physical activity.

Being fat might make it harder to do your job… maybe. But it might not. And I think it’s rarely the full reason that certain kinds of roles are off limits to certain BMI’s.

Because that argument just doesn’t fly when it comes to a lot of theater. It is possible to be in tune with one’s body even with “extra” weight. And if the performer doesn’t limit themselves, why do we limit the roles that are open to them? Why are we instinctively so nervous about seeing certain shapes do certain things onstage? Are we grossed out, worried, upset? What is it? Forget the gender gap, the racial paucity; I defy you to find me a show full of “fat” actors in Philly. You will not be able to.

If you are doing Grapes of Wrath and everyone is starving, fine, I understand. But show me where it says that Emily Webb from Our Town has to be skinny. Yet I’d stake my savings that 9 times (or more) out of 10 the thin girl gets the role.

Look, I don’t pretend to be objective here.

I have a long and complicated history with weight, one that has spanned both ends of the size spectrum.  At 13, I probably weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 or 190. I don’t really know, because I didn’t go near a scale if I could help it. My grandmother used to chide me with reminders like, “Fat girls don’t get married.” An aunt once remarked, “Adrienne eats like it’s war.”

By my own admission, I was not happy with my body. I hated it. And to compensate I retreated into my brain. I was at war with the free and uninhibited person I felt like on the inside and the tight, closed off and frustratingly clunky form I had on the outside. Which was why late in my 14th year my mom intervened, told me that she loved me no matter what but that if I wanted, she would help me develop a healthier set of eating habits.

Which I did. Sort of.

That summer I started paying attention to the things I put in my body. I stopped housing bags of Doritos absent mindedly. I started exercising on a consistent basis for the first time ever. I learned to really enjoy cardiovascular work outs. I realized that it helped allay my natural tendency toward anxiety. I felt better. I liked how I looked. I was proud of myself for doing it.

Then I went back to high school. I felt so much better, I was so much more excited to be seen. I got the only female lead, as a sophomore, in the first play of the year. I was bumped into a higher level choir and auditioned and was selected for the state competition. I got a boyfriend, which I’d never had. People suddenly paid attention to me. I got friends in the older kid crowd. I felt on top of the world. The change was so sudden and so total and so completely timed with the shift in outward form that it seemed impossible to extricate the experiences of that year from the process of losing all that weight.

The truth is of course not so simple. Yes my outer self had changed, and because of that I allowed more of the person I really felt myself to be to shine through. All the confidence and brazenness and smartness and silliness I always had suddenly seemed like it had a venue to be shown. I had just finally given myself permission.

But of course at the time I associated my new-found creative and personal successes with being beautiful. And I associated that beauty with being thin. And so when I had to wear a bathing suit onstage, I lost another 15 pounds. And when I played Wendy in Peter Pan and was told to try and look younger, I lost another 10. It became a game, the weight loss. One that I assumed would just continue to result in rewards, in a better and better version of myself.

I would go out with friends and eat watermelon for dinner to save on calories.  I worked out a couple hours after donating blood in 90 degree heat. (PS, I didn’t eat the cookies). I was obsessed with food and thought about it ALL THE TIME.  I fixated on my “big hips” which I couldn’t do a damn thing about because I had whittled them down to jutting bones. I want to look back at 18 year old Adrienne and say, “You actually can’t workout your way to a smaller pants size if you have a wide skeletal pelvis. Maybe put some of that energy into learning your lines.”

At my thinnest, I was somewhere around 104 or 105 depending on how much water I’d had that day.

I’m 5’6” by the way.

And that was the point at which my mom said I was done losing weight. If you consider the standard BMI measurement useful (which is super questionable) I started just on the cusp of officially “Obese” and plummeted down well below “Underweight.”

I got over it. College food helped. Learning to love weight lifting helped. I work hard to focus on feeling strong, quick and agile rather than simply thin.

This blog isn’t an autobiography. And I don’t bring up this story for sympathy, though I bet many people reading this who can sympathize. But my story is not the same as many others. There are people who are beautifully in tune with their bodies regardless of their body fat index. Who are graceful and flexible and could be called fat. In fact just this afternoon I was talking to a friend who said that gaining a bunch of weight after having a kid helped her to realize that her creative talent wasn’t dependent on her staying small.

The point is that I felt able to embrace and believe in a fuller vision of myself as a creative person when I thinned up. Until that point, I’d always loved theater. I participated in middle school and my first year of high school. I’d had lovely, nearly transcendent, experiences. But I didn’t believe that I was eventually going to be one of those seniors that got out front and center. Based on the things I’d been cast as before – Mrs. Hannigan, the mom in Music Man, Golem in the Hobbit, ensemble member in Godspell – I figured I’d find a niche in the strong character roles that I’d seen other heavy girls play.

When I came back that summer lighter, I was so upset that they’d switched the fall play from Arsenic and Old Lace to a Neil Simon romantic comedy. I knew I could kill at those funny old ladies I’d been practicing all summer. But it didn’t occur to me that my lovely voice, passion for acting and intelligent incisive attack of text could put me front and center.

I couldn’t be a leading lady. Not if I was fat. And in my head I still was.

I auditioned for that show’s sole female part – an ingénue role – with little expectation. But during the audition process, I began to realize that people saw me differently now. And no doubt, the confidence that blossomed that show, that year, had to do with the fact that for the first time, I believed myself capable of ANY kind of role, ANY kind of creation. I could make people laugh or cry or sigh. I felt like I had control over my creative destiny. And I assumed all of that had to do with the new exterior through which those things were expressed.

I believe with every fiber of my being that there is no way I would have gotten that part if I hadn’t been thinner than the year before. And some days I really wonder if I hadn’t lost all that weight if I would have believed in myself with the same vehemence and confidence. And without that, I wonder if I’d have bothered continuing with acting, found directing and do what I’m doing today.

Two thirds of people in this country are “heavier” than “normal.” How many of those people do we see on the stage? How many stories do we tell that can include that perspective? And more importantly, how many kinds of characters do we unconsciously limit the size of, regardless of the actor’s ability to embody the role.

When was the last time you saw a heavy Juliet or a pudgy Romeo?

I’m left with lots of questions and not a lot of answers. Is this inevitable? Who’s driving it? Why does it happen?

And if it bothers us, what can we do about it?

A