experience

For the love of ladies, think of the children…

First, an admission:

Last night I gave myself a small break on the blog to close WELCOME TO CAMPUS at Drexel University.

Second, a short diversion:

I like the final product of CAMPUS for a lot of reasons. I’ve loved the process even more. I could go on a lot about this piece, why I feel like it’s the personal, intimate kind of work that theater ought to be doing in the digital age. If you haven’t seen any of the press for the show, it’s is a traveling campus tour that tells true stories exploring what the college experience is actually like in the spaces around campus that a traditional tour might not take you to. We went into dilapidated dorms, anonymous classrooms, cram into elevators, and stand in the stunning atria of the campus’s spaces. Students emerged from background landscapes to blend the lines between what is real and what is the play. I built it over 16 weeks with the students of Drexel, turning every day students into secret, highly trained public performance ninjas.

There’s a big part of me that just wants to spend this space today rolling around in the wistful sad fact of finishing a process so dear to my heart.

And now back on target:

But it’s gender parity month here at Swim Pony and so I’m taking the proud teacher vibes o’erflowing from me this Monday afternoon and sending them in a slightly different direction.

2013-2104 has been the Year Of Teaching for me. It’s the first year the training of theater to others has become the majority of my day job income. Teaching, though, has always felt like a kind of performance – one in which my class’s material ought to be as thought provoking and meaningful as any play I might make, one in which my persona ought to be as interesting as any lead character.

I use personal stories a lot in my directing and teaching work. I talk about aspects of the way I live and see the world to try and help myself relate to the material at hand, and hopefully in the process, hear and learn how my students do so as well. It’s a theory based in a kind of lemming bravery principle: if you see me jump off a scary cliff into the action of the scene or the idea from the reading and dive into the messy complexity of my own life, you are likelier willing to do the same.

I try to be honest with them. I try not to only paint in the nicer aspects of myself. And in this vein if we’re doing something that seems weird or silly or just plain not working, I usually will acknowledge the feeling.  I try to explain to them why I make creative choices, to not only get them to execute an action but to understand why I am aiming for this particular choice and not another. I do this because when it works well, I soon find myself with students who are able to think about and question those choices. And sometimes offer new ones that are even better than the initial ones I’ve proposed.

This past year, I’ve also become particularly aware of things like this:

  • A book I use for my voice class (a book I love and use all the time) has a couple weird sentences about how women place their voices
  • A scene in a classical play I’m staging with students offhandedly mentions a woman as the weaker sex

I might know that a couple of paragraphs in the voice textbook are problematic but find the book still worth using. I might realize that there’s a historical context for the scene I’m directing but still think it important enough for other reasons to include. But I’m realizing that unless I say that, I run the risk of not communicating those caveats.  And by not bringing it up, by not pointing it out, by not having the conversation I have in my head out loud with the little people in front of me, it’s possible that I’m passing along a tacit complicity with the aspects material that I don’t subscribe to.

It’s the same questions from a couple of days ago:

Are we aware?

Are conscionably contextualizing?

Take a classical work where a female character’s whose worth is hugely determined by her virginity status.

The reason for reading this text might be the beauty of the language or the significance of the author and play to theater history or possibly to see the first emergence of a theatrical device that occurs in the play. This might be why you want them to read this work.

Is the reason also that you agree with the implicit moral assumption that young women must wait until marriage to have sex or they are tainted and less valuable?

It might seem obvious that the outdated gender morals underpinning the action of the play are contained to the world of that play, that obviously you as the professor don’t feel that a women should be stoned or banished or shamed for being a sexually active adult. It might seem obvious that the trope of the tragic heroine undone by her loss of innocence isn’t something you actually think about the real young women sitting in the room with you.

When you say it out loud it seems obvious. This is exactly my point. You need to make sure that it’s obvious. Because if you don’t say it, how can they know?

I try to pass on the sensibility that every artist actor, director, playwright alike, is the author of his or her own artistic experience. That we all have choice and agency and therefore responsibility in the material we present and engage in. That whether we are in the position of learning versus expertise, it is still incumbent on us to have thoughts and opinions about the work they engage in and that we must examine and decide if we accept into ourselves and how we do so.

If we don’t, we run the risk of perpetuating the same things we’re frustrated by.

If we don’t share all the lessons we have to offer our students, we risk passing on others we never intended.

– A

Connor’s Story

When I first started doing theater I was in 7th grade. It was a way for me to get out of my own skin, skin I wasn’t super comfortable in yet. It was a way to escape and be someone else. It was also a chance for me to be with other people, to find community. I liked having what felt like a secret club of people who got together to create something bigger than any one of us individually.

When I first started doing theater the stories I told didn’t really matter: Annie, The Music Man (twice) and Neil Simon’s Start Spangled Girl. But it was the act of telling them that made meaning for me of my experience, the act of being together with people. In high school, I wanted very much to be Bernadette Peters, to have big hair and a big voice and a fancy costume and to be very good at what I did. Somewhere in the midst of that time my desire transformed from simply wanting to be a part of something to wanting to be a part of something amazing, to create it at a high level of skill.  So I trained in music and acting and having always prized myself a very good student, I threw myself into that study with fervor and drive.

When I first started doing theater I thought that the purpose of it was to raise myself up to the level of the creators whose works I was enacting. I thought that playwrights and composers had some kind of magical skill. I thought that their works can from some nebulous place that was very different than the kind of place I pulled my own artistic feats from. And it wasn’t until I first found myself making a piece of my own that I realized that I too had that capability, that capacity. And it wasn’t until then that I was really really hooked.

When I first started doing theater, my experiences shaped my ideas of what the end product was supposed to look like: fancy, professional, expensive. When I first started making theater my experiences shaped my ideas of who the audience for that work was supposed to be: increasingly large and anonymous groups of people who come to see me and my works because of my skill and excellence. It was an impulse to impress. And when I first started doing theater I thought that my job was to try and tell the stories that matter to the most people. To try and create as universal a message as possible. To create a Great American Play.  To try and reach people I didn’t know and pour into them the experience of my greater artistic truth.

I don’t really think that any more.

If your plan is to see Welcome To Campus and you haven’t yet, don’t read this next part. If you’ve already seen it, or know you won’t make it, go ahead and proceed.

There’s a moment early in Campus where the student tour guides, who have been up to this point manically presenting Drexel in a shiny brochure-style intro, crack just a little. They are listing, as one ought as a highly school spirited representative, their favorite letters in the word DREXEL. Student Cami, a go-getter, chooses D for its primary position. Garth relates his choice of the E as the “workhorse” of the word. And so on through L and X. And then just after Dean has also chosen D (without which he would “just be EAN”) there’s an awkward pause. A sort of looking around and then realizing “Oh right…” kind of moment. And then Lexi breaks the uncomfortable tension with a plaintive, “Connor’s supposed to be the R.”

Through the rest of the play – a walking tour in which the students relate their actual college experiences in the locations in which they actually occurred – Connor and his obvious absence are hinted at and remembered. His return is promised and reiterated. And while we grow closer to Lexi, Carl, Cami, Garth and Dean, our sixth tour guide Connor remains an enigmatic mystery. The audience knows only that he seems to have been rather important to our tour guides and that clearly he isn’t going to be here.

The stories the tour guides tell (once having broken their shiny personae) do not relate to him really. They are stories about their experiences from their actual college lives. They are stories of a kind that no traditional tour will give. What the actors and I aimed for was to find a way to share the intimacies and strange details that really make up their experience of higher education. And yet, in these moments in between performances of the most awkward dates of one’s life or ruminations on feeling terribly alone in a new place, they all keep hinting at this other unseen person.

An outsider to the show might wonder what exactly the decision process was behind including such a motif through the show.

I could create a fancy and artistic sounding justification. But the real reason is this: there really is a Connor and he really was going to be a sixth tour guide. He also doesn’t  go to Drexel any more.

I taught a class last fall in preparation for this show. All the tour guides in the performance were part of this class. We spent 10 weeks together talking and playing and writing and reading and sometimes farting around trying to create an idea for a play. Over the course of this term we found together this idea of a college tour, an offshoot of an initial idea I’d proposed, one that included their own personal stories. And for their final I prompted them to give a theatrical tour of an actual moment from their lives in a non-theatrical space, ideally the actual location if possible.

One of the last ones we took was Connor’s tour, which happened in a large and scary building called Drexel One Plaza (Garden Level for those in the campus know). On a cold day late in the term we walked from the black box theater over to the building, tried the back door with no avail and then walked around to the front to be told by a security guard that the building wasn’t open to the public after 6.

We got in anyway; the group managed to sneak in through a side door after one of the students confidently declared he could find a way to get us in. When we did get in,  filled with excitement and giddiness at having outsmarted the proverbial castle guards, we walked through the empty building’s halls. And though I pretended not to notice the security cameras lining the ceilings, I did gently encouraged Connor to get a move on with his tour.

We walked through the strange windowless floor to a simple and unremarkable classroom. Connor’s story was relatively straightforward. It talked about feeling a distance from the Drexel. It talked about being displeased with the administration and academic environment. It talked about how his long distance girlfriend and her support was really the only thing standing in the way of him throwing in the towel on this version of the college experience. And then he told us about the day that she sent him a text message.

He told about a recent day he had been sitting in this classroom and how he had been looking at the board (the one we were now looking at just then) and how he had been holding his phone (the one he was now holding) and how he’d received a text message. He told us that reading the text he knew he would break up with his girlfriend later that day and how he knew when it happened he was going to have to leave Drexel.

It’s how I found out he wouldn’t be there next term.

And we all sat there. Sat and stared at him and his phone and the room and each other. Each thinking about the fact that this was the room where that choice had been made. The same way you stare at the walls of Versailles knowing a king used to sleep in a bed there. It was a weird kind of re-enactment, one where you become aware of just being. Aware of your being in a place where someone else’s being has just been.

As I was sitting with the class thinking about all this a security guard arrived and told us we had to leave. We giggled and pretended to be sorry for breaking rules we clearly weren’t sorry to have broken at all.

This is one of my favorite moments of teaching, ever. I still have trouble putting into words quite why.

I really like the play I’ve made with these Drexel students. I think that Welcome To Campus is a really lovely play. But it’s funny sometimes when I watch the audience. I think about the fact that to them Connor is just some name. That even though the actors and I went to the trouble of re-creating the whole thing – mentioning Connor’s absence, staging a security guard denying us entry to a building, building in a covert break in, telling the story of the text message, the sitting in silence and getting kicked out at the end, all of it – there’s some part of me that is sad that they don’t know that what they’re seeing is just a re-creation of the real moment that has stuck so hard with me in this process.

A few days ago Connor came to see the show and I got to watch him watch his scene.

This is one of my favorite moments from teaching, too.

I didn’t direct this play solely for this moment. There’s more in this piece than just this particular layer. But it felt like the right kind of full circle. That finally we had an audience member who really knew what the journey of this play had been. Because even though he wasn’t there when we built so much of the later parts of it, he was an insider in one of the moments that sits at its center. And now I could watch this insider see the thing as an outsider. See a creative voice get to be an observer of the artistic result.

Connor is the opposite of the kind of person I used to want in my audience. He knows more about the moment of his personal scene than I can, than I ever could, understand. But that scene feels like the kind of gift I feel my work needing to be – a way to see our own lives reflected back to us, to parse them out for meaning and beauty – through the help of the artistic process. And while I don’t want to deny the anonymous who see the work their place, for the few I’ve met have been lovely and effusive, I wonder in a piece like this if the point is not for this insular community to create a message to send to the outside world, but for us to use the work as a way to understand our place within it.

How do we open our process to an audience that will not only be our external viewers but our internal community? How do we bind them to the building of the thing? How do we share in the depth and power of expanding and filling our stories with shape and craft?

I don’t yet know. But it feels like the calling.

– A

52 Weeks, 52 Plays: Week 1

Back in high school my theater department’s office had a giant catalog of scripts. My senior year I decided that I would read a play every week for an entire school year. A lot of those plays I’ve forgotten, a few have burrowed into my brain very deep. But I think the real lasting impact was less any particular show, and more the fact that I felt like it gave me a concentrated bit of time to sit and ruminate on theater, on how I would stage that play, if I would stage that play, what I thought the playwright wanted and whether I would want something similar or different.

2014 has, at least nascently so far, been a year of initiatives.

A few weeks back I was thinking again about plays. Scripts, specifically. Being a deviser I so rarely read “finished” scripts. And I thought that it could be interesting to check back in with the writer-first world that most of my profession lives in. I wanted to know more about contemporary playwriting, what trends are out there, and who the outrageous creators were. But I also wanted that sense again, the time to look at someone else’s idea of theater and to just… react. So I put up a post on the old book of faces asking for play submissions, bound only by the stipulations that it should be something from the last 3 – 4 years with a bonus for female playwrights.  Happily, I got a ton of response.

The public-ness of this blog, another formerly nascent initiative of its own, was very helpful in  keeping me on track with getting writing out back in the earlies of 2013. A rule lover by nature, I liked knowing that I was in a little way publicly accountable for doing what I’d set out to. So I liked the idea of trying to catalog this idea of reading a play a week for the entire year of 2014. I made a list, started thinking about how to organize the endeavor and I start off the very first week with a copy of a play called The Noise by Rachel Bonds.

Here’s the thing though…  I don’t want to write a review of this play.

I am incredibly aware of how subjective a given random day’s awesome-ness or shitty-ness affects my view of a thing. I am also aware that reading an assessment of another’s work will bias future people about that work because you’re either reacting to or against their positive or negative assessment.  So while I don’t think I’m incapable or unqualified to read a play and assess it, I kept thinking, what end am I aiming for? I am certain that this project will not result in Swim Pony suddenly deciding to produce new young American playwrights. I also don’t particularly want the responsibility of advocating for or against another artist’s work. This space, for me, it feels like it’s really for something else.

So I’m trying to shoot instead the kind of feeling that I had back in high school: using a particular play as a springboard to jump start the way about the way I think about theater, what I want to make and see, and how it reminds me of the possibilities of what are out there and what I can imagine could be out there if I were to make it. So without further ado, Swim Pony musings from The Noise.

A synopsis in a just a few lines: The plot of The Noise centers on four characters – Ellie – a 28 year old math teacher who has lost her mother, Amos – a 30 something history teacher with whom Ellie becomes romantically entangled, Bert – Ellie’s father recently remarried and finding a sudden need to tend the garden his last wife once kept, and Janice – Bert’s new wife who is trying to deal with his blocks in processing his previous wife’s death. Ellie and Bert both work to try and deal with their feelings at the loss, Ellie by guarding herself against new love, Bert by an obsessive need to rebuild to the vegetal life his wife once tended. It’s a story about people searching for connections to each other. Added to this is an eerie/magical presence of The Noise – a form that emerges from darkness and beckons Ellie into the most quiet, silent and still places in the world and in herself.

This is in many ways, a play about grief – a daughter who has lost her mother, a man who has lost a wife. But for me it was equally as much a play that explores darkness and silence. I was captivated by this idea throughout the reading, how we can create a performance that invites an audience into such a deep and still place. I wondered as I read if it possible to ask the audience to do what The Noise asks of Ellie, to invite them into a “moment of utter and complete stillness.”

There’s a kind of anticipated rhythm of drama that I feel in most of the theater I see. Working in the field you can sometimes start to sense a kind predictable structure. Even in the messiest of emotions, there is a kind of arc that becomes ingrained – the anticipation of the lights going down, the building action of conflict, the perfect timing of a character coming to catharsis, knowing just when you’re supposed to cry or laugh as an audience whole. It’s funny how in a way this journey can become incredibly familiar, perhaps even to the point of banality. It’s why, sometimes, a person in the audience coughing can so thoroughly draw attention of everyone in the room – because such events stubbornly refute the tempo and timing we expect of the moment.

Such an occurence, pedestrian as it may be, is living by the pulse of some other kind of world. It rubs so coarsely against the slickness of a polished piece, it is so imprecise and un-theatrical, that it can stubbornly demand our attention.

Reading this play I wondered, how long could you ask someone to sit in the dark and close their eyes and just… be?  Talk of such stillness in concert with dialogue so sharp that it snaps (Which this piece has, by the way. If you want a scene for young actors that is smart and sweet, the first pages of this play are quite fitting.) such contrast highlights my hunger to really experience such a sensation for myself. What if you created a space where a room full of people were asked instead of watching someone listen for the most perfect silence possible, actually were invited to find it for themselves. Silence is of course, a kind of sound, one end of a spectrum, and as a creator who very often lives in my ears, I love the idea of taking a moment with a listener to turn off the lights and work at awakening this sense. The Noise is a play filled with the sense and absence of sound, with vibrations and reverberations that move in and through us, and as a director it makes me wonder how one might take this impulse even further.

The other element suggested in the staging is The Noise itself, a kind of fantastic presence that emerges from and pulls others into darkness. The playwright notes that she first imagined the presence as a girl (10 – 16) standing in a doorframe unmoving from a nightmare she used to have as a child (can I just say, I’d love to see this nightmare?). She instructs the reader to seek an ageless quality but not an overly heavy creepiness. Like Victorian child in a frilly dress. Which is funny because it’s exactly what the others who read the play mentioned envisioning.

The Noise appears in the shadows of streetlamps with an unsettling howl. And though nothing in the play suggests it, for some reason all I could imagine was a picture from a friend’s facebook profile that looks like this:

The noiseI kept imagining the character one part jaunty animation and one part black oil from the X-Files. And it made me wonder how to create such a thing in a live performance setting. Made me want to try and create a presence out of the kind of things that theater does very well – where a thing that has no life or seems very ordinary transforms into a kind of magic.

And last, this play made me wonder about my taste for messiness.  It made me think about how strong the impulse to tie things up neatly can be and how perhaps our work, like our lives, might benefit from a bit of nasty bits left in.

So there’s week 1.

Here’s to another 51.

– A

PS – For those interested here’s her website and a bit of info on her recent work with the Arden Writer’s Room.

52 Weeks and Flux

I used to put pictures up with my posts a year ago. Does that make them better?
I used to put pictures up with my posts a year ago. Does that make them better?

A year ago I wrote this.

One year.

It sort of seems impossible.

Dear reader, in some ways it feels as if that person and her impulse to write could have been me both 10 years and 10 minutes ago.

Yet, in thinking about this past year, I also sense a slow tectonic level type of shift. And while this movement has quite possibly been in the works for a very long time, perhaps since the start of my creative career, it also feels like a wave finally beginning to crest.

And troublingly, I don’t quite know how to say any of this. Not in a way that feels specific enough. That feels like it really articulates it. I just know that there is a high level of Flux in me right now.

I like this word – Flux.

First searched in the dictionary Flux is listed as this: “A series of changes.” And also “continuous change.”

Back when I was studying science I learned about Flux in the context of physical passage: The amount of a defined thing moving through a defined amount of space in a defined amount of time.  In this context Flux is a rate. Something whose motion feels closer to a verb than a noun. I remember in particular a problem on a multivariable calculus final in which bees were flying out of a hive at great speed.

Flux is not the hive. Nor is it the bees. It is a measure of them as they pass from one place to another.

When I get to ruminating poetically, the Flux in me feels like the measure of something moving internally from the person I was to the person I am meant to be.  And right now that feeling, that rate of movement of stuff from one place to the next, that series of continuous changes, all of it feels as if it is being pushed very hard. Like a swift current, the force is visceral. It is gathering momentum.

This is why it is so funny to read my thoughts from a year ago.  Because so much in me feels like it is in motion, but so many of the words remain applicable. Most notably from that year ago, the question of what I am doing and why remains.

Most days planning spools further and further away from the present: a year before I can re-apply to this or that, to get funding to start on the next thing, maybe more before I might be ready for this other opportunity.

And at the same time, the passage seems so quick: A year, an entire year of life and what really is different? What do I have to show for it? Is it enough?

So to the feeling of Flux I must ask: Have I actually, tangibly, changed or does it just feel that way? 52 weeks later what can I say to the person who asked if I could define what I want out of art and cut out the rest of the crap to “really concentrate on making what matters”?

A year ago I was looking for change that was easy and obvious to show myself. I thought about changes in location, in career, in love, in life. I ultimately decided that these weren’t the changes I actually wanted to make.

But perhaps there are other changes. Things that are invisible forces. Changes that are harder to see with the naked eye but that move continents if given enough time.

Here is what I do know:

I don’t feel the need to make a new “play” any time soon.

I might be done making “plays” for a while.

But I do want to make something, and I need to figure out what that is.

And while all my creative impulses are terribly impractical from a producer standpoint, for the first time in a while that feels like fun and not a hindrance.

With luck (and hopefully likelihood) I’ll read this in a year’s time and see what Flux has forced me to find.

– A

Some days I’m just tired of talking about money

There’s a moment in Inside Llewyn Davis that absolutely slayed me when I saw it on Monday night. The movie, which follows a young folk singer from Greenwich Village in 1961, shows an artist struggling to survive. There’s plenty of emotional twist and turnage that make this film an engrossing one, but the moment that gutted me, that hit awfully close to my own heart’s home was one about two thirds of the way through. The protagonist has taken an arduous journey from New York to Chicago in hopes of impressing a music mogal named Bud Grossman. Llewyn Davis arrives in Grossman’s office looking beaten. He asks for… what? Recognition, money, help, something he doesn’t even quite know how to ask for, for an opportunity it seems he already believes he has no shot at.

Grossman looks condescendingly at the record he has just been handed, one bearing the same name as the movie, and says something to the effect of “Well show me what you got. Show me what’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

So he does.

In a dark, half lit room, the character nervously sits with this man who holds the potential to change his future, a man who sits like a stone staring, unblinkingly at him.

Here Llewyn Davis sings.

Sing beautifully, achingly, heart-breakingly open. The camera moves so little, it is one of the closest things I have felt in film to the real spirit of live music, to being that close to someone who is filled up with song. For me, it felt as if I was witnessing someone doing the very, exactly, and absolutely necessary thing they were put on the earth to do.  It felt that for Llewyn Davis music is the language that he as a person is truly intended to be speaking to the world. And the song, which I barely remember, is itself almost besides the point. The singing of it, and the feeling of doing it, is what’s really worth watching, and in the act is contained a beautiful kind of holiness.

At the end of the song there is this thick and vulnerable silence that feels like nakedness.

The man with the power looks at the one without and with all the casualness and ease of a Hawaii vacation, with all the finality and solidness of a period at the end of a sentence, says to him:

“Well I don’t see any money in that.”

Sucker punch.

In the heart.

With a spear.

Made of ice.

I’ve thought about that scene for days now. I’ve repeated this line to myself over and over and somehow, it only makes it worse the more I think about it.

Why does this injure me so much? Why does this wound to an imagined artist from 50 in the past get to me so much? Why does the reduction of one person’s lovely song to a lack of dollar signs get in me and stomp around? I keep asking myself these questions. And I really do wonder why, in a life where I spend so much time and effort fretting over and raising and dealing with and paying out and worrying worrying worrying about money why this stupid little line in this movie has got me so twisted and tangled inside.

This happened to me, this moment, in almost exact verbatim.

I was sitting across a table from someone proposing a production of my work. I was asked to describe the project that I wanted to create. I talked about the legacy of a movement and the music that it produced. I talked about the textures of peeling walls and echoing voices down a 200-foot corridor. I spoke about the sweeping grandeur of becoming a legend and the power of watching and listening and singing as the eye bounces between the living humans and the decaying space that contains them. And for once, happily, when I finished speaking I really felt that I had captured it, this vision of my future creation, at least in part, at least enough that I believed I had spoken about it with honesty and truth and sincerity.

And at the end of speaking, I too found myself in a moment of silence, thick and vulnerable, waiting in a kind of nakedness.

“I don’t think we can get enough chairs in there. I don’t know how we’ll be able to cover the costs of this thing.”

Same story, different medium.

And you know the funny thing?

I felt bad for having done it. I felt stupid for bringing such a proposal in. Preposterous, even, for wanting to do something so commercially unviable. That I came to that meeting kind of knowing and not really caring that the thing wasn’t ever going to make money, that it was an inordinate amount of work for such a tiny number of potential audience viewers, but that I didn’t care and wanted to do it anyway. That I believed in its value despite this.

Here is a true statement: I am not a religious person. I was not raised in a tradition of faith.  But sometimes when I make something it opens up a space that is larger than myself. And that space it is the closest thing I know to belief in something higher, bigger and more powerful than me. The moment of creation is the moment in which I feel the distinguishing line between the tiny bits that make up me and the tiny bits that make up the clothes on my body and the tiny bits that make up the people in the room and the lights above my head and the sound that passes between us and the floor that we rest on and the building we reside in and the whole rest of the world, all those tiny pieces become one part of one big thing that we all share together for the moment that the feeling passes through all of us.

Eventually I did end up making that piece that didn’t have enough chairs to make it monetarily worthwhile.

But I will never forget that moment: when you hope that the person sitting across from you, by virtue of being so close to the thing you have committed yourself to will understand, when you dream that they will see the world and the thing you show them with the eyes with which you also see it. When you imagine for a just a moment that it might be as easy as it was before you had to start selling the things you’ve made, things that in truth you would rather give away freely for the sheer love that the creation of them affords. It is the definitive nonchalance with which that hope is shattered, the tedium with which the deepness and sanctity and need you have for what you make is disregarded. This misunderstanding of what the art’s usefulness is, what it is there for, this is what punctures the chest.

It is not intended as cruel, this act of refusal, this alternate measure of art’s worth, but it is presented as truth, which to me is so incredibly much worse. Because it makes one feel that such a feeling is so thoroughly beside the point, and that you the person feeling it are silly and small in doing so.

It’s negotiating the massive space between a dollar sign and the thing that lights you up inside and makes you so much bigger than you were before. It’s taking that thing and then having to figure out how you can push and poke it so that 50 chairs instead of 40 fit inside your vision of it.  It’s taking the most beautiful song that you know how to sing, the one that comes from way way way deep down inside you and being told, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world, that it will never make any money.

It is the definitive and inflexibly casual insignificance of the artistic product when it is unable to be shaped into commodification.

This is the thing that hardens the soul.

This is the moment of singing that song, Llewyn Davis, and I feel it with you.

Learning vs Doing

You know that feeling when something just… bugs you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still. 

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

A

On Valuing Age, On Appreciating Wisdom

I find my thoughts drifting these days to my almost three year old niece and the fact that any day now she will become an older sister. She’s decided on her name for the impending baby. I imagine is as excited as an almost three year old can be about such a thing, understanding it about as much as an almost three year old can.

I keep thinking, “Man kid. You have no idea how much everything is going to change.”

Then: “You are about to feel so grown up.”

When my thoughts drift this way, I think about how much my identity as an older sibling has meant to me, shaped me, and shifted who and how I am. My earliest memories start around the time my own sister was born – at that “almost three” age. So for as long as I’ve had a remembrance of myself, it’s included the sense that I was older and more experience than at least one person in my little world.

It had a profound effect.

It meant that even when I was a “little kid”, I was still the “big girl” in the family. It meant that I always saw myself in the light of being the first to pioneer new frontiers. It meant that I linked being older with being wiser, stronger and more powerful. Getting bigger meant I would be that much more the holder of experience that I could pass along. It became a deep value of mine, the acquisition of such wisdom, and it’s become a huge part of who I am and what I want out of my life. So I’ve always reveled in  “grown up-ness” and deeply appreciated what each increasing year has given me. And I still look forward to getting older with excitement and anticipation.

Of course,  there are plenty who would tell me I’m a young pup. Which, of course, I am in many respects. While many days I feel like I’ve done a lot and lived a fair amount, there are certainly times when I see myself in context of those that are ahead of me and feel young and inexperienced indeed.  But unless you have just been born NOW! or are Jiroemon Kimura you always have someone younger and someone older than you. And that means that you always have the ability to view your identity in the context of being more youthful than someone ahead of you, or further along than someone behind you.

The arts in general (and the performing arts in particular) aren’t always the best contexts for celebrating experience. While we pay some token homage to great masters, anecdotally it feels to me like we tend to reward the promise in a young savant painter, the grace and beauty of a youthful dancer, and the charisma of the impish new actor far more than we do the earned and learned skill of decades long practitioners in these same mediums.

And really, that’s too bad.

I think fetishizing the early work of artists is damaging to art as a whole. Not that such young work can’t be beautiful and moving but it’s often much simpler and straight ahead than the stuff we make later on. In art as in life life, we generally learn that things that seemed so black and white once upon a time are much more complex and mysterious. Things that we held positions on in unilateral unyielding ways we start to see shades of gray in. Things we never ever believe we were capable of, both good and bad, we suddenly realize we have completed. Our creations cannot help but reflect our deeper and more multifaceted views of the world.

So though I can appreciate the promise in the early works of a budding artist, it’s usually in their mid and later stuff that I think you really discover the complexity and depth of what a creator has to offer. It’s in the complexity that you see what these makers are really made of. It’s these kinds of works that may not be so easily digestible that challenge me to be a deeper and better art viewer. It’s in the stuff that reflects all the life that others gained that I see the kind of artists I want to be. I believe we should be treating this like gold.

And I try to remember this when I sometimes fantasize about my early creation, try to caution myself from forgetting its value. I try and stop idealizing an approach and attitude that lacked the decade of making I now have and remember how easy it is to forget what was tough, rough and messy.

I’ve had the luxury of re-working shows that I started creating 3, 5, 7 years ago. And with each of them I have had a moment in rehearsal where I think:

“I am so so much better at this than we used to be. We are all so so much better now than we were before.”

Not everyone gets that chance and sometimes a slow building of skill and experience can seem to have always been there. Which is why it’s so important to remember not just what you have learned but that you have learned, that value of age and experience.

The arts are a punishing field. If you’ve lasted a while, you must know something that others who haven’t stuck it out don’t. But there aren’t enough voices out there that tell you that.

Recently, I’ve seen a number of companies with variations on apprentice/young professional programs. I’m often struck when I see them in action by the distance between the actors with years of well earned experience and where these fresh faced folks currently are. I jokingly say that I keep seeing babies on stage. Sweet, wonderful, babies. But babies nonetheless.

These lovely eagerlings are the promise of artistic potential, but they are often not the delivery of that craft. At least not yet.

And that’s a great thing, so long as the attitude of our community is that as an early career artist, the work ahead of you should be what you have to look forward to. It’s a wonderful place to be so long as you know you will be rewarded as your depth and skill and knowledge increases from here. It’s a lovely path to look ahead to when it means that someday you can turn back to the road traveled thus far with pride and not a sense of burden.

It’s important to remember.

I don’t want to be part of a profession where people don’t need to wish they were babies again. I want to be part of medium that rewards me because I want to keep growing up.

– A