Rounding Up #TheSummit

Hey all,

At about the halfway point in the month and looking back at what I’ve been writing so far, I thought it might also be interesting to share Ilana Brownstein’s round up of all the reactions to #thesummit so far.

PS – Mine’s in there too…

Drama Lit Blog 2.0: BU School of Theatre

On Feb 17, 2014, Peter Marks of The Washington Post hosted an event called The Summit — it was a public conversation with several of D.C.’s leading artistic directors. As Peter noted in an article for The Washington Post, “Several months ago, Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, approached me with an intriguing offer: organizing and moderating a series of discussions, with theater people and topics of my choosing, onstage before an audience at her theater.” It was the first of three planned public fora — the others are scheduled for March 24 (focusing on actors), and April 28 (playwrights and directors). The event with Artistic Directors was not livestreamed, but it was live-tweeted by several attendees, chief among them Elissa Goetschiusartistic director of Baltimore’s Strand Theater. It’s probably fair to say that no one involved expected the event to blow up twitter as it…

View original post 463 more words


How best do you root this shit out?

I have been seriously trying to think on this one in the past couple days.

I keep thinking about #thesummit and I’m still not sure how best to proceed, both when it comes to talking with folks who are semi-anonymous AD’s I don’t personally know and with my close friends and peers. There are a couple of recent specific incidents that have sparked this post’s train of thought, but it’s also an issue that I’ve struggled with for a while, and, based on convos from the Awesome Lady Squad, a phenomenon that I think is much much bigger than just me.

It’s easy to make a list of female directors. I’m glad I did it. But it’s harder, by a lot, to actually get people who are making artistic choices, to take that list and hire them. I really believe that almost everyone, in theory, supports that list. Is there anyone in this community who would admit they don’t want women to hold an equal place? But somehow, seasons get chosen, shows are cast, and it continues to happen. If we all agree it’s bad, how and why do such inequities persist?

The problem, I think, isn’t that any one choice is particular misogynistic or horrifying. I think that’s actually pretty rare in this community. What’s more likely and perhaps far tougher to solve, far more problematic, are singular well-reasoned, well-intentioned choices across many many companies that still add up to a gender inequity in the community as a whole.

The problem, I think, isn’t intentions, but a lack of culpability for outcomes.

Which is why trying to tackle such a thing is so tricky. You don’t want to feel like you’re attacking any particular person or company, any particular choice, because of course those people have well reasoned and thought out plans for why they’ve chosen the way they have. It feels mean. It feels punitive. But then what exactly are you supposed to do about the fact that women are still vastly under-represented on and off the stage in almost every theater in this city? How in particular does one try and make a dent in this?

I’m trying. I’m trying to throw darts at what I think might be the board. I’m trying to initiate conversations with a fair number of different people on both the very tiny and very large scale of company sizes to see if I can get them to engage. I’ve been having this conversation everywhere, from theater lobbies to parties and even in my own home with my own fiancée who has his own company.

But I’ll be honest, right now, I think I’m failing. Right now, this morning, it’s feeling like a real uphill battle. And at this moment, it’s feeling a little defeating. Because despite trying to be intensely careful about my wording, despite continuing to reiterate my respect and admiration for folks, it still feels a little like I’m the one who has to constantly justify what I’m seeing. That if I perceive an imbalance that I want to unpack or converse about, I have to ensure that I’m completely grounded in my observations before we can engage. That it is my job to make sure I don’t put people on the defensive, even if my aim is to provoke and question an aspect of their work. That I better walk in knowing an awful lot about the person or company and their reasons for doing what they’re doing or I’m doing something wrong. It feels like I’m the one with the onus to prove there’s a bias.

And that’s hard to do. And it feels a bit like an impossible task at this moment. It’s hard to know everything about why someone selects a season, why someone has picked a particular play. It’s hard to be sure that under intentions, there are less obvious things that still might be worth addressing.It’s hard to know exactly how the issue is feeding into the situation, especially the closer in you zoom.

What I do know is that as I’ve looked at a few companies, I still see that fewer actresses will get cast and fewer female playwrights will be produced next year. That’s what I wish I could fix.

When I talked about this conversation with my fiancée he said this:

“The thing is, I just think it would be sad if people felt inhibited to talk about things. Or if their imaginations were squashed because they were trying so hard to be careful.”

I thought,  “I feel that way so much of the time.”

I feel that way whenever I try and bring this up. That if I’m not so terribly careful, I’ll make people feel unfairly labeled and then I’m the bad guy. That I’m not giving them a chance to show their side of things. Sometimes I so get tired of always having to hear the other side of things first. Because my aim is never to put people on the defensive but it feels like regardless of my tactic this is always the result.  And many times, the risk of alienating someone doesn’t feel worth it in a given moment and not bringing it up is the only way I can ensure someone won’t get their hackles raised.

So sometimes I don’t.

And sometimes when I do, the result doesn’t always feel that I’ve been able to communicate what I’d hoped. More times than I wish, I’ve walk away feeling further from the person I wanted to engage than when I started. And this in particular makes it harder to do the next time.

This must be part of why these things persist, no?

I don’t want to squash the imagination of others. But it sometimes feels to me, and I hear from other women that they feel this too, that this problem squashes us all the time. And it’s hard to know what to do when I don’t think people aren’t trying to do it. It’s hard because it feels like for me to ask for what I think is fair, I’m also punishing or taking something away from someone else.

We’ll have to think on this one a bit more…

– A

Talking about talking

So I’ve been thinking a lot in the hours since my last post about how to have this conversation.

I’ve been thinking about how we can best begin to discuss issues of unequal representation in a way that both is honest and straightforward and is also productive and provokes dialogue instead of defensiveness?

In other words, I want to start by talking about how we talk about this.

I find it easy to provoke and push when the target seems large and imposing. I find strength in feeling myself becoming a David in the face of a Goliath. My guess, without having been there, is that this was the awesome power of what happened at #thesummit. It was a moment where the folks on the stage, the ones with some degree of sway and power and perhaps a degree of unknowing complacency, had to take in the might of opinion and feeling of the voices sitting on the other side.

But in a business as tiny as this, in a community where community is key, when networking and positive relationships determine your ability to get a job or a grant next week, month or year, it is easy in the micro-moments of inequity to excuse the tiny things. Too often any one moment or choice or thought seems isolated or small enough to swallow.  And as the distance between we and the “giants” gets smaller, the harder it is to see them as the Goliaths they once were. Little things amass because it’s sometimes hard to know what is and isn’t a battleground.

And let’s also point out that these are really hard conversations to have.

Because so often I see an cry to battle dissolve when it has to translate into the daily implementation of such ideas on the nitty gritty detail level. Based on the conversation in our few meetings of the Awesome Lady Squad I hear female artists find the balance of when and how and where to try and bring these issues up the biggest barrier to change. “Do I really want to make this tiny line or scene or interaction a soapbox?” “Do I want to be that actress today, tomorrow, through this whole process.” “Am I really seeing this or am I being overly sensitive?”

It’s exhausting constantly trying to parsing it out in the moment.

And even if you are sure and you do know it’s an issue, it is so so so so so so so much more difficult to say things that are tricky and sticky to people we know and care about. It sucks to be a watchdog. To be a nag. To feel like you’re stopping everyone’s fun. To put people on their guard. It can feel like the opposite of the artistic impulse, where we want to feel open and accepting of each other. And I think it’s so hard because to have that conversation is also to acknowledge that the ills of our culture, the biases and darknesses that float around us all the time, also make their way into our brains. That we are sometimes making choices with little pushes from beliefs or stereotypes we’d never support if we said them out loud.

I wrote a while back about a study that showed how academic scientists displayed preferential treatment of men when filling a position for a lab manager.

In that post I explained how candidates in the study were never seen in person and scored based on identical applications save for the gendered first name of the potential employee.  I underscored that this bias was shown in both men and women assessing the candidate.  And I made a particular point of noting that none of the decision makers felt their choice had been affected by the applicant’s gender in any way. They all felt they were being totally gender objective in their assessments.

In other words, you can display bias and stigma and stereotype even when you don’t subscribe to them, EVEN when YOU are the negative recipient of them.

It is scary to think that stuff is in us. Even scarier to come to terms with the fact that it can affect our actions despite the best of our intentions. And when confronted with it, defense is natural. From the outside it seems ignorant and bigoted. But my guess is that the real cause is that no one wants to find in themselves dark things they didn’t ask to be in there. So sometimes it’s easier to believe they aren’t.

And it is here I want to point out the latent superpower we are missing: Yes, this is hard. Yes, It is tricky to talk David to David rather than David to Goliath. But.  The closer we are, the more potential impact we are likely to have. The closer we are to them, the more likely we can get people to let that guard down. The closer we are to the offending source, the more likely we are to find a safe space to excise these demons with their hosts intact. And if we can win them to our side we grow our army of soldiers. The less it looks like a war and the more it looks like a conversion, I think the faster the battle will be over. If we have to kill them all, we may still do it, but I bet we lose much more time and resource and energy.

So I think we should begin with two assumptions, even if it may seem idealistic or naïve:

1)   No one intentionally wants to make harmful choices to women artists.

2)   Everyone imbibes some level cultural crap that will predispose him or her to doing so.

So when we look at the choices of a company, or another artist (or in our own work for that matter) and we see something that makes us feel squicky, our goal should be to remind them of #1 and help them see where they might be displaying the crap of #2 (pun by the way, totally intended).

To do that I think we start by asking these questions:

Is it conscious? – i.e. Does the person or company know and realize what they’re doing? Do they identify their behavior as a problem or are they truly unaware of it and its effect?


Is it conscionably contextualized? – i.e. Have they passively presented potential problematic material/decisions or have they taken steps (even if imperfectly) to justify them through dialogue or contextualization? In other words, do they balance a guy heavy Glengarry Glen Ross with another play with mostly female cast? Do they perform a problematic cannon text in context of a conversation series about historical representation of women in history to point out the potential in conflict with the morals we have today?

How we assess the answers to these questions will help set the stage for the modes through which we express our concerns and I think also help start to identify the solutions. And in tailoring it in this way, I think we get closer to coming to real understanding of what’s at play in each specific case. Because the devils really are in these details. And if we don’t treat all offenses alike, I think we’re likelier to find specific tailored solutions, likelier to find and commit the people who are ready and wanting to change but may not yet be brave enough or know how on their own to do so.

More on this tomorrow…


PS – For some other awesome follow ups to #thesummit look to this from babelwright and this from Tamara Winters

Getting to “Fuck It” Faster

If you’ve been standing within 100 feet of me in the last month or so, you’ve inevitably heard me go on and on about my most recent directing project.

It is, in essence, a project that does not adhere to any of the rules that I follow in my “real” work. It is one that I traveled almost two hours a day to get to and from. It is one that rehearsed at odd and tiring hours after full days of other work. It is one that paid me far less than the salary I set for myself in my own company’s work. It is one that I embarked on with little choice in content, space, personnel or schedule. Never in a Swim Pony project do I allow designers to be assigned to me. Never do I cast a massive ensemble based on a day’s worth of auditions. Never do I work in a tiny and oddly shaped theater space. Never do I do so many of the things that I did for this recent production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at Arcadia.

Yet, I can hardly recall a time in recent memory when I have been this excited to get to rehearsal, felt as free in pushing and playing with my actors, as wildly open to trying any and everything that my mind could conceive.  And ironically, I can also hardly recall a time when encountering things that did not go the way I expected where I felt so easy in adapting to the new circumstance and believing that success or no, it would all still absolutely have been worth it.

I thought about this yesterday as I semi-moped about my house feel post-partum performance let down. I thought about what it might mean that I have been so very happy these past weeks and what I might need to do to capture this feeling more often.  And as I was semi-moping I thought about the times in the past when the work has felt the most fraught and when it has felt the most free. And collage-like came a cascade of things people have said to me that feel strangely similar:

A written comment from a vocal jury performance: “Adrienne Mackey is a wall of sound”

A reader of this blog: “It surprised me to realize that you could be that vulnerable.”

The remark during a training session for Roy Hart work: “Adrienne, you are like a golden tank. Beautiful but bulldozing over everything in your path.”

In a therapy session recently: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes I find you very hard to read.”

And as these thoughts fell through my mind over the course of the day, they began to layer into the shape of something resembling a realization. Not an earth shattering one, in fact something that I’ve pretty much always known, but one that I realize I haven’t totally acknowledged as a problem: that when I really intensely care about something, especially when I’ve had the chance to stew about it for a long time beforehand, I often psych myself out of really enjoying it. When I really want to do my best, when I am trying my hardest to do that, I often over-think myself out of doing what I want and having a good time.

Often in school, in training, in life, in my work I have these moments where I want so badly to do well and I feel myself failing. And this failing becomes this nasty spiral where I want to do well so I push too hard or work too much and then feel the falseness of that work, feel the desperation of it, and end up falling farther down the hole. And so I try to relax and not care, but of course, I know this too is a lie, that I do care, that I want to do well, and so feel guilty about trying not to do and bounce back and forth between half measures of forceful pushing and uncommitted frustrating motions of trying to disengage from my angry and needing and deeply caring self.

Almost always when I get to an incredibly exasperated and dark place at the bottom of this spiral I say, “Fuck it.” And only then in hopelessness despair do I finally give up trying.

And this, inevitably, cliché-ingly predictably, is when I finally break the cycle and start making the stuff that’s really good, the stuff I wanted to make the whole goddamn time.

It is so recurrent that I can even know that I have to get to “fuck it” and in mind boggling-inducing meta levels of self-sabotage manage to try too hard at finding the feeling of “fuck it” until I give up even at this and rage at the gods with a hearty “fuck it trying to find fuck it!”

And then, of course, the work gets good.

Perhaps external measures of success have become so entangled with my own sense of worth, with my own sense of desire, that when I think about it I genuinely feel like I don’t actually know what I want. Maybe I am so often in my head that I start to game out every strategy ahead of time and this removes me from actually experiencing anything in the actual moment of its happening. Or possibly the key to really loving something is the delicate balance of knowing when it’s time to try hard and when to let go.

Maybe it is all of these things.

The real gift of the process I found with my students at Arcadia was that I walked in and had absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. I was doing a play with no one to impress in a style I have almost no expertise over on a subject I pretty much didn’t give a shit about. And somehow that gave me freedom to do exactly what I wanted. Which was lovely and freeing and incredibly important to me. And by the time I realized how much I cared about it, I had already found the permission to keep doing it. And in so doing, saw the freedom and permission that all of my lovely darlings gave themselves so that together we all set ourselves free.

This is what I thought about yesterday in the afterglow of a lovely process.  And sitting here now a day later thinking about those thoughts I think this:

What the fuck (it)?

Because, really, what the hell do you do about that? What do you do with the knowledge that when you try hard you are trying too hard? That when you try not to try you end up trying harder? That you’ll keep going around that until you despair and give up and then stop trying and then you’ll finally do it right? That this always happens unless you magically manage to end up doing something where you don’t realize that you care until its too late and you’re already doing a good job?


If I look back at my past, I see this pattern emerge everywhere. Beginnings are so often the most joyous place for me. The moment of beginning, the time before I know enough to know enough to know when I’m messing up is usually when I manage to subvert the work and get to “fuck it” faster. It is the moments when I don’t realize what I’m doing or I go into it not thinking much at all about it that I am able to just relax and really let rip.

This is how I discovered a theater of devising rather than scripted plays.

This is how I became a funk-a-delic back up singer.

This is how I started teaching new approaches to voice.

This is how I found myself loving so fully a production of Midsummer.

This is how a person who has intense personal space issues looks at a hoard of college students and cannot help herself but to hug them, to grab them about the ears and kiss their faces. How a person whose persona is thoroughly entrenched in wanting and needing and demanding respect in my field and from my peers can have no shame. How she who is so studious and careful in letting people in has no trouble showering these students with all the feelings that I am filled with when I see them in voluminous words unprepared ahead of time (so as to ensure they accurately describe the true depth of my feeling). And how in such total lack of preparation I find truer expressions than in the many times in the past I have tried with hours and days of writing and re-writing to say something right from the core of me.

Even here. Even in this space, it feels just a bit forced trying to pin it down in words after the fact. And I am trying as I write these very words not to hit the back button, but to allow myself the luxury of letting these thoughts tumble out just as they come.

And I don’t exactly yet know just how I will do it, but I think this is the work I must be doing now. Finding my way to “fuck it” faster. Figuring out how I can be as generous with myself as I am with them. How I can give myself the sovereignty over my artistic space, to do whatever I want simply because I want to, because it makes me happy, and believe that this happiness is the key to my artistic success.

– A

Sad truths about art, as imparted to an eight year old

The other day I was walking to the store to buy groceries. As I approached a park ahead on my right I heard a small voice emanating from the impending entrance and soon after saw that a young girl was standing on jungle gym equipment singing to herself.

She was maybe 7 or 8, the age before you’ve honed the full sense of shame and just how far your voice can carry in public. She clearly had no awareness that any passerby might notice her as she bent over in concentration swaying back and forth in pink high tops and purple pants to an almost trance-like beat within her. She raised her head to the sky and belted out words in her tiny voice as if her life depended on it. The song, a syrupy pop devotional, proclaimed a hunger for a romantic love that was clearly far past the understanding of someone her age. It was obvious however, that she wanted, nay needed, nothing else in the world but to feel that feeling that she sensed in the music. Her little voice strained to capture the fullness of an adult’s embodiment of love.

It was absurd and laughable, this. And also inexplicably cute. And I might have simply smiled to myself and kept walking had I not noticed something else. I might have kept going were it not for something that happened at the end of the phrase I happened to hear as I passed.

As this little girl made her way through a predictable downward cascade of arpeggiated notes – “So give me lo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ove” – she hit a stinker. In this pattern mimicked from the radio or her sister’s ipod was one big nasty note that stuck out. I turned my head for just a second as I walked past and witnessed the full force of artistic anguish in this poor little girl’s face.

And that’s when I stopped.  Just past the gates, out of her sight.

She let some fifteen or thirty seconds pass in silence, just enough time for me to almost begin walking again, and then took a breath to sing the phrase again.

“So give me lo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ove.”

Again a bum note, different this time, earlier in the progression, but unambiguously not part of the intended effect.

And from the sounds that followed I can only presume she jumped to the ground and stamped her feet in rapid alternation to the frustrated bleet of “Ugh! UGH! Gah! GAHHH! AGHHHH! I never get that riiiiight! I. Can. NEVER. GET. THAT RIGHT!!!!”

Stillness for a moment. And then crying.

“Oh no,” I thought. “You’re in for it.”

Little girl of 7 or 8 that I passed on the street who I do not know and who I caught singing bad pop songs in the on park – you’re doomed. Doomed because there’s a secret that no one tells you when you first start making art. It’s a dirty bit of knowledge those tattered survivors fail to impart on the younger set: this feeling will never go away. You think you can’t do it now because you’re small and new. And while it seems tolerable that your level of taste starts out far higher than your talent, the truth is it never quite catches up.

That feelings you have in the explicitly “learning” phases of life – the ones that say, “I know I haven’t quite mastered this yet, but I know that someday, I totally will be like the people admire and imagine have landed. Yes someday in the far distant future I know that I’ll know what I’m doing.” – you think that disappears.

Sorry, it won’t. In fact, you realize one day that you don’t ever get to get there, whatever you’ve imagined there to be. And then maybe just like now, you also will cry and stamp your feet because you feel like you don’t know how to do what you’re trying to do. Eventually, you just get better at hiding it. You might feel a little cheated that no one told you that the feeling of inadequacy that you think comes from being a student is something that not only doesn’t disappear, but grows. That feeling of faking it is something that simply become a fact of existence punctuated by glorious and terribly brief periods of belief that you actually know anything about anything. And that you too will likely hide in plain sight in front of younger artists who might even think you have landed and that you will perpetuate this facade.

Little girl of seven or eight, let me give it to you straight:

Imagine whatever you believe the end point to look like. Capture a distant island of “artistic success” in your mind. You think you can see a journey. You think you are building a boat to that island. But that too is a mirage. And by the time you’ve sailed your ship that far out to sea you’ll realize that there is no there there. There’s just you and an ever expanding horizon of what is possible. That note won’t satisfy you in the long run little one. For a moment or two, but not for a decade or more. There will be other notes you’ll get hungry for soon enough.

And were it not weird for me to presume that this tiny blonde thing needed my life coaching…

Were it not odd indeed for a professional theater director of ten years to stop a child on the street to give her advise on a life in the arts…

Were this little girl not likely to be justifiably scared of some adult woman stopping her on the street and projecting her own insecurities and fears and failures onto the song that she heard and liked and doesn’t understand but just wants to sing because she thinks it will make her feel good…

Were all those things not the case, I might have walked back a few steps and looked at her and said:  “Keep trying. You’ll get that note. And by the time you do, you’ll have found something else to worry about. And that is both the loveliest and most frustrating truth of the artist’s life – that if you really want it, you likely won’t ever really believe you’ve done enough. You will have pride and accomplishment and satisfaction. But you likely won’t ever feel like you’ve arrived.”

And then she would likely have looked at me and said:

“Lady, I just like to sing. And I’m eight. And you’re scaring me.”

She’d be right. But so would I.

But because it was odd for me to do all those things I just listened to her stamp her foot and start again. I thought of my day’s own frustrations and furious workings to beg a thing that seemed so obvious and simple to please already just come into being.

And I figured best to just continue on and buy some bread.

– A

The Ballad of John and Jen

When I started writing on this blog, it felt like I was pouring out a lot of the things that I had been feeling for a long time. The first posts were thoughts and arguments I’d been having a lot – internally with myself and externally with others – and were pretty well formed in terms of their reasoning and logic by the time they went onto (virtual) paper.

In the last few months, however, things have slowed. That’s partly (perhaps largely) due to my busier schedule of work. But I think it’s also because I’ve started to dig deeper into some of these things, I’ve begun to get at the stuff under that stuff. I’ve started to get at the things way down that one may not really realize. When you really start to pull apart your choices you start to see the unnammables that work on you, the things that you didn’t totally even realize were there. When you get down into the real muck of it, this stuff is less formed and harder to parse out. You start to pull apart shit that is often much much trickier to unravel and reason through.

I think this might be where some of the real scary stuff is.

I think this is where the less polite stuff is.

I think this might be where people could get a little upset.

But I think this might be where some of the real work is. And I think this might be the place where you start to tackle the issues that really might make a difference. All of which is to say that this post is coming back around to some of the women in theater/gender parity stuff.  This is a first step at trying to dig into the muck.

Let’s begin with the truth: we have some major work to do.  Even those of us with the best intentions aren’t really fixing this problem. Those of us with cursory intention are likely perpetuating it. We can blame the theaters that continue to produce plays with way imbalanced seasons. We can bemoan the writers that continue to create the plays. We can lament the market for having a glut of women. We can do all these things. But it isn’t going to get us anywhere. And if we actually want to get somewhere we have some “money where our mouths are” choices to make.

Backing up a bit: I had an argument back in mid-April, right around the time I wrote this post slamming a few Philly reviewers for their presentation of women in Shakespearean roles. This argument, one that had seven months ago is still picking at me and has been ever since I had it. It would randomly surface in my head in the middle of rehearsal, while driving, watching TV, I just couldn’t let it go. Couldn’t let it go because at the time I had it I was trying and failing to say something, something that I felt with incredible force and vigor and anger and fullness, something that felt like it implicated me and in the way I make choices about my work, and frustratingly was also something I felt totally unable to articulate.

The argument was a sweeping one, the kind that starts with a couple offhand comments and ends up gobbling up an entire afternoon. It was the kind of argument you can only have with someone that you really trust, because you actually start to uncover defenses. It was the kind of argument where you talk about the things you believe deep deep down inside about yourself and the world around you. And my sole caveat here is that it’s totally impossible to try and reconstruct all the things we said. But basically, it came down to this hypothetical:

If you have a slightly better male artist and a slightly worse female one, should you pick the worse one to help achieve better representation of female artists?

In the moment of the argument, it felt like I had no choice but to argue for the latter. It felt like a mission from on high. Like my entire life depended on making the case for that female playwright. That there was something deeply stacked against her. That I was the only way she was going to get a chance and if I couldn’t find a way to make that choice seem reasonable and obvious to my argument partner that she and no female writer after her would ever get it.

Which of course I failed to do.

And of course there are (and were) many reasons one could counter the position I took. Rational, reasonable, intelligent and thoughtful positions that we went back and forth and back and forth about. I almost ended up in tears because sitting there I felt so torn between the opposite side’s reasonableness and some kind of irrational deep down feeling that said there was something very wrong about taking a side other than the one I was on.

Neither of us could be moved. We left it unfinished.

But as I said, this question and the debate that ensued has continued to stick, continued to hang out in the back of my mind, needing to come to completion. It’s been this nagging incomplete thing trying to resolve itself for seven months now.

Over time, small details begin to accrue:

An review for a work of my own in which women played “men’s” roles

Writings from the dear Katherine Fritz

A book on the virtues of affirmative action

And then finally this: a study in PNAS about gender in the sciences that both control for and show statistically validated evidence of bias from Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues at Yale. It was this last one cracked something open that I can hopefully finally start to put into words.

Here’s an intro from Sean Carroll’s blog for Discover:

Academic scientists are, on average, biased against women.

I know it’s fun to change the subject and talk about bell curves and intrinsic ability, but hopefully we can all agree that people with the same ability should be treated equally. And they are not.

What the researchers did a randomized double-blind study in which academic scientists were given application materials from a student applying for a lab manager position. The substance of the applications were all identical, but sometimes a male name was attached, and sometimes a female name.

With me so far? I swear, this comes back to the arts.

So half of the applications were Johns and half of them Jennifers. What the findings showed were that the faculty members rated John significantly more “competent and hireable” than an identical female applicant named Jen. These participants also selected John to receive a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to this male applicant.

And the real kicker? It didn’t matter if the faculty member was male or female. Both were “equally likely to exhibit bias” against Jennifer and viewed her as “less competent.”

A depressing graph:

graph 1 PNAS

How about another?

graph 2 PNASIn her great Scientific American blog post about this study, Ilana Yurkiewicz appropriately writes:

Whenever the subject of women in science comes up, there are people fiercely committed to the idea that sexism does not exist. They will point to everything and anything else to explain differences while becoming angry and condescending if you even suggest that discrimination could be a factor. But these people are wrong. This data shows they are wrong.

The thing that stuck with me about this study, maybe even more so than the disturbing results themselves, is that, as Yurkiewicz points out, the scientists didn’t view gender as a factor in their decision-making. They thought they were using objective data for their assessments – rationally reasoned, non-gendered arguments – to determine the strengths of this particular candidate for this particular job.

I’d bet my house that were I to get into argument with those interviewers of Timon of Athens that the points they would have countered with would been rationally reasoned, non-gendered arguments. And my point is that just because you don’t obviously act like a sexist or consciously espouse anti-female philosophy doesn’t mean it isn’t working on you. And even the benefit of experiencing that disadvantage is no shield from inflicting it on others.

Does anyone want to guess about whether I think this pattern might be found in other contexts?

If it can happen so sneakily in something as cut and dry as the representation of skills on a job application with the exact same credentials but a difference of –en versus -ohn at the end of a J…

If there are forces that bias us against thinking that a woman is as capable and intelligent as a man in doing a job in such a carefully crafted scenario of objectivity

If that can happen in a field whose express purpose is to remove bias from its methodology

How can we possibly imagine that we can create object assessments in all the incredible number of variances and nuances and details about what makes a better work of art?

So of course if you knew for one hundred percent sure that you were absolutely judging the work objectively then yes yes yes yes yes you should absolutely pick the “better” play. But I what I’ve come to finally articulate these seven months later is that I just don’t believe there is anyone in the working world that can honestly say that they can do that.

If you have a slightly better male artist and a slightly worse female one, should you pick the worse one to help achieve better representation of female artists?

The problem isn’t your answer to this question. The problem is that this is how the question seems to always be framed.  And I don’t buy this scenario is really the one that any of us is objectively encountering.

So when I hear “It just turned out that way,” I’m calling bullshit. When I hear, “The season line-up just ended up male heavy,” I’m calling foul. When I see foundations that just “happen” to be given to a majority of male-driven companies, I’m not going to say “Well that must have just been the applicant pool this year.”

We all know the odds are already stacked against women because we see it manifest all around us. And while the scientist in me wants to document and collect all the evidence I can to try and display this finding to the world, the maker in me says I need to find a way do something about it now. I don’t have time to wait for a fix. I don’t have time for more research. I’m making my work right now. And there’s no thinking theater artist I know who would truthfully declare gender wasn’t an issue on the general scale. Where we break down is whether we are willing to acknowledge that it’s happens in our own personal choices.

Intentionally or not, like it or not, we are all making a million tiny anti-women decisions and justifying them with million other reasons.  The troubling implication from that PNAS study is that we not only judge women’s past work less fairly but that the bias impedes the potential for future opportunity. And without opportunity we are less likely to create new examples in which people can start to see anything different. Every performer or writer or director knows without a chance to make anything you can’t get better at making things. Even if you wanted to work way harder to achieve the same perception of success it’s going to be way harder to find the opportunity to do so.

And here’s where I’m going to get honest with you all.

I think a lot about this. I try very very VERY hard to root this shit out at the source. But I know I do it too. I wish I didn’t. But it’s just… in there. And were I able to somehow analyze my seemingly objective rational non-gendered artistic decisions I bet I’d find that I too have subtly undercut women in my process or in the field as a whole. Though I might not see exactly how those predisposed biases slip in, I know am not immune. And neither are you.

And in knowing that, I have felt myself at a cross roads where it seemed like I was asking this question:

If you have a slightly better male artist and a slightly worse female one, should you pick the worse one to help achieve better representation of female artists?

And increasingly, over the last decade of my career I’ve forced myself to do the thing that felt, in some vague and hard to define way, the slightly less artistically “right” choice because I believed it was the better moral one to make.

Just so that I’m totally clear about this:

I’m saying that I have steered projects in artistic directions that I might not have otherwise had I not cared about making a less imbalanced world through my theater. I have often picked the slightly “worse” artists because I believed it was the morally right thing to do.

And I do it constantly. I do it on projects ALL the time. Not just on the ones where it seems obvious. I make myself go against my gut in lots of choices because I think it’s better for theater as a whole.

I don’t often don’t say that out loud.

In fact, I don’t know that I’ve said it to almost anyone before now.

And part of the reason for my artistic public persona – my warrior-queen-who-get-all-the-grants-and-deserves-them-because-I’m-a-badass-take-no-holds-creator stance – is to show that despite doing this you cannot impeach my creative process. I want to demand that people acknowledge my artistic worth. And I do that because I secretly fear that people will see what I’m doing and think less of the work. Because deep down in the muck I fear that most people think women are not as artistically capable or that their stories are not as interesting.

In the past I’d get really hung up about it. I’d worry that I was losing my sense of artistry in order to make a point. And though I still believed it was worth it, I fretted about the cost.

I used to think that I was trading quality for principle when I did that.

Now I’m just going to think, “Jennifer.”

Perusing the outcomes of those choices here’s what I find: way way way more often than not, the person I picked was able to bring something to the table that was tangibly better. For obvious reasons, I am not pointing out specifics here but suffice to say, when I went with that slightly non-gut choice, I was often rewarded back in spades. And even when I wasn’t, if I could remember to view the failure in context of the qualities of the artist’s work and not simply their gender, I almost always saw that the real issue had little to do with them as women.

I’m not saying you have to pick terrible performers. I’m not saying you can never work with who you want. But I am saying that creative worth is totally squishy. I’m saying that we make artistic assessments for all kinds of totally ridiculous reasons. I’m saying that the way it’s usually is done is a massive amount of momentum pushing you towards a choice. I’m saying that we’re probably wrong as often as we are right about how a collaboration or an artistic impulse is going to work out. That failure is built into our creative growth.  I’m saying we might as well start being “wrong” for the right reasons.

I’m saying that if you do this for a living, you have to know that so much of the time the difference between two options in the scope of a whole process doesn’t mean that much in the long run. I’m saying the difference between “really good” and “just a little bit better” is likely negligible. And perhaps not actually there. And even if it might be, at a certain point, the artistic benefit no longer justifies the outcome.

I’m saying if you’re at all considering a chance to give the opportunity to a female voice or person or story you should do it.

I’m saying if you actually care about doing anything about it, you have to do it. Even if something is pulling you away from it. Maybe especially then. Because that thing that’s pulling is ugly and dark and mean. And it hides in reasonable arguments’ clothing, it hides in gut reactions we don’t quite unpack. The only way to exorcise it is push in the opposite direction. Even when it seems strangely hard to do so. Even when it makes you feel a little funny. Activist-y. Moral high-ground-y. Like you’re doing the wrong thing-y.

Trust that you’re an amazing artist. Trust that this small push in the other direction will not harm your work. Know that it is a better thing for the world to have done. And see that your work is no worse off for it.

And then perhaps we can start actually getting this shit fixed.

– A

You can

Is it just me or do people seem tired lately?

I don’t mean standard issue Festival post-partum malaise. I mean an industry-wide heaviness that is seeping into a majority of the conversations I have with people these days. A lot of people seem really weighed down, overwhelmed and ready to cut and run. I’ve been thinking about this weight, the sadness I sense in others and creepingly in myself. I’ve been thinking about how to tackle it and where it comes from.

First, a story, or a confession rather.

About a year ago, I was on the relationship rocks. Not through any kind of infidelity or betrayal. No, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with my partner and I. That said, through nit-picking and bickering, through the penumbra of apathy and assumption that LTRs can sometimes attain, I’d found myself in a place where nothing felt particularly right either.

I was bored, I felt trapped and I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted my future to look like.

The long and short of all this was that I had to ask myself some hard questions. I had to be honest about whether I was actually living the way I wanted to. I had to really own up to whether the choices I’d made were ones that I really wanted to continue with.

Basically, I had to decide if I wanted to stay or I wanted to leave.

Here’s the thing: as scary as that realization was, it occurred to me for the first time in a long time that I had a choice in the matter. Having to contemplate the very real possibility of not assuming the things I had would always stay that way meant that I really looked at them closely.

And for the first time it occurred to me that some of them were things I really didn’t want to lose. And it also occurred to me that there were things I was doing that were not making that terribly easy. In the midst of this very dark time I had to look at some choices I was making and some habits I was holding onto that were working against some of the things I professed to want. Contemplating whether I really wanted these things kicked me in the ass a bit about getting in gear to go get them.

Another confession, while this was happening in a lot of areas of my life at the time, the LTR I was really most worried about was with my identity as a creator.


We’ve all found ourselves in the midst of a lot of work that we don’t much care about for, work we don’t really even seem to like. And in those moments it’s easy to say to yourself, as the proverbial Talking Heads saying goes, “How did I get here?”

I, clearly, didn’t throw in the whole towel. But I did throw out a few things and I gave myself some mandates on what had to change. I decided to let go of some things that were making me tired. And I decided that when I get to the end of a project, as I have done just now, I’ll have to think not only about what the outside world tells me in terms of whether the work is good or bad, but whether it’s making me happy, whether I’m really doing what I want.

Another full disclosure: I really liked working on The Ballad of Joe Hill. There were a lot of great things that happened for the show.

But I’m pretty sure the Festival wasn’t the right vehicle for the piece.

That’s hard to write.

It’s hard to write because I spent years courting them and building my reputation as a creator worthy of presentation. It’s hard because there’s a measure of success that comes with being presented by a big name. It’s hard to write because without something like the Festival, I’m on my own to find the people I want to see my shows.

But I still think it’s true.

I’ll give the required caveat: I really appreciate everyone that came out to see Joe Hill. A lot of people really responded to the work. I am thankful to them. I appreciate them. I am happy that they came.

But I still don’t know that they are the people I wanted to reach. And I still don’t know that I totally achieved what I set out to do.

That’s even harder to write.

But I still think it’s true.

What I set out to do what get people that might never see a “play” to come and see this thing that I made. I wanted to find the folks that are a little rowdy and rough around the edges. I wanted to find the people that are into a dare, a risk, a potentially strange, dare I say, unsafe experience.

That’s what I really wanted. Because that was the promise the 2006 version offered to me all those years ago when I first made the show. That was the LTR that I signed up for: an off-road practice of the theatrical experience. A chance to honestly and actually shake up an artistic medium.

What I wanted out of Joe Hill was to get actual NEW theater audiences into the seats. To pave the way for a future definition of theater and theater audiences that are more in line with the ones I want to make.

And I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t get that this time.

Which doesn’t take away the success the show did achieve on other measures of success. It doesn’t take away the pride I have in what I made. But it also doesn’t excuse me from what I really want.

And unless I want to end back up in the heavy place, I need to keep reminding myself of that, and I have to be honest next time I start thinking about where I want my work presented whether it’s going to have a fair shot at getting me where I want to go.

See, there’s nothing wrong with failing. But you have to be honest at the get go about what the goals are and whether you’re really working towards them. And when you aren’t, you have to be ruthless, even when it’s hard, about pointing yourself back towards the where you want to head. This is the divining rod we all carry around in us as artists, that  magnetic pull that tells us whether we are truly inside the truth of our work. And sometimes fear or failure or poverty or allure of praise can push us off that course. Sometimes a compromise isn’t a bad thing. But there are times when it isn’t what we really want and we can feel it, deep down, when when it’s actually at odds with what we really need to be making.

Look, if you’ve already made it as far as a life in the arts, it’s pretty clear that no one is forcing you to live any way but the way you want to. Last I checked, there was no theater artist acting with a gun to their head.  And the bold, startling, scary but ultimately empowering truth is this:

No one in the world will be a stronger advocate for your work than you will be. No one will better articulate and know what you need than you do.

Which means you have no one else to blame if you aren’t doing something you love. Which means that if you feel your work is selling out or getting too middle of the road you are the one that is letting it get that way.

But which also, happily, means that the only thing stopping you from exactly the work you need is yourself.

“But the money Adrienne! The Money!!!” You cry.

“Really?” I reply “Is it really the money? Is the money so good that it’s worth it?”

I just don’t think so.

“But the structure! The company! The audiences! I’ve worked so long and hard to get it to this point. What will I do if I have to leave it all behind.”


Pew doesn’t know your work. Fringe Arts doesn’t know your work. Independence, William Penn, that big name donor, that huge fancy festival, that amazing company artistic director, that opening night party tray sponsor,  your viewers, even your long term collaborators, not a single one of them know your work better than you do.

Only you know the work you need to make.

They want a lot of things all those people. But for you to want them, you have to, have to, have to also want to be doing the thing that they want or your collaboration with them will always be you wishing you were doing something else. And no matter how happy or supportive or structured or monied these things get you, it still won’t be worth it.

I think this is the fatigue. I really do. I think it’s years and years and years of trying to ignore that the difference between what we have and what we actually want to be doing. You can feel the honest to god joy when you really fucking nailed it on the goddamn head with exactly what you were meant to be doing and who you should be doing it for. And you have to chase that shit like there is no tomorrow.

You do not have to take that role if it’s stupid or offensive.

You do not have to apply for that grant if you hate the terms of agreement.

You do not have to have expensive costumes if the fundraising stresses you out.

You do not have to seek out wealthy audiences if they aren’t the folks you really want there.

You do not have to do any of the things that others tell you. You can do what you want to do.  And only when you do that will you start figuring out if and how that is possible. And it is possible that it isn’t possible. But at least you aren’t pretending that it is and that you’re actually doing it. At least then you can decide if you want to do something else. Or maybe, maybe likely, maybe amazingly, you’ll take that incredible wealth of talent and actually figure out how to do that thing you really wanted to be doing.

Too often I hear my peers talking about work they don’t love with companies that don’t pay enough with people they don’t really want to be around. This is what’s making us tired. And I’m tired of it.

You don’t like the work you’re doing. From now on, it’s on you.

Because you can change that.

Your leverage is your presence in their company.

Your leverage is your work in their festival.

Your leverage is your name on their grant.

Your leverage is your kindness and intelligence and heart in their life and you CAN use it to stem the tide in the opposite direction.

You may say to me, “But my leverage is nothing. They don’t care if I leave, they’ll just find someone else.”

To which I say, then is that really the system that you want in on? A world in which your presence has no value whatsoever? A place in which the uniqueness of what you bring to the table is completely devoid of significance? A system in which your abstention on the grounds of monetary or moral grounds doesn’t mean anything?

Is that worth giving up your happiness for?

No it’s not.

And if they don’t appreciate it, maybe especially if they don’t, if you don’t feel satisfied, if you aren’t getting enough to make the thing worth it, it’s up to you to use that leverage in the other direction. To show the folks what you’re really made of.

You can, nay, you must.

If you don’t, no one else will.


Been a while…

Hey Friends.


It’s been a while.

This summer has been a bit of a hiatus from this space. It’s been a lovely and hectic and busy time. And it’s filled me with lots of new thoughts about making and doing.

And I’ll be honest, at some point after being away for a while I started to feel a little guilty. This is par for the course with me. I like to do things perfectly or not at all, and once I start to get that, “I haven’t written anything in a while…” feeling, my first instinct is to find some kind of distraction – a stupid show or a silly game – that keeps my mind off the fact that I’m feeling a little overwhelmed because something I care about isn’t perfect.

This is the same perfection/ignore cycle that resulted in my mom threatening to cut me off if I didn’t call her to say hi during my junior year of college. Because once you feel a little guilty about not doing something it just builds and builds and builds.

Back then, I just worked more to keep that feeling away and at bay. And surrounded by other workaholics, that seemed like the norm, just what you did – put your personal problems on hold – so I never questioned the impulse. Now though, whether it’s because I don’t have the stamina (negative view) or I’m less able to give in to the self-destructive impulse (positive view) I just don’t tolerate the punishing schedule ad nauseum anymore.

Which isn’t to say I don’t work hard. I do. We all do. But it is not with the frenetic blind need from before. I can’t work and work and work if I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, if it seems like it’s working for working sake alone. And this summer has been an interesting case study. It’s one of the first times in years that I’ve had as many things going on. But it’s also one of the first times that I feel like I’ve given myself a process in which I actually have all the resources I need.

The Ballad of Joe Hill which is running currently at FringeArts has, in particular, given me some food for thought. The first iteration of this show had a kind of magic. It was brutal, produced on about $1,500 of cash and a whole lot of sweat and heart, begging and borrowing. There was a tiny core of people and we did everything. We carried each object into the space with our hands. We rehearsed in dribs and drabs when we could fit the time in between jobs. We changed where we performed. We hauled dirty, heavy risers in and out of tiny storage spaces. We printed fliers and begged the press to come. We made change for the audience and stored our money in a cigar box.

The stuff is still carried, the space is still dirty, but this time Joe Hill has a small army of folks – a full time SM, PM, riser and light crew and more. Our equipment was delivered. We have real bathrooms. Our box office is taken care of. I have not once had to think about marketing. We have had full 8 hour day rehearsals in lovely controlled spaces. And – and this really is the greatest of all the things – I haven’t worked a single other job since we started working full time.

If I had to imagine what I really needed for this show when I did it that first time, this is close.

And I have to remind myself of this. Last time, the crap that seemed out of my control the first time – the money, the resources, the time, etc – gave me a mental pass on making my best work:

“If only I had real money”

“If only I had everyone all the time”

“If only I knew someone with more expertise with lighting”

“If only I could just concentrate on doing my job”

“If only”

The problem with “If only” thinking is that it puts you in the past (“If we’d only had…”) and the future (“If I can only get…”) but never in the present. And theater in particular as a medium is about the glorious immediacy of RIGHT NOW. It’s our biggest superpower – the ability to require another human to “be” with you, right then and there. “If only” stops you from seeing what’s really there and instead what could have or might be if only you were a different person in a different place with different stuff.

I don’t have that pass anymore.

I have myself and the work.

And in a way, that makes this project a bigger win. Maybe even harder fought. Because it’s not a battle with tangible limitations. It’s just a battle with myself and all that empty space. If I fail, there aren’t other excuses to blame. It’s not because I didn’t have what I needed. It’s because of me.


It’s been a while.

I hope to be here more often. And I’m going to try and not let myself get too caught up in the “If only I had more time to write this” feeling I’m having right now. I’m going to attempt to work through this lesson and simply do the work that I can do, right now, and let that be good enough.

– A

For the other

Fellow art makers, I ask you a question because I want to know if you feel the same.

I struggle to talk precisely about my relationship to my work, to making, to creativity, to all the things that are connected to and impossibly diminished into the imperfect word that is art. Even writing it, thinking it, it seems so much less significant than it feels.

To forgo sleep over art.

To lose oneself over art.

To cry and despair over art.

Doesn’t that sound so silly and small?

Like a child who cries when an imaginary playmate drops their tea. Like a teenager lost in their own emotional maelstrom and unable to see how little their problems are in the grand scheme.

Which is why I ask you: is it just me?

For you, creator/builder/music-maker/dreamer/poet/writer, it isn’t so small, no? For you it isn’t small at all. I want to know if you too feel a strange and entwined feeling.  Not just to a collaborator, or a particular work, or even an entire genre. But to some kind of entity, a large and all encompassing force that is both rooted to the very center of you and simultaneously massive and larger than you can hope to conceive.

It is a relationship that I struggle to put into metaphor.

It is some part romantic, some part friend, some part deity. It is in many ways connected to those with whom the work is created, at times weaving together disparate persons who under any other context would have no reason for connection. But it may also be a force of isolation, leaving one standing alone with their beliefs and their visions and vainly crying out and wishing they could offer the eyes through which they see. And while it can work through people and manifest itself there, it feels at the core that it is just me and it – the thing, the feeling, the intuitive relationship to the work/skill/force.

And lest I get all Bronte on you (but really, given the flowery and Romantic nature of this writing, aren’t we already there?) it is actually the deepest and most sustaining love I have ever known. It is the relationship for whom I have sacrificed the most, the bond for which I have been most willing to grow and change, the one that has redefined and required the most of me.

And while it is deeply personal, it doesn’t feel like it is one that I have with myself. I’m not battling with my own insides. I’m fighting to figure out how to be with and in this outside force. Like swimming in a current unsure if it is taking me somewhere I ought to be going.

The work and I are locked in step – sometimes in battle, sometimes in sync.

And because it is unlike any other relationship I can see and define, it is so hard to know if it is the work or me when I feel the friction between the two. Hard to know if I am wallowing and caught in a destructive undertow or leaving untreated the pangs of pain that come from when one is violating the core of the artistic impulse.

It’s why, my fellows, I’m asking you, do you have these moments of struggle as I do? It seems surely you must.

It seems that you too must have days when you fear it is more than you are capable of. It must be that you too must have times when you feel yourself alone and rage against not having more faculties to fix what is ailing. When everyone around you seems to see the path that eludes you. Days when you do forgo sleep, lose yourself, and cry and despair over the work, the art.

And on those days do you also, my friends, do you fear, for a moment, that the otherness with whom you wrestle isn’t all that you sense it is?

Or do you also wonder, as I do, if it is as large and full as you sense and that you are too small to encompass it?

I believe you do.

I believe it because I cannot see how else we could stay with it, in it, for years and years. If it is not as big as all that how else could we let it take up so much of our lives? How else could it work through us so thoroughly? How else could it light up our emotions so strongly? How else could something as silly as a song or a scene or a sentence mean so much to us?

How else could I be left sitting over coffee in the morning so uncertain about whether I have been enough for those I have striven to be there with?

I may be less than I hope to be. This is possible.

There may be more strength than I can currently see. This is also possible.

Perhaps it is neither.

Perhaps it is a thing that exists on its own course and runs on an energy that I cannot entirely see, a thing I cannot entirely control, a reigned beast for whom the tighter I try and hold it close the harder it will be to feel its push and pull.

Perhaps what I have given to nurture it most is only tangentially related to the particular worry and fear I feel at this moment.

And perhaps I can only get up from my table to disrobe and stand in the shower and do my best to scrub away the deficiencies in myself I feel.

Or perhaps instead let them fall over me, try my best not to fight them so they do not catch and block, take a moment to have them fully before they wash away.

Perhaps I let myself be in the fear of failure, even allow myself that the losses I feel are real, and that maybe, they are necessary part and parcel with that otherness with whom I am entwined.

And perhaps in a week or two when the thing has come and gone I will look back at myself and shake my head at silly tears. Smile sadly for the person caught in waves of doubt and wish I could tell her that she cannot really fail so long as she does not hide, does not shrink, and does not let the fear make bitter that great love, this love of her life.


Tectonic Shifts

Something tectonic is shifting.

It’s difficult to articulate the magnitude of the slow but massive moving plate of direction and force I feel. It’s something that says it’s time to let go and ask oneself what I actually want, not what I think I can achieve. Of saying aloud what I truly truly can envision.

Let me back up.

So, it’s been a while my dear friends.

I’ve been caught up in the web of work that distracts and delights. My “life” is in at least three kinds of shambles due to lack of attention. But it’s the kind of whirlwind that I adore. How amusing and ironic it is that just as I start to gain some traction in this space, pick up a bit of speed, find a voice through language that seems to start nibbling on the edges of these issues, the work itself intrudes and demands all of my attention. So I’ve had so many feelings and thoughts about making and doing and what matters over these past few weeks. But the energy that I usually reserve for this endeavor, the space and time to think and carve out reason and lessons from impulse and feeling, is currently directed elsewhere most of the time.

So there’s been a lot to ponder, but little time to share it.

Here’s a bite at least.

I’ve written before about the relentless pursuit of the perfect, about my contentious relationship with potentiality. It has been both a motivator and inhibitor. It was, perhaps is still, a trait that I both love and fear in myself.

Loved because I believed that this need to impress, to perfect, to show the world how amazing a thing I can make was/is the reason I make impressive things. I believed that an instinct that runs far back into me, as far back into the conception of myself as I can remember, must be at the core of the work that I do, that it must be at the heart of the thing.

Hated because it was the same voice that said that no amount of doing was enough, kept me awake in the middle of the night believing I would fail this task while simultaneously shouting that it was too small, too pedestrian, too simple to be worth attempting, and that had I bigger vision, I might pursue an artistic feat more real and true.

And too often what ended up happening was this: the beginning of a work is filled with the elated holiness of that first blush, and over time as the thing came into sharper and sharper focus, it seemed to fade from that Aristotle inspired image of a perfection play that lived in the clouds of my imagination. And it’s apparent to me now that near the end of every major process of the last decade or so, I’ve walked away at the moment of the work’s full birth feeling a bit like a fraud, filled with big words and ideas, and scared that someone will expose me and show that none of them have really made it into the thing itself.

But recently, and it’s been building over time, as I’ve found moments to reconnect with old works, think about what truly brought me joy in them, it strikes me that, no, the ideal that I had in my head was not the thing I wanted and loved about being a creator, but a dolly waived in the face vigorously enough that I was distracted into thinking it the goal.

This current piece in particular, this Tempest, shows more than ever how funny that idea was in the first place.

Perhaps this is news to no one but myself, but there is no such thing as THE Tempest. Certainly not with 6 weeks of rehearsal in a park with little money or people. But even with years and infinite funds and whatever space one could imagine, there is no such thing as a definitive. There is just this Tempest, just a Tempest, that I happen to be working on. A particular work made by a particular group of people based on a particular set of factors that govern how the thing is made. Some of these things we can control. Some we cannot. And while I could lament, if I cared to, about how I might better perfect the process, even if I nothing ever went wrong, even if I had more time or money, even if I never lost a performer to circumstances beyond their control, even if the bounds of physics themselves were magically lifted and anything I could see in my mind were possible. Even if all this were true, it wouldn’t change one basic thing:

At the core, the work is you wrestling it out.


With the need to look beautiful.

With the need to be right.

With the need to impress.

With the need to be known.

With the need to reach out to others.

With the need to be larger than you feel yourself to be.

With the need to say something that matters to the world.

With the need to push sadness away.

With the need to feel at home with others.

With a thousand needs that I cannot imagine that are totally unique to you.

With the need to make something perfect and untouchable that no one can ever criticize.

And whatever of those needs drive our feelings and impulses we are often caught figuring out whether to fight or free them as we make our way through the scene (or song, or paragraph, or whatever). Sometimes that fight can feel like endpoint of the work. But I don’t think it is. It’s never the reason we began our art in the first place.

And, for me anyway, I think I’m seeing that beating oneself up about the distance between the ideal of the thing, the perfect version of The Tempest, or LADY M, or The Ballad of Joe Hill is really not about simply getting to the penultimate amazing version of the show. It’s letting the needs dictate the process.

Because perhaps, if I could just get there and prove the worth of the work, the implicit message is that that need with which I am wrestling will magically quiet. Which is why I keep opening the door to another wrestling match even as I grow weary (and older) and feel a little less ready to duke it out inside myself.

But the voice isn’t so strong any more. And I’m a lot less interested in yelling at myself.

Which at first I feared was a mellowing of the artistic impulse.

And perhaps this is what was so disquieting to me several months back when I despaired about the state of my art and myself in it. Perhaps it’s why I felt so far away from the form and unsure if I could continue. Because the thing I identified in myself as the core of my artistic self, this need to work and work and work towards only this “best” version of a piece, wasn’t sitting right anymore. That voice just made me tired a lot of the time.

And in feeling that, I worried that I was losing the central part of myself that made anything worth anything close to worthy. And I worried that I would give in, and make stuff I didn’t care about. That I would give up and stop making at all. That I would have to concede that the making didn’t really matter.

But I think I was missing the point. That I might not make things that appeased the voice. But I also might get to ask myself what I really wanted out of all this. When I am truthful, when I think about the reasons I actually stay, it is no longer to make a perfect piece. It isn’t really to even impress anyone any more. Those used to be bigger driving forces but I don’t know that they are any more.

And somewhere in the midst of this place, one in which there are so many things I can’t control as I usually do, places where there is no way to keep perfection as an attainable outcome, I realize that I have to ask myself what it is that I actually actually want out of being an artist.  And perhaps rather than being dependent on that relentless voice to propel me into success, that perhaps I am actually succeeding in spite of it.

If this work isn’t perfect, but it still feels worth doing, something else must be at play. And I think I’ve honed in on what it might be:

It is the moment when out of nothing, comes something. Whether a room of 4 or 4,000 I am able to witness a birth of sound or movement or word that I didn’t know or only sensed was possible and by helping to direct it, or shape it, or even just witness it I am part of something much greater than the tininess of me. And it can feel perfect in that moment of birth, but the perfection isn’t really the point at all.

It is that in the face of chaos and nothingness and void, there is connection and creation and discovery.

It’s a kind of divinity really.

And I’m learning that it is what in the work actually satiates. Not the most amazing performance, or the most ingenious transition. Because a particular skill or craft does not always equate to genuine creation. Maybe those less practiced in the outcome can actually be a more direct means to find it.

And strangely, in the midst of seeing how joyful I find the moments of that spark in this process in which I am bereft of so many of my usual tricks, I see more clearly the ways in which I am setting myself up to put it lower on the docket of importance.

And so perhaps it’s why I’m coming to this funny cross roads with theater. Because I’m sensing there are ways more efficient to find that spark that ignites through the emptiness. And that the ways that seems most directly plugged into that are more and more looking less and less like a regular process, or theater, or even perhaps “performance” at all.

Like I said, tectonic shifts.

But for now, let’s just enjoy letting the angry perfect voice go in pieces. Let’s enjoy knowing that I cannot give you THE Tempest.

Just this one upcoming, which I think you will enjoy.