Talking about talking

So I’ve been thinking a lot in the hours since my last post about how to have this conversation.

I’ve been thinking about how we can best begin to discuss issues of unequal representation in a way that both is honest and straightforward and is also productive and provokes dialogue instead of defensiveness?

In other words, I want to start by talking about how we talk about this.

I find it easy to provoke and push when the target seems large and imposing. I find strength in feeling myself becoming a David in the face of a Goliath. My guess, without having been there, is that this was the awesome power of what happened at #thesummit. It was a moment where the folks on the stage, the ones with some degree of sway and power and perhaps a degree of unknowing complacency, had to take in the might of opinion and feeling of the voices sitting on the other side.

But in a business as tiny as this, in a community where community is key, when networking and positive relationships determine your ability to get a job or a grant next week, month or year, it is easy in the micro-moments of inequity to excuse the tiny things. Too often any one moment or choice or thought seems isolated or small enough to swallow.  And as the distance between we and the “giants” gets smaller, the harder it is to see them as the Goliaths they once were. Little things amass because it’s sometimes hard to know what is and isn’t a battleground.

And let’s also point out that these are really hard conversations to have.

Because so often I see an cry to battle dissolve when it has to translate into the daily implementation of such ideas on the nitty gritty detail level. Based on the conversation in our few meetings of the Awesome Lady Squad I hear female artists find the balance of when and how and where to try and bring these issues up the biggest barrier to change. “Do I really want to make this tiny line or scene or interaction a soapbox?” “Do I want to be that actress today, tomorrow, through this whole process.” “Am I really seeing this or am I being overly sensitive?”

It’s exhausting constantly trying to parsing it out in the moment.

And even if you are sure and you do know it’s an issue, it is so so so so so so so much more difficult to say things that are tricky and sticky to people we know and care about. It sucks to be a watchdog. To be a nag. To feel like you’re stopping everyone’s fun. To put people on their guard. It can feel like the opposite of the artistic impulse, where we want to feel open and accepting of each other. And I think it’s so hard because to have that conversation is also to acknowledge that the ills of our culture, the biases and darknesses that float around us all the time, also make their way into our brains. That we are sometimes making choices with little pushes from beliefs or stereotypes we’d never support if we said them out loud.

I wrote a while back about a study that showed how academic scientists displayed preferential treatment of men when filling a position for a lab manager.

In that post I explained how candidates in the study were never seen in person and scored based on identical applications save for the gendered first name of the potential employee.  I underscored that this bias was shown in both men and women assessing the candidate.  And I made a particular point of noting that none of the decision makers felt their choice had been affected by the applicant’s gender in any way. They all felt they were being totally gender objective in their assessments.

In other words, you can display bias and stigma and stereotype even when you don’t subscribe to them, EVEN when YOU are the negative recipient of them.

It is scary to think that stuff is in us. Even scarier to come to terms with the fact that it can affect our actions despite the best of our intentions. And when confronted with it, defense is natural. From the outside it seems ignorant and bigoted. But my guess is that the real cause is that no one wants to find in themselves dark things they didn’t ask to be in there. So sometimes it’s easier to believe they aren’t.

And it is here I want to point out the latent superpower we are missing: Yes, this is hard. Yes, It is tricky to talk David to David rather than David to Goliath. But.  The closer we are, the more potential impact we are likely to have. The closer we are to them, the more likely we can get people to let that guard down. The closer we are to the offending source, the more likely we are to find a safe space to excise these demons with their hosts intact. And if we can win them to our side we grow our army of soldiers. The less it looks like a war and the more it looks like a conversion, I think the faster the battle will be over. If we have to kill them all, we may still do it, but I bet we lose much more time and resource and energy.

So I think we should begin with two assumptions, even if it may seem idealistic or naïve:

1)   No one intentionally wants to make harmful choices to women artists.

2)   Everyone imbibes some level cultural crap that will predispose him or her to doing so.

So when we look at the choices of a company, or another artist (or in our own work for that matter) and we see something that makes us feel squicky, our goal should be to remind them of #1 and help them see where they might be displaying the crap of #2 (pun by the way, totally intended).

To do that I think we start by asking these questions:

Is it conscious? – i.e. Does the person or company know and realize what they’re doing? Do they identify their behavior as a problem or are they truly unaware of it and its effect?


Is it conscionably contextualized? – i.e. Have they passively presented potential problematic material/decisions or have they taken steps (even if imperfectly) to justify them through dialogue or contextualization? In other words, do they balance a guy heavy Glengarry Glen Ross with another play with mostly female cast? Do they perform a problematic cannon text in context of a conversation series about historical representation of women in history to point out the potential in conflict with the morals we have today?

How we assess the answers to these questions will help set the stage for the modes through which we express our concerns and I think also help start to identify the solutions. And in tailoring it in this way, I think we get closer to coming to real understanding of what’s at play in each specific case. Because the devils really are in these details. And if we don’t treat all offenses alike, I think we’re likelier to find specific tailored solutions, likelier to find and commit the people who are ready and wanting to change but may not yet be brave enough or know how on their own to do so.

More on this tomorrow…


PS – For some other awesome follow ups to #thesummit look to this from babelwright and this from Tamara Winters



I am bad at twitter. I don’t tweet much or well. Call me twit-illiterate. It’s also been a heinously busy couple of weeks. Which is why it’s taken me a bit of time to catch up on #thesummit.

More than a few people have passed along thoughts about this. More than a few have asked my opinion. But I wanted to wait until I felt like I’d really read enough about it to have an informed opinion before responding. If you haven’t caught up check out this for an overview. And this for the much commented on tweets in-situ. And here’s the quote from Ryan Rilette quoted from the DC Theatre Scene article:

“It’s really hard, and here’s why it’s hard.  I think it’s hard because there’s not enough in the pipeline right now.  …There are a lot of new plays that are getting produced by small theatres that are by women.” 

He went on to discuss how there are not enough plays by women produced in New York City and not enough in London (although he credited London with doing a great job), and said that a theatre needs something that’s going to help sell any play they put on.  He said one can’t choose a total unknown, and that to find three plays a season by female playwrights would require them to have name recognition or something else to draw audiences, if one is not going to go the route of using star actors. 

He said there are “not enough yet in the pipeline” and that “it’s gonna take a couple of years… a decade… before it’s going to shift, but it’s going to shift.”

A decade. Wow. I’ll be in my 40’s then.

That would be awfully… depressing to have to wait that long for more opportunities to arise. Probably depressing enough to just stop entirely. Something I see an awful lot of my female counterparts begin to contemplate around this age. It would be something I’d contemplate if I actually believed it would take that long. If I really thought my female peers had to wait around for these folks to use that whole decade’s worth of time to see some progress.

But I don’t buy this. And I also don’t feel like waiting.

Which is why what’s far more interesting to me, and what seems to have shifted this forum out of the standard and unremarkable bias women artists see and deal with all the time, is the final provocation of the night from Elissa Goetschius from Strand Theater that included a series of statistics:

  • At Signature, since the 2005 season, only 10 of 90 credited writers have been women, with women directing 2 of 54 productions.
  • Since Ford’s reopened after renovations, 2 out of 29 productions have been directed by women – the same woman.
  • At the Shakespeare Theatre, since opening the Harman in 2007, they have produced 51 shows – none of which have been written by a woman. 3 were adapted by women, and 9 were directed by women.
  • At Arena, since the 1998 season, 44% of productions have been directed by women. However, three women account for over half of those woman-directed productions, while 49 different men have directed here. The plays and lyrics that have appeared on Arena’s stages reflect the work of 110 men, but only 35 women.

When I read that and I thought, “Sounds familiar.”

I’m guessing, like myself, she’s been having this conversation for a long time. And as I went digging into her online presence I found this from March 2013.

I went back and checked my own blog for my statistics project on representation of women in Philly theaters. The dates of these posts? January 8th, 2013 AND February 7th, 2013 AND Febraury 8th, 2013.

Just about a year… Just about a year those facts have been out there. Hard numbers that do not lie about the state of the art we are in. Mine in Philly and Ms. Goetschius’ in DC.  As a former student of chemistry, I really thought when I threw my info out there it would set something off in other people. But it’s been a year now and not enough is different. I still think numbers and data are useful; they are a tool to wield. But they are not, as it turns out, enough on their own.  I admire Elissa Goetschius for going to #thesummit with numbers but I believe it is her fortitude to require their presence in the conversation that really started the firestorm.

Is it odd, do you find it strange, that within weeks of my post about gender parity in Philly theaters last year that another female director in another large America city was taking up another numerical compilation project in much the same way?

I do not think this is incidental. This means that it is clearly time to be having this conversation. I think it’s a sign we are gearing up for the real deal fight. I think it means the troops are gathering the tools we need to start taking this on. The numbers are a beginning. And now it’s time for all of us to make the response to them a necessity.

Elissa, if you happen to be reading this, I want you to know we are having this conversation in Philly too.

Like you, I am not waiting 10 years. I’ve already waited one, and not enough has changed.

So, like you, I’ve decided we’re having it now.

Which is why in honor of last March’s statistics project, I’m devoting this entire March’s blog to this issue. Every day a new article.

Every. Day. A few hours of time devoted to thoughts or actions to tackle this shit.

Cause it is shit.

Which why it stinks so badly.

You can expect more updates from The Awesome Lady Squad soon.

You can expect more thoughts about how we can critique and work with critics to change the way we frame women in theater to our audiences.

You can expect more observations about the myriad of ways we undercut women in subtle and unintentional ways.

You can expect more on what we can start doing NOW to make next year look different.

And hopefully by the end of March, by the time my 3/30 birthday rolls around, I’ll get a big fat present in the form of some actual movement and change.

I’m not giving it a year to start moving.

I’m giving it a month.

Are you ready?

I am.

– A

PS – Also worth reading is the fateful final question-er Elissa Goetschius’ thoughtful response and Brett Steven Abelman‘s as well.

52 Weeks, 52 Plays: Week 2

So first off I want you to know that I’m aware it isn’t the second week of 2014.

I have been reading a play a week. I’ve just been a little backlogged in getting thoughts about them onto (virtual) paper. And I say this mostly because I am super judge-y of folks that start grand resolutions and barely complete the opening stages. And because I assume everyone in outside world is the same as the voices in my mind, I want to appease your judgments.

Clearly, there are times it’s a dark place in my brain.


For the second week of the year 2014 I read The Play About My Dad by Boo Kellebrew. For the uninitiated, a reminder that I’m intentionally not reviewing these works (you can read about why here) but instead free associating on the theatrical elements or ideas this play proposes or makes me think on.

The Play About My Dad is indeed, as the title suggests a play about the playwright and her father. It is also about Hurricane Katrina and the way in which we think about epic disaster on both the very small and personal and very large and overwhelming scales. The piece weaves past and present by jumping between conversations between the playwright and her father, ostensibly writing the play for the audience in this moment in front of us and three other perspectives on Long Beach Mississippi, a town very close to the Gulf and massively affected by the storm. The three other stories center around Essie – a woman who raised Larry (playwright Boo’s father), Neil and Kenny – a pair of EMTs who knew the family when Boo was young, and Rena, Jay and Michael – a family who are caught literally and figuratively over their heads when they try to ride out the storm and who meet Larry (a doctor) when they arrive at a local hospital.

Unlike the play from week 1, this piece is satisfyingly messy in lots of ways and doesn’t wrap up storylines in neat packages. There are little bits scattered through the play – the rift between Essie and her daughter – in which the playwright hints at connections between these characters and the turbulent relationship between the playwright and her father. The show is clearly a metaphor, but an incomplete one, one that seems not wholly processed or understood. I liked this about the work, that like most of us, our deepest interpersonal relationships are not ones that we often have completely sorted out and that this complexity is brought into sharp focus most when we are confronted with extreme calamity.

From the moment it begins there is a meta device at play in this play, one in which the playwright’s father is supposedly speaking to the audience. We hear “Boo” (the playwright’s same name) tell her father to stop putting on his “acting” voice. Later the same character points out the theatrical devices (changing lights to indicate shifts in time) that underpin the staging.  “What a funny thing,” I thought as I read, “to draw my attention to the insincerity inherent in acting by one who is in fact acting and therefore inherently insincere themselves.” I looked up the show’s past production to note that in fact the performer was not the playwright’s father (nor did the playwright appear onstage) a fact the audience would ostensible know. It requires a fair amount of mental calculus I think to ask us to become aware to some aspects of the “falseness” while still blissfully suspending our disbelief for others.

This theater trick, one that happens a lot, falls under a category I call: The Betrayal of Fiona Shaw. A while back I saw her at BAM in Rime of The Ancient Mariner. At the start of the piece Ms. Shaw emerges from the wings in a track suit and tennis shoes. She walks out into the house and begins to talk with people one on one. Some are clearly friends she knows, others are strangers she greets and chit chats with. It was literally electric in its effect on the audience. It was one of the most amazing moments of theater I’ve seen in recent memory. She began to bring up men to the stage, one at a time, to try on a hat and strike a pose, ostensibly to take a small part in the story she was about to enact. Her simple presence, us knowing who she was and the fact that she was out among us made the entire room focus their attention like lasers on her. Small children’s arms almost pulled out of their sockets as they vied for a moment onstage. Men around me furtively chatted with their wives about whether they ought to throw themselves into the selection pool. It was fabulous.

And then. And then. And then.

And then Ms. Shaw brings up a guy with a super fake looking trench coat. He clearly has never worn such a coat in real life. She goes through the same motions but this time there’s something awfully rehearsed abut the proceedings. All of the energy and immediacy is gone. I notice he has dance shoes on. I look in the program and I can see there is a second performer in the picture of the show. And he looks exactly like this guy.  Back in the performance she pretends as if she is dissatisfied and has him sit, not back in his seat, but in the front row while she selects a few more.

This, what I can now see is a charade, enrages me. All the things that I loved about the moment before now seem fake and tainted. I feel as if I have been tricked and I want to expose the trickster for doing so. So when, as I knew would happen, she goes back to the young dancer man with the shoes and the bad coat, I am nothing but smugly disappointed that I knew the whole thing was a lie.

This is the Betrayal of Fiona Shaw.

It isn’t that theater requires me to pretend. It’s that you take advantage of that generous instinct when you expose or undercut the fantasy with such antics but then require me not to go too far. Get me to think that I might get to be a part of the stage show, then make me feel foolish for have invested the energy to believe I could be in it.

Ms. Shaw’s Betrayal made me want to point out that I know that the actor playing Larry is not actually Boo’s father, nor is Boo actually Boo. Would it be impossible to truly put that person onstage? Maybe… There is something compelling about a “non-actor” (as one sees in some characters in a Wes Anderson movie or a piece like Beasts of the Southern Wild). As a group we discussed what it would be like in a play like this to work with the actual father, discussed the trickiness of this, because unlike a movie you not only have to pull this moment out of someone but get them to do so consistently, over and over again, that this is the endurance power that a theater maker needs.  We settled on a wish for another layer for the work that says “I’m not actually the father but I’m going to act as if I am.”

What is barely indicated in the play is sound, a recurring fascination of mine, an element I think would also change this work intensely. I hear the sound of the storm as I read this play and I imagine it coming from everywhere. Again like the previous week’s play, the sense of the rhythm of this world as created by sound that surrounds the space, makes it more than a disengaged visual and binds the bodies of the viewers into the space. Unlike the previous week, the sounds of this world seems to need to be human sized and I kept hearing a chorus of voices rising and falling in layers of sound beds as the piece continued.  In this vein, I love the idea of a performance in a place that was as anti-theatrical as the instinct to put the father onstage, to expose the workings. Perhaps it is a room where we see all of the things that make the play happen, capitalize on the power of theater to transform the pedestrian into the magical. Or perhaps we are in a space where there are dark corners and things that can hide unseeable but in plain view. Either way it feels like entrances from wings and “offstage” undercuts the feeling that all of this is happening right now around and among us, that there is no escaping and that we as the audience, just as the characters are bound to ride out this experience until its end. There are no places we can escape here.

Throughout the reading of it, this work made me think about the texture of water. Its undulating, slow amassing, its pelting cold, its fetid stagnation. Water is everywhere in this play – both in the imaginations of the characters and increasingly surrounding them as the story continues – and as a stager of plays I kept thinking, “In performance what would be more powerful if that presence were real or implied?” For the pair of EMTs stuck in an ambulance marking the level as it slowly raises around them, I really really wanted to see and feel real water. And contrastingly, with the family stuck in their attack, I wanted just the opposite – water that is implied through light, through sound, a presence that is ominous and lurking, but never actually visible.

There is something delicious about water in a theater space, an element that feels simultaneously alive and inhuman, one that is so incredibly un-controllable. Its presence en masse seems almost decadent. Why else do we coo at the thought of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses in a pool? It feels like some of the purest kind of spectacle, almost cheap in its ease at satisfying our craving for theatrical effect. While discussing this play I came across a company that created a silent version of The Tempest for DC-based Synetic Theater.

Try and tell me that without the water that production looks half as interesting. In college, I created my first devised work on the Greek myth of Ceyx and Alcyone. It was one from the Zimmerman Metamorphoses actually and tiny Adrienne was so hungry to create in her own rehearsal room the lush grandeur that I saw in that production (three times, no less). In performance one of the buckets of water that we had placed onstage slipped out of the performer’s hands and covered the theater floor in an inch of standing water. The scenes that followed – one lover fighting another not to leave, a god destroying a tiny boat as its occupant’s families watched, the transformation of a sail into the giant wings of a bird – were all utterly transformed as water clung to the bodies and fabric. It was the moment I learned that as creators we must must must accept our lucky accidents. That we must be open to creative gifts that we haven’t planned. It elevated the thing I was trying to tell in a way I didn’t know I absolutely needed.


Theater always looks better with water. (Hey that’s Ben Camp in college!)

But I also wonder if that kind of clear and poetic and beautiful water is the same water of Kellebrew’s play. The kind of water in these pictures does indeed seem somewhat cruel but it is also achingly lovely. It, like a Baudelaire poem, is an image whose savagery is blunted by its beauty. And so perhaps to give us that poetic water is an easy out, a way to shield us from the real horror of such an experience. The other thing that I felt so intensely in this work is the suspense of waiting. Early on in the play, the semi-omniscient Kenny reveals that today is the day that he and Neil will die. In another space, this could be maudlin or silly, but here it truly sets the tone of anticipation. Of the sense that one’s outcome is determined and all that is left now that the wheels are in motion is to wait and wait and wait.  So I wonder if the staging, like the play, doesn’t also require us to wait for that water, to want to feel its beauty at the same time we fear its power and perhaps, as Essie is released near the end, to use that loveliness when we need it most: in the midst of our most difficult moments, when we need to create poetry out of the depths of our despair.

And I think that’s about it for this one. Week three soon to come!

– A

And if you want a little bit more info about the playwright you can get her bio from her company CTown here:

Learning vs Doing

You know that feeling when something just… bugs you?

In that way where it’s not a huge deal, not enough to really even know exactly what about it irritates, but it a fact just rubs you wrong each time you hear it?

I get those little inklings once in a while when I hear about certain artistic projects happening out in the Philly sphere. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which ones will they will be. But they are things that from first mention just make me itch. They leave a sour taste. They make my nose wrinkle. And recently I’ve tried to unpack those little pin pricks a bit to figure out what it is about them that creates that feeling.

Ok, long intro aside, I’ve been writing here long enough that hopefully you readers know that I care a lot about the art that happens here in my community. And if you read this blog you know that I am, almost always, for more work from more kinds of people. But there are just some projects that I hear about and get this negative vibe from. My guess is that anyone with a high level of skill in an area has feelings like this about certain kinds of creative endeavors.

Mine come when I hear about companies that are creating new devised or generative works for the first time. This is almost exclusively linked to full productions from companies that have not established themselves as devisors in the past. When I hear that company X that usually does this or that semi-traditional cannon work is doing a “devised” show I have this weird itch. It’s a gut feeling and it makes me turn my head to the side and squint a little.  It makes me just a bit annoyed.

I don’t get upset in the same way when I hear about companies doing killer work I wish I were doing. I don’t get that way when I hear about new up and coming companies fresh out of the box. It’s something to do with relatively established, usually working the traditional mode, folks who out of the blue decide they’re doing this thing that I do all the time.

Why is that? Is it jealousy? Competitive fear? Haughty condescension?  I don’t claim to be above any of those things. But I really don’t think that’s what it’s about.

Here’s what I do think it is: There’s learning and then there’s doing.

Learning is for us, the makers. Learning is the way in which we experience ourselves opening, vulnerable and hopefully awakened with a new methodology. It is the space in which we find room to grow. Learning is mostly a private affair because the real beneficiary is us, the learner.

Doing is the opposite. Doing is the ways in which that thing that we have learned and grown is implemented and displayed, put forward and adorned in front of an audience. It is about skill and virtuosity and execution. Doing is performance. And doing is about the viewer because we’re doing it for them.

In every artistic endeavor we are likely engaging in a bit of both. When we start out, we are doing very little doing and learning an awful lot. And the doing we do is mostly in service of the learning. In these early stages, when we do the doing for people, they know we’re just starting, it’s generally understood to view the thing through that lens.

As we grow older, as we become “professionals” there are fewer spaces for learning. We become doers, sometimes to a deadening degree. It’s understood that what an audience sees is doing without quotations. We take that caveat off our performances. And that means an audience can look at the thing with the understanding that this is mostly for them.

I am for learning. I am a believer in continuing the educational process. And In almost all of my creative works I build time set off from the making (the doing) of the play for the group to explore uncharted territory. This is usually called exploration, but it might as well be called learning. It’s the time when I give us room to grow that new growth without having to support the weight of doing it for a viewer.

In other words, when I start a new project, I make sure to find time for us to learn before we have to do.

I do that because devised work, by its nature, is a learner’s game. The piece does not exist. And in the same way a playwright needs time and space to learn about the world he’s writing, generators in a room together when they first start doing something, need way more time to learn what’s happening, what they’re going to do.

And I like the idea that people would want to engage in that process. I want more theater that is made this way. Which is why I especially like inviting in people who’ve rarely created that way to do it with me.

What I do have trouble with is when learning is sold as doing. And this, I think, is where the itchy feeling comes in. While I always include some amount of learning in a process, I know that I need less of it than I used to. Because I’ve been doing it long enough to know when I can accelerate or anticipate certain things I’ve learned about doing. And I have a pretty good guess when others can’t.

The thing that’s tricky about trying something new that is similar but not the same as something you’ve been successfully doing is remembering that the new thing is actually new. That it’s a thing you don’t know how to do as completely, that you haven’t yet learned all the ins and outs of doing.

That the ratio of learning to doing that you’ve been operating on with the thing you do know how to do is not going to be applicable for the new thing you’re learning about doing. And that means that you need to give yourself more time to be in learning mode before you start doing it in front of people. And I think the itchy feeling comes when I sense that a project hasn’t made enough room  for the learning. I know how hard devising is. I know how long it takes. I have a pretty good sense of the effort and skill needed to actually do it. Which means that I can sense when something is about to be shown as a thing “done” that is actually a thing that is still being learned.

It’s not just that I don’t want to see bad work (which I don’t). But I see bad work all the time. No, in this case the niggling feeling is tug of the mama bear. I am feeling protective of my craft. And I think generative creation really is a quite different skill than interpretive theater. Making a thing and enacting someone else’s thing are not the same. We cringe at a movie in which a basketball player mistakes sports fame for an ability to do any craft that involves performance in front of an audience. And in the same way, I sometimes worry that people don’t realize when they decide to devise that what they’re doing is a learned skill.

In the learning of my craft I have had so many opportunities to be a beginner. I had so many tiny steps along the way, small showings, little audiences, chances to build my skill incrementally. I don’t know any serious deviser that began with a full-fledged production. And I fear that those who attempt to do so will think the fault is in the medium and not in the desire to jump to the end of a series of steps in a developmental learning process. I fear people will assume that these methods new to them are not as good as the ones they’re used to without realizing that it may be because they are not as good at using them.  I fear it will sour people that might be open to learning such things away from doing them successfully in the future.

I fear that not only will creators misunderstand, but that audiences will too. That they will see under-prepared, under-qualified work and think this is doing when what they are actually seeing is pretty raw learning. And I fear that because there’s no one to explain  what they’re seeing it will do a disservice to the work on a larger level, make them ask for the same old “play plays” the company did last season.

I have been in devised work that did not get the allotted time or skill to be successful. And because such work demands that everyone be involved a lot more closely, I think it’s that much more painful when it fails. I hate hearing people talk about such disasters.  It brings me close to saying things like, “Those people shouldn’t be doing this kind of work.”

Which isn’t totally true. They can. Eventually. If they take the time to learn.

There are actors who are so effortless in their doing, so complete in their learning that it seems like magic. It’s easy to imagine an unknowing audience member who might think that they too could simply get up and do it. But we “in the know” can see the skill, the deep learning behind what they are doing. And we can be chaffed a little each time someone off-handedly intimates that they could just step into our work with the ease and élan of that same skillful performer.

If that audience member tried to just “do” that same thing, they’d learn rather quickly how much they don’t know.

And I think that’s about the most apt comparison I can make for the itchiness I feel sometimes.

I know there are companies that will try and do it all right out of the gate. And I know that they’re not doing anything maliciously, that they just can’t see the effort that it really takes.

But still. 

A part of me just wishes they wouldn’t go doing it until they’ve learned a bit more about how.


Fifteen years

I’ve been talking a lot in generalities lately. Big warm and fuzzy ideas that I think need to be guiding us as we make our way forward as creators. I think these things are important. I believe in them.

There are also times when the in your face, nitty gritty details of working in the arts hit me with a force and vehemence that is surprising and overwhelming.

Let’s get a little bit into the gritty and nitty today.

Last night I sat in the audience of a show. It was in a big high-end theater. I helped usher so I saw every single person that walked into the theater on that Thursday night. I exchanged pleasantries, I tore their ticket and I watched them walk into the theater.

I swear at least 80% of them were 65 or older. It’s probably closer to 90%.

I swear this is not hyperbole.

Of all the people I saw working at the theater that night (Literary manager, actors, crew, bartender) only one person that might be in that age bracket. All these young people working at the theater and a much older subset coming to the theater.

That’s weird, right?

Also, I did not love this play.

It was not, for the record, the actors’ fault. They were doing the job. They really were. They were doing their very best to justify some really horrifyingly inane stuff. Things that I took a lot of issue with as a feminist, as an artist, as a –

Look. I’m gonna stop there. I don’t want to rail on this performance. Because the particulars of what I didn’t like aren’t really the point.

The point is I came home fuming. I was mad at this thing. I was mad at the theater. I was sad for the actors that I saw that night, who probably got paid well for this gig, but who I doubt much like what they were saying up there. And I felt this looming thing, of the work that we make that we don’t totally agree with but we do anyway because we think it’s the stuff that audiences will like. I was upset that I feel like I see so many works that people are just slogging through for a paycheck. Work they have resigned themselves to because they don’t see any other way.

And I thought a lot how often I see so few other people that are my age in the audience around me.

Let me say right now that I am not trying to rail on people older than me. This is not an ageist argument. Because youth is not better. People who are younger than 65 are not better or worse people that those that are over 65. But they are only 12.8% of the population in the US according to the 2010 census data. So there’s no reason that they ought to be 80 or 90% of the patronage. I don’t think this is just the particular theater I happened to be at. I think this is mostly true across the non-profit theater world.

The average life expectancy in the US is currently 78 years. Which means that statistically in 15 years almost everyone in that audience I was in will be dead.

Something in theater needs to change.

Because if we don’t do something as an art form, we’re going to be dead too.

I’d like you to think for a moment about the example of Sleep No More.

I think what they’ve done with this show is a revolutionary achievement of a play. Not just because this is a massively successful experimental show. Not because it requires a ton from its audience and they can’t wait to participate. Because the night I went there were SO MANY KINDS OF PEOPLE SEEING IT.

Whether you like its particular style and form or not, and I had plenty of qualms with some aspects of it, you have to admire, support and love the idea that something so weird and avant-garde has managed to hit a chord in so people that has re-energized the desire to go to see a play, often multiple times. This thing has made it fun and exciting and cool and not just “good for you.”

Can we learn from this? Not that we should copy them, but that there is hope that such people are out there. We just need to get to them.

I think model of buying tickets and parking downtown and big lobbies and concession stands and long programs with dramaturgy notes and season subscriptions and paying a lot of money to leave a plaque on the seat is over.

I think it’s been over for a while.

I think there is an ever-shrinking base of people with more money than most that like this system just the way it is. But I don’t think they are our future.  Let me be clear: I don’t think they are bad.  And I don’t think everyone who is over 65 wants that old way of seeing theater. But I think more of them do. And I don’t think we should be making theater only for these kinds of people. Because if we do, I think we will exclude people who don’t care to take in performance this way. And if we don’t figure out how to get in those other people, soon we won’t have anyone left.

I think most of us kind of know this already. I think most of us are really afraid to admit it.

If you are a theater maker, for just this moment, be really honest with yourself: When you are in rehearsals making your art, who is the person you imagine in the audience? Are they like you? Do they think the way you do? Do they have similar interests and concerns? Do they look at the world from a similar perspective?

Is everyone in the room somewhere between 25 and 45?

Are those the same people that you see in the audience?

And are you ok with that?

Are the people you spend so much time courting, the people around whom we start to tweak and change our work for, the same people we most want in the seats? Or are they the ones that we think we are likeliest to get?

I’m not just talking about age. I’m talking about real diversity of audience. Of perspective on what performance can and should be. Of people who come to what we make from a variety of classes and income levels. People with a variety of facility in technology. People seeking different genres: action, suspense, horror, western, romance, comedy, science fiction, magic realism.

Is there a large swath of the country that simply don’t listen to music? No. Everyone listens to music. They listen to different kind of music. They take it in through different kinds of experiences. But they don’t avoid the genre of art as a whole.

We need to find a way to do the same with our performances.

We need to find a way to get more people interested in what we’re doing.

This is not an option.

This is simply a fact.


Where are you people?

The other day I was in a room with a bunch of other arts organizations. We were all there receiving money from the city but beyond that the only thing we all had in common was a Philadelphia location and some connection to the arts in some way.

A woman came up to me and introduced herself as the director of an arts education program in the northwest area of the city. We started chatting about our work. After hearing about the great things she was doing with the kids she interacts with I told her a bit about the theater work I’ve been making. She hadn’t heard of Swim Pony (not really a surprise) or the giant Festival in the fall that used to be called Live Arts (that one I found a bit more surprising) in which I would be presenting my next show The Ballad of Joe Hill. I told her a bit about the show – its music, history and spectacular location at Eastern State Penitentiary.

At the end of the conversation she said, “That sounds awesome. I totally want to see that show! How do I find out about it?”

“Uh… Well… You can… go to my website. In August. Maybe July. Or, look… for it… Live Arts, I mean, Fringe Arts, I mean, The festival… they always have a lot of marketing. You’ll see big signs and stuff on bus stops. I assume my show will have one, I think. Or get on my mailing list. And I promise I won’t send you a lot of spam. No really. And our facebook page! Please like us. And here’s my card! Take it!!”

Does this sound familiar to you?

Audiences are weird magical unicorns.

I really believe that my work is pretty great. And I think if people knew that it was out there, a lot of them would come. Every time I do a show, especially a funkier, out of a theater, more experimental thing, the people who come that ARE NOT other artists are the ones the most enthusiastic. And there is a small core of those people that come to Swim Pony shows, sometimes emailing me to see what’s up with us when it’s been a while since anything has been presented. But these folks are the rarity. (How did I even find them in the first place?)

So when I’m having trouble funding people, I don’t really think it’s the fault of the show, but of me getting that show to the people that might see it.  I think this because every week my partner and I also sit at home on Saturday and wonder where to look to find something awesome to do. And when we don’t want that to be theater, which we know about because it’s our profession, WE HAVE NO IDEA WHERE TO LOOK.

The problem, I don’t think, is that there’s no one out there making stuff that’s weird and awesome. I think the problem is we spend so much time and energy making it that we can’t think about a lot else. And the super frustrating part is that right at the moment when we need to me THE MOST inwardly focused, THE MOST inside the process and devoted only to the work is EXACTLY the time when we need to be getting the word out about the thing.

And on top of that, in this time when people are bombarded with so much information, it is so difficult to be the thing that pops out in people’s minds long enough. I don’t think it’s cost. I don’t think it’s the difficulty of leaving one’s house. I think it’s getting the information that you are an interesting experience into the viewspace of that person that might come.

Facebook invites are over, yes? We all still create them, but we’re all ignoring them when they pop up in our notification tab in the upper left corner. There was a time when responding “yes” to an invite meant that you’d actually be there, but that time is over.

Reviews are no guarantee either. In fact, some of the shows for which I’ve had the best reviews of my life, I’ve had three people in the audience. One show, the first on which I spent a significant amount of my budget on a marketing firm had AMAZING press coverage and still couldn’t get butts in seats to save our life. In fact, the only times in which I’ve really had houses that counted in terms of size were when I’ve cozied into the audiences of another marketing machine: a festival, a theater company that’s been around, an event like a first Friday that’s got a built in base.

And because so few of us self producers really know how this brave new world of devising companies making a show or two a year can really keep someone’s attention, we’re all sort of schizophrenically operating on a variety of marketing platforms at the same time. We’re all trying whatever way we can to reach someone. A lot of us become PR machines – schmoozers to the highest degree constantly handing our stuff to anyone that comes near – and some just give up and plead irrelevance. A few luck into a snowball of awareness that gives some real and consistent support.

I don’t know what else to say about this other than that it is one tough nut to crack. I don’t know where to turn and it’s something that I’m increasingly aware will make the difference in my long-term success.

How do I find you people? There are a million and a half of you in the city proper and another five mil in the surround metro areas. If I could get just one half of one percent of those folks to see my show I’d have 30,000 people as my audience.

How do I get to you and you to me?

I know you’re out there.