design

A Peek Into TrailOff

Intrepid fans of Swim Pony, founder Adrienne Mackey here with some exciting updates!

You might have heard that we here at Swim Pony HQ have been busy with research for our newest project TrailOff, created in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) to bring original audio stories to nature trails throughout the Philadelphia region.

Since getting the funding go ahead earlier this year (Thanks NET, William Penn and Barra Foundations!) we’ve been delving deep into that funky space between digital and analog, between the mind’s imaginary space and the natural world. Some of the goals behind TrailOff are practical: for example, how we might offer experiences akin to immersive and site based theater to a wider network of audiences. However, on the macro-level we’re also looking at creative and philosophical questions that reimagine how we experience what form stories can take and who gets to tell them.

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Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Photo: John Hawthorne

Before we get into all that, let’s start with a few quick words we’ve been using to explain what the heck this thing will be:

TrailOff is a brand new mobile app, designed to re-imagine how people interact with recreational trails and, by extension, expand the diversity of users that seek them out. The core of this work lies in the creation of 10 unique narrative walks: intimate journeys that use GPS to link audio storytelling to physical attributes along a mapped route. Each selected path will feature text from a local writer along with underscored music and sound design, all tailored to sync to the movement of a listener as they travel along a trail.

TrailOff grows out of two lines of inquiry that have been simmering in Swim Pony’s pot over the past several years. If you’re even peripherally aware of what the company has been up, you know that we’ve been keen to explore how the design of games and other interactive media might teach theater makers something about how to structure immersive works. The lessons learned in works like WAR OF THE WORLDS have spurred us to dig deeper about what it means to place an audience in the center of an experience. Similarly, projects like WALK AROUND PHILADELPHIA  have spurred a curiosity about what it means to curiously explore the tangible world in relationship to one’s own personal narratives and experiences, with the moving body as the medium through which these two collide. In THE END we got a first chance at blending these impulses, and with TrailOff, we’re also aiming for the process and product to create space for a wider variety of Philadelphia’s voices. In short, this new work is a creative process that will examine the narratives of place – who dominates the meaning we make about the natural world and how we might re-imagining those stories from new perspectives – while simultaneously giving its eventual audiences a visceral experience of literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

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Schuylkill Banks, Photo: John Hawthorne

While we can’t yet share the actual stories that will be part of the project but we can share some creative insight we’ve gained in exploring what aspects of a story best suit this particular format.

In July, Swim Pony and Toasterlab, our tech partners in the TrailOff app creation, undertook a narrative workshop, visiting potential trail sites across the area to explore writing specific to trails. In the same way a novel, screenplay, or standup comedy set all include language but utilize hugely different techniques to best serve their medium, we wanted to learn what kind of story is uniquely heard best while walking and listening through headphones.

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Swim Pony & Toasterlab near Bartram’s Garden,  Photo: John Hawthorne

We took away a LOT from that workshop but a few things stood out. The first lesson seems obvious in retrospect: when writing to place you have to spend LOTS of time there doing the same thing you expect the audience to do. When writing for a form that will eventually require you to move as you listen, it’s best to write in motion and on your feet as well. We spent tons of time walking trails and noticing the stories that made sense there and what we found is that there’s a balance between density of language and the ability to stay connected to what you see. Useful silence is key.

We also found that simple details that connect the listener to the world they are surrounded by are hugely powerful. One of the most effect pieces of language was also the most humble: standing in Heinz Wildlife refuge hearing someone talk about wind washing over reeds.

Our last big summer takeaway was that while this form is tricky on plot-heavy stories – relatively little happens or changes on a trail – it is uniquely well suited to putting you in another’s state of mind. We found language that traversed that space of internal thought or invited us as users into contemplative spaces of our own super exciting.

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Jenna Horton on the Delaware River Trail,  Photo: John Hawthorne

In November, we brought sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman into the mix to delve deeper into the aesthetics of sound as well as an overarching narrative structure for the app . We brainstormed and begin to define how sound will influence the user experience. We also strategized questions about how audio triggering might work. We shared research on other projects that felt inspirational to this one and finally started trying out ideas again in real space.

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Brainstorming notes, Photo: John Hawthorne

A few key takeaways from this workshop centered on the interface experience the user will have. We began wondering narratively who it is that the user is interacting with when they first download TrailOff. Some questions that guided that process:

  • Is there a guide that has put together the overall experience?
  • What is the aesthetic that one encounters as they interact with the app?
  • What is the journey from the first story to the last? What is gained? What is the narrative connection, if any, between each trail?

We began developing a character we’re currently calling The Ranger, a mysterious curator and guide who will over see the experience that each user will have. In tandem with this development we started thinking about the difference between a piece of immersive theater and a pre-recorded audio tour. What is it that makes “liveness” so palpable and special? Why does the story “being there” with the audience matter?

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Adrienne walking Gateway Park,  Photo: John Hawthorne

Finally, we began very functionally playing with ways that sound might overlay story content and actually began testing sound scores underneath previously generated text from our summer workshops. And if you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing you might even like to experience it yourself.

Below are three pieces of audio we experimented with. Stream or download one of files above and play it while you take a walk. Each of these files are an little tests in pairing different kinds of language, music and soundscape. To assess what “works” and doesn’t think about the following:

  • Is the experience you connect most to located in your ears, in the world, or somewhere in between?
  • Are there places where your thoughts are in conversation with what you hear?
  • How much (or little) does the language feel connected to the place you are in?
  • What about this experience feels uniquely suited to this format?
  • Is this even a “story” at all?

 

A Horror Inspired Creature Story

A Banal Convo About Appliances and the Future 

A Nostalgic Tale of Cicada Pee 

 

If you give it a try, we’d love, love, love to add your creative thoughts to our own. Just throw a few thoughts quickly into the box below!

 

Audible Pictures, Visual Music: Nick Cassway and Elizabeth Huston

Nick and Liz

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

Nick Cassway (drawing, portraits)

Elizabeth Huston (harp, contemporary music)

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

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

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

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

He included this in his application:

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

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

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

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

Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:

Liz: Alive, Multi-Discipline, Engaging

Nick: Graphic, Uncomplicated, Funny

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

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

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

Which I think is a really great sign.

– A

Thank you for not assuming

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I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an Awesome Lady ally. And I think one of the first steps in becoming an ally to the squad is by looking around and acknowledging the subtle gifts, the extra little pushes, that male artists get that female artists aren’t.

In a recent article I read about the ally movement for racial discrimination, the author “nance” (I looked, I couldn’t find her real name) talks about a funny moment in which her husband rides his bike home one day faster than ever before. He wonders briefly if finally all his months of riding have paid off, if his fitness prowess is seriously improved, as evidenced by his speed and agility during the ride. Soon though, he whizzes past a flag pole and sees the way the the flags are blowing. As he stops he realizes that a strong wind has been blowing at his back the entire time.

In other words, it’s not just his improved muscle tone that’s helping the ride go so exquisitely, it’s an invisible but forceful push that he at first didn’t even realize was there.

The author also references this somewhat “classic” article on the assumptions of white privilege in which the writer sets down a list of ways her skin color gives her advantage in situations, small and large, on a regular basis.

Inspired by these articles, and the corollary of them when it comes to gender privilege I came up with a little list of my own. I call it:

BEING A DUDE IN THEATER IS LIKE RIDING A BIKE WITH THE WIND AT YOUR BACK

Or

STUFF THAT AWESOME LADY ALLIES MIGHT NOT REALIZE AND THAT THEY OUGHT TO BE AWARE OF

–       If I am a director I am most often working on material written by someone of the same gender.

–       If I am an actor I am generally in the majority gender of the cast.

–       If I am a writer no one will read my play and assume I chose the subject matter based on my sex.

–       If I am a designer I will attend production meetings in which my gender is not in the minority.

–       It will not be assumed I want to work plays that have to do with my gender.

–       If I do want to make work having to do with my gender it will not be assumed this is the extent of the kind of work I intend to make.

–       If I eventually make work about my gender I do not have to worry about this defining how people will think of me as a creator for the rest of my career.

–       No one assumes that a grant to work on projects about my gender should be linked with social change.

–       If I bring up an issue with a gender stereotype I will not be told that I’m inserting my perspective into a piece that’s not about that.

–       I am not often asked to play sexually provocative roles.

–       I am rarely asked to wear revealing clothing onstage.

–       If I am aggressive or meek no one will assume that quality comes by virtue of my gender.

–       If I work collaboratively with people of the opposite sex, no one assumes they are the real driving force behind our work.

–       If I direct a play with mostly or all women, I do not have to worry that people will assume I’m doing that just because of my gender.

–       If I direct a play with mostly or all men, I do not have to worry if I’m being a traitor to artists of my gender.

–       I do not have to worry that my successes or failures may reflect on other creators of my gender.

–       I do not have to feel responsible to other artists of my gender at all.

–       I can assume my gender will not be a factor against me getting a job.

–       I can assume my gender will not be a hindrance to me acquiring roles in which the gender is not a major factor of their character.

–       I can assume if I am cross-gender cast that people will look at this casting as an artistic choice and not a gender diversity handout.

–       I can assume when talking about the artistic canon that it is made by people of the same gender as mine.

–       I can assume that when people talk about the “Greats” of my field they will be the same gender as I am.

–       I can assume that the most produced theatrical writer in the world is the same gender as I am.

–       I can take an interest in classical works and not worry that my gender will prohibit me from getting work in this field.

–       I can assume that works in the canon represent a diversity in type of roles for people of my gender.

–       I can assume there are a wealth of lead roles for people of my gender.

–       I can assume when learning about my medium I will be studying artists predominantly of my gender.

–       I can assume my mentors will predominantly be the same gender as I am.

–       It will not be surprising or impressive if I am good with the financial side of my company’s daily upkeep.

–       It will not be impressive or remarkable if I go into sound, light or set design.

–       I will never have to suspect I’m being paid less because of my gender.

–       I don’t have to decide whether it is more advantageous to dress to accentuate my gender or not.

–       If I’m an asshole, this trait will never be linked to my gender.

–       I will never be called shrill.

–       I will never be called bossy.

–       I will never be called bitchy.

–       No one assumes I’m not funny because of my gender.

–       I don’t ever feel like I have to choose between being funny or sexy.

–       No one automatically assumes I have interest in or will be good at working with children.

–       I can assume that if I have kids people will not worry that my priorities as an artist will be impacted.

–       It will not be automatically assumed that I will be motherly, nurturing or emotional supportive.

–       If I am an actor, as I age I will likely be in more demand not less.

–       It is not assumed because of my gender that I cannot carry heavy things or do manual labor.

–       If I have no interest in manual labor or carrying heavy things (because I’m just not fucking interested in it) it is also not assumed that I feel this way because of my gender.

–       When the gender parity going gets tough or the inequity feels too heavy to deal with on a given day, I don’t have to think about it.

And finally, this list is obviously just my own opinion because I intend to invoke the final privilege of the list:

–       No one assumes I speak on behalf of all people of my gender. I can assume I only speak for me.

See you tomorrow allies!

A

One small thing (that’s also huge) that you can literally do RIGHT now

I’ve spent a lot of time the past couple weeks writing about my feelings. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the things that I’m trying to do to make Philadelphia a more equal place for artists who are women.

Today, instead, I’m asking you to do something.

Take a look at the websites of your favorite performance companies. See what seasons they have lined up. Or see if they haven’t announced them yet.

And for ones that are still undecided, and ESPECIALLY for ones that have announced seasons with imbalance toward men, send a quick email to the Artistic Director, Managing Director, and head of their board.

Tell them you are their audience base.

Tell them you want to see women employed by their company.

Tell them it matters to you that this happens.

You can do this today. It might take you 15 minutes It could change an entire year of programming.  That’s how powerful your voice could be.

And if you aren’t feeling creative, I’ll even give something badass and awesome to cut and paste into an email:

“Dear _______ Theater Co/Ensemble/Theatre/Whatever,

I love your work.

I also love female art makers.

And I’d really love to love both of those things at the same time.

I want you to know, because of how much I care about your company, that I’m concerned about the inequity of representation for women artists in next year’s theater season. As a member of your audience base, I’m letting you know that one of the ways I will make choices about what I will or won’t see will be based on whether I see women getting the space on stages they deserve.

I care about seeing female characters. I care about hearing female voices. I want to see women in directing and design positions.  And because I want to believe you want this to, I’m reaching out.

I’m asking you, as an audience member, as a fan, and as part of the community your mission seeks to serve, to please look long and hard about the work you’re bringing me next year and make sure that gender parity – for playwrights, for designers, for directors and actors – is a priority in the work you present.

Because I know it is for me.

And I hope you make me proud.”

Steal, change it, do whatever you want, just DO it. Right now, this very moment, you could make a difference.

– A

3 years and $300,000 and I’ll fix it, for realz…

Alright, enough moping.

So remember how I said that the tough thing about talking about the issue of gender parity, the problem, wasn’t intentions, but a lack of culpability for outcomes.

In other words, how do you get people to not just think about doing the right thing but actually motivate them to do it?

Guess what?

Yesterday, I figured it out.

You just need some money.

You need a funding program that has nothing to do with intentions, because we all have the best intentions. What you need is a reward system that is entirely based on outcomes.

So.

Without further ado, I give you:

SWIM PONY MASSIVELY OVERHAULS THE STATE OF WOMEN ARTISTS IN THREE YEARS AND WHO KNEW IT WOULD BE THIS FLIPPIN EASY GRANT PROGRAM

Also known as:

AWESOME LADIES GETTIN’ WHAT’S DUE (ALGWD for short)

(With support from Pew Charitable Trusts

Or maybe William Penn

Or maybe The Wyncote Foundation

Or The Knight Foundation

Really who cares, someone has to fund this, right?)

Here are my proposed guidelines:

1)   The ALGWD team announces to the Philadelphia-area theater community that starting next season any company, of any size, with access to their own non-profit status or a fiscal sponsor is eligible for an award at the end of a three year period.

2)   The funding awards will be made in two categories:

  • $25,000 will be awarded to 5 companies with the highest percentage of women artists represented across three artistic categories (see below).
  • Any company that achieves 45% female representation across all three categories is eligible to receive $10,000.
  • PS – You have to hit the minimum in all three. No exceptions.

3)   Female artists represented will be calculated based on a statistics over three categories:

  • Number of women playwrights
  • Number of women directors
  • Number of women actors

4)   Other rules and guidelines:

  • Companies will submit their statistics and then have them validated by the grant committee in order to be eligible.
  • The statistics must include all artistic output by a company.
  • Artistic outputs included must be open to the public.
  • A company must meet a minimum of three public works to be eligible for consideration.
  • Funds are string-free. You can use them for whatever you want.

5)   And maybe we could also add this as a bonus:

  • A $1,000 in additional funds are available for any company that can also show an equal parity across all categories of theatrical design regardless of whether they reach the above minimums.

This means for three years there’s a looming pile of cash incentivizing the choice to bring women artists in. It’s not the only consideration, but it’s enough to help counteract a tiny bit of that un-intentional push away from a female artists in the other direction.

And happily, unlike calling someone out or making a stink, this grant doesn’t hurt anyone who decides they can’t or won’t be able to meet the gender equality minimum. You can do all the dude heavy, dude written, dude directed plays you want. It just means you’re missing out on the free money party.

Of the 12 companies I surveyed numbers on last year, a few were pretty darn close – Flashpoint, Simpatico and Azuka – but not one would have hit this minimum requirement across all three categories. But if there were $10,000 at stake, how much do you want to bet they’d tweak their selections just a tiny bit to nudge them over the line? If the next time the AD’s of these companies looked at their numbers and knew that hiring one more female director got them $10,000 do you think they’d think as hard about whether or not to do it? Do you think that the choice between a female playwright and a male one would be quite so agonizing if one picking the former meant they might be one of those companies competing for the top 5 slot?

For most companies, $25,000 or $10,000 in funds that aren’t project ear-marked would make a huge difference. That’s an entire person’s salary in some cases. That’s the budget for an entire show for the really small ones. And even if you’re a bigger dog, one where the scale you’re operating on won’t be totally transformed by this kind of cash, think about how hard you chase donors on this scale. You could just do the work you’re already doing AND save women artists from inequity while getting money handed to you.

The way I see it there are something on the order of 30 – 40 companies in Philly and the surrounding areas who’d be eligible. If I had to guess, right now, there are probably only a handful – 5 maybe – that potentially meet those guidelines already.  From rough estimation it seems like about half those companies could probably hit those numbers with just a bit of effort to add a few female directors or playwrights or plays with more female roles. If I were a betting woman, I’d guess the same half of those 30 – 40 would come out the other side of three years with hands outstretched for their $10,000.

Think about the impact that would make in this community:

  • 5 companies at the top x $25,000 = $125,000
  • ~16 more companies at the minimum x $10,000 = $160,000
  •  ~15 that also hit the design minimum x $1,000 = $15,000

That’s $300,000.

This is really not that much money.

Think about that Philly funders…  For a single upper limit Pew organizational project grant:

  • You could have an incredibly concrete means to measure the impact of your efforts by surveying the stats on gender before the award period and after.
  • You could incentivize not promises or discussions but measurable, quantifiable outcomes.
  • You could reward those companies already employing positive gender parity practices.
  • You could send a message that your organization cares deeply about the status of women artists and is able to take steps to do something about it.
  • You could create an art-making environment in Philadelphia that can be nationally recognized as the most female friendly in the country.
  • You could massively shift everything about the way this city works for women artists.

No hemming or hawing. No yelling or fighting. No pipelining. No apologies for what we intended to do but couldn’t quite make happen.  Just three years to make it happen or not.

Some folks will ask you for a whole new system and ten years or more to implement it.

I’m just asking for three years and $300,000.

Let’s do it now Philly before some other city snatches up our good idea.

– Adrienne

PS – Shout out to Brad Wrenn who dreamed this up in the car with me when I was having a shitty morning yesterday.

A penchant for ladies designing

Last week I put up a post listing female directors in Philadelphia so that next time someone is having trouble coming up with some they know exactly where to look.

Today I’m doing the same for designers. These are folks that live and work here in the city (with a couple folks recently moved that folks I polled felt super strong about including anyway) and are ordered only by alphabetical last name.  I’ve divided the list up by category and put people in multiple places when they are multifaceted designers.

I’ll keep updating this, so feel free to send me more names.

And if you want a link to your portfolio or site, send that along too.

– A

Set:

  • Erica Hoelscher
  • Meghan Jones
  • Mimi Lien
  • Maiko Matsushima
  • Sara Outing
  • Cory Palmer
  • Maura Roche
  • Lisi Stoessel

Lights:

  • Kate Beutler
  • Madison Cario
  • Angela Coleman
  • Oona Curley
  • Alyssandra Docherty
  • Janet Embree
  • Lily Fossner
  • Shelley Hicklin
  • Amanda Jensen
  • Leigh Mumford
  • Maria Shaplin
  • Robin Stamey
  • Laila Kjørsvik Swanson
  • Jessica Wallace

Sound:

  • Susan Adelizzi
  • Elizabeth Atkinson
  • Tina Brock
  • Karin Graybsh
  • Ren Manley
  • Ashley Turner

Props:

  • Jen Burkhart
  • Ginger Dale
  • Natalia de la Torre
  • Amanda Hatch
  • Alisa Sikora Kleckner
  • Ren Manley
  • Amy Radbill
  • Gwen Rooker
  • Alice Yorke

Puppets:

  • Alisa Sikora Kleckner
  • Lorna Howley
  • Gina Leigh
  • Sara Outing
  • Martina Plag
  • Gwen Rooker
  • Robin Stamey
  • Danyata Ta

Video:

  • Janelle Kauffman

Costumes:

  • Ameera Ansari
  • Becca Austin
  • Meredith Boring
  • Marie Chimet
  • Kelly Cobb
  • Katie Coble
  • Rachel Coon
  • Natalia de la Torre
  • Kate Edelson
  • Mary Folino
  • Katherine Fritz
  • Jamie Grace-Duff
  • Colleen Grady
  • Millie Hiibel
  • Erica Hoelscher
  • Marla Jurglanis
  • Rebecca Kanach
  • Jillian Rose Keys
  • Alisa Sikora Kleckner
  • Maiko Matsushima
  • Rosemary McKelvey
  • Fiona Mulligan
  • Lauren Perigard
  • Julia Poisze
  • Regina Rizzo
  • Alison Roberts
  • Robin Shane
  • Susan Smythe
  • Janis Stefanowicz
  • Jennielynn Streed
  • Laila Kjørsvik Swanson
  • Charlotte Chloe Fox Wind
  • Amanda Wolff
  • Abbie Wysor

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.

Anyway.

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.

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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:  http://www.collaborationtown.org/whos-who.html