doing

Audible Pictures, Visual Music: Nick Cassway and Elizabeth Huston

Nick and Liz

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

Nick Cassway (drawing, portraits)

Elizabeth Huston (harp, contemporary music)

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

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

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

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

He included this in his application:

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

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

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

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

Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:

Liz: Alive, Multi-Discipline, Engaging

Nick: Graphic, Uncomplicated, Funny

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

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

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

Which I think is a really great sign.

– A

What exactly is “devising” anyway?

Hey folks, something a little different for today.

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

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

The short answer is yes, I can.

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

So here it is…

A

 

Interlude

federal copy

This is where you start

The life of a creator can be tough between projects. It can be especially frustrating if you feel like the work you make is dependent on others being around to help you do it. Some days it feels awfully tough to “direct” all alone in my apartment. And on days like this it can feel like my work is dependent on so many factors out of my control to come into being.

I recently had a convo with a friend who was in a slump, feeling down about the announced seasons of most of the local theaters (the perennial “No parts for me” frustration), wishing that could she saw a creative outlet on her horizon. Like I said, I know the feeling. But I also wonder sometimes if we don’t unconsciously do ourselves a disservice thinking this way –  giving ourselves an out from really going after what we want. If it’s up to others to determine our creative fate, it’s not our fault if we don’t feel ourselves moving ahead.

This blog is the product of one of those long stretches between rehearsal processes. It was a way for me to put all that energy I had into something even if it wasn’t a show. This space, this writing, has been a reminder that there is a way to keep a practice active and moving even when you can’t work it in exactly the way we might wish. Like taking up rowing after getting a bad sprained ankle. Doing something similar but a little different might mean, as I’ve found, a challenge is also an opportunity to find that one’s output doesn’t have to be so narrowly defined.

Anyway.

In this spirit, I’ll try to share ways that I find to keep the research and performance work alive in these interludes between the work. And to start I’ll share a small theatrical experiment.

This is a walking sound journey. It’s rough, a very first draft, but a style I’ve been really interested in playing with recently. This piece came out of a two day exploration at Headlong’s Dance Theater Camp with Amy Smith on “Experiential Journeys.” The goal was to research how to create experiences that bring people into their environment in new and different ways. I wanted to try a solo experience that integrated the real world with an invented narrative. The way that I feel when I’m walking down the street and the music I’m listening to suddenly, serendipitously, syncs with what I’m seeing around me.

So here’s what you do:

1) Download the two files at this link and put them onto your phone. (Or if you get decent service you can play them online.) Grab some headphones.

https://soundcloud.com/swimpony/sets/federal-walk

2) Go to the northeast corner of Broad and Federal. Stand next to the mailbox.

3) Before you move, orient yourself. For this experiment you will walk east on Federal, take a left on 13th, another left on Elsworth and then a final left onto Broad as you pass the diner. You’ll essentially make a loop around the block and end up back where you started.

3) Start playing the first track. Then go for a walk.

4) When you finish track 1 go back to the mailbox. Start playing the second track and wait until it tells you to “Start walking” and repeat the same path.

That’s it. You’ve just participated in a little work in progress.

Feel free to let me know what you think.

A

An interview with Adrienne

Hey all,

FringeArts did a nice little interview with me a while back about my current thoughts on art, projects in the Swim Pony mix and my hopes for sustainability over the long term of a long term career.

If you’re interested in reading (and seeing me sitting backwards in that omnipresent chair) check it out by clicking this picture:

Print

Enjoy,

– A

Dispatches from the Awesome Lady Squad

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Hey Awesome Ladies!

Spring has technically sprung, despite the nastiness of the current weather, and with it comes new blooms of Awesome-ness. LADYFESTO! now created we march ahead onto bigger and even better projects.

What’s next, you ask?

Let me share with you three upcoming opportunities to take part in the Squad:

1) A Frank Convo About the Classical Canon:

I’ll admit it. I’ve been having some tough conversations inside my own head and with others about how to deal with being a contemporary female artist in relation to “great” works from the past. And so, to help sort through some of these, I’ve invited a bunch of smart and thoughtful ladies who spend a lot of their time in these works to chat with me (and maybe you) about how they navigate these waters. My goal is talk openly about how and when to keep aspects of these plays from the past while still holding true to our Awesome Lady principles of the present.

Want to join? Then come to Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad St) on May 12th from 3 – 5pm to be a part of the conversation.

2) An Awesome Lady Talking Toolkit:

Back in the early months of this year we identified a series of problems the Squad wanted to solve and some things we’d like to have to help to do. One of the most frequently mentioned “wish list” items were these:

  • Skills to handle tough conversations about gender parity.
  • A way to talk about this that doesn’t become apologetic or defensive.
  • Something to say when I sense people starting to roll their eyes.
  • The ability to talk and explain the “no” to a project that doesn’t conform to my moral code.

This meeting will be the first of several to tackle this solution.

Maybe we’ll make a workbook, a writing exercise, a checklist, a document with a series of go to argument points, something even more Awesome we can’t even yet conceive!!! If you want define what form it will take, strategize a plan and timeline for its creation, and figure out how to roll it out for the Squad at large, this meeting is for you.

Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad St) on May 19th from 7 – 9 pm to join in.

And finally!

3) Awesome Lady Observerships (ongoing):

Being a director can be a lonely business. Whether you’re a season pro or a newbie to the game, rarely get to watch each other in action.  Chatting with Allison Heishman the other day we talked about much we both wanted the chance to just sit back and observe other ladies do their Awesome directing thing. In our artistic landscape – one filled with abundance and support – we figured getting to pick up tools, see problems solved in new ways or even just admire someone else in action is just the thing to help solve this.

So! If you’re intrigued, send an email to swimponypa@gmail.com and the following info:

  1. Your name

  2. If you’re interested in letting people observe you and any upcoming work they might be able to see

  3. If you’re interest in seeing someone else’s work

I’ll put some kind of list together and follow up soon.

Whew! That was an awful lot of Awesome-ness.

And I think that’s all for now, Ladies.

– Adrienne

It will be hard, but not in the way you think

hard

There’s this cliché that people always throw out to young artists, “It’s such a hard life. You shouldn’t go into the arts unless you have to. Unless you can’t do anything else.”

I hated that.

As a young person, telling me something was hard was just about the fastest way to get me to want to do it. Telling me something was potentially crushing and impossible was even more enticing.

I loved the idea of hard work – rehearsals for hours, going home and reading and writing about theater, studying and researching. This kind of all or nothing attitude towards tackling something was exactly what I wanted. I sought out to fill every corner of my life with my work in theater because I thought that this was what “professional” looked like.

After a bit more than a decade of an actual life as an artist I’ve slowly morphed into the thing that I used to detest. I’ve come around to this statement with new eyes. I think that incorporating an artistic sensibility is important for all people. I think having space to think and feel and connect with others is too. I think that there is great value in a creative impulse that is divorced from a need to sell things. That’s the value of the arts and I think everyone should take part in that. But I’ve also come to see that actually making this your life’s work and career isn’t something everyone is cut out for.

A life in the arts is very hard, but not in the way you think it will be.

Earlier this year I had an exchange with a young performer about tackling a project that I wasn’t sure they were up to. We went back and forth about what digging in “for real” would look like. I tried to explain that regardless of excitement and eagerness, that I was looking for a particular kind of bravery were I to bump them into professional level work. That for me this meant an ability to show the hard and nasty bits that few of us really like to admit are in there.

And I also said that at the end of the day, it wasn’t just about whether it was possible but that it mattered equally much that they wanted to do such a thing. Because being a professional means deciding the kind of art work you believe in making.

For those who would make this career their thing, my guess is your first encounter with artwork is exhilarating. It’s new and fresh and a little like young love. It feels big and exciting and makes the person inside it feel the same. And like young love it promises that if you give yourself over totally, this feeling, this participation in something larger than yourself will fill you up enough to sustain you forever.

And just like young love, you realize at some point that the imagined fantasy isn’t the same as slogging through the day to day. It’s like a long-term relationship – it deepens and changes and is hard hard work. When you know very little about something it’s easy to love everything about it. And just like young love transitioning into something more long term, it’s what happens when you hit the first hiccup or frustration and start figuring out how you are going to be something other than the enthralled and all consumed devotee that you learn whether or not you can stick it out.

This is why I chafe at most shows that depict the artistic process in sitcom or drama form. Underpinning a majority of the plot lines is a tacit assumption that if you love the art, if you are talented, and if you work hard then your initial definition of success will come to you.

It would be nice if that were true.

It’s not.

Talent is no guarantee of success and fame. Neither is hard work. Loving what you do so much it hurts, having feelings about your art that are so strong they are consuming, is even less a guarantee. In fact, it probably makes it harder.

Being that attached to your work makes that much harder to proceed when you have to sacrifice parts of it, radically change your conception of it, suddenly realize that no one cares about the aspect of it you do, or find that the version of it you like best isn’t the version you’re actually good at. (They say Moliere wanted his whole life to be a great tragic actor.  Good thing he didn’t stop writing comedies in the interim to never getting there.)

It means there will be moments you remember your young and uncomplicated idea of art and wonder whether what you’re currently doing is actually the same thing.

In my experience creative work is a marathon rather than a sprint. It is an exercise in sustaining over the long haul. To do that one learns new kinds of skills: Defining your own path, authoring an experience you want, requiring effort of yourself instead of it being demanded of you, pulling strength from way deep down to keep going. It’s also about figuring out that you have to be more than just an artist. That you need to develop a life that includes more than your work: things like family and friends and walking in the park and reading a newspaper and cooking meals.

With this young actor struggling over the role I talked a bit about the need to take control of one’s own artistic path, not based on eagerness or earnestness that gives away a point of view, but a willingness to get down in the dirt and make some personal imperfect choices.

And the answer that eventually rolled out was essentially, “I don’t know if I actually want to be an performer.”

I think about this a lot.

I wonder if I did the right thing.

If it’s my business to push so hard to get someone to see what the real work of the profession is.

I think so.

I hope so.

Just like everything else in this career, I just did the best I knew how.

– A

Where we go from here

Hey all. It’s March 31st and the official end of my month of blogging here on the topic of gender parity in theater. I recapped the other day some of the projects that this month has inspired and begun, but I also wanted to say a couple things not only about those specific projects but about a few bigger picture things that have slowly amassed over the course of this month on a larger, perhaps more philosophical level.

One of the lessons I feel like I’ve taken away from this month of work is the sense that it’s important to keep perspective on two scales – the very small and personal and the very large and grand.

I find for myself that when I get too stuck in the minutiae of my own little world and my own little perspective on that little world, I can miss solutions or a sense of possibility. It’s easy when we are used to seeing something all the time to assume that it will always have to be that way. There are trends of inequity that have persisted for so long they have become banal and commonplace. And so in listening to other creators, in gathering voices of women artmakers en masse, by looking at my field as a whole and branching into other mediums as well, by looking at this problem not just as a personal one but a community-wide issue, I feel like I’ve gained a feeling of possibility, of mobility that I haven’t had in a while. Stepping back and looking at the larger picture has made me say more forcefully there are things I see in my community that are not acceptable even if they are common.

Simultaneously, I have also gotten better at tasking myself with small concrete things that I can do in and hour or two with a few people. I have become more able to say, “What can I do right now to make a step towards a larger goal?” rather than getting frustrated at an inability to fix everything in its entirety. I have felt easier in making a step forward, even if it is imperfect or not totally complete and saying that something good and finished NOW is better than something immaculate that takes months to perfect.

Another lesson learned is the power of a system that can handle multiple points of entry. One of the most awesome things about the Awesome Lady Squad is the fact that there are projects starting to gain momentum that I am not the sole driver of. Projects that I am appreciative of but may not have the expertise or immediate interest in prioritizing. If the Squad is to succeed I think our responsibility must be shouldered by many. Because the truth is some day I’m going to get busy with a project or a life event. Or there will be (maybe already is) more to do that I have time to oversee. And one of my core beliefs is that we will do so much more if we all trust each other to take your idea and run further with it than you knew was possible.

And last, I’ve realized that there is nothing more powerful that one human looking another human in the eye and doing your best to speak honestly and listen to each other.

That sounds mushy.

It is.

But man, is it also effective.

I’ve written thousands of words about these issues, spent hours trying to articulate exactly how I’m feeling and what I want to communicate. And yet, one of the most impactful moments I’ve had was when I sat down talked with some other creators about how their choices affected me and listened honestly and openly to their response.

If there is anything that I take from a month of work trying to advocate for female artists it is this: we have to be brave enough to start saying what we actually think and feel. To do so assumes that real and substantive change is possible. It assumes that our views are valuable enough to be heard and flexible enough to absorb response.

It is hard to tell someone, especially someone you admire and care about, that their actions might have consequences they do not intend. It also feels like the closest I’ve come to actually shifting the way someone will think and act in relation to this topic in the future.

And in this way, let me share where I go from here:

I will continue to work with The Awesome Lady Squad in the coming months. I’ll keep you abreast of those changes.

I will return to many of the questions about sustainability and how to engage in a long and happy life as an artist.

I will send some focus to other special interest groups and work towards a community that is aware and equitable in all aspects.

I want to encourage us, Philadelphia, to start engaging in these harder conversations. The ones that scare us. The ones that are uncomfortable. The ones that might mean we really have to rethink some of the ways we do things. These are the ones that will make us the city that others look to. These are the things that will create a more sustainable and strong community in the future.

Feeling the renewing possibilities of the imminent spring,

A