Before I get started lemme just say if you’re not in the mood to read a lot and just want the details on the upcoming Awesome Lady Squad event, jump down to the bolded stuff down below…
At the end of April of last year, as civic unrest was sweeping Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I was feeling awfully heavy about the world. That sense of weight was born out of the inequity I saw in society, in the brutality of an “othered” community being discriminated against, and a sense of helplessness about what to do about it. It seemed clear to me that I could no longer sit back in my own privilege, that I needed to ask myself some hard questions and begin to find better ways to hold myself accountable for how my personal actions echoed out into larger cultural forces in the world around me.
At the same time, I was teaching a class called Voice for the Stage. The course was structured to end with students performing a monologue of their choosing in the college’s main stage theater, a place that required them to show off their newly acquired vocal prowess. During the final session of that class I watched a female student perform a monologue from the movie Lord of the Rings in which she took on and totally owned the character of Gandalf the Gray. As I watched her I felt a moment of something cracking. It was a thread that pulled on my desire to show empathy for those who were suffering unfairly. It also pulled on the frustration I felt as a teacher for the way that our society’s impoverished narrative landscape had pushed so many of my female students towards male roles as they sought to embody power and status as characters.
In the wake of that class, I wrote a post for the Swim Pony blog called A Million Female Gandalfs. That post was my attempt to make sense of a deep heaviness I felt at the time. A bit from that writing:
I have seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I have seen African-American students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson again (this time fighting wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls whose heritages are both Mexican, play Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I am sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologue there is so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.
Another quote from farther on in the piece:
I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be forced onto people while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world we live in. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who do not yet have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults to pull them out of ourselves.
Awesome Ladies and Awesome Ladies’ friends, I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks have evoked a lot of the same heaviness of feeling. I’ve been feeling a lot of the same sense of frustration about the landscape of dialogue and narrative we’ve been living in. And similarly, I don’t have a clear sense yet about what exactly it is we do about it.
But, once again, I do know that I can’t sit passively by.
I’m reconvening the Squad.
Because if there’s anything possible to be done, I know that Awesome Ladies are the ones to do it. And thanks to a generous space donation from Headlong, Swim Pony’s Awesome Lady Squad will host:
A Two-Part Awesome Brainstorming Town Hall
Monday Dec 5 from 8 – 10pm &
Saturday Dec 10 from 2 – 4pm
at Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad)
The focus of this time will be to share our feelings and responses to recent events, imagine some concrete actions that we as an intersectional Lady community might imagine being useful to the world, and come up with a plan to put our Awesome might into action.
Come to one or both armed with your ideas and your readiness. We’ll do our best to facilitate a convo that helps create a plan of attack from there.
RSVP to SwimponyPA@gmail.com if you can (though please still come if you haven’t and pass along to anyone in the creative community you think would want to take part) so we get a sense of size to watch for.
Keep on Awesome-ing and hope to see you soon.
On the dressing room mirror of the Macy’s bridal boutique at the Cherry Hill mall there is a decal that says the following:
Be the kind of SPECIAL you want to be.
If you are Adrienne Mackey such a decal will make you cry.
Now I’d like to talk about Orlando.
(deep breath and another warning shot to those who might need it)
I have followed the story of the Orlando shooting with the predictable mix of sadness and anger. I do not carry an LGBTQ+ status and in the aftermath of the events, I’ve felt a thorny mix of privilege and frustration: a feeling that has coalesced into uncertainty about what exactly to do, lo these several weeks later, for the beautiful colleagues and friends and students that I know and love who have been reminded with this event that no, they are not safe and that yes, they are under attack, and that indeed, we still live in a culture that denies them the equity they deserve.
And in my sadness and privilege and anger, I’ve wanted to come up with a plan of action because this is how I understand myself useful in the world: not in my sympathy or feelings (which should be a given), but in my doings towards different outcomes for the future. I want to come up with something that moves our culture even a tiny step away from such a thing that seems so thoroughly and obviously horrible.
Weirdly, I have also spent the last weeks planning a wedding.
It’s my wedding, if you’re wondering, one that has been in the works for about 8 years now. Or rather it’s mostly not been in the works for 8 years now. Up until a couple months ago when I told people I was engaged and they said the usual, “Oh my god! Congrats! You must be SO SO SO HAPPY!!! When’s the date?” I would usually look at the ground and tell them that it’s not that big a deal and we’ve essentially been all but legally married for a while now and please, please, please just don’t make a big fuss about it.
There are a lot of things about a wedding that freak me out, many that I am only just beginning to realize the depth of my discomfort with. I don’t like engaging in an activity that makes me feel so poor. I don’t like events that constantly put me in a place to feel super girly and hyper stereotypically feminized. I don’t like feeling that my relationship to a man (however genuinely wonderful he happens to be) is the most salient feature about me as a person.
For a long time after getting engaged, my husband to-be and I continued not setting a date and thus the wedding just kept not happening. At some point, when the length of betrothal got long enough (somewhere on the scale of three years) people started to tilt their heads and raise one eyebrow and then sort of shrug their shoulders about it with a meaningful kind of look and say, “Huh…” or “Oh… That’s interesting… What are you waiting for?”
Eventually, when the engagement got really really long (somewhere on the scale of six years) people would say the same thing and then I’d see this silent other thing pass through their faces which I always took to mean, “Well clearly you can’t really be in love and want to marry this guy if it’s taken you so damn long to get around to doing it, I mean Jesus, he’s already given you a ring, girl.”
On the Sunday when the news of the shooting broke, I had tasked myself to follow up with a myriad of emails to caterers I’d been putting off all week. It seemed about the single stupidest thing to be focusing on the midst of such a terrible tragedy but my mom and I had planned months before that she would come into town and tag along with me on a variety of wedding related events the following few days.
So this is what I did in the midst of the news about 49 innocent dead people: set up meetings to talk to people about dress fittings and pressed bamboo disposable plates and rose gold earrings that matched the shoes I’d ordered.
“You family is safe. You partner is safe,” I kept thinking as I did all this. “Do not take these blessings lightly.”
At this point, I’d like to say for the record that I love my partner. I care about him deeply. He is unequivocally one of the most important people in my life. But on the same token, taking part in the stereotypical “head over heels” goo-goo ga-ga romance narrative one sees in dumb rom com movies has always made me feel uncomfortable.
The most extreme and cliché stories about romantic love – one in which a person happily, eagerly, gives up their individuality and throws themself into being part of an eternally linked soulmate-style couple – uniformly upset me. Women who take their husband’s names freak me out. Wearing a veil and dressing in the symbolism of white, walking down an aisle and being “given away” from one man to another, standing in front of people all dolled up like the star of some wedding play I’ve dreamed about my entire life, all these things feel like they cut hard against aspects of my self-definition that I’ve worked quite hard to cultivate in my life.
There are plenty of people that take these traditions and re-appropriate them in ways that make them happy, and for those folks, power to ‘em. For me, such rituals are things that feel disempowering and trigger-y. They make me feel like an archetype, like a generic thing I don’t identify with. They make me feel like an imperfect version of “bride” rather than the actual person I am.
And at this point, let me say that I’m going to try not to “wedding” all over Orlando. One is a huge and massive tragedy and the other is a small and totally self-oriented event. One is so so so big and the other so so so small.
At the same time, I bring up my personal struggle over my wedding because I see it as an example of the sensation that arises when one’s personal sense of self is in conflict with a larger cultural story. Surprisingly intense feelings of helplessness have sprung from moments in which I feel myself wholly out of sync with the way that I sense this wedding story is supposed to be told.
It feels like there is this way, a way that we all can sort of intuitively feel, that such a thing is supposed to be done. And yeah, sure, one can unseat and come up with an alternate solution to every single one of the defaults. It is indeed possible to ask to please not be shown a white dress, or quietly undercut people’s assumptions that you believe that this is the most magical day of your life, or say that no you really won’t need to set up the dining area like a 12 year-old’s idea of a royal palace. You can politely negate the assumption that someone will give you away like a set of family dishes or awkwardly explain that you have to check with your partner about the rental agreement not because he’s in charge of paying for shit but because he actually and seriously cares about the aesthetics of table linens, maybe more than you do if we’re honest, and he’s the one whose done most of the research on decorative place settings.
One can do all these things but eventually it just gets tiring explaining that all the things people assume about you are wrong. It’s tiring even when they aren’t mean about it. It’s tiring because you have to keep doing it over and over and over. It starts to feel like you’re being a pain in the ass when you just wish someone would shut up about telling you that you’re going to look so pretty. It’s even more tiring to try and explain that it’s not even that you hate looking pretty, you just wish pretty was maybe 2% instead of 99% of the data coming at you.
You can do these things but – for me anyway – it mostly feels like you’re some kind of cranky and difficult person that hates the things that everybody else blissfully and easily loves doing. Like you’re some kind of problem that needs to be solved.
Here’s a thing I kept thinking about in my cranky difficultness and privileged sadness of wedding planning in the wake of Orlando: I don’t think people go from zero to massacre. I don’t think people are born murderous.
I think they accrue tiny morsels of discomfort within themselves, discomforts about things in themselves they do not like and discomforts about the people around them they do not know well enough. I think these discomforts can slowly aggregate into a kind of soil into which hate can be seeded. And I think that once in a while such seeds find a particular climate and soil that grows into the kind of rage that makes an Orlando.
Tangent: once when I was in high school, a close family member told me that the idea of two men dating each other made him uncomfortable.
As I remember it, admittedly now nearly two decades later, we were out to dinner when the topic came up. I was performing in a musical at the time and mentioned offhandedly that the lead role of the play had been double cast – two young men splitting a role and performing it on alternate nights.
“You know what’s funny,” I said. “I think they’re also together. Both pretending onstage to like the girl playing the lead while offstage they’re dating each other. At least, that’s the rumor.”
“Can I admit something?” my family member said. “The idea of two men holding hands, kissing, anything romantic… It weirds me out. I mean, I know that’s wrong. I would never do anything because of it… but if I’m honest, that’s how I feel.”
I remember a very particular state of dissonance that my relative kept articulating: that logically they understood it was not good to feel grossed out by a man holding hands with another man they care about, but that this “ick” factor was an instinct, one born out of the environment in which they were raised.
I think there are stories that as a culture are collectively comfortable with and I think there are those that we are not. I think some stories cause this discomfort simply because we haven’t encountered them enough. Like the first taste of coffee or red wine, they are foreign and untested to the aesthetic palate and as such give our senses a shock. But such discomfort doesn’t appear because they are bad stories. It is simply that our brains and guts have not yet figured out what to do with them in their newness. As we grow, hopefully, we learn to widen our circle of comfort and not only tolerate but appreciate the ways in which such things make our lives richer than we have previously known the world to be.
But what if we don’t? What if we spit out otherness and confine ourselves to only a small number of definitions about what stories are good stories to hear? What if we continue to needlessly limit our ability to acclimate to such diversity of narrative? What happens when we confront people who do not, cannot, and should not need to fit their tales into the limited palate we have created?
And as I wrote in regards to another mass shooting, I have been wondering in the wake of Orlando if this kind of rage might not stem in part from a kind of poverty in our narrative landscape. I wonder what would happen if we lived in a world in which we had swaths of stories about lives that looked like the ones in all those tragic articles I have been reading: ones about people living as theme park ride operators and travel agents and restaurant managers and community college students while simultaneously being gay.
What do we do with people who elicit discomfort in us because our experience is not yet adequate to the depth and fullness of this complicated world?
What we should do is figure out how to hold our discomfort in our mouths and taste it for richness. What we should do is sit with that discomfort and wrap ourselves in it so that we might get to know it. What we should do is mine our own patterns of defense so we might notice when that discomfort is everything to do with we the havers of dissonance and unquestionably not to do with those that provoke it within us.
But this is hard to do when we live in a culture that gives some of us the leeway not to bother.
It is hard when some of us are never required to imagine ourselves holding the dissonance of difference, when some of us never have to bother to strengthen the muscles of such holding.
What if we had, say, a whole three mainstream sitcoms or rom coms or heady dramas in which the central romance between main characters we narratively invest in wasn’t a straight couple? And not because they are doomed or tragic but because we like watching such a couple fall in love? What if we had a lead character that was trans and their trans-ness wasn’t the point of the story?
Is it possible that if we decided something like those things were important that the inherent discomfort of such things might be something we all had to practice getting comfortable with earlier and more often?
This is what I was thinking about as I tried to be the kind of SPECIAL that I wanted to be.
And so it was that Orlando plus one final stink eye from the saleswoman communicating nonverbally that I was being the bizarre kind of woman who seems not to want to be beautiful and happy and celebrate my love in a white dress made me start to cry in the Cherry Hill Macy’s bridal salon dressing room.
Just before it happened I said I didn’t want to wear white. The woman replied, “Ah ok… So a color more like… Champagne? Or Eggshell?”
And as I walked into that dressing room with a dark blue dress she begrudgingly handed me I was so fucking mad at that stupid woman and her shitty pen with a giant fake flower taped to it for being able to make me feel small and dumb and unlike the person I generally believe myself to be. I was so fucking mad she had elicited this feeling over something as insignificant as a color choice. I was so fucking mad at myself for feeling sorry for myself three days after a crazy person shot 49 people for no reason other than just being who they are.
I looked at that word “SPECIAL” hovering on the mirror and I just started bawling. I stood there weeping over feeling so tired at having to re-write the script of my wedding story in all these tiny but slowly accumulating ways. It was a moment of actually letting myself feel the freaking work of subverting all the defaults of this one dumb ceremony that I voluntarily bought into. It was, to paraphrase Ann Patchett, the realization that I was reading one slender volume of such hardship while others I cared about had catalogued an entire library. It was me feeling so goddamn angry at the stupid vinyl decal that lyingly promised to hold people in their specialness in their moments of major personal catharsis and growth.
I see the story written on that Macy’s mirror in this way: the world would appreciate it if you, the dissonance provokers, could just be a little less weird, that it would be great if you could just make things a little less hard for those of us that aren’t used to your desire for otherness, that if you could just default into a story that’s not quite so umm… odd it would be easier, and if you could just do things in this way that’s a little less stereotypically gender-non-conforming this story would just be so much better and satisfying, so yeah, if you can just be a slightly different kind of person than the one you are and act a little more normal so that you’re recognizable as something I am used to seeing, if you could do all that it would be so so so SO great!
I mean, you don’t have to be exactly the same – be the kind of SPECIAL you want to be! – but a little decorum would be appreciated.
Here’s what I figured out about what I think we can start to actively do.
I think we find the moments in which we feel a dissonance within ourselves and note that we could give over to the ease of weakness, that there are times when we can sense in the back of our minds and hearts that what the “other” is asking of us is to imagine our usual stories in a way slightly out of our “normal” conceptions and that it would be easier for us to do what feels comfortable.
And then we actively work to make the opposite choice.
I think we intentionally work to put ourselves into such places where we must hold discomforts. Not the discomforts that we have already acclimated to. Not the red wines and coffees we have already learned to love. No, we put ourselves in places where these dissonances make us itch, where they make us feel weird and maybe stupid, like we can’t instinctually sense what’s “normal.”
We put that discomfort in our mouths and chew on it until we’ve acclimated to the taste.
This cannot happen if we fill our theaters’ seasons with love stories only between women and men.
This cannot happen if we never allow those who look unlike us to design, act and direct for our companies.
This cannot happen if we only cast minorities as sidekicks to the central journeys of straight white cis male characters.
I think we need to look at our choices and say, “Hey, it feels a little weird to let this person do this thing that I am not used to someone like them doing. It feels like maybe I’m taking something from this white/straight/dude/cis/whatever person who I know is super talented and with whom I am used to working. It feels like it’s a little out of my comfort and knowledge zone. But I’m going to trust that the dissonance I feel is the thing that eventually gives me a wider understanding. That discomfort is an opportunity to take my own internalized and problematic instincts and make them mine to hold.”
I think this is what we do so we starve those fertile climates of hate of the seeds that grow rage.
I think this is what we do to truly let people be the kind of SPECIAL they want to be.
I think this is what we do to help stop an Orlando.
So for now, it’s what I plan to do.
I do not want to get angry.
I’ve seen it happen before to those that work in this field. I watch the mentors of my early 20’s and notice that while they execute their work with skill and depth they increasingly carry around this place of anger.
Some days, when I feel tired and when it seems like it is such an absurd thing I am doing I start to get angry too. I can feel it rising from below and make its way up and through me. The anger comes in tiny commented sarcasms or critiques of the work of others. It is a critical voice, one that knows so much and in all that knowledge requires ever increasingly exacting standards. It looks at the works of my past, works that I loved when I made them, and only sees the flaws.
I wonder some days if this is inevitable, if the skill we possess is always just a bit behind what we are able to critique and examine. I think about how hard, how very hard, it is to make something and how easy, how incredibly easy, it is to dismiss or undercut or find fault. I think about the work it takes to shield ourselves from all those critical voices in our professional field. I wonder about the use of such voices in the pursuit of making something new.
My own mind counters with a thought: But without those critical voices how do we get better? If no one tells us what we’re doing wrong how do we refine and strive for more?
I think about this thought that my mind has offered me. I look at it like an object on a shelf and in response I think, “But who decides what’s ‘wrong?’ And what exactly is it I’m getting better at?”
I put this second thought on the shelf next to the first and stare at them side by side.
My earliest theatrical experiences were in “community” theater. As a shy teenager plays gave me a structured system to experience lives beyond my own and to examine a theme or idea not just by thinking about it but by physically embodying it day after day. Theater was the way I practiced a kind of empathic weightlifting. The stretch of pretending to be other people made me learn more about myself. I know it made me a braver and more compassionate person.
My friends and I did want to make something “good.” There was a sense of striving in these projects. We hoped our work would be seen as “well done.” But I can look back at those plays and see, of course, that in almost any objective sense of professional theater excellence they were silly and small. Back then there was so much farther to go.
This is not to say that I want to make sloppy things. I like rigor. But I wonder if hard work is different than polished work. For though I know I will not likely find again the love I once had for Godspell or The Music Man, I do think it is useful to remember what is beautiful about such “community” theater. It allows us a system to join. It brings us together in shared purpose. It is a vehicle for vulnerability in our early learning before we have mastered something.
Most of the theater makers I know did not begin by aiming for “professional.” They began from community. They found love in a space of sharing.
So I wonder about a collective industry adoption of virtuosity and excellence as a sign of our professional status. I wonder if excellence, while understandably desirable, may lead us away from the thing that actually feeds us in being artists. I wonder if virtuosity of craft might slowly build up armor around our bodies and keep us impervious to the vulnerability that keeps us growing and open.
I wonder about other yardsticks with which to measure success:
I know some part of me fears that these seem too genuine, too fuzzy, too amateur. I worry that without Excellence I will be laughed at or pitied.
But I also wonder if maybe this is the feeling of that vulnerability I seem to have lost. And I know for sure that the pursuit of Excellence seems to keep making me angry. So perhaps it’s time to try something new.
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 Lurks… Dale 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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…
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 email@example.com
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?
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…