art

This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.

young me now me

Quit romanticizing whatever you had then. Whatever it was, you can always get it back again…

Several weeks ago I was on the phone with my sister.

She lives in Knoxville and among other things runs a business in which she sells delicious pastry treats under the aegis Dale’s Fried Pies. Her pies, I think, are something like my plays. They are the most obvious manifestation of what she does with her days. They, semi-imperfectly, become a container for her myriad of interests. They become a vehicle for the underlying questions she wants to explore. Anyway, Dale and I were on the phone several weeks ago. She was in prep stages for an official opening of a new building she and her husband purchased, renovated, and turned into a professional kitchen, office, art gallery and community space called The Central Collective. I was just coming off of opening The Children’s Hour at Ego Po and was readying to head into another tech this time at Drexel for some Halloween Lovecraftian silliness with my student cast for From Beneath It LurksDale told me about the myriad million little things she was discovering one needs for a building about to open to the public in a shmancy ceremony complete with a mayorial ribbon cutting: paper towel dispensers and garbage cans for example. I told her about the emotional drain of gearing up to head into another weekend of 12-hour days and lots and lots of light cues.

At some point, Dale said to me, “I mean it’s good. It’s not hard, really. Just busy. There’s just lots and lots to do. But it gets done, right? In some way it gets done.” At least, this is some approximation of what she said, to the best of my memory’s ability to recall.

And, in the best of my ability to remember my response, I stepped off the curb at Tasker and 10th as I walked to the subway and replied, “Yes. I mean, all the times I have down time and I’m dreaming about doing my work. All the times I’m imaging the future utopia I’ll be in when I’m making the art… This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

When I think back to the projects I enjoy the most in retrospect, the only thing I regret is that at the time I was so busy in the making that I often forgot to remember that I was there in the present tense moment. I’m so often imaging back to a bygone time when the work I made was younger, simpler, more directly created somehow or thinking ahead to a day when I’ll be making that ideal project in that ideal way with all the support and resource I don’t currently possess. It’s a comfort in some ways, this imagining that at some point in the past or future there’s this amazing thing. But it also means that that amazingness is never actually happening.

Has there ever been a milestone that when actually achieved felt solidly like the end of something, like a destination?

Maybe you all are better than I am but if I’m honest the answer is: Not for me. Too often by the time I’ve gotten to the thing I set out to do in some “back then” moment, I’ve already defined a plan and a road map to some other future moment when for sure this time it’ll really be the thing I need and actually feel like I’ve landed.

When was the last time you stopped for a second, a minute, an hour, and thought about the fact that the thing you always say you’re waiting for is in some way happening right this very now?

What if in that brief sliver of time we just all stopped to relax and enjoy our work in its present tensity?

For today, this is my mantra, however humble it may be: “This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

What century is this?

It’s been a long time since I saw a big “Broadway musical.” But I was offered free tickets to the national tour of Bullets Over Broadway at the Academy of Music yesterday, and since I had a free evening, I was happy to accept. I knew nothing about the show, but I generally enjoy musicals and I figured it’d be an enjoyable night out.

What I did not expect was for it to rile me up to the point of shouting about it to my roommate over breakfast this morning. Which is how I knew I should probably explore the root of that irritation, and what we can do about it.

Bullets Over Broadway is a big glitzy musical set in the 1920s, about an emerging playwright/director bringing a play to Broadway through the assistance of a mobster financial backer. The show opened with “Tiger Rag,” which featured a group of leggy women in skimpy tiger costumes performing for a bunch of gangsters. The song offered no exposition towards the plot, and seemed to serve merely as a chance to dress some pretty chorus girls up in sexy costumes.

As those thoughts flitted across my mind in the first minute after the overture, I also had the strong sense that  I’d be in for a bumpy ride. And I was right. Not only were the female ensemble only ever used as flappers/”gentlemen’s club” dancers/sexy train conductors to give unnecessary exposition about what new location the story was moving to, but the leading ladies were no better. Let’s assess.

The Women of Bullets Over Broadway:

  1. Ellen – The playwright’s girlfriend from before he makes it big, who gets so little stage time in the first act that we hardly even care when her boyfriend strikes up a love affair with his play’s star. She almost gives women a little independent agency when David confesses his affair and she responds by saying she’s cheating too and doesn’t seem at all upset about his infidelity. But then along comes the finale: just as David’s lover dumps him, Ellen returns and says that she has realized she’s much more interested in their steadfast love than the passionate sex she was having with her man on the side. (Yes, really.)
  2. Helen Sinclair – The darling of the theater who David recruits into starring in his show. Has the authority/independence to do whatever she wants, but mostly just comes off as an alcoholic diva bitch who destroys David and Ellen’s relationship and then dumps him.
  3. Olive Neal – The mobster’s girlfriend who lands a role in David’s play because the mobster won’t give him financial backing if he doesn’t cast her. Your basic Lily St. Regis: lots of pink clothes, lots of blonde hair, and lots of stupidity. Her voice is so annoying and her talent in David’s play so lacking that the real audience enthusiastically applauded when she got shot.

Those are the female roles in this musical: a ragdoll who comes running as soon as the man who cheated on her is available again, a scheming bitch, and an obnoxious dumb blond. If you’re not one of them, you’re a chorus girl at the gentleman’s club, or an insecure and irritating supporting actress with a pet dog who has his own therapist, or if you’re lucky, the assistant director with only one line.

I tried to tell myself that maybe it was sort of okay, that the show was just a product of its time. For example, I have a lot of problems with the way women are portrayed in South Pacific, but because it was written in 1949, I give it a little leeway in its contents. (I have questions about why anyone still does shows that are problematic because of “their time,” but that’s an issue for another post.) This musical, set in the 1920s, felt akin to the old classic musicals, very much in the world of Guys and Dolls; since I’d never heard of it before this tour, I thought maybe it was a 40s or 50s piece that had been revived as a fun touring option.

And then I looked it up, and found out that Bullets Over Broadway premiered on Broadway last year.

What? WHAT? WHAT?!

Why are we still making show like this today? It’s bad enough when productions of the classics maintain the inherent sexism and racism that so many of them have, without thinking of ways to update them to be relevant and useful for a contemporary audience, rather than memorializing the problems by refusing to acknowledge they exist. But why is anyone STILL making NEW theater that only treats women as objects of men and the butt of their jokes? Why would we offer a play like this a Tony nomination for best book? Why would any actress accept a role in such a play? How could Susan Stroman, a director/choreographer who is more than successful enough to turn down bad offers, be pleased with directing other women in a show that treats them like this?

Of course, one of those answers is obvious. The women performing in Bullets Over Broadway, leads or not, are getting credited for a national tour, probably being paid quite well, and honestly probably having a lot of fun with all the dancing and singing. With factors like that, it can be easy to bask in the personal growth opportunities offered from being a part of such a great gig and ignore the bigger picture of what the musical is actually saying and doing to women.

I get that. I really really do. I question sometimes if I made the wrong choice by not going for an apprenticeship or ASM/PA job at a big theater that could fast track me to a professional career in stage management for large-scale, big-name shows. But then I see this production, and I know that I will take all the challenges that come with my path to make sure that that’s not the kind of theater I’m helping put into the world.

For many audiences, this is all they know that theater is or can be. The perception of money equating to quality and that good professional theater has to originate from New York that many people have means that, most likely, there are hundreds or even thousands of Philadelphians who only really go see shows at the Kimmel Center or Academy of Music, and maybe the Walnut if they’re lucky.

So many people laughed at the expense of the goofy female characters in this musical. So many people were so impressed by the moving car with real headlights that appeared on stage for less than ten minutes total and probably cost more than the budget of any single Swim Pony show. So many people clapped or cheered when David and Ellen got back together again at the end, even though it took away any measure of independence she’d built up. I walked out of the theater with all these people around me, and I felt so sorry for them, that they’re content to shut off their brains and consciences and enjoy without asking questions.

It’s no wonder that young people, people who care about the way women are treated in art and entertainment, and who want to be able to express their opinions and engage with what they’re seeing, don’t care much about theater and go to see it in such minimal numbers.  Because honestly, if this show is what traditional theater is offering, I’m glad it’s “dying out.”

Not everyone has to make shows that are immersive and participatory and site-specific like Swim Pony; there are many excellent traditionally structured plays and musicals that I get excited about. But new musicals that play into old stereotypes are not on that list.  I hope that all artists can accept and find work not just because it’s likely to be good for their career, but instead because they care about it, about what its saying and how it’s saying it and what impact that will have on an audience.

Because if you don’t believe in the art you’re making, then why are you making art at all?

-S

Let Me Tell You Why

Some days I wake up in the morning feeling excited and refreshed.

Take this morning for example. I sat down for my daily check in with my fabulous company associate Sam. We chatted about upcoming deadlines and big picture project dreams. I made myself a list of things to work on today including rehearsal plans for my new work with a phenomenally funny group of students at Drexel. I put together some notes for an upcoming grant. I wrote a letter to a collaborator from my recent directing freelance gig for Ego Po.

I was doing things that were adding up to a happy and productive art-maker’s day. Things that would never lead me to think about the fact that being a female creator might put me at a disadvantage in my community. Too bad then that I had to go and read the Inky’s review for Luna Theater Co’s current production of Animal Farm.

I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to drive up the readership stats but I’ll summarize and quote here the relevant stuff. If you really want to find it, you can look it up online.

The review begins with an overview of Orwell’s story and then follows up by saying that the production’s performances (carried out by an all female cast) are genuinely terrifying and display a “startling physicality.” It cites some issues with direction and overall vision. It says that two of the performers Michelle Pauls and Tori Mittelman are both “brilliant” in their ability to “contort themselves by gait, posture, tone, and expression into pigs.” The review rounds out this first half of the review by stating that the “six actors craft stunning physical performances.”

I haven’t seen this show. I have no idea if these are accurate assessments of the directorial issues the reviewer hints at. I have no idea if the performers are “stunning” or “brilliant.” But I do know that up to the halfway point I was reading an article about a classic work performed by an all female cast that hadn’t yet cast aspersions on the quality of the project simply based on the performers’ gender rather than their unique and individual abilities to carry out the roles for which they had been assigned.

Some days I read about productions doing things like this and I see reviewers manage to actually see female artists taking on roles traditionally walled off from them by the default power of the canon just as “artists” that don’t need to be defined by gender. Some days I see such reviewers not remark or wonder whether female performers are equally capable of taking on such roles. Some days I think, “Gosh, maybe there is hope to finally just erase that Smurfette Principle “men will always and forever be the default” thing. Some days I start to think that maybe we don’t need to just wholesale throw out the canon because maybe I’m thankfully wrong in my fear that it’s just too hard for people to re-imagine stuff that comes from a time of straight white cis-male privilege into a world where we all see that straight white cis-male privilege should no longer be the case.

Today, alas, is not that day.

Because after citing the power of these particular performers for several paragraphs the reviewer gets to the crux of his review. After stating the terror induced in the audience through the performances the reviewer begs a question:

The only question is: Why?

And following that question there are a lot of other questions. There are plenty of these I have no problem at all with. There are plenty of these that I think are great questions to be asking a contemporary theater artist making a modern adaptation of a work from the past. Questions like:

Why create one disturbing moment after the next without offering more than the horror of slaughter?

And:

Why unleash Pauls’ fear-inducing portrayal to prowl the stage, appear at random like a spy, direct the atrocities, if only to terrify in the abstract, and point no real or allegorical fingers at modern targets?

And some days I might have read this review and its thoughtful questions been able to move on. But today that series of questions also had to include this one:

The only question is: Why?

Why cast all women as animals clearly identified as male in the book?

Perhaps I might respond to this particular rhetorical question with a bit of rhetoric inquiry of my own:

  • Why do you need to lump useful negative criticism about directing choices and staging with a comment on casting choices that create more inclusivity and space for female creators?
  • Why question such casting when you just called their performance abilities “stunning” just a second ago?
  • Why are you subtly implying a director ought not cast people with “brilliant” acting ability for a particular role simply because they do not posses the talent-irrelevant attribute of being a dude?
  • Why would I bet a million dollars that you would never ever ever ever have commented on an all male casting even if it meant a cross-gendered Muriel the goat and Clover the mare?
  • Why do pigs and cows and horses and donkeys need to be so obviously gendered to be performed well?
  • Why does a pig’s gender even matter when animals are clearly being used as an allegory anyway?
  • Why do I have to sit here for an hour and wonder if this stupid random sentence is an emblem for the embedded anti-female sentiment that runs deep in our creative community?

Back to that original question:

Why cast all women as animals clearly identified as male in the book?

Because if we don’t fucking figure out a way to get women’s voices and perspectives into stories from the past that previously excluded them then as we inevitably progress to a more equitable and just society where female voices are no longer marginalized we will have to ditch this shit into the garbage bin because apparently you’d rather do that than find a way to modify such works to be more inclusive.

That’s why.

That tiny line, one in an otherwise unremarkable and potentially totally relevant review, bothered me enough to take an hour out of my day to write this. That’s an hour that could have gone to raising money or researching or admin upkeep or even just farting around on the internet. Instead it went to venting frustrated feelings so that I didn’t feel like I had to just sit there and take casual undercutting of female bodies being represented on the stage.

Some days I wake up in the morning feeling excited and refreshed. Some days I manage to put my nose the grindstone and define my work path and get shit done and make some amazing art. Some days I manage to do all those things without someone making a comment in a public paper of record that makes me stop and write a blog post about how much better we’d be as a creative community if they didn’t make an offhand comment about how my gender isn’t as useful a default as the male one.

Today, alas, is not that day.

– A

Sharing the Process

Adrienne and I just opened The Children’s Hour with EgoPo Classic Theater, with her as guest director and me as stage manager/dramaturg. It’s an intense, dramatic play that takes the audience through a roller coaster of emotions as the lives of the characters fall apart.

But despite the emotional investment the performances demand, as I sit behind the semi-transparent black curtain that separates my tech booth from the performance space, I can’t help feeling like the audience is missing half the experience, if not more. Our rehearsals included hours of conversation and exploration, of developing backstory and relationships and searching for answers to difficult questions. We fought tooth and nail – sometimes even against what was written on the page – to build the characters into real people instead of archetypes, with sympathetic motives for the choices they made, good or bad. Once in an early rehearsal, I came out of the studio to the lounge to gather actors for the next scene, and when I apologized for being behind schedule, they responded unanimously that they were not upset at all, that they’d loved having the time to sit and talk about the play.

The audience doesn’t generally get to see this part. Of course, the purpose and goal of all the exercises and conversations is to create layers that will exist in performance even without explicit knowledge of where they came from. And doing the work definitely makes a better end product. But even so, when a friend asked me how the play was going, I told him it was great, but that I felt like I’d gotten a lot more out of the rehearsal process than I do now being in performance.

Here’s the thing. A big part of why I wanted to pursue theatre as a career is because of how much I love the process. I love learning new things about empathy and humanity from how different people interpret words or ideas. I love asking questions and the eureka moments when something finally clicks into place. And it’s great that theater-makers get to experience this. But for theater to continue serving a purpose in the contemporary world, we can’t be doing it just for the joy we get out of it. We have to make and share theater in such a way that the impact it has on audiences is as powerful as the impact it has on the artists creating it.

And if the most impacting part of the work is often the process rather than the product, and we want the audience to have as effecting an experience as possible, then syllogism tells us that we should bring the audience more into the process. Like the special features that are probably one of the only reasons people still buy hard copies of some films, or backstage passes that let people see behind the scenes of rock concerts, or the Pottermore website JK Rowling created to share more of the secrets of the Harry Potter world that have been only in her head for so long. All these things open a window into process, into how a product reached its end-state. And people love it.

Process-orientation has been part of the Swim Pony mission for a long time, both in the kind of work we do and in how we share and develop it with our community. But we’re excited to do even more. We’re excited to further develop an artistic community that’s about dialogue and openness from the beginning, rather than one that presents a streamlined finished product that only scratches the surface of what went before. I hope you’re as excited about it as we are.

-Sam

The Awesome Lady Coefficient

When I was growing up my mom, a family therapist, used to talk about the problematic representation of women in The Muppets.

I’ve felt a lot of ways about this at different points in my life. On the one hand, I totally get that it’s super crappy to have the extent of a gender be portrayed as mean/bossy, blonde/ditzy or chicken. This is why I advocate so hard for gender parity versus representation. Some women are blonde and ditzy or mean and bossy or chickens. But when you have so little room in our cultural narrative space, when this is the only version of women we see, these limited categories that appear again and again get really problematic. This “tokenism” and its cousin The Smurfette Principle are pernicious and pretty widespread in many parts of our cultural consciousness.  So in that sense I am one hundred percent with my mom.

On the other hand, The Muppets.

And this is the thing. It really sucks to be the person who has to fight the silly, sublime and nostalgic force that is this thing that Jim Henson made. It’s so freaking difficult, in the face of something that you agree is wonderful in some ways and that you see is wildly commercially successful and popular, to try and fight for conversation space about the other ways in which it’s hurtful and plays into larger forces that harm women and misrepresent them. (Shout out to Katherine Fritz who wrote a lovely essay about this.)

Harder still, is the moment you have to decide if you want to be the proverbial Smurfette. Or direct her in a show. Or sign on to light her. Or whatever your part in the larger creative system might be.

This is the sticky place where our theoretical desire to stick to our Awesome Lady principles is put into real conflict with our day to day artistic and professional goals.

It sucks.

There’s misogyny for you. Pouring a big bucket of suck on everything.

And part of that bucket of suck, part of what sometimes happens, is that it’s super hard in the moment to figure out how to balance those two conflicting considerations.

Obviously, if there’s a project where you make a million dollars starring in the most artistically fulfilling role but there’s a tiny imbalance in the casting ratio (let’s say 5 dudes to 4 ladies), you might figure it’s still worth it. And just as obviously, if there’s a crap no-line female part with no pay and no audience and the play is about how stupid and terrible women are and the director likes to point out how much he thinks this is true, you might realize there’s really no reason to do this horrible thing.

Actresses out there, can you feel the tiny niggle inside of you that is still considering that second option?  Just sayin’…

I think this instinct to jump at any and all work is part of how a perceived lack of agency pressures us into doing things that are against our ethics, don’t give us artistic fulfillment, and don’t even pay us. It’s as if any work is better than nothing at all.

I don’t buy that.

I think there is a reasonable estimate we can make of the artistic and/or professional merit in a potential project. I also think that it is possible for the problematic ethics of something to outweigh that artistic and professional merit if the problematic nature is problematic enough. What we need then is a living artist’s guide to figuring out how to measure those relative merits and ethical levels of importance – within ourselves and for individual opportunities – and come up with a way to help us gauge the overall worth.

Which brings me to the most recent meetings of The Awesome Lady Squad.

We started with exactly this question. We have internal values we want to uphold. We have a lot of factors to consider – factors of age, demand, opportunity, etc. that all play into how we make choices.

So we began by trying to define a methodology for determining the merit of a project divorced from our Awesome Lady ethics. We looked at Neil Gaiman’s great speech that includes the metaphor of a “mountain” that artists are climbing. We tried to come up with concrete categories for this inner intuitive sense about whether a project is taking you “up the mountain” or down. We chatted about the ways that different things matter at different times in one’s career, how a solid day job may make the “money issue” shift, and how we each differently balance the relative weight of artistic merit versus professional development.

We came up with four factors that any opportunity can be evaluated under:

  • Professional Development (P) – i.e. street cred. Will this be a high profile gig that leads to more work? Is it with a big name company that will look good on the resume? Is it an internship that might not pay well but will give you access to a desirable new skill set?
  • Financial Compensation (F) – i.e. money. Does it pay well (especially when broken down by the amount of money for the total time you will work)? Is it a job that might bring in income over a longer time frame?
  • Artistic Merit (A) – i.e. art. How much do I respect and get behind the vision of this work? How much does it allow me personally to fulfill my artistic expression?
  • Interpersonal Dynamics (I) – i.e. people. Do I like my collaborators? Who is in charge and how much do I trust them? Is this company one that’s easy to get along with? Are there non-artistic partners I need to interact with and do like them?

We had everyone rate the relative importance of these areas for themselves at this moment using 20 “value” points to create relative weights for each aspect of influence. We each used 20 poker chips and had to divvy them into piles for each category. The total chips in each pile became coefficients (i.e. fixed numerical values) that were used later in our larger equation.IMG_5033

Even doing this caused some of us to rethink. I thought my artistic merit category would be far and away the highest. But when I really thought hard about choosing a project, I realized that personality and chemistry with my collaborators is nearly as important and that I feel like I can’t get to that artistry without an ability to groove and talk to the people I’m creating with. Either way, these numbers gave us constants that would stay the same, standing for our core values when it came to evaluating a project.

Armed with this info, we talked about people’s actual upcoming opportunities and tried rating them in each of the four categories. We used a scale from 1 (perfectly advantageous) to -1 (totally detrimental) with 0 being neutral. While it was easy to freak about what we didn’t know, we made our best guess with the info we had. In some cases it also spurred the person to see where they really needed to find out more (about fee or the company’s street cred) to be able to make a more informed choice. We found it helpful to start from the middle and move up or down based on subjective factors you consider.

And then we created an equation that uses these numbers and pops out a score. To do this yourself multiply your four personal value numbers for each area (each some portion of 20) with the specific project’s strength or weakness (from 1 to -1) and…

Voila! An objective measure of whether you should do this thing or not! Like a pro and con list on steroids. For you math heads, here’s how we wrote it as an equation:

(P * P’) + (F * F’) + (A * A’) + (I * I’) = Overall Project rating
NOTE: In the above P = Professional Development value to you generally and P’ is the value for the specific project.

And then we came up with a scoring system:

  • Negative: Don’t do it unless you can adjust something to bump the result positive
  • 0 – 5: Only nominally worth it. Might be worth considering saying no if you’ve got a lot of these on your plate so you don’t end up at burn out.
  • 5 – 10: Decent. Barring another great project this is likely worth your time, so long as it’s in balance with other stuff and your life.
  • 10 – 15: A pretty sweet spot. This is where the work is satisfying and sustainable.
  • 15 – 20: A mountain-climbing fast track. Chase this stuff as fast as you can.

“But, wait!” you might be saying. What about all that Muppet and Smurf stuff from the start of this blog post? Where’s that factor for Awesome Lady ethics? How do we include the value of projects that advance or detract from our Awesome Lady principles?

I thought about one project in particular, the statistic project I did a while back analyzing data on female creative professionals in the Philadelphia theater community. This project, if looked at only in terms of the equation, would be massively negative, a definite no-go. It made me no money and took time away from finding projects that might. It offered no professional advancement because if anything I was a little nervous it might put people off of working with me if I’d criticized them. It had no interpersonal reward because I was all alone and had no obvious artistic merit because it was all admin.

Using my value numbers and the equation I came up with a -5.  A total no, right?

Well obviously (Awesomely) not. I loved this project. I talk about it all the time. It is still super meaningful to me as a female creator, even if some part of me saw that it took time away from all those other things. At the moment I did it, advancing the Awesome Lady cause was front and center in my mind. I was doing a lot of writing. I was feeling really frustrated. I felt a strong need to make a dent in the artistic world for Awesome Ladies.

ALS 07.21Clearly there’s something else bumping my equation into strongly positive territory.

And what about companies where the people are nice, the money and professional advancement is good, and the shows have lots of artistic merit in most respects but you just can’t help noticing that all the folks running things and all the writers being produced are male, most of the designers and actors are guys and the voice of women in the artistic process feels shut out? Clearly, even though there’s lots going right in a situation like that, there’s something else that needs to weigh in to reflect this complicated picture.

How do we rate such a thing?

By using the Awesome Lady Coefficient!

Without it, a max score for an opportunity is 20. This is a project where everything is perfect. So let’s say you are in a theoretical world where you rate the project a 20 in the money, professional development, artistic merit, and interpersonal categories, but the project is undeniably misogynist. If you could shut your eyes to that one aspect, you’d love doing this, but the message, the gender makeup of the cast/crew/production team, the way that females are paid compared to men, and/or all the little ways we subtly make female creators feel less than their male counterparts is glaring to the maximal degree.

The way we’ve defined the Awesome Lady Coefficient (ALC) is to say that at its maximal level, a project at a perfect 20 when confronted with the maximal frustration of gender inequity and discrimination becomes neutral. In other words, the max of the ALC is 20. And you can rate a given project or opportunity on that same 1 to -1 scale. When you add it into the equation it looks like this:

(P * P’) + (F * F’) + (A * A’) + (I * I’) + (ALC * ALC’) = Overall Project rating including assessment of project’s gender equity ideals.

Knowing how to factor in your desire to make that ALC value something specific and as quantifiable as money is important. It allows you a chance to look clearly at the hidden cost of projects that make you feel like you’re compromising your ethics. You may not rate the coefficient at 20. For a lot of people they might want to but find that doing so is just too tough right now. We’re not here to judge, but we do think it’s useful to note that if a project doesn’t come up positive unless that coefficient comes down near 0, there’s some thinking to do. And if you are consistently in a place where you never raise that ALC number into positive territory but say that you’re an Awesome Lady ally then there’s some thinking to do there as well…

It also means that if you REALLY want to say yes for the other reasons, maybe you might have a conversation that shifts the project or your role in it in a way that helps raise up the ALC factor so it’s more agreeable. That might be requiring conversations around problematic stereotypes in rehearsals or with audiences, asking to audition for a part that doesn’t include a rape scene, requiring a female AD or dramaturg to be a part of the show’s development so there are non-performer female perspectives in the room.

And maybe, sometimes, it’s a way to help justify the saying no to something that seems so logical but for the fact that it really messes with your internal sense of ethics. It’s a way to validate that inner voice that often gets sidelined with other people’s “rational” choices.

It’s a way to help yourself clean off that bucket of suck and grab back your own agency.

Even in the face of powerful forces like Muppets.

Or Shakespeare.

Or artistically stellar companies that overwhelmingly produce male playwrights.

It’s a way for you to own your own values and figure out what part of these complicated legacies you want to be a part of.

Just another day’s work for the Awesome Lady Squad…

– A
PS – We’re thinking about expanding this into an interactive app that will let people adjust these numbers and calculate the math automatically. If you know of someone that might be interested in designing such a thing, hit us up at swimponypa@gmail.com

Re-conceptualizing Gameplay as Play Play

Sam here. As Swim Pony’s new Artistic Associate, I’ll be taking on some of the company blogging alongside Adrienne.

I grew up playing video games. Since my brother is only seventeen months older than me, we spent most of our time together as kids, and in addition to building LEGO cities and biking around the rotary at the end of our street for hours, that meant a lot of video games. First, it was Cruisin’ USA on the Nintendo 64, Super Smash Brothers Melee on Game Cube, and every generation of Pokemon. Later, we were more into epic role playing games like Fire Emblem and the Tales series, as well as real-life simulations such as Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon… and the occasional round of Mario Kart.

At a certain point, I developed more of my own interests and gradually played fewer and fewer video games. Ironically, I think my falling out with the hobby coincided pretty directly with diving into theatre full-throttle in middle school. For a while now, I’ve thought of gaming somewhat nostalgically, as something I really enjoyed and wish I could have time for again.

So starting work for a company interested in the hybridization of gaming and theatre feels more than a little bit like coming full-circle. Over the past few weeks, we’ve started Play Play meetings, where a group of theatre artists gather and share ideas/games/research links that explore the whole game/theatre mash-up concept – and it’s more prevalent than I thought. Key players in both industries are becoming more and more interested in immersive experiences that welcome participants into the world of the game or the performance, and therefore it’s clear to see how the two can meet in the middle.

Our conversations so far have focused largely on games with hyper-realistic role playing and thus real world believability. We talked about Sunset and Gone Home, two short computer games that place you in a hyper-realistic world where you role play as a character and have to explore your environment to solve a mystery. They’re what are called “real-time art” or “story exploration games.” By default, you’re forced to interact with your environment as you would if it were real: open drawers, turn on lights, read notes. The ability to interact with the world in a real way is as important as the plot in creating a sense of immersion, if not more so.

But digital games aren’t the only form of “gaming” out there. Another popular genre is LARPs (live action role plays). When this topic came up, I realized that I have a huge amount of misconceptions about what LARPing is today – partially due to ignorance, and partially because I’ve just never really thought about it. I considered LARPing as sort of a physical take on fanfiction: players dress as their favorite character(s) from existing games or stories and act out alternate universe/continuation plotlines.  In some cases, this is accurate; LARPing can be as simple as a group of friends getting together and fighting with foam swords, inspired by characters or scenes from fantasy worlds.

But I have recently learned that LARPing is a lot more than that. Adrienne shared a clip from a Nordic LARP called Delirium, in which 36 players portrayed couples in a mental institution for fifty hours. The environment was designed so that it was impossible to escape from your character; if players tried to rebel against non-player authority figures or the set expectations for a situation, the scene would reset and they’d have to start over. The experience was much more intensive and immersive than my preconceived notions of LARPs.

Though this is considered a game, since people choose to play and to take on roles, it feels very theatrical; there is a set, costumes, lighting, rehearsed actors (playing doctors and other authority figures), and so on. It seems a bit like a sneaky way to get shy audience members to become participants in a large-scale immersive play, by tricking them into thinking they’re playing a game rather than seeing theatre.

One of our Play Play conversations brought up something else that is, technically, a LARP. Several members of the group talked about times when they were assigned to play out societal roles in middle school as a practical lesson. One “game” involved first, second, and third world layers; the small first world group had a Nintendo, Doritos, and air conditioning, while the third world classroom was jam-packed with no entertainment, money, or hope for escape. Another school had “Immigration Day,” where they spent the whole day standing in line, and were more successful at getting through quickly based on the characters they’d been assigned and how they dressed and acted correspondingly. These cases were very successful at getting participants to engage and play their roles because the setting was created with real in-game rewards and punishments for role playing appropriately.

My question after hearing about these scenarios was whether the participants, as middle schoolers, were aware of the lessons they were supposed to be learning or if they just felt like they were playing a fun game. This led to agreement that debriefing about the lessons learned was an essential part of the experience. But in thinking about actually devising a theatre/game hybrid, is there a way to ensure participants are aware of the plot being created around or by them while they’re actively within it? For that matter, is it more effective/useful to aim for an immersive and complex world or to prioritize the plot you want the participants to experience?  How many branching storylines are you able to realistically incorporate into live theatre, when each change affects the real world and the variables are harder to control? How can the digital element of video gaming be incorporated into live performance? Is that a necessary part of game/theatre hybridization?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of our conversations and the questions they brought up for me. I’m excited to see where we go from here, both at Play Play and Swim Pony at large.

And I think my brother – who never stopped playing games — will be proud to hear I’ve started again, and that I even get to consider it part of my job.

-Sam

8 Steps To Actual Actual Innovation in Arts Funding

A few years after I first started working in theater I ADed under a director who used this phrase that I love. When he was trying to uncover something about a moment, get at what the character was doing, he would say something like, “So what’s actually actually happening is…”

I love this turn of phrase, actually actually, because I think it speaks to the layers of honesty with which we communicate. There’s a way in which we might say we’re doing something but actually actually we’re kind of doing something else. Like when I say that I’m working all day on a grant but actually actually I’m equal parts answering grant questions and distracting myself with games on my phone or reading emails that I don’t really need to look at. It’s not malicious, this uncovering of my real activities but it does show the ways in which we label our actions in ways that aren’t always inclusive of all the forces working on us. I’m not on the internet because I don’t want to write the grant, I do, I just also am tired and really enjoying unlocking the secrets of Dwarf Complete.

Actually actually is a manifestation of our actions in the most literal and concrete sense of themselves. It strips them of their highfalutin’ intentions and gets down to the nitty gritty of their real intents and their actual (actual) effects. It shows that our motives are often more complex and human than their purest descriptions.

Sometimes I wish I could ask arts funders to tell me what they actually actually want.

In my anecdotal experience, when people give away large amounts of money there’s what they say they want in their beautifully crafted guidelines and then there are the means by which these funds are dispersed. And a lot of the time, the stated want isn’t actually actually best engendered by the means in which things are executed.

I don’t, truly, honestly, think this is malice. I know as artists there are times it can actually feel that way. But I really don’t think it is. That said, I think it’s useful for us to remind ourselves of the difference between what is said and what we feel like we actually actually see. It keeps you sane. It keeps things in perspective. It allows you not to get caught up in rage when you feel like you are held to a standard or desire that’s not always what is shown on the surface.

This isn’t true across all my experience, and it certainly exists at a lot of levels of divergence from that first actually to the second. The one that most gets me though, the one I find the most often frustrating, is the call for “innovative” art. Innovation is a tricky work. It is grounded deeply in risk. It requires, by definition, newness and the encountering of the unknown. It is something encountered for the first time. All of which is very hard to explain in a clear and delineated narrative six months, a year, two years before the innovative thing is going to take place, before its component pieces are thoroughly explore and identified, before its map has been charted, before experiments have been conducted to test hypotheses. By the time these kinds of things are known, the actual innovation is already over.

You can court the unknown, or you can have a steadfast plan carried out without alteration. You can scientifically journey into unfamiliar experimentation or you can seek the rigorous and practiced craftsman to execute his skill. These are both interesting and potentially worthy things. But in actual actuality they are a non-overlapping Venn diagram.

I understand the desire to know things, I do. But you can’t have it both way my darlings. Or rather, you can, in a way, if you pretend it’s possible and leave it to those actually executing the thing to try their damnedest to pull those two circles toward a tiny space of intersection. It’s a lot of work, that pulling, work that I’d say is better served elsewhere, like actually actually implementing some innovation.

My guess is things won’t change soon. But if someone else’s giant pile of money were up to me, here’s how I’d actually actually propose to get there:

 ADRIENNE’S LIST OF FUNDING PROCESSES FOR ACTUAL ACTUAL INNOVATION IN THE ARTS

1.   WHAT: Give $5,000 to the first 25 people under the age of 30 that ask for it. No questions asked.

WHY: First off, in the grand scheme of things, this is nothing. This is one not that large Pew grant. For reference, my very first show, THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL, was made with $1,500 and it launched my career into an entirely new orbit. Think about what 25 upstart artists could do with 5K. Plus, if they ask first they’re likely the most shit-together folks of this age set.

2.    WHAT: Rent a rehearsal studio space for a year and give away 20 hours worth of time to anyone that asks for it.

WHY: Space is one of the first thing that starts costing you money fast and it’s especially hard when you are at that stage where you’re in total blank canvas mode. It feels decadent and wasteful to sit in a room you paid for without a plan so often this time, which is actually the most important, happens in the cracks and spaces between “real” rehearsal.

3.    WHAT: You want fancy video work samples for grants? Hire a staff videographer and pay for them to shoot and edit the work of people in the Philly arts community.

WHY: The cost of a staff person like this is likely akin to one big grant to a large organization. Pay for this instead and you will get better work samples. You won’t have to keep telling artists we’re not spending enough on videographers. You won’t have us waste our time developing the skill set of videography and editing when we could be making stuff.

4.    WHAT: Democratize the grant writing process. Hire a staff that crafts the language submitted to the panel or board for every applicant. If you need to offset this cost have them work on a commission basis commensurate with budget size.

WHY: It is true that an individual artist might have a project as worthy of funding as a huge non-profit. But the chances that a solo creator has a whole paid staff of grantwriters is nil. So in essence, a huge part of what you’re actually measuring in the grant process is the monetary reach of the applicant and not the actual artistic ability. This is campaign finance reform 101. If everyone has the same writer, then the projects will actually be presented in a fair and equal way.

5.   WHAT: Fund an entirely “research” based phase with no require showings or products other than to document what happened and share that with the artistic community.

WHY: This is the thing that the academic weight of science has over the arts. People believe that research for research sake is valuable WHETHER OR NOT IT BECOMES A VIABLE PRODUCT. Scientists know this. They know negative results aren’t failures. I think artists know this but they get so beaten down about it that they forget. What if we got to go and sit in on rehearsals for each other or read papers about the questions other companies are asking and the methods they use to do so? What if we had a peer to peer exchange system the way that the scientific world does? I bet we’d all be a lot artistically richer for it.

6.   WHAT: No project grants. For 5 years. Only operating support.

WHY: Seriously. You all know. I don’t even need to explain this one.

And while I’m at it:

7.     WHAT: Stop dictating how to spend the money. No required areas. No explaining if you have to shift money from one place to another.

WHY: Do you know about these folks: https://www.givedirectly.org/operating-model.html? Their aim was to benefit the extremely poor across the globe. There are lots of charities that decide how exactly poor people across the globe ought to make their lives better and allow people to give them a cow or build a school, or whatever. In most cases the funder is telling the person who could use the funds what method would be best for the person to improve the person’s life. Sound familiar? These folks thought to themselves, “Hey. Who knows better than the actual person how they could best make their life better.” In other words, they assumed that person was as intelligent and capable as they were, just in need of the funding. I think we need to start imagining a world where artists just get to use money for their art in the way that they see most efficient towards making their art. Because if we believe they are smart and capable creators, why would we assume they don’t know where the resources toward their work ought to be best used?

And lastly:

8.    WHAT: One year, forget about trying to define “excellence” and just give all the money out by random lottery.

WHY: It was a real lesson in what a little but of status can do when my recent War of the Worlds collaboration was picked up as the mayor’s selection into the Bloomberg Public Art Challenge. Comparing the way people talked about the project with my collaborators and I before and after someone decided it might be worth a million dollars showed that so much of the perception of “value” and “quality” is intensely subjective. If we could just try democratizing this for a year, we might end up with people that would never ever seem like they would deserve that money, but absolutely blow us away with what they are capable of.

I’d even propose that if we took one major funder’s pool and did this instead of what they currently do, we wouldn’t even need more money. But I bet we’d have a whole lot more actual innovation

That’s all for now…

A

Week 4: Nora and Brad

Nora Portrait

Nora Gibson trained with Sylvester Campbell at Baltimore School for the Arts, and through ballet residencies at Chautauqua and NCSA. She later graduated with a BFA from Tisch, at NYU. Nora has had the privilege of dancing for the Ellicott City Ballet Guild, PATH Dance Company, Andrew Marcus, ClancyWorks Dance, and Jeffrey Gunshol. From 2011-2013, Nora worked with Lucinda Childs and Ty Boomershine to perform Childs iconic 1970s works. Nora has performed her own work throughout Philadelphia and in NYC at various downtown venues such as P.S. 122, St. Marks Church, and DIA Center for the Arts. In 2009, she established Nora Gibson Performance Project, now re-named, Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet. Since its inception, her work has received consistent critical recognition for its unique and progressive approach to ballet. “severely focused intellectual beauty”, “laser-like vision of arc” Philadelphia Inquirer.

Brad portrait
Bradley N. Litwin is a Philadelphia based, multi-disciplined artist, born in Dayton, Ohio. Primarily self-trained, his career as an artist has taken a serpentine path through craft, manufacturing, multimedia production, music, and the fine arts. Through it all, he has been making machinery of one kind or another for over forty years.
Beginning with model-making as a child; then teaching himself guitar making as a teenager, Litwin has always asserted his destiny as an unconventional independent. Not following more traditional school and career paths, he has nonetheless excelled in various professions, relying on the merits of demonstrated skill and experience, gained through a continuing practice of self-directed, conscious observation, and synthesis.
That unique career path has included: medical product manufacturing design, museum exhibit design and fabrication, electronics manufacturing equipment design and prototyping, 3D animation, graphic design and interactive multimedia production.
Today, as a sculptor of kinetic automata, as well as a singer and guitarist, performing 1920s era, ragtime, jazz and blues; as an arts educator, working with students of every description, Litwin continues to redefine himself as an artist. His most recent projects have involved community outreach and residencies, sometimes combining both visual, musical, and literary arts, throughout the mid Atlantic and Midwest region.

Week 4: Producing “Counter-Productivity”

This week Nora Gibson, Adrienne, and I convened in Brad Litwin’s back office, amidst spare gears, cranks, drill presses, all finely blanketed with sawdust. Huddled around Brad’s desktop computer, they started throwing out phrases “strange attractors,” “chaos theory” and “quantum mechanics” as possible starting points for their week together. This unorthodox pairing between Nora, a choreographer, Brad, a kinetic sculptor, and Adrienne promised an interesting mix of contemporary ballet, science, song, theater, and kinetic sculpture.

The group opted to have minimal communication before their residency week started, so their initial conversation centered around the similarities between what Brad does with his sculptures and Nora does with dancers. For example, when Nora describes her work, she talks about using bodies as angles and curves in space. Brad’s work as a kind of choreography in Nora’s mind; Brad’s medium happens to be gears, levers, springs, and cranks, while Nora’s is bodies. Both make complex machines, arrangements of moving parts that produce an aesthetic experience.

Solo Phase by Nora Gibson Performance Project from Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet on Vimeo.

“Solo Phase,” one of Nora’s dances, demonstrates this idea nicely; it’s easy to how the intricacies of this solo dancer, overlaid with herself, come together to form something much like a machine. To Nora, bodies are moving objects in space, not dissimilar to the pieces and parts of one of Brad’s kinetic sculptures. The main difference, an added plus, is that Nora’s pieces and parts have a human-ness that only adds to their functionality.

People often anthropomorphize Brad’s sculptures even if they start from a purely conceptual place. A sculpture like the “Quadrotopult” demonstrates the miraculous adherence of the physical world to the laws of physics and gravity. [The fact that the catapulted balls always make it through the small holes in the rotating plexiglass never ceases to amaze.] Another one of Brad’s sculptures, entitled “The Sway of Public Opinion,” looks like a series of cycling figures on a never-ending track. These pieces epitomize Brad’s self-proclaimed fascination with “how easily mechanical systems can serve as both visual and literary metaphors for human social interaction and structure.” Brad’s work is not just about gears and motors, it’s about the interaction they have with metaphor.

Adrienne works in a really different way. She works with narratives, not arcs and lines or springs and gears. Adrienne usually explores an idea with the intention of creating a narrative. She presents a group of people with various source materials, and the resulting aesthetic product is the result of the group’s ability to tell stories through their unique perspectives.

Despite their differences, the three quickly started to think of ways they create rules or some kind of system that would be interesting to make a piece of art in. The conversation switched from mathematical concepts to video games and other kinds of procedurally generated art experiences.

Adrienne introduced us to Different, a heartbreaking game that communicates the difficulties and realities of being an immigrant or a minority. This minimalistic game has a strong narrative arc, but player interaction is entirely proscribed by an algorithm. From here, we took a look at “Taroko Gorge,” a procedural poem by Nick Montfort. This poem offers a never-ending series of koan-like phrases about a national park in Japan. Both Different and “Taroko Gorge” are compelling examples machines creating aesthetic experiences.

We started to move away from purely digital art and began to ask how we could create a live, sculptural machine. We started thinking about creating a logic game that, when played, might yield an interesting dance machine. Nora dreamed up a game that would teach audience members composition through the use of dancers. On Adrienne’s suggestion, we discussed the possibility of abstracting writing, like an excerpt from Italo Calvino’s On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, into a dance score through a program that would sort words into data points.

And then Brad asked, “Is my work in this? I don’t feel like I’m doing anything here.”

Brad focuses his artistry in his ability to use gears, levers, cranks, and everything else in between to make his sculptures. As I understood the situation, while the ideas in the room up to this point may have included a conceptual understanding of kinetic sculpture, his work is actually about the assembly of a machine that produces an aesthetically and conceptually pleasing experience. He wanted to find a way to use that skill in a more tangible way during the residency; perhaps making sculptures dancers would wear while dancing.

After this discussion, we took a step back and looked at our understanding of dance and Brad’s sculptures. We watched Interior Drama, by Lucinda Childs, and something clicked. The lyricism of the dancers’ movements, paired with the mathematically precise, iterative choreography hit a collective “sweet spot.”

We’d found a piece of art that spoke to everyone in some way. Circling back to Brad’s question, we realized that we could use one of Brad’s MechaniCards and find a way to make a dance and musical accompaniment to bring one of Brad’s sculptures alive.

We took a field trip to Brad’s workshop, just outside of his office. Amidst the many drill presses and table saws were MechaniCards in all states of production. After watching and listening to several beautiful cards, we found the one that spoke to everyone: “Counter-Productivity.”

From then on, the residency became a series of interconnected solo-projects. The next day, the team decided to make a video that would take an animation of the blueprint for “Counter-Productivity” and overlay it with videos of dancers dancing and a recording of Adrienne’s vocal improvisation.
Adrienne, Brad, and Nora spent time working separately. Adrienne started to record music, Brad started animating the CAD drawings, and Nora set to work translating Brad’s machine into a dance score.

So, after two days of brainstorming and laying the groundwork for the video, the team split up. Nora needed studio time with dancers, Adrienne wanted to bring in vocalists to do an improvisation with her, while Brad needed time to work on animating the blueprint for his Mechani-Card. As I was unable to witness these solo endeavors, I interviewed Brad, Adrienne, and Nora on the last day of the residency to hear more about their processes.


Brad

Brad Litwin: The video is based on […] these actual mechanical drawings that I made in preparation to produce the sculpture called “Counter Productivity.”

Actually I didn’t have a name for the card when I first made it, it was called “MechaniCard #7” and I held a contest – who ever came up with a name, if I picked it, I would send them an early edition. As soon as I heard “Counter Productivity” I was like, “Duh.” Haha, it was so perfect. It was this fellow in Grenada, Spain. He was my winner.

So, the piece incorporates several mechanisms to provide a little bit of arithmetic/puzzle/illusion where numbers are counted up and down… Actually, they are counted down, and not just counted down, they are counted down and every other time they are decremented twice. In other words, it would go 10, 9, 7, 6, 4, 3, 1. It’s a little trick, and the way that is achieved is through a mechanism that has two cycles of operation: one that takes one cycle and one that takes two cycles. The operation that takes two cycles is offset in time from the first.

Arianna Gass: Those are the purple guys on the side?

BL: Yeah, so the purple guys advance the wheels one digit every time, but if you look carefully on the outskirts of the larger wheels – see if we can see it, right there – these wheels go around only half a time for every one time the purple ones do. Every other time that the purple ones advance the wheel, the large wheels here advance the counters an extra time.

AG: Oh! Because of the little peg. Gotcha.

BL: That’s how the little trick is performed.

AG: Trick!

BL: And you can’t really see much of this mechanism because in the real model it’s covered with this plate with windows that reveal part of what’s going on. It’s kind of a shame because it’s a fascinating mechanism to look at. When they picked this as a source of dancing inspiration, that was a lot of fun because it opened up the opportunity to look at the mechanism carefully.

Basically, there are pieces that move in circular motion, there are pieces that move in straight, linear motion, there are pieces that work intermittently, and they’re all choreographed in time to produce this funny little mind trick.

So, to make it into a… I had originally made the computer model, had made all the parts in the computer in order to check what was called “clearance” – that is making sure that things don’t bump into each other when they are moving. I didn’t need to animate that to do the checking. Animating the parts was a whole different process which these guys were privy to. That was neat, doing that extra step to actually animate the parts. I used 3D Studio Max which is a professional animation tool.

And uh, what else to say about it? Well, this is a 1400 frame animation. That is, the entire cycle of the longest movement takes 1400 frames. This is based on the amount of time Nora said she wanted to see things moving. We had watched the yellow shuttle piece cross and then return in 700 frames, so in 1400 frames it does it twice.

So what I did was I rendered those 1400 frames a number of different times. About 11 different times. With different parts of the mechanism visible and the rest hidden.

AG: Cool.

BL: And then I imported each of those frame segments into Premiere, which is a video-editing software, and played with which segment would appear when partly to satisfy the exploration of what the mechanism does and how it works, and also partly for the grace of the particular motions in juxtaposition with one another. Also, it was nice to be able to show things moving without necessarily showing the effectors which control them. There was a certain whimsy about that. At a certain point you are going along you see something moving, then you see the thing revealed which moves it, and you see the thing that moves that, and then you can see how all of those parts are inter-related. In fact, by the end it’s… you get this blast where you see everything moving, then bit by bit it’s all taken away. Then you think it’s gone, but by the end the little crank thingy comes in to say, “Hi there!”

AG: It’s interesting because when you’re interacting with your sculptures the input is just this little crank guy, you and that, in the beginning when I approached you pieces I just wanted to spin the
that was the “hot” part for me. I just want to turn this little guy!

Oh it’s so funny, sometimes little kids will come up to the table where I’m showing my stuff and they’ll turn the crank and be looking all around, turning the crank itself is the satisfying thing to do.

Nora Gibson: Huh… Yeah.

AG: that’s what I wanted, I wanted to turn the thing

BL: I should just make a “Turn the Crank MechaniCard,” or a MechaniCard with seven different cranks.

AG: Woah, that’s like candy.

Adrienne Mackey: Or something you stand on and turn the crank and something happens to you!

[laughter]

NG: That’s called a sit and spin.

[laughter]

AG: It’s so funny because the crank was my tactile focus, but now that I’m looking at this, it’s that peg [on the gear]. After seeing the inside workings of the sculpture, I’m focusing on that little peg.

BL: It’s also interesting because turning the crank has a different tactile experience depending on which MechaniCard you’re using.

NG: Yeah, totally.

AG: They all feel different.

NG: There are certain ones where it will feel smooth, and then there will be a little bit of tension, smooth and tension. Others are more even.

I have to say. I feel like learned so much more about it after seeing this deconstruction. Everything’s in concert when you’re doing it, and you try to pick apart it and you’re like “Wait, what’s moving that? I don’t… But this isn’t moving now…”

BL: Yeah, it’s a little mechanical orchestra.

NG: Yeah, and it was interesting, especially when you had something moving and then a part that was static next to it. It’s like “Okay, I’ve mentally ruled that one out. That one does not have anything to do with that particular piece,” but then later you see the one that does and you’re like, “Ahh, I get it, this is connected to A, B is connected to this!”

BL: Yeah, and one of the highlights for me of this particular design is something called hypocycloidal motion which you’re seeing right there.

AG: That’s the gear there?

BL: That is the round… Yes that’s the gear with the little anchor on it and that’s showing that a circle that rotates within a second circle of twice the diameter. All points on the smaller circle’s circumference will move in a straight line. That is, if I put the circle over here and put the motion point on the periphery anywhere, it’s going to follow a straight line as the circle rotates.

AG: Huh.

BL: In this particular case, I put it at a point on the smaller circle so that it moves in a horizontal line relative to the entire card, but that’s completely arbitrary.

AG: Yeah.

NG: I do have a three part step that goes in that pattern. I wanted to reflect that pattern against the circles.

AG: Nora, did you address the crank [in your dance]?

NG: That’s the only part of the card I didn’t address. I stopped at 14 people…

AG: Hum…

AM: Arianna could be the crank!

AG: No, that’s okay.

AM: Or Brad!

NG: Yeah

BL: I’d be the crank…


Nora

Nora Gibson: We started from this mechanical drawing of one of Brad’s MechaniCards, which are hand operated… What would you call them?

Brad Litwin: Kinetic sculptures.

NG: Right, kinetic sculptures. So I went and I labeled all of the parts [of Brad’s sculpture] for reference. I have a pretty visual approach to making dances anyway, so, to me, this looked like a score. Brad’s rendering is basically things in two dimensions… It’s a depiction or representation of parts moving in space. They have their own directions, spatial relationships with other parts. This [rendering] was a perfectly good representation of people in space, moving.

So, as soon as I labeled this drawing I was like, “Oh wow, this is a dance score.”

What I did was, I took this rendering and I turned it into a score in two stages.

The first thing I made was this graph, which is just a way of looking at time. It’s a way of organizing the information from Brad’s rendering. In the rendering you see all of the parts and you see their relative spatial relationship to each other. Unless we wanted everyone dancing all together, we would have diverge, use artistic license, and step away from the drawing itself. So we were left with this question of, over time, how many of these parts did we want to show? Which parts in conjunction with others? How did we want that experience to elapse over time?

This first graph is a way of organizing that information.

AG: Did you guys collaborate on this?

NG: No I just made these decisions. The column on the left labels all of the moving parts.

AG: The parts that were chosen…

NG: Yeah. [Brad’s machine] is very symmetrical, so [my score] winds up sometimes acknowledging that symmetry and sometimes disregarding it.

AG: That makes sense because in Brad’s video animation, parts are added and subtracted to the animation over time.

NG: Exactly, yeah. In that sense, the video and the score mirror each other, but they don’t literally mirror each other. We made different choices.

AG: Right.

NG: So In my mind… This [graph] was before I invented any movement to go along with it: it was just conceptual. I just imagined these parts… I sort of thought of these parts as just dancing beings in and of themselves. I actually kind of was imagining what Brad wound up making. Which was just which parts dancing with other parts did I want to see grouped and re-grouped over time.
So this is just a dance in my mind of these parts. The X’s are when the part itself operates
and the circles are where I wanted to see the part on stage, just not moving.

AG: so I see the score is 27…

NG: Units long. So we were all playing with timing but originally we working with timing of an actual minute, so there were 30 second blocks, but now they are 30 count blocks. So it’s just 27 units of 30 counts each.

So that was the first step.

Then I did this second score, because this score allowed me to visualize [the dance] more in the space much more like what the animation turned out to look like. So spatially I could see where everyone would be.

In here I started to think more about not the individual steps, but people and pathways. So I imagined people doing walking patterns and then just followed the initial chart and drew them in. So that allows me to see people in the space and compositionally what that may look like.

AG: And the shapes of the pathways were inspired by the shapes of the parts [in Brad’s sculpture]?

NG: Exactly. For instance, J is shaped kinda of like this curving arrow, but it doesn’t literally move in that way. That shape is not the way it moves, it actually moves more like a lever. So I’m having someone dance their pathway like that shape. They make a diagonal, then they actually come back more triangularly. The pathways work off of both the mechanical motion and the actual wooden part that forms the outside of the artwork that the moving lever or gear controls.

So those are the scores.

The last step was in the studio yesterday, thinking who’s where and then starting to apply some movements to each of their pathways with some similarities and some differences so there will be some counterpoint.

AG: So each letter or part has their own movement sequence?

NG: Most of them are actually paired. So, D and E are actually the same motion. J and K are the same in motion. But there’s only one A, one B, and one C. So, some of them are solos, but most of them are symmetrical.


Adrienne

AM: So what I did first was … I sat down and I basically tried to create a vocal part for each of the gears.

So, for example, if I take the effect off of this part – it’s just a really simple, a very literal equivalent
and then I’d add a second piece.

BL: Oh, this is the one in the shop! This is still my favorite.

AM: So I was singing it in thirds, you know, and then adding some other sound on top of that. And then I added… It felt very vocal a cappella to me, which I was not so crazy about, so I added a long pan and then an echo, so you get this bouncing back and forth thing.

AG: That’s a little scary.

BL: I still think that’s the best one, even with the background noise.

[laughter]

AM: And that’s all of that. The thing that bothered me about this one was the air conditioner in the background…

AM: So I went back and I re-recorded all the parts without the background noise, and I created a much longer version where I take out each of the pieces singularly. It’s interesting for something, but I don’t think it… it has a little bit of an Enya thing that happens to it.

NG: I love the similes you come up with.

AM: What I did like… eventually it’s like two different parts with really minor adjustments back and forth of these long notes. It actually feels more like the mandala [MechaniCard], than it does for this particular piece. Then I started adding those [bouncing notes] back in. Somehow they sound darker in this version than they did in the first version, I don’t know why…

AG: They sound like… not a human sound.

AM: So, blah blah. That goes on. [Stops music.] I’ve been trying to figure this out. The parts are literally the same thing I recorded in your studio. It’s literally the same things but it feels so much heavier in this version. It sounds more intentional, in a way.

NG: I like that it sounds… You have a round sound to your voice and that, to me, contrasts with the dissonance of the melodic play. It’s a contrast between the round and the sharp.

AM: It’s funny, I like [the first one] better too. I guess it’s just the microphone…

AG: Did you share these recordings with Michael Kiley and Liz Filios when you improvised with them?

AM: Yes, some of it.

AG: What else did you “seed” them with?

AM: I showed them [a video of] Brad playing with two “Counter-Productivities,” one on its own and one in a stand. And then I had a recording of the card at half-time.

AM: We kept watching the videos… We’d do a thing, and then we’d watch the video and we’d do another thing.

We really tried to mimic the different kinds of sounds, and then, I don’t know why, but we did an improv where we really played against the mechanical nature, so we just did a series of soundy-things.

0:55

I did one that was very Rockapella…

3:38

One of the things I realized, actually, was that I have a hard time collaborating with myself. I don’t tend to do a lot of things where it’s just me on a ton of tracks. I feel like I get bored. I need things to bounce against. And Mike and Liz are really different singers rhythmically and tonally, but we sing with each other a lot so we know how to blend. Mike comes from a folk music background and Liz comes from musical theater — we’ve all studied classically, but I think I’ve spent the most time living in it.

Oh, this is our contemporary music phase…

2:14

This is us doing total mechanical/classical music. It’s like Philip Glass does all the gears, interpreted through a classical voice.

4:10

[laughter]

AM: That goes and goes. And then we did the version that I ended up using.

I think by then I’d shown them Brad’s other website. I figured, well, Brad’s a musician, so I played one of your songs, and we did a bluesy improv.

The track I ended up with is the same track overlaid in a bunch of different places. I just chopped up an improv and reassembled it.

And then the last thing I did [with Mike and Liz] was do a 10-minute improvisation, you know, just to see if it was something. Turns out, no, it’s not. It was very fun to do, but it literally goes through every style possible.

The first piece was my interpretation of how the dance might look and how the machine works, but the final piece is actually most similar to the kind of music I like to listen to and sing.


Arianna Gass is a recent graduate of Vassar College. In addition to documenting Cross Pollination, she is the Program Manager for Drexel University’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio. Her own art practice is located at the intersection of digital and embodied play, and her scholarship focuses on feminism, performance studies, and game studies. You can find more of her writing and work at www.ariannagass.com.