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An Open Letter to my Awesome Ladies and my Awesome Lady Allies

Before I get started lemme just say if you’re not in the mood to read a lot and just want the details on the upcoming Awesome Lady Squad event, jump down to the bolded stuff down below…


At the end of April of last year, as civic unrest was sweeping Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I was feeling awfully heavy about the world. That sense of weight was born out of the inequity I saw in society, in the brutality of an “othered” community being discriminated against, and a sense of helplessness about what to do about it. It seemed clear to me that I could no longer sit back in my own privilege, that I needed to ask myself some hard questions and begin to find better ways to hold myself accountable for how my personal actions echoed out into larger cultural forces in the world around me.

At the same time, I was teaching a class called Voice for the Stage. The course was structured to end with students performing a monologue of their choosing in the college’s main stage theater, a place that required them to show off their newly acquired vocal prowess. During the final session of that class I watched a female student perform a monologue from the movie Lord of the Rings in which she took on and totally owned the character of Gandalf the Gray. As I watched her I felt a moment of something cracking. It was a thread that pulled on my desire to show empathy for those who were suffering unfairly. It also pulled on the frustration I felt as a teacher for the way that our society’s impoverished narrative landscape had pushed so many of my female students towards male roles as they sought to embody power and status as characters.

In the wake of that class, I wrote a post for the Swim Pony blog called A Million Female Gandalfs. That post was my attempt to make sense of a deep heaviness I felt at the time. A bit from that writing:

I have seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I have seen African-American students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson again (this time fighting wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls whose heritages are both Mexican, play Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I am sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologue there is so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

Another quote from farther on in the piece:

I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be forced onto people while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world we live in. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who do not yet have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults to pull them out of ourselves.

Awesome Ladies and Awesome Ladies’ friends, I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks have evoked a lot of the same heaviness of feeling. I’ve been feeling a lot of the same sense of frustration about the landscape of dialogue and narrative we’ve been living in. And similarly, I don’t have a clear sense yet about what exactly it is we do about it.

But, once again, I do know that I can’t sit passively by.

And so.

I’m reconvening the Squad.

Because if there’s anything possible to be done, I know that Awesome Ladies are the ones to do it. And thanks to a generous space donation from Headlong, Swim Pony’s Awesome Lady Squad will host:

A Two-Part Awesome Brainstorming Town Hall

Monday Dec 5 from 8 – 10pm &

Saturday Dec 10 from 2 – 4pm

at Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad)

The focus of this time will be to share our feelings and responses to recent events, imagine some concrete actions that we as an intersectional Lady community might imagine being useful to the world, and come up with a plan to put our Awesome might into action.

Come to one or both armed with your ideas and your readiness. We’ll do our best to facilitate a convo that helps create a plan of attack from there.

RSVP to SwimponyPA@gmail.com if you can (though please still come if you haven’t and pass along to anyone in the creative community you think would want to take part) so we get a sense of size to watch for.

Keep on Awesome-ing and hope to see you soon.

– Adrienne

Orlando

True fact.

On the dressing room mirror of the Macy’s bridal boutique at the Cherry Hill mall there is a decal that says the following:

Be the kind of SPECIAL you want to be.

If you are Adrienne Mackey such a decal will make you cry.

macys_sip_scan_email_left_image

Now I’d like to talk about Orlando.

(deep breath and another warning shot to those who might need it)

I have followed the story of the Orlando shooting with the predictable mix of sadness and anger. I do not carry an LGBTQ+ status and in the aftermath of the events, I’ve felt a thorny mix of privilege and frustration: a feeling that has coalesced into uncertainty about what exactly to do, lo these several weeks later, for the beautiful colleagues and friends and students that I know and love who have been reminded with this event that no, they are not safe and that yes, they are under attack, and that indeed, we still live in a culture that denies them the equity they deserve.

And in my sadness and privilege and anger, I’ve wanted to come up with a plan of action because this is how I understand myself useful in the world: not in my sympathy or feelings (which should be a given), but in my doings towards different outcomes for the future. I want to come up with something that moves our culture even a tiny step away from such a thing that seems so thoroughly and obviously horrible.

Weirdly, I have also spent the last weeks planning a wedding.

It’s my wedding, if you’re wondering, one that has been in the works for about 8 years now. Or rather it’s mostly not been in the works for 8 years now. Up until a couple months ago when I told people I was engaged and they said the usual, “Oh my god! Congrats! You must be SO SO SO HAPPY!!! When’s the date?” I would usually look at the ground and tell them that it’s not that big a deal and we’ve essentially been all but legally married for a while now and please, please, please just don’t make a big fuss about it.

There are a lot of things about a wedding that freak me out, many that I am only just beginning to realize the depth of my discomfort with. I don’t like engaging in an activity that makes me feel so poor. I don’t like events that constantly put me in a place to feel super girly and hyper stereotypically feminized. I don’t like feeling that my relationship to a man (however genuinely wonderful he happens to be) is the most salient feature about me as a person.

For a long time after getting engaged, my husband to-be and I continued not setting a date and thus the wedding just kept not happening. At some point, when the length of betrothal got long enough (somewhere on the scale of three years) people started to tilt their heads and raise one eyebrow and then sort of shrug their shoulders about it with a meaningful kind of look and say, “Huh…” or “Oh… That’s interesting… What are you waiting for?”

Eventually, when the engagement got really really long (somewhere on the scale of six years) people would say the same thing and then I’d see this silent other thing pass through their faces which I always took to mean, “Well clearly you can’t really be in love and want to marry this guy if it’s taken you so damn long to get around to doing it, I mean Jesus, he’s already given you a ring, girl.”

On the Sunday when the news of the shooting broke, I had tasked myself to follow up with a myriad of emails to caterers I’d been putting off all week. It seemed about the single stupidest thing to be focusing on the midst of such a terrible tragedy but my mom and I had planned months before that she would come into town and tag along with me on a variety of wedding related events the following few days.

So this is what I did in the midst of the news about 49 innocent dead people: set up meetings to talk to people about dress fittings and pressed bamboo disposable plates and rose gold earrings that matched the shoes I’d ordered.

“You family is safe. You partner is safe,” I kept thinking as I did all this. “Do not take these blessings lightly.”

At this point, I’d like to say for the record that I love my partner. I care about him deeply. He is unequivocally one of the most important people in my life. But on the same token, taking part in the stereotypical “head over heels” goo-goo ga-ga romance narrative one sees in dumb rom com movies has always made me feel uncomfortable.

The most extreme and cliché stories about romantic love – one in which a person happily, eagerly, gives up their individuality and throws themself into being part of an eternally linked soulmate-style couple – uniformly upset me. Women who take their husband’s names freak me out. Wearing a veil and dressing in the symbolism of white, walking down an aisle and being “given away” from one man to another, standing in front of people all dolled up like the star of some wedding play I’ve dreamed about my entire life, all these things feel like they cut hard against aspects of my self-definition that I’ve worked quite hard to cultivate in my life.

There are plenty of people that take these traditions and re-appropriate them in ways that make them happy, and for those folks, power to ‘em. For me, such rituals are things that feel disempowering and trigger-y. They make me feel like an archetype, like a generic thing I don’t identify with. They make me feel like an imperfect version of “bride” rather than the actual person I am.

And at this point, let me say that I’m going to try not to “wedding” all over Orlando. One is a huge and massive tragedy and the other is a small and totally self-oriented event. One is so so so big and the other so so so small.

At the same time, I bring up my personal struggle over my wedding because I see it as an example of the sensation that arises when one’s personal sense of self is in conflict with a larger cultural story. Surprisingly intense feelings of helplessness have sprung from moments in which I feel myself wholly out of sync with the way that I sense this wedding story is supposed to be told.

It feels like there is this way, a way that we all can sort of intuitively feel, that such a thing is supposed to be done. And yeah, sure, one can unseat and come up with an alternate solution to every single one of the defaults. It is indeed possible to ask to please not be shown a white dress, or quietly undercut people’s assumptions that you believe that this is the most magical day of your life, or say that no you really won’t need to set up the dining area like a 12 year-old’s idea of a royal palace. You can politely negate the assumption that someone will give you away like a set of family dishes or awkwardly explain that you have to check with your partner about the rental agreement not because he’s in charge of paying for shit but because he actually and seriously cares about the aesthetics of table linens, maybe more than you do if we’re honest, and he’s the one whose done most of the research on decorative place settings.

One can do all these things but eventually it just gets tiring explaining that all the things people assume about you are wrong. It’s tiring even when they aren’t mean about it. It’s tiring because you have to keep doing it over and over and over. It starts to feel like you’re being a pain in the ass when you just wish someone would shut up about telling you that you’re going to look so pretty. It’s even more tiring to try and explain that it’s not even that you hate looking pretty, you just wish pretty was maybe 2% instead of 99% of the data coming at you.

You can do these things but – for me anyway – it mostly feels like you’re some kind of cranky and difficult person that hates the things that everybody else blissfully and easily loves doing. Like you’re some kind of problem that needs to be solved.

Here’s a thing I kept thinking about in my cranky difficultness and privileged sadness of wedding planning in the wake of Orlando: I don’t think people go from zero to massacre. I don’t think people are born murderous.

I think they accrue tiny morsels of discomfort within themselves, discomforts about things in themselves they do not like and discomforts about the people around them they do not know well enough. I think these discomforts can slowly aggregate into a kind of soil into which hate can be seeded. And I think that once in a while such seeds find a particular climate and soil that grows into the kind of rage that makes an Orlando.

Tangent: once when I was in high school, a close family member told me that the idea of two men dating each other made him uncomfortable.

As I remember it, admittedly now nearly two decades later, we were out to dinner when the topic came up. I was performing in a musical at the time and mentioned offhandedly that the lead role of the play had been double cast – two young men splitting a role and performing it on alternate nights.

“You know what’s funny,” I said. “I think they’re also together. Both pretending onstage to like the girl playing the lead while offstage they’re dating each other. At least, that’s the rumor.”

“Can I admit something?” my family member said. “The idea of two men holding hands, kissing, anything romantic… It weirds me out. I mean, I know that’s wrong. I would never do anything because of it… but if I’m honest, that’s how I feel.”

I remember a very particular state of dissonance that my relative kept articulating: that logically they understood it was not good to feel grossed out by a man holding hands with another man they care about, but that this “ick” factor was an instinct, one born out of the environment in which they were raised.

I think there are stories that as a culture are collectively comfortable with and I think there are those that we are not. I think some stories cause this discomfort simply because we haven’t encountered them enough. Like the first taste of coffee or red wine, they are foreign and untested to the aesthetic palate and as such give our senses a shock. But such discomfort doesn’t appear because they are bad stories. It is simply that our brains and guts have not yet figured out what to do with them in their newness. As we grow, hopefully, we learn to widen our circle of comfort and not only tolerate but appreciate the ways in which such things make our lives richer than we have previously known the world to be.

But what if we don’t? What if we spit out otherness and confine ourselves to only a small number of definitions about what stories are good stories to hear? What if we continue to needlessly limit our ability to acclimate to such diversity of narrative? What happens when we confront people who do not, cannot, and should not need to fit their tales into the limited palate we have created?

And as I wrote in regards to another mass shooting, I have been wondering in the wake of Orlando if this kind of rage might not stem in part from a kind of poverty in our narrative landscape. I wonder what would happen if we lived in a world in which we had swaths of stories about lives that looked like the ones in all those tragic articles I have been reading: ones about people living as theme park ride operators and travel agents and restaurant managers and community college students while simultaneously being gay.

What do we do with people who elicit discomfort in us because our experience is not yet adequate to the depth and fullness of this complicated world?

What we should do is figure out how to hold our discomfort in our mouths and taste it for richness. What we should do is sit with that discomfort and wrap ourselves in it so that we might get to know it. What we should do is mine our own patterns of defense so we might notice when that discomfort is everything to do with we the havers of dissonance and unquestionably not to do with those that provoke it within us.

But this is hard to do when we live in a culture that gives some of us the leeway not to bother.

It is hard when some of us are never required to imagine ourselves holding the dissonance of difference, when some of us never have to bother to strengthen the muscles of such holding.

What if we had, say, a whole three mainstream sitcoms or rom coms or heady dramas in which the central romance between main characters we narratively invest in wasn’t a straight couple? And not because they are doomed or tragic but because we like watching such a couple fall in love? What if we had a lead character that was trans and their trans-ness wasn’t the point of the story?

Is it possible that if we decided something like those things were important that the inherent discomfort of such things might be something we all had to practice getting comfortable with earlier and more often?

This is what I was thinking about as I tried to be the kind of SPECIAL that I wanted to be.

And so it was that Orlando plus one final stink eye from the saleswoman communicating nonverbally that I was being the bizarre kind of woman who seems not to want to be beautiful and happy and celebrate my love in a white dress made me start to cry in the Cherry Hill Macy’s bridal salon dressing room.

Just before it happened I said I didn’t want to wear white. The woman replied, “Ah ok… So a color more like… Champagne? Or Eggshell?”

And as I walked into that dressing room with a dark blue dress she begrudgingly handed me I was so fucking mad at that stupid woman and her shitty pen with a giant fake flower taped to it for being able to make me feel small and dumb and unlike the person I generally believe myself to be. I was so fucking mad she had elicited this feeling over something as insignificant as a color choice. I was so fucking mad at myself for feeling sorry for myself three days after a crazy person shot 49 people for no reason other than just being who they are.

I looked at that word “SPECIAL” hovering on the mirror and I just started bawling. I stood there weeping over feeling so tired at having to re-write the script of my wedding story in all these tiny but slowly accumulating ways. It was a moment of actually letting myself feel the freaking work of subverting all the defaults of this one dumb ceremony that I voluntarily bought into. It was, to paraphrase Ann Patchett, the realization that I was reading one slender volume of such hardship while others I cared about had catalogued an entire library. It was me feeling so goddamn angry at the stupid vinyl decal that lyingly promised to hold people in their specialness in their moments of major personal catharsis and growth.

I see the story written on that Macy’s mirror in this way: the world would appreciate it if you, the dissonance provokers, could just be a little less weird, that it would be great if you could just make things a little less hard for those of us that aren’t used to your desire for otherness, that if you could just default into a story that’s not quite so umm… odd it would be easier, and if you could just do things in this way that’s a little less stereotypically gender-non-conforming this story would just be so much better and satisfying, so yeah, if you can just be a slightly different kind of person than the one you are and act a little more normal so that you’re recognizable as something I am used to seeing, if you could do all that it would be so so so SO great!

I mean, you don’t have to be exactly the same – be the kind of SPECIAL you want to be! – but a little decorum would be appreciated.

So.

(deep breath)

Here’s what I figured out about what I think we can start to actively do.

I think we find the moments in which we feel a dissonance within ourselves and note that we could give over to the ease of weakness, that there are times when we can sense in the back of our minds and hearts that what the “other” is asking of us is to imagine our usual stories in a way slightly out of our “normal” conceptions and that it would be easier for us to do what feels comfortable.

And then we actively work to make the opposite choice.

I think we intentionally work to put ourselves into such places where we must hold discomforts. Not the discomforts that we have already acclimated to. Not the red wines and coffees we have already learned to love. No, we put ourselves in places where these dissonances make us itch, where they make us feel weird and maybe stupid, like we can’t instinctually sense what’s “normal.”

We put that discomfort in our mouths and chew on it until we’ve acclimated to the taste.

This cannot happen if we fill our theaters’ seasons with love stories only between women and men.

This cannot happen if we never allow those who look unlike us to design, act and direct for our companies.

This cannot happen if we only cast minorities as sidekicks to the central journeys of straight white cis male characters.

I think we need to look at our choices and say, “Hey, it feels a little weird to let this person do this thing that I am not used to someone like them doing. It feels like maybe I’m taking something from this white/straight/dude/cis/whatever person who I know is super talented and with whom I am used to working. It feels like it’s a little out of my comfort and knowledge zone. But I’m going to trust that the dissonance I feel is the thing that eventually gives me a wider understanding. That discomfort is an opportunity to take my own internalized and problematic instincts and make them mine to hold.”

I think this is what we do so we starve those fertile climates of hate of the seeds that grow rage.

I think this is what we do to truly let people be the kind of SPECIAL they want to be.

I think this is what we do to help stop an Orlando.

So for now, it’s what I plan to do.

– A

 

This is the Cost

I see a lot of theater.

If you know me well, you know that this is a thing that too often makes me grumpy. There are a lot of reasons this is so, but in a conversation with a friend the other day I lamented that the biggest reason I needed a break from theater was because lately everything has started to blend together. I know that what I see are different productions and I know that the people making them have worked very hard and I do not want to denigrate that effort. But at some point, good lord, they all start to feel like the same story told in the same way by the same people.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing An Octoroon at The Wilma and for once I didn’t have that feeling.

ocotoroon

There are lots of things I could say about the craft of the production. I could talk about the smart script or the direction that allows a clarity and precision but doesn’t over explain. I could talk about the pleasure of watching ILL DOOTS in their jangly musical splendor as people in the audience sank into their rhythmic loop. I could talk about leaning over to my fellow viewer after watching Jaylene Clark Owens’ killer performance in the first half and saying, “Who the hell is that actress? She’s amazing. Why isn’t she in all the plays I see?” I could talk about a moment with a sudden image dropped on an audience, one that made them gasp, literally pulling breath into their bodies to gather strength in order to deal with what they’d just seen. I could talk about seeing familiar theater faces perform with a purpose and drive that must surely come from making something they deeply believe in.

I could say these things and they would be true. And in saying them it might lend one small additional assent towards a general consensus that this was a very good play done very well.

But at the same time, walking out of the theater the overwhelming thought I had was not of this praise. Instead it was this: This is the cost.

It’s a phrase that has rolled around in my head all week. This is the cost. This is the cost. This is the cost. Like a mantra I keep going over in order to unravel why it is repeating in my mind.

This play, this lauded work, this celebration of something so surprisingly and vibrantly alive, this is the cost of our prejudice. Because for every work like this that manages to sneak by the barriers our collective cultural illiteracy puts up, there are so many that are trapped and denied. For every work that makes us gasp and think and feel, offers us the chance to understand something new about the world we think we know, there are myriads more that have been shut out.

And this is the cost. We are costing ourselves exactly this thing that when given we proclaim to value.

This is the cost. This is the cost. This is the cost, I keep thinking. This is the cost of safety. This is the cost of comfort. This is the cost of apathy and weakness. How ironic that the farther something looks from those in power, the less likely it is to survive. Shouldn’t it logically be the opposite? Shouldn’t it be that the more something has capacity to move us into deeper and fuller wonder and newness, the more likely we are to risk bringing it into being? This this is the cost of such unreasonableness. This is the cost of such ignorance.

In person and online I see a vast collection of regrets for the passing of An Octoroon. I wonder if some of the intensity of feeling towards its ending is due in large part to its uniqueness, to its rarity. We should not need to mourn so deeply for the end of a work like this. It points out that we recognize its anomalism. It shows that our system is not set up to support that which might feed us best. It points out the embarrassment of riches we systematically and voluntarily deny ourselves.

Our cultural myopathy is blinding us and this is the cost.

White people, straight people, cis people, able bodied people, all the people who have never had to question the default of their existence, we people with our luck un-earned, those of us who have had not the opportunity to see from a different point of view, we must strengthen ourselves to better carry our discomforts. We must better learn to shoulder our fear and widen our empathic abilities. The rest of the world has been practicing while we have sat idly by. We must do it, if not for the obvious reasons of altruism and empathy and respect for our fellow companions on this earth, if not for these reasons than for no other than as an act of charity to ourselves that we might reap the benefits of a richer understanding of experience.

For if we do not do it, this is the cost.

– A

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

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

A totally blank canvas

blank

White. Open. Unknown.

This is the feeling I had this morning. This is the premise of this project: Starting from a totally blank canvas.

Not even a canvas. The idea that something has to be painted on. The idea of paint. The idea of having an idea to paint something at all.

Because really, where do a visual artist, a theater maker and writer and harpist logically begin if they want to try and make something together?

foot

This morning I walked into a room with two creators I’d met only once before. I had butterflies in my stomach, big fat ones, like first day of school jitters. We started, carefully, delicately, hesitantly to… What? Carefully try to suss out exactly who the other is and what exactly we might find in this insane thing we’ll be doing.

I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”

I thought, “I have literally no idea what is going to happen.”

I thought, “Do your best not to fall into things you already know how to do because they are easy, or familiar, or you know how to make them work.”

I thought, “This is terrifying.”

I thought, “It is really tough to know where to begin.”

I thought, “Listen.”

I thought, “Try and stay open to something you’ve never imagined before.”

NickIt is a pace I am so thoroughly uneasy with because it is so thoroughly rare in my regular artistic life. So rare that I allow myself permission not to be in charge, not to have the active working idea, not to try and keep the energy of the room moving forward and productive. As a director, I feel myself wanting to know the answer, wanting to show people their faith in me as leader is secure, wanting to get us on track already towards where we are going.

But all this well-intentioned Midwestern productive attitude-ery also means that you can slip into taking yourself where it’s easiest to lead, rather than really waiting until the very new, very strange, very uncertain thing emerges.

And despite my fear, despite my worry that it feels like nothing is happening, after 8 hours I can see there are some things emerging.

I have put my hands on an instrument I have never touched before. I have watched an artist demonstrate his iterative process – one that normally takes acetate and photoshop and a vinyl cutting machine – on a sideways laptop screen with a piece of tracing paper, some scissors and tape. I’ve enjoyed seeing an actor confront a harpist on stage and I’ve seen that interaction photographed and then turned into a looping gif on a computer screen with a different selection of the musician’s playing as it repeats again and again and again and again and again. I’ve talked about why a video on Vine might be a meditative experience and what it would mean to create audience customize-able art.

I’ve shared a vision for a super strange, exciting and foreign line of inquiry. And despite my fears, I think it’s pretty interesting. Even if I have no idea of how to evaluate it yet. Maybe especially because of that.

I think I also had a moment where I realized that contrary to how I feel on almost every other artistic project I work on, in trying strange, potentially crazy ideas with these two I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

I also ate a lunch of donuts and fried chicken. That was pretty good too.

At the end of the day I am tired. It is work, searching so hard across the ocean of discipline to find some common ground. But tired in a good way. In a way that makes me excited to get up tomorrow and try again.

Thanks Nick and Liz. I’m excited about more to come…

A

Singing

Close truthLast night I finished recording backing vocals for a second album with Johnny Showcase.

It is a funny thing, this.

Funny to think that there might be people in the world who pick up this object or pull its digital instance out of the interwebs, and might see my name and think, “Oh she’s a professional singer.”

This strikes me as so impossibly strange.

How can I explain why?

Well…

It is funny to me because this thing has always been something of a joke on the audience. I’ve always done it in a kind of air quotes way, as if to say, “If I were a singer, and I knew how to sing, and I were someone who did this, this is what I’d do.” When I sing I play act at a character who is a singer who thinks they are amazing. I pretend as if I am someone who is fierce and believes fully in her own ability. I play someone who is almost bored with this endeavor and wears the virtuosity of performance with an almost disdainful air.

I can sing in this way because it is so pointedly not me. So not me that I delight in showing it, like a magic trick, to those who have seen the “real” me and watching them meld these two disparate pieces into a messy collage. They know me as an intellectual, a thinker, a director, a serious type. The sequins, the makeup, the eyelashes, the hair, these are costumes yes, but they are also talismans of transformation. They are portals that allow me to transcend the self that I tend to walk around in and become free. And their power feels tied to the audience. Without a power that summons them forth, they have no meaning and they are not able to be filled.

In the spaces before the transformation, in rehearsals and the studio, I am a hybrid half formation. I am not onstage, I am without my armor and I am so much more clearly myself. It is here that I can grow nervous and tense. It is here that I have to take responsibility head on. It is here that I am simply a singer trying to sing a song. And it is here that I feel like a fraud and a fake who has been getting away with this for a long time. It is here, every time that I hope that I will not expose myself too much as a counterfeit.

Something that I have learned: every other person in the room knows more about this than I do.

This is not false modesty. It is simple objective truth.

If you ask me what things I can claim some level of expertise at I will say that at one point in time I knew a lot about a particular bit of chemistry. I currently know a lot about a particular brand of theater making. And as with anything, the more one learns, the more one realizes that there is so much more to know. But in theater the confrontation of the unknown has become itself something familiar. I know that I can walk into a room and run a rehearsal. I know better how to take comfort in the early stages of a process. I don’t fear my capacity to produce a show.

On some deep level, somewhere along the way, I gave myself permission with theater. As a director, I can say that I really do believe that my “right” is just as right as another’s. And so my work flows from a place where I see that the formal structures I began with are scaffolding that eventually can fall away if I need to build in a new way.

Not so with singing.

I have pursued music with a kind of “Really? Ok… If you think I ought to” attitude from the beginning. I sang mostly because people said I had a nice voice. I sang because I was rewarded for doing so. But I don’t think I can say that I sang because I loved my voice. I didn’t sing because I needed to, I sang because it seemed like something I could use as a way to be special or impressive. All my singing was for other people’s ears.

And so my measure of musical success was also in the ears of others. My sound was “right” only in as much as it was valued externally.

My formal study of voice was plagued by constant uncertainty. I did not have a terribly developed ear, pitch matching and recall were middling at best. I had little aptitude for music theory and too little time or space to really devote to its study. What I did have was a decently developed instrument for my age and a keen facility to hide faults in my sound. So when I sang in groups, rather than really learning to read music, I often relied overly heavily on mimicry of those next to me in choir and eventually recordings of other singers for solo works. I did whatever I could to sneak by without being noticed as out of tune or worse missing the melody entirely.

What this did was develop a tendency in me to pull back when uncertain. To really sing out only when I could be totally sure of success. It meant that I never asked for help or gave myself permission to be a learner. Instead I would get quiet or drop out and then go home and furiously try to fix the problem alone where no one could see my mistakes. But there are times when this is not the most efficient way to solve problems, and it often means that the underlying ear training isn’t addressed. It meant that I could not be in my body and sound around others, it meant that I incrementally pulled my identity as a singer inside of myself. It meant that I only wanted to sing when I could be perfect and therefore meant that I never allowed myself space to learn.

What makes me a good director, I think, is not that I come into the room with all the best ideas ready and laid out. It is that I am able to watch and listen and respond and try things that fail and discuss and then try again and fail again and try some more. I think my directing skill is tied to an ability to risk and reap such risk’s rewards. I do not take negative response as a referendum on me but as useful information to help the thing I’m trying to do get closer to what I think it’s capable of.

So when I look back at that fledgling singer who was so afraid of disappointing it seems clear that her need to do it right got in the way of her ability to genuinely grow. When a flaw was exposed it was like a raw nerve. It was the part of me that I had worked so very hard to keep secret. And so it meant that such vulnerability was often debilitating to the point of paralysis. I cried in solo lessons, the one place that I truly couldn’t hide, almost as a matter of course. I learned bad habits of tensing my body, my jaw, my mind, in an effort to force out the right thing. My senses were focused only on the listener, gauging their interest and assessment rather than actually figuring out how I felt when I made these sounds. I did not trust myself, ever.

But I comforted myself by saying this was not something I “really” did. Singing was a hobby, a side project, one that I loved but knew that I didn’t work hard enough at. I wasn’t a “real” singer but I took solace that if I ever actually had the time I could have tried “for real.” If I’d actually buckled down and focused on it, I would have done better. I would have done it right.

I made my way through music in this fashion though middle and high school, through auditions and jazz choirs, through madrigal ensembles and state competitions, through musicals and recitals, through college scholarships and choral solos, through diction coaching and operatic arias, through Brahms and Mozart and Puccini and Stravinsky and Wagner and Bach.

The first three things that occur to me when I think about my four years studying voice in college are this:

  • Not being allowed into the chamber choir because my vibrato was too big
  • Being called a “wall of sound” in a vocal jury
  • Not having enough time to learn the Russian for the Rachmaninov set in my senior recital

So it seems the height of irony, if to no one else than myself, that I am known in my community as an expert in voice. That I have carved out a tiny niche of experience in a technique whose central tenet is exploring the edges of vocal sound, the pieces that we normally exclude and cover up and refine out. That I have the excuse that it’s supposed to sound ‘bad’ has been the out that I have given myself.

I remember when I first learned that Roy Hart’s early work was driven by a deep desire to be a classical musician, that he had a facility in this regard, that so much of his exploration was in part motivated by a wish to be validated by the classical community. I remember hearing this and thinking, “Ah. Yes. We are the same in this regard.” And it is such a funny thing that I spend so much time as a teacher trying to instill the very thing I still struggle to find for myself. A belief that one’s voice is worth hearing. A trust that the sounds that come naturally are not broken. That the failure is the most useful part of the journey because it begins a conversation about where we can grow.

I have this exercise I often do with students where I ask them to take everything we’ve done and forget it. I ask them to improvise song or speech or sound with no other goal than to simply voice something that pleases them. It is often the most difficult thing. It is this exercise that most often makes people cry or laugh or shake without knowing why. This is the most radical thing it seems – to express a sound for no one but ourselves.

So much of my experience with classical training is one of need and fear. A desire to do right, to be right, to sound right, to know the right notes and almost mechanically find myself able to become a vehicle for them. What is the sense to make of all that formal training? Is it just necessity that we fight and fight and fight with ourselves to internalize these rules only to find ourselves desperately needing to throw them away later?

I think of the experience of what it feels like to have to drill as scale again and again and again. To run the same sequence in a recitatif ad nauseum in a lesson until it becomes unconscious, until it is in me and of my body. Until it is simply a pattern than has become carved deep into my being. I can see that in the best moments, in the ones when I could just give myself permission to be deeply “wrong,” I could finally open enough to try until I finally got to something new and that felt like an opening. That felt like deepening. And it was these kind of times when I felt like maybe I wasn’t such a fake, that I was just a learner trying to master something currently bigger than myself.

The sections of those long ago songs that came easy, the bits that I could get on the first or second try, these musical sequences have faded in the ten years since I stopped singing classically. But those asshole passages with tiny twists and bits that ensnared me so deeply and so thoroughly, the ones that made me cry, these are the same ones that I can remember perfectly now. These are the ones I will know in my bones until I am nothing but.

Last night I found myself at the end of the evening having to make up a harmony with no prep time, on the spot, with people much more skilled at this than I. It was clear that it was harder for me to find my spot that the others. And normally this is a very hard place for me. I often lock up and resign myself to taking the work home and trying to drill it in alone with no one to hear. In the first album’s recording session I stayed in a state of abject terror over whether I was the problematic sound. But over these past few days, I have told myself to just try, earnestly without judgment, as best as I am able.

With the laser specificity that is a recording session I have come to see that I am not the only one who sometimes strays out of tune or misses a note when really trying to get it perfect. I have realized that in the years at this I am actually getting better. I am not perfect, but I am also not the total fraud I fear.

I am exactly where I am, with some degree of facility and a lifetime of learning more in front of me.

And this is sort of what I wanted to explain, I think. That we must give ourselves the gift of failure. That we must come to believe we need it or the need to deny it will take us over completely.

– A