My niece Alice loves using her grandmother’s label machine.

She likes to spell out words she knows and affix them to the things around her. “Bunny” is somehow made more concrete and real once it has an official status indicator and “Baa baa” is better for having been appropriately categorized.

This is a natural trait, this need to put things in a box, to classify them to help us sort out where they go.

But labels having been causing me agita lately.

Back in the early aughts, when I had just finished my first year of college, my Dad picked me up with the clear the purpose to foster a father daughter bonding session on the long drive from Swarthmore back to Chicago. My father excitedly told me that he had borrowed a whole stack of CDs, all musicals, from the library. It would be a chance to bond over theater, my extracurricular interest that had expanded into actual curriculum in recent months.

It was sweet, immensely so. And yet, even at the tender age of 19, I felt a little weird about the gesture. It was because even by the end of freshman year I sensed that “Theater,” at least the thing I meant when I talked about it, was not the same kind contained in the CD’s he now so excitedly proffered.

And indeed Adrienne Mackey’s brand of “Theater” would turn out to be something else entirely.

When I tell the vast majority of people what I do I usually get responses that either include reference to Shakespeare or Broadway. Once in a great while, I get someone who went to the theater often who’d mention some great American play like Streetcar or Death of a Salesman. When I try to explain what I do, I usually feel weird. I have such a hard time articulating it. I have often found myself talking about what I am not doing – “I don’t work in traditional spaces” or “I trying drop conventions of linear narrative” or “I like to use the voice in non-traditional ways” – rather than what I am. And that always feels weird to me, because I never think about my work that way when I am making it. I never think of it as a reaction against anything. I just think of it as the way that I make stuff.

Over time, it started to depress me to talk about so and so’s cousin who played Mrs. Potts in the Beauty and the Beast musical or the latest production of Hamlet that stars some famous guy. In my twenties I would get mad about this, frustrated at this “muggle” response. But after too many instances of even the most patient parental types glazing over or looking confused about how to take the thing I was talking about and reconcile it under the label “Theater,” I think I’ve realized that it’s a little unfair to ask someone not to call up any of the most obvious reference points for the word.

A lot of the time when I talk about my work now I find myself saying something like, “It’s theater, well… sort of. It’s kind of like theater. But not like you think.”

Which makes me wonder: Am I doing “Theater”?

Some days I just don’t know.

I know that I was trained in theater. I know I’ve read a lot of plays. I know a lot about the history of the art form and have lots of opinions on its contemporary practitioners. I know that I see a lot of it. I know I talk to people about it a lot.

But I really wonder if I’m actually interested in doing it as almost everyone in the world defines it. When I don’t like being in a theater building, when I’m constantly trying to get off “stages,” when I rarely want to work on plays as most people define them, when I want to shake up the audience actor relationship, when I increasingly expect people not to sit and watch but participate, when my work starts looking more like a concert or a game or a tour… is it still theater?

When I was in residence at Drexel this past winter and created a traveling performance piece with the students I had the luxury of following behind the audience and hearing them talk in live time about the show.

One kid whispered, “What’s happening? I thought this was a play but the actors are everywhere and we’re outside. What is going on?!”

Another said to a friend, “You know the first time you watch cartoon network and you don’t understand what you’re seeing and it’s really weird but you think that you like it? That’s happening now.”

This tickles me, surprising these kids with an experience they didn’t expect. Some part of me was really proud to say, “Hey! I reclaim this crazy theater word and make you rethink what it is. And because you saw this and liked it you will now include this in your definition of what a play can be!”

But another part of me feels like maybe I’m doing a disservice. If that cartoon network quote kid really likes the thing he just saw, I don’t know that he’ll necessarily like “theater” as a whole. I heard a lot of these student audience members say they don’t like theater but they did like our play. I actually hear that fairly regularly. And when I describe my work I often say that I want to make theater for people that don’t think of themselves as a traditional theater audience.

And so I’m often loathe to use the word because the people I want tend not to be “theater people” and the audiences that tend to have a tradition of going to the theater aren’t often interested in the kinds of experiences I want to offer.

Some days trying to court “theater” audiences feels like advertising a folk performance at a heavy metal concert. Both audiences technically want to hear “music” but really there’s a point of diminishing returns in trying to treat the viewers as one in the same.

And, look, I know there are some labels for the different kinds of theater out there, but they are far fewer and far far less codified. Do the words usually attached to my kind of work – fringe, experimental, devised – actually say anything of substance? I don’t think so. Certainly not if you don’t know what that kind of work already looks like.

So I’m contemplating whether or not I’m going to call what I do “theater” at all. I’m contemplating how I can be proactive in labeling better. Because I think if I want a word for what I do that isn’t 90% not a good example, I’m going to have to find one for myself.

– A

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