audience

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

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

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

Freewheeling thoughts on “Row After Row” at People’s Light and Renée Zellweger’s face

There’s this moment in the production of Jessica Dickey’s Row After Row I saw last night at People’s Light and Theatre Company that almost makes me cry.

It is a moment near-ish to the end of the play in which the character Leah, carefully and conscientiously played by Teri Lamm, tells a story of how her body is like the war that her two fellow characters, Tom and Cal, re-enact on the battlefield of Gettysburg. She tells a story about an attack on a subway train. Of being groped and choked. Of the resulting shock and surprise and disbelief leading eventually to rage and explosion in screams that erupt from instinct.

This moment of the show is so carefully thought, so well crafted, so agile in its depiction of a feeling, and this care is the reason I feel so much that I want to weep.

I have never been attacked in this way but the monologue makes me feel as if I might, through seeing it, understand just a little bit about such a terrible thing. It also articulates a feeling I know so very much about, a feeling that comes as a result of being a women who lives in a world akin to that of this character. It bespeaks an understanding of the heaviness that living in a female-gendered body sometimes carries, of all the outside signifiers and shorthand “understandings” that such a body must sometimes undo and undercut if it wishes to appear other than as this surface glimpse would offer. It bespeaks the work of such a task. It bespeaks the way in which it slowly wears down the task’s undertaker and the way that we sometimes crack at our weakest moments and places, not because the weight is so onerously heavy but because sometimes we are just simply tired of holding it up. It is a beautiful moment of art that carries the power to potentially open up the minds of the viewer to understanding just a little bit about such a terrible thing.

There is another moment in this play that also almost makes me cry.

It is a moment, near-ish this time to the start, when this same Leah is arguing with this same Cal about the propriety of women in Civil War re-enactments, about the supposed opposition of historical accuracy with a need for inclusivity. She is talking, as best as I can remember, about how she sees Cal’s anger as a symptom of a dominant status slowly dying, its indignation as a signal that such status is truly under threat. She makes some decent points and her logic clearly stings her opponent. Cal regroups and then asserts back even more harshly in his arguments. The fight escalates in raised voices and wild gesticulations to a pitch that almost makes one fearful of the outcome.

And then Leah kisses Cal.

This is the other moment that almost makes me cry and it does so because it is such a disappointment.

I cannot and do not, as a single representative of my gender, claim to speak definitively on behalf of all women, or even all feminist identified women, but I can say with great deal of certainty that it has never occurred to me when in the midst of an argument with a misogynist over issues of misogyny that it would be beneficial to make out with them as a means to win my argument.

Not even, as the character Leah asserts, to shut them up. Especially not, as she claims, because other more logic-based tactics are failing.

I see this moment onstage and I become sad.

I think, “Ugh… That’s… too bad. I was really liking this play.”

I see the actress valiantly fights her way through this action, through the moment of satisfaction the character takes in the surprised silence that follows the kiss, through the lines explaining that she did it to make him stop talking. And it’s possible that I am projecting, highly probably even, but at that moment I sense her backing off this piece of the script. To me, at least, it comes off so much less embodied than her other electrifyingly deep stage moments. And this distancing, in some measure made up of my reaction and perhaps some part the actress’s, means that even though the action of the kiss echoes later through the play, even though I understand its foreshadowing significance, I can’t help but do much more than hate the trope and the statement it makes about how this character’s intellectual beliefs are hopelessly feeble in comparison to a single sexualized act.

So it bespeaks the power of the words that follow that this early moment in the play does not end up tainting the latter one for me. It must say that on the whole this early moment is less the predominant case and more likely a blip on the judgment radar. It must be so because I walk away from the play truly wanting people to see it.

This same night I see Renée Zellweger’s apparently unrecognizable face everywhere on my Facebook feed.

And for some reason I can’t quite articulate, the play has made it such that I simply cannot stomach a million people’s discussion threads in which this human is reduced down to a question of cheekbones or botox. It magnifies the sadnesses from earlier in the night a thousand fold. It makes me want to yell that the answer to these questions are not the point, that the questions themselves are a war. That her intent in taking whatever action towards her outward appearance is beside the point. That by simply framing this conversation as one in which a famous woman is discussed as a series of pieces that should or should not have been modified, we have removed the agency from this person to be a person and in her place created a series of scrutinizable body parts that are something a bit less than human. That I do not think this is what any of these people intended but that it may still have this effect all the same.

And all this just feels sad and sad and sad and sadder because I do not think it is conscious and that is somehow saddest of all and this is what made me want to cry for a third time in a single evening.

Is it because of the earlier moment or the latter one from Row After Row that I cannot stop myself from responding to these posts?

Perhaps it is both.

Perhaps it is neither.

Perhaps it is everything that is pushing and the weight has finally found a tiny crack in me.

I think about writing something. Something long. Something thoughtful. Something that will explain why, just at this moment, this thing that is rather stupid matters to me in a way that is not stupid at all. But I have already wanted to cry thrice tonight and I do not think I have enough energy to figure out how to say it well enough. Instead I find a snarky article in which someone does it for me and post it to accounts of friends and former students to provoke a battle I am sure I do not have ample enough resources to win but which I still cannot stop myself from charging at.

In the morning, as I shower, I catalog all the ways my own past works contain such little failures. I think of the stereotypes that on reflection I must admit I too have put forward into the world. There are such plentiful numbers to choose from. And I think about how we are all such imperfect carriers of moral value, how it is such a struggle, such a desperate war, this way we wage to find and root out the darkness that we all carry.

I think about the genders of the bodies on that People’s Light stage and how even in this play about feminism and the equity of representation of voices that ever-present ratio of men to women persists like an echo of history into the present day. “2 to 1, 2 to 1, 2 to 1,” it calls to me…

I think about the idea of a war, of our own capacity to fight, and of the times in which giving up feels like such an easier choice. I think about how sometimes we look to those we think ourselves in lock step with and find ourselves wondering whether they are working in any way from the same strategy and plan.

I think of how strange it is that there are times when we all find ourselves kissing the enemy. I think about how potent such a foe is when such a thing can happen and we realize it with surprise and sadness and confusion only after the occurrence.

I think about the line from Row where Leah talks about being a kind of angel, of using her softness and love and desire for healing to kiss and pull the pain and anger out of those who fight. I think about what it would mean to be each others’ better angels, to try, as Tom says, to strive at making ourselves more perfect in our unity with each other.

I think of all these things as I open my computer and read the responses to my snarky article’s link. On my screen I see the glimmer of armor, of “Do Not Tread On Me,” and I picture this playing out in a hunkering down of camps, of defending of fortifications and attempts to keep one’s body whole and intact.

I think, this is so natural, this response, when one is on a field so wholly uneven and unsuitable for honorable struggle. When we are so far away that we cannot really see whom we fighting, when we are suddenly unsure of whether they are friend or foe.

I decide to treat them all as allies. I decide that they must all be my fellow fighters and I do my best to run towards them screaming not in rage but in concerted defense, trying to explain that I think I see something dark and trap-like ahead. That from my vantage on this field of battle I see a potential weakness in their advance. Not because they are weak but because sometimes we simply cannot see every angle of our opponent, especially when they are so dastardly. I hope they know as I run to them that I fully expect myself to be unknowingly walking toward a dark and trap-like thing some day and that I hope I too have a comrade willing to stop me before I fall. I hope they see that together our tactical awareness is stronger if we can trust and be tough enough to engage in such scrutiny.

Amazingly, they do see this.

Perhaps this is what truly composes bravery, I think.

Perhaps bravery is not simply plowing into the unknown but the ability to trust another’s sight. To take it in and contend with it. Perhaps bravery is also the ability find something troubling and not shy away from it. It is holding a person close and saying, I just want to say that this is what I see.

It is both the utterance and the listening.

– A

Audible Pictures, Visual Music: Nick Cassway and Elizabeth Huston

Nick and Liz

Cross Pollination Coffee Dates continue with a profile of two more amazing artists. Today we meet:

Nick Cassway (drawing, portraits)

Elizabeth Huston (harp, contemporary music)

One of the things I really liked about Elizabeth’s application was her questioning of how visual media can (perhaps may need to) enrich the experience of her music. I loved this statement in particular:

“My experience as merely a musical performer and producer isn’t going to cut it anymore.”

sky harp 2What better attitude towards tackling collaboration between genres than this? And it’s clear in her samples that this is already an avenue of exploration. She a musician thinking about the future of her music genre and she’s created a body of work that explores how visual performance can help a modern audience interface with a classic art form. From what she shared, it looks like most of that exploration has thus far been with other live performance genres (there are some great dance clips in particular in her sample) and it made me wonder what would happen if the visual media that her music confronted wasn’t also in motion (or at least not in an obvious way)?

Similarly, I liked the way Nick is testing the way his audience’s interface with his work. He creates his images fast – drawing multiple illustrated versions of real life photos in rapid succession and then combining them into the final product. His pieces in some cases are also not simply static two-dimensional objects, but works that change with the passage of time (as in the installation at Eastern State Penitentiary) or with perspective (as in his “Into the Woods” series). And in this way he strikes me as a visual artist perfectly primed to explore a collaborator whose output is performance-based.

He included this in his application:

“I am also interested in how one medium translates into another – what is lost and what is gained, what language about process, creation and critique are shared and what is untranslatable between mediums.”

into the woodsAnd this is almost to the letter the initial spark that caused me to create the Cross Pollination program in the first place. I had just finished a conversation with a peer artist, a modern dancer, and thought:

“Wow. Their starting point, their sense of narrative, the frames with which they view their work are SO different, even though theater and dance are so similar in most ways. What would it mean if I had to make performance for an audience in the way a visual artist does? What about if that person had to think of their ‘static’ object as moving through time and space?”

In our meeting it was quickly clear that all three of us are solid in our current artistic methodologies but really interested in the possibility for what can happen when we aren’t just stuck in our rehearsal room, studio, or practice hall. Both had previous experiences that they shared working with a person outside of our discipline – for example Nick with a performer in creating that Into the Woods series, Liz in an avid search to combine visual components like dance into her performances – and discovered a totally new kind of thing based on the collaboration.

Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:

Liz: Alive, Multi-Discipline, Engaging

Nick: Graphic, Uncomplicated, Funny

CasswayJustinLaserThis trio also seemed interested in figuring out how to make our work interesting and useful to current audiences by hooking people in with something novel – glow in the dark paint in Nick’s illustrations, a shadow play with Liz’s music, involving the audience more directly as a character in mine. That we all are intrigued by the way that we need to make sure our work isn’t just for our peers but for a lot of different people feels really ripe. We also talked about trying to really stretch ourselves past the limitations of our current ideas of collaboration. I came away really interested in getting performance (theater, music) to unseat the idea of theater as a time-based performance and think more like a visual artist – with a sense a presentation that can be interacted with in lots of ways.liz harp long

At one point we were talking about the satisfaction with trying a totally new form – me taking up the piano, Liz talking about the feeling of playing recorder for the first time and Nick saying he’s always wanted to try his hand at the banjo. Nick joked that our residency time could be employed making a “band” out of these and I said, “You joke, but what if?”

And though we all laughed at the thought, I bet if I proposed it, I bet they’d be willing to try it out.

Which I think is a really great sign.

– A

What exactly is “devising” anyway?

Hey folks, something a little different for today.

This past Sunday I gave a presentation on “devised” theater for Directors Gathering. As I sat down to prep for the evening, I realized that for so much of my career I’ve defined my work (or had it defined for me) as a series of oppositions. My work tends not to exist in a traditional space. It tends not to take a linear form. It tends not to let the audience sit back and passively observe.

As I started trying to describe this “style” of work I kept asking myself, rather than thinking about what it isn’t can I articulate was it is?

The short answer is yes, I can.

And because I was so pleased with the reply that I found in answer to that question, I thought it would be worth sharing with you.

So here it is…

A

 

Labeling

hello.label

My niece Alice loves using her grandmother’s label machine.

She likes to spell out words she knows and affix them to the things around her. “Bunny” is somehow made more concrete and real once it has an official status indicator and “Baa baa” is better for having been appropriately categorized.

This is a natural trait, this need to put things in a box, to classify them to help us sort out where they go.

But labels having been causing me agita lately.

Back in the early aughts, when I had just finished my first year of college, my Dad picked me up with the clear the purpose to foster a father daughter bonding session on the long drive from Swarthmore back to Chicago. My father excitedly told me that he had borrowed a whole stack of CDs, all musicals, from the library. It would be a chance to bond over theater, my extracurricular interest that had expanded into actual curriculum in recent months.

It was sweet, immensely so. And yet, even at the tender age of 19, I felt a little weird about the gesture. It was because even by the end of freshman year I sensed that “Theater,” at least the thing I meant when I talked about it, was not the same kind contained in the CD’s he now so excitedly proffered.

And indeed Adrienne Mackey’s brand of “Theater” would turn out to be something else entirely.

When I tell the vast majority of people what I do I usually get responses that either include reference to Shakespeare or Broadway. Once in a great while, I get someone who went to the theater often who’d mention some great American play like Streetcar or Death of a Salesman. When I try to explain what I do, I usually feel weird. I have such a hard time articulating it. I have often found myself talking about what I am not doing – “I don’t work in traditional spaces” or “I trying drop conventions of linear narrative” or “I like to use the voice in non-traditional ways” – rather than what I am. And that always feels weird to me, because I never think about my work that way when I am making it. I never think of it as a reaction against anything. I just think of it as the way that I make stuff.

Over time, it started to depress me to talk about so and so’s cousin who played Mrs. Potts in the Beauty and the Beast musical or the latest production of Hamlet that stars some famous guy. In my twenties I would get mad about this, frustrated at this “muggle” response. But after too many instances of even the most patient parental types glazing over or looking confused about how to take the thing I was talking about and reconcile it under the label “Theater,” I think I’ve realized that it’s a little unfair to ask someone not to call up any of the most obvious reference points for the word.

A lot of the time when I talk about my work now I find myself saying something like, “It’s theater, well… sort of. It’s kind of like theater. But not like you think.”

Which makes me wonder: Am I doing “Theater”?

Some days I just don’t know.

I know that I was trained in theater. I know I’ve read a lot of plays. I know a lot about the history of the art form and have lots of opinions on its contemporary practitioners. I know that I see a lot of it. I know I talk to people about it a lot.

But I really wonder if I’m actually interested in doing it as almost everyone in the world defines it. When I don’t like being in a theater building, when I’m constantly trying to get off “stages,” when I rarely want to work on plays as most people define them, when I want to shake up the audience actor relationship, when I increasingly expect people not to sit and watch but participate, when my work starts looking more like a concert or a game or a tour… is it still theater?

When I was in residence at Drexel this past winter and created a traveling performance piece with the students I had the luxury of following behind the audience and hearing them talk in live time about the show.

One kid whispered, “What’s happening? I thought this was a play but the actors are everywhere and we’re outside. What is going on?!”

Another said to a friend, “You know the first time you watch cartoon network and you don’t understand what you’re seeing and it’s really weird but you think that you like it? That’s happening now.”

This tickles me, surprising these kids with an experience they didn’t expect. Some part of me was really proud to say, “Hey! I reclaim this crazy theater word and make you rethink what it is. And because you saw this and liked it you will now include this in your definition of what a play can be!”

But another part of me feels like maybe I’m doing a disservice. If that cartoon network quote kid really likes the thing he just saw, I don’t know that he’ll necessarily like “theater” as a whole. I heard a lot of these student audience members say they don’t like theater but they did like our play. I actually hear that fairly regularly. And when I describe my work I often say that I want to make theater for people that don’t think of themselves as a traditional theater audience.

And so I’m often loathe to use the word because the people I want tend not to be “theater people” and the audiences that tend to have a tradition of going to the theater aren’t often interested in the kinds of experiences I want to offer.

Some days trying to court “theater” audiences feels like advertising a folk performance at a heavy metal concert. Both audiences technically want to hear “music” but really there’s a point of diminishing returns in trying to treat the viewers as one in the same.

And, look, I know there are some labels for the different kinds of theater out there, but they are far fewer and far far less codified. Do the words usually attached to my kind of work – fringe, experimental, devised – actually say anything of substance? I don’t think so. Certainly not if you don’t know what that kind of work already looks like.

So I’m contemplating whether or not I’m going to call what I do “theater” at all. I’m contemplating how I can be proactive in labeling better. Because I think if I want a word for what I do that isn’t 90% not a good example, I’m going to have to find one for myself.

– A