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.