feelings

Where we go from here

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sounds mushy.

It is.

But man, is it also effective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling the renewing possibilities of the imminent spring,

A

Reframing

Sometimes when I spend a long time talking about myself as occupying a disadvantaged position it makes me a little depressed.

In writing about women in the arts I’ve found myself sometimes feeling frustrated this past month. And I think it’s because when you define yourself in this way – as a person who is being to subjected and trying to navigate a system that is not always set up to your advantage – you can start to see the problem in everything.

In the general sense, I do think women get less of a fair shake. On average, I believe it is true that we’re under-represented in almost all aspects of the field.

But I think we can probably all agree that thinking that way is no way to live. It’s just too tough constantly imagining oneself as a victim of an intractable problem. It feels too large, it feels to impossible, it seems pointless to even try, if you spend too much time in that mindset.

At least it does for me.

This, I think, is why some pretend it’s not a problem. They have to shut out any disadvantage and just keep plugging away as if things were totally equal because it would just be too depressing otherwise. I’m not chiding these folks too much, because I understand the impulse. No one wants to feel powerless. But I also don’t think that I can join them, because at a certain point I think most female artists just see too clearly the power difference.

A few years ago I listened to an interview with the famed brain scientist Oliver Sacks. I was surprised as he spoke to learn that he in fact suffers from a variety of neurological issues himself. I was even more interested in a statement he made that was something along the lines of this: I don’t know that I’d have been able to discover all the amazing things I had if I hadn’t had an abnormal brain myself. That interview made me think back to reading Jill Bolte Taylor’s book about how a stroke’s paralysis of certain kinds of “left-brain” style thinking gave her an appreciation for “right-brain” thought processes and a new outlook on life.  It made remember a friend of mine from college who was in a serious car accident and who said that she could feel the palpable difference between the kind of person who was “normal” and the way that her mind was now different, how she’d developed a sense of both the neurologically-dominant perspective and her new one as a recovering patient.

That interview planted a seed in me that’s grown into a guiding principle: I just have to believe that all the things that I believe are my weaknesses – my introversion, my status as a female artist, my lack of trust fund, my sometimes weird aesthetic impulses, my thorough dis-interest in classical works of the theatrical canon – all these things that sometimes make me feel like an outsider, are actually my secret superpower. These things that separate me from the dominant viewpoint are the things I can uniquely wield as weapons that those supposedly more in power can never hope to employ. These are the ways that I will be able to innovate. These are the things that will make my art works full of a fuller perspective. They are the things that will give me an angle in that others just can’t see.

This is nothing new, this idea. Lots of people know this. But it’s the thing that really helps on the days when the problems feel so big. When all I can see is how much harder the obvious road will be for me than for some dude with the same skill set.

Those are the times when I say to myself, “You just have to believe that in the long run this makes you stronger. You just have to believe in the long run you will be better for seeing differently.”

It’s the moments when I look at the obvious path and realize if I just cut through the bushes I might get to the top in a totally new way. It’s the moment I realize I have a machete in my hand and can start hacking at something new.

It is a problem in one lens, and I can jump into that perspective when needed to make progress on an issue I see.  But it’s something I can also reframe in my own mind to give me a sense of strength and destiny.  And while it might seem as if all this is a bunch of self-delusion, it’s those moments where I’ve really embraced the outsider in me, rather than just feeling frustration with it, that wonderful things emerge.

Things like a squad of awesome ladies, many of whom I’ve never met who suddenly are some of my most ardent supporters.

Things like creators in different cities who I am suddenly planning to meet because of our shared interest.

Things like an interview for a national theater organization because of my vocal views on an “outsider” subject.

Things like a renewed vigor for a writing forum that I’d let slide more than I wish in the past few months.

This onslaught of new and positive activity all came from just deciding to sit down and reframe an issue as one I can use as a leverage point rather than just being something that pisses me off. It’s become a power I can wield. And I like that.

Yes, it’s still a problem. Yes it’s one I’m solving all the time, and mostly likely will be the rest of my life. But it is also in my capacity to use it to my advantage.

Even on the days it doesn’t feel that way.

Especially on the days it doesn’t feel that way.

I see this as my chance to have choice.

– A

Jealousy

Hey folks,

Since there are so many newbies to the Swim Pony blog joining us for our month of lady artist awesomeness, I figured I’d re-share a post from last year that garnered a lot of attention.

It’s not specifically related to being a female artists, but I’m sharing it because I think it’s going to be one of the major principles laid out in the Awesome Lady Squad’s manifesto (coming this weekend!). One of the ways I think we all get cheated out of the arts community we really want is by being sold on the idea that there isn’t enough to go around. And if there isn’t enough for all of us, we end up feeling like we have to fight each other to get any.

Let’s decide this isn’t the case.

Let’s assume there’s enough Awesome for everyone at the table.

Hope to see you next Sunday and Monday.

– A

mon Some people have all the luck

I will admit it. It’s really hard sometimes to be happy for your artistic peers. There are times when someone you know well gets a job, or some big funding, a fellowship and you just think to yourself, “Damnit. I am just as good as them. This is not fucking fair.”

There are times when I hear about people’s successes and my first instinct is to figure out how I could get a hold of the same opportunity. There are also times I despair at the seeming lack of luck, a random set of factors that make their stuff trendy and my stuff totally prohibited from some desirable professional stepping stone:  I don’t do straight plays, I don’t have an MFA, I’m not great with Shakespeare, I don’t act, I’m not part of an ensemble, whatever. It’s harder, not easier, the closer the people…

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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…

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Tired

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?

And

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…

A

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

Dispatches from The Awesome Lady Squad: #1

At the start of 2014 I made a resolution to become a superhero.

I made a resolution to seek out and form a superhero-style team of bad-ass ladies who are art makers to help spread our art and bad-assery across the city of Philadelphia. I began forming a group that will henceforth be known as The Awesome Lady Squad.

Oh, excuse me. I meant to say:

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First thing you ought to know: there are a lot of us.

I didn’t need to send out a bat signal. I only had to put up a single facebook post and a note on the blog. Almost as an afterthought. I thought I’d get a handful of people. A dozen if I was really lucky. Instead I found 40 people gathered with me last week for two hours to talk and share and start to plan. Clearly, there’s a need to be filled here.

Because from what I can tell, these awesome ladies are just the tip of the iceberg.

So here’s what we, the Awesome Ladies of the Awesome Lady Squad, did in our first gathering:

1) We put out a whole bunch more chairs (Because there were, you know, a lot of us).

2) I said hello. I said that I was excited (Because I really really was).

3) We went around and said our names and the kind of awesome stuff we make.

4) I shared a vision.  It went something like this:

Hi, I am Adrienne.

And you are all awesome.

You are all awesome ladies.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about what it means to be an awesome female artist and the rewards and challenges that come with that. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, in lots of different ways – through writing, through conversation with friends and colleagues, in the back of my brain as I do my work each day.

I think part of the reason I’ve been thinking about this so often is that one of the most powerful developments in my artistic life of last few years has been finding other women who make work. I’ve found women further along in their careers who have experience that inspires me. I’ve found brand new artists who come to the table with a whole new perspective that invigorates and uplifts me. And in meeting these creators, I’ve been craving a way to take all the interactions and thoughts and excitement generated with them individually, and collectivize that into something more power than any of us singularly might be able to achieve.

I believe in talking about problems and highlighting them. I’ve done a fair share of that over the last year. But even more, I want to assume that there are concrete things we can do, that with effort over time, can shift the problems we see into solutions.  I believe very strongly in Philadelphia’s strength as an artistic community. I think we are different than most places in our support of each other as not only as creators but as human beings.

Which is why I’m inviting you to join me in a lofty goal: To make Philadelphia a model city. A model of the way we believe that female artists should be treated, a model for the kinds of work that’s possible when such awesome artists are allowed to access their full capacity, a model for how an imperfect situation can be shifted through collective effort and a will to do better.

What I want to do today is ask a series of questions that I hope will be useful in the future. I want to use your responses as a kind of divining rod for what work we should be doing.  For what it’s worth, my assumption is that there is no such thing as a singularity of perspective. I think there is no such thing as “a” female creative voice. So it’s great if you share someone else’s experience. But I think it’s interesting and useful to hear a multitude of opinions even if they differ. We begin from a place of respect and support. So feel free to respond to a question however you want to, even if you are a minority voice. That’s the Awesome Lady Squad way.

And for today, you’d prefer to just listen, that’s cool too.

I think we ought to get started.

And then we moved onto the last part of the meeting:

5) We got down into the dirt and started digging.

The two-hour conversation that followed, it flowed, it morphed, and it moved all around. It was, I have to say, pretty damn awesome. These are the three main questions we talked about in the general order we tackled them:

i) What is your work?

Does being female affect you as an artist or creator? Does it change the kind of work you make or the way in which you make it? If applicable, has that shifted in any way over time?

ii) How do you get it made?

How you get your work into being? Does being a female artist differ from being a male one? What are the advantages or disadvantages? Are there things you crave or stuff you wish could be different? If applicable, has that changed in any way since you started your career?

iii) What should the future look like?

If money, time and other people’s attitudes were no barrier and the world could be exactly as you wish, what would be the working theater community look like? Try and answer as often as possible with “It would have –” or “It would be – ” versus “It wouldn’t –”

And these are some excerpts of what people shared, grouped roughly by my own intuitive  categories:

Making it work in the current system or setting off on your own

–       When I started working, I was auditioning in NYC with a million women and 5 men who all got cast. It was a constant feeling of, “God I hope there’s a part for me.” That was the model for a long time. But at some point I decided I wasn’t willing to sit and wait around for theaters to call me. That all changed when I started making my own work.

–       I stay away from classic pieces. I don’t like the kinds of women in those stories. They aren’t familiar. They aren’t modern. They say things I don’t agree with. And yet, a lot of modern drama, I don’t see myself in either. I think this is why there are so many creator-slash-director-slash-performer-slash-I do everything people here. Because it’s an outlet. If I’m always going to be assigned this kind of play through the traditional spaces, I’ll just go make my own.

–       It’s a real privilege to be able to make one’s own work, to self-produce and get space and money, etc. In addition to gender both race and socioeconomic status factor in. It can be shocking how segregated theater is.

–       A few years ago I did this show that required me to bring myself to the work. It was a turning point in my life. Men have had a big voice for a long time. I see the context of this moment in this room, of women finding their voice. We are getting closer. The younger people in this room, I wish I had come out of college like you saying, “Yeah I can do whatever I want.” And it makes me hope this room may not be needed 20 years from now.

Juggling identities, finding one’s place in the artistic world

–       There’s a catch 22 sometimes.  The roles that are available are fewer, and they are more likely written poorly or as a stereotype. But if you protest how women are represented you’re not supporting the director’s vision. It’s actually a very patriarchal system by its nature. I want to work and it feels like I’m choosing between being seen or sticking to principles.

–       I have kids and lots of life in addition to my identity as an artist. I have to juggle so much more compared to men. My sense is that unlike men I see who just say yes when opportunity arises, I have to “check” to see if there’s a conflict with others’ need for me.  I’ve started embracing the doing of everything. And realizing I just need to say yes rather than check.

–       I have been lucky in not getting cast by “regular” theaters. It’s meant I primarily have a resume of projects that are devised rooms full of women that are awesome and not “normal” roles. Go up for things that aren’t me, I always felt really strange at the auditions. That strangeness and otherness that kept me from getting parts became the work I’m now known for.

–       As a young artist, I sign on for projects because I want to be doing. But I think I have to look at it and saying, do I really want to be doing this? Maybe I just can’t be a part of this. Ethically sticking to our guns will matter in the long run.

Strengths and challenges in being a female artist

–       I notice that I’m often asked to be nurturing. I’ve never seen actors ask a male director ask for that.  I’m not looking to be cruel, but I don’t want to be required to have a motherly element.

–       I think it’s important to remind myself sometimes that I believe in listening and being attentive. That’s my strength as a creator. It took a long time not to feel bad about it.

–       All of the working models were very male. Very auteur mindset. I get so tired of that word. But its useful to remember there are things that style can’t do. Collaborating, cooperating, being sensitive, working differently with different people, facilitate for collaboration. Those are artistic strengths. And I think we need a model that celebrates that.

–       Collaboration that is very deep produces different art. It can solve problems in new ways. If you don’t have to worry about the desire to put a stamp on everything as “mine” you have room to find the actual best idea.

–       Creating a warm and collaborative environment has demonstrably powerful effects. Collaborators have told me it’s an easier space to work in.

Habits, situations and problems that need to change

–       I hate saying sorry. I hear sorry a lot. “I’m sorry can I ask this question?”  “I’m sorry but have you noticed this?” I’m sorry but I think that maybe there’s another way to do this.” I hear myself making excuses before even start talking.

–       I also can get mad about the fact that if I were a man I’d be working more. And when I see scripts that say shitty things about women I get mad that I can’t direct them. Because I want more work, but I also can’t do that play.

–       This is the trouble with being a “mercenary” working on other people’s shows. Lately I feel like the representative woman in the room. I become acutely aware if I end up seeing something I disagree with. I only want to put my name on things that represent my ethics but I am young and don’t want to overstep bounds. I don’t want to “not work” because of this.

–       I’ve been told that I didn’t have enough vision as a director. I think what’s actually going on is that I don’t articulate “vision” in this masculine way.

–       I also don’t know why but I get worried if my work feels like a stereotype. If I explore gender in my art it feels like a stereotype. Why do I feel defensive about exploring genuine questions for myself?

–       It’s tricky to try and start these conversations. I don’t want to punish people who don’t realize what they’re doing but it’s tiring. It feels like I’m doing calculus on this issue and they’re doing arithmetic. At a certain point it’s hard to be impressed that they can add simple numbers.

Getting the support to get your work made

–       A huge aspect of this also comes into play with the funding community. Often you’re forced into writing about your work in male language. Can we talk to the funding community about how the way their language is gendered? The most insidious glass ceilings are in the semantics of that language itself.

–       I dealt with a funder who just didn’t think the work I did qualified me as an artist. And I had to realize they don’t hate me, they literally just don’t understand.  That took an enormous amount of energy and engendered a world of anger in my life. I am tired of feeling like all the dudes get opportunities. I am tired of thinking “This is no fucking fair.” I don’t want that rage to take up all that space in me.

–       It’s also important to stop seeing status that doesn’t matter to you. It’s easy to get caught in what other people tell you are important. How can you say no to this thing that other people would kill for? I’ll tell you how, because I don’t value it.

–       The funders, the presenters, they need to change. We also need more women in these roles and need to become aware. Eventually they have to die. But we also have to get into positions where we can make them change the system.

And finally, we ended the conversation by starting a list of things we’d love to see, things  that might be a good place to start if we’re trying to make an awesome future:

–       I wish Philly had a grant for women that was not linked with social change

–       I want to see equal genders represented in directors, actors, plays, etc.

–       I’d like a world where we stand up for each other.

–       I want more resource sharing – of space, info, etc

–       I want more women becoming the new gate keepers of festivals, funding, etc

–       I’ve never seen a woman direct, never assisted, etc. I want to see that.

–       I want funded apprenticeship with younger artists with older female artists.

–       I want to offer and accept opportunities, not just wait for things to come to me, but actively give whatever I can to folks coming down the pike.

So.

What comes next?

First thing: another meeting. This will either be Sunday 1/26 or Monday 1/27 in the evening with the same format as meeting #1 to give 9 – 5ers that couldn’t get to the first one a chance to share their thoughts too.

And then?

Well, I’m going to think long and hard about how to take these awesome thoughts and feelings and translate them into a setting where we can start to take action. This is really where I think the Awesome Lady Squad really will become a superpower. I know that we are capable of changing some of the problems we see and my hope is to come up with a plan for how to do that. If you have ideas, feel free to send them along!

That’s it for now.

Oh, and thanks for being awesome.

– A

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.

Fuck You Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Holly Golightly: Did I tell you how divinely and utterly happy I am?

Paul Varjak: Yes.

A few months back during Fringe season I went and saw a show inside a real house. It was a lovely play with breakfast and beautiful writing and was based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (The book not the movie, in case you were wondering.)

This is a post I’ve wanted to write this post ever since then.

Not because the play was bad, because it wasn’t – it was wonderful actually, one of my favorites of the season – and though I loved the staging, the writing, the actors, so much about the experiment in dramatic form start to finish, despite all this afterwards when I sat in the car with my partner in viewing-crime discussing what we’d seen all I could think was:

“God I detest that female character.”

Not the actress, not the writing of her part, but that faux feminine charming and carbonated, silly yet exotic, tiny pink banged and attractive and mysterious and wild and ukulele playing, Natalie Portman-esque, devoid of any actual humanness cypher of girlishness. Film critic Nathan Rabin put it far better that I when he called her “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Fucking manic pixie dream girl. I hate her so much.

I didn’t write this post back then because I liked the people who put the play on and I didn’t want to hurt them by bashing it when so much of it I truly enjoyed. Especially when I really didn’t have anything more to say on the matter than the fact that I really detest this trope, one I see as rooted in all kinds of shitty ideas about girls and women and the kinds of people they can be, one whose recent “emergence” in this particular form is cloaked in a kind of faux liberation. I think versions of her have been around far longer than we realize. The manic pixie dream girl (or MPDG as I will call her from here out) embraces a “seize life!” zeal but only in so much as it is thrown at her pent up male would-be partners. And while I find this odious and tedious in the extreme, while I have in many ways created my sense of aesthetic and artistic purpose to fly in the face of the MPDG’s twee triviality and lack of substance, at the time I didn’t really have much more to say on the matter. I just had my silent fervent hate.

However, this summer into fall, I have been spending an awful lot of time with women a fair bit younger than myself. Amazing, bold, incredible young women. Women whose ideas and humor have surprised and delighted me, who brought choices into classrooms I could never have predicted and who found inventive slants on characters I have seen performed dozens of times. I look at these young women with their incredible talents and wild and weird inner lives and it fills me with joy.

I admit that many of these fantastic people I underestimated upon first meeting. And I think that’s in part because it took some time to find the strange and silly underbellies that were hidden within them. Wild and wondrous senses of daring, humor and ridiculousness that I suspect are not often enough given space to be explored. And I wonder if this lack of space isn’t partly what constrained my seeing the wholeness of them. And then I think about the kinds of roles they will have available to them in a year or ten year’s time. I think about the shows that I have seen recently, the struggles of my female friends who are performers, the distance between the roles that they have truly loved and the ones they have had to suffer through to keep a face to their name in the acting world. I race in my mind for plays that I could bring to these lovely young ladies, works could lift them and their wildness up.

I have so much trouble doing so. There are more than none. But there are certainly not enough.

In high school when I got really serious about theater I committed to reading a play every week for two years. I raided my theater department’s library in hopes of finding the great roles that I wanted to inhabit someday. And while I found a few, I also realized that more and more there were plenty of stories that intrigued me, that tantalized and pulled me in, but had no women in them or only a few or none I personally wanted to be unless I was cast across my gender. And slowly over time one half of a dual cast narrator from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the hyperventilating Alma from Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Widow Begbick in Brecht’s Man is Man, even the beautiful and frustrated monologues of love from Twelfth Night’s Viola, these roles, despite being some of the best I could ask for, just didn’t feel quite enough any more. They were the stories that were made available, but none of them felt exactly enough mine to continue telling. And somewhere in the midst of this it occurred to me that I could tell some of the stories that excited me through the performers onstage even if I didn’t actually have to be that body up there in front of people.

This frustration was the one of the forces that ultimately pulled me out of acting and into directing. In the latter space, one in which the stories I told were not limited to the options others presented to me, it felt like I had more I could say and more ways I could say it. And I found the plays, fewer and farther between than I’d have liked, that highlighted the female roles I’d wished I’d been offered. And when I eventually realized that even beyond these lay the opportunity to create new stories that were entirely of my own imagining, I finally believed that there was enough substantive food for a life of digging into artmaking.

The problem I see with the MPDG and princess and all the other lame female counterparts in much of our contemporary storytelling is that they teach women (and the girls who grow up to become them) that these are the extent of the roles that we have available to us. In art, and I think also in life. I read a study about how the greatest predictor of the number of girls that will grow up to work in science and technology-based fields is hugely correlated with how many women are working in these fields in their community. Not even how many they personally come into contact with, but the number that exist generally in their sphere of being. I would guess that the increase has something to do with a young person’s sense of awareness that such a thing is possible.

It is hard to imagine beyond anything that you know of or have seen. Our narrative context fuels so much of the imagination we later have available to us. So what you see and what you encounter in the stories you take in, especially in formative artistic years will inevitably shape the possibilities that you allow yourself in the future. I fear and I worry that the amazingly bold and smart and incredible young women I have met will be limited to becoming the most amazingly bold and smart and incredible versions of MPDGs and princesses and nurses and ingénues rather than applying those same forces of will and intellect towards the multitude of other avenues that might be available to them. I worry that if some aspect of them is too hard to squeeze into those narrow shapes that they will be excluded. I worry that if they do fit inside them that some of the other incredible parts of them will be pushed out so that they fit more neatly within.

My first year out of college, when I had so few moorings, so little outlet for the stories I wanted to tell, I flirted with becoming the MPDG. I became enraptured with a boy and then became enraptured with my ability to construct a persona that I thought was charming and alluring. And I, despite my feminist upbringing, despite my experience crafting my own stories, despite my sense of myself as a strong and independent person, found it easy to default to a narrative that seemed pre-designed for me. I could sense this trope and its effervescent power and in little bits and pieces I began playing and becoming her. I felt her narrative pull and began to conform my outer self to match it. Then one day this boy gave me a movie and told me that a character in it reminded him of me. And at the end of that movie I realized in no small amount of horror that he wasn’t wrong, that I had made myself to resemble this precious punky person and that I had created a vision of my life in my own mind in which I was a side character.

It was only when that version of my life story and the caricature of myself that I’d formulated within it began to fail that I realized how little of my whole self I’d really offered.

This is the power of art and narrative, whether we make it or consume it. It shapes our sense of ourselves in the world. It can limit not only our sense of being in the works of art themselves,  but it can transform our ability to conceive of ourselves in the world at large. A new incredible story at its best helps us change the way we think. It offers us a vision of a world that we might hope to live in. And when we limit our narrative selves to these paltry simplistic women, we limit the kinds of women we imagine we can be. And by passing those stories on, we teach our younger female counterparts that this is enough to be satisfied with.

I worry for these young ladies that I have met over these past many months. I worry that their outward forms will dictate so much of their inner artistic work. I worry that they have grown up on these stories that do not contain the entirety of them and I worry that they will be forced to shrink themselves down to fit inside the ones that are made available. I want to grab them and tell them that they should demand huge spaces in their artistic lives. That the stories we tell are the way we make sense of the world around us. That creating visions of how we can be is how we begin to become that. That they owe it to themselves and the women they will become.

That they are more than MPDGs and her static character counterparts. For she is singularly dimensional. She does not advance through the course of the story. She is there to shift the inner workings of others. She is inwardly inanimate like a rock. The manic pixie dream girl has no opportunity to change or shift or grow or move.

There are a lot of reasons that I make my own work. This is one of the biggest ones. It’s why I write this post now, several months later, not because my singular dislike of this character matters very much, but because I want to tell them they are not like she is. That they can do so much more than any of these things.

– A