getting it done

An Open Letter to my Awesome Ladies and my Awesome Lady Allies

Before I get started lemme just say if you’re not in the mood to read a lot and just want the details on the upcoming Awesome Lady Squad event, jump down to the bolded stuff down below…


At the end of April of last year, as civic unrest was sweeping Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I was feeling awfully heavy about the world. That sense of weight was born out of the inequity I saw in society, in the brutality of an “othered” community being discriminated against, and a sense of helplessness about what to do about it. It seemed clear to me that I could no longer sit back in my own privilege, that I needed to ask myself some hard questions and begin to find better ways to hold myself accountable for how my personal actions echoed out into larger cultural forces in the world around me.

At the same time, I was teaching a class called Voice for the Stage. The course was structured to end with students performing a monologue of their choosing in the college’s main stage theater, a place that required them to show off their newly acquired vocal prowess. During the final session of that class I watched a female student perform a monologue from the movie Lord of the Rings in which she took on and totally owned the character of Gandalf the Gray. As I watched her I felt a moment of something cracking. It was a thread that pulled on my desire to show empathy for those who were suffering unfairly. It also pulled on the frustration I felt as a teacher for the way that our society’s impoverished narrative landscape had pushed so many of my female students towards male roles as they sought to embody power and status as characters.

In the wake of that class, I wrote a post for the Swim Pony blog called A Million Female Gandalfs. That post was my attempt to make sense of a deep heaviness I felt at the time. A bit from that writing:

I have seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I have seen African-American students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson again (this time fighting wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls whose heritages are both Mexican, play Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I am sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologue there is so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

Another quote from farther on in the piece:

I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be forced onto people while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world we live in. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who do not yet have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults to pull them out of ourselves.

Awesome Ladies and Awesome Ladies’ friends, I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks have evoked a lot of the same heaviness of feeling. I’ve been feeling a lot of the same sense of frustration about the landscape of dialogue and narrative we’ve been living in. And similarly, I don’t have a clear sense yet about what exactly it is we do about it.

But, once again, I do know that I can’t sit passively by.

And so.

I’m reconvening the Squad.

Because if there’s anything possible to be done, I know that Awesome Ladies are the ones to do it. And thanks to a generous space donation from Headlong, Swim Pony’s Awesome Lady Squad will host:

A Two-Part Awesome Brainstorming Town Hall

Monday Dec 5 from 8 – 10pm &

Saturday Dec 10 from 2 – 4pm

at Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad)

The focus of this time will be to share our feelings and responses to recent events, imagine some concrete actions that we as an intersectional Lady community might imagine being useful to the world, and come up with a plan to put our Awesome might into action.

Come to one or both armed with your ideas and your readiness. We’ll do our best to facilitate a convo that helps create a plan of attack from there.

RSVP to SwimponyPA@gmail.com if you can (though please still come if you haven’t and pass along to anyone in the creative community you think would want to take part) so we get a sense of size to watch for.

Keep on Awesome-ing and hope to see you soon.

– Adrienne

This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.

young me now me

Quit romanticizing whatever you had then. Whatever it was, you can always get it back again…

Several weeks ago I was on the phone with my sister.

She lives in Knoxville and among other things runs a business in which she sells delicious pastry treats under the aegis Dale’s Fried Pies. Her pies, I think, are something like my plays. They are the most obvious manifestation of what she does with her days. They, semi-imperfectly, become a container for her myriad of interests. They become a vehicle for the underlying questions she wants to explore. Anyway, Dale and I were on the phone several weeks ago. She was in prep stages for an official opening of a new building she and her husband purchased, renovated, and turned into a professional kitchen, office, art gallery and community space called The Central Collective. I was just coming off of opening The Children’s Hour at Ego Po and was readying to head into another tech this time at Drexel for some Halloween Lovecraftian silliness with my student cast for From Beneath It LurksDale told me about the myriad million little things she was discovering one needs for a building about to open to the public in a shmancy ceremony complete with a mayorial ribbon cutting: paper towel dispensers and garbage cans for example. I told her about the emotional drain of gearing up to head into another weekend of 12-hour days and lots and lots of light cues.

At some point, Dale said to me, “I mean it’s good. It’s not hard, really. Just busy. There’s just lots and lots to do. But it gets done, right? In some way it gets done.” At least, this is some approximation of what she said, to the best of my memory’s ability to recall.

And, in the best of my ability to remember my response, I stepped off the curb at Tasker and 10th as I walked to the subway and replied, “Yes. I mean, all the times I have down time and I’m dreaming about doing my work. All the times I’m imaging the future utopia I’ll be in when I’m making the art… This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

When I think back to the projects I enjoy the most in retrospect, the only thing I regret is that at the time I was so busy in the making that I often forgot to remember that I was there in the present tense moment. I’m so often imaging back to a bygone time when the work I made was younger, simpler, more directly created somehow or thinking ahead to a day when I’ll be making that ideal project in that ideal way with all the support and resource I don’t currently possess. It’s a comfort in some ways, this imagining that at some point in the past or future there’s this amazing thing. But it also means that that amazingness is never actually happening.

Has there ever been a milestone that when actually achieved felt solidly like the end of something, like a destination?

Maybe you all are better than I am but if I’m honest the answer is: Not for me. Too often by the time I’ve gotten to the thing I set out to do in some “back then” moment, I’ve already defined a plan and a road map to some other future moment when for sure this time it’ll really be the thing I need and actually feel like I’ve landed.

When was the last time you stopped for a second, a minute, an hour, and thought about the fact that the thing you always say you’re waiting for is in some way happening right this very now?

What if in that brief sliver of time we just all stopped to relax and enjoy our work in its present tensity?

For today, this is my mantra, however humble it may be: “This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

Interlude

federal copy

This is where you start

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

So here’s what you do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feel free to let me know what you think.

A

Dispatches from the Awesome Lady Squad

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Hey Awesome Ladies!

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

What’s next, you ask?

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

1) A Frank Convo About the Classical Canon:

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

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

2) An Awesome Lady Talking Toolkit:

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

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

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

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

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

And finally!

3) Awesome Lady Observerships (ongoing):

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

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

  1. Your name

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

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

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

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

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

– Adrienne

Ladyfesto!

cooltext1368115366Drumroll please!

A few weeks back I promised you that the Awesome Lady Squad would be soon bringing you its LADYFESTO. In case you don’t remember I said that this document was about

…asserting the things we believe to be true into the world around us: that women are not lesser qualified or weaker, that our work is not niche or in addition to. It’s knowing that there is a space in which those views are supported and those intentions are believed in. It’s a promise that if we are able to articulate it, others will eventually understand the beliefs we know to be true.

Well guess what? It’s here. So, at long last and after great amounts of work we bring you:

THE AWESOME LADY SQUAD LADYFESTO

We*, the Awesome Ladies of the Awesome Lady Squad, hold these most awesome truths to be our evident and awesome tenets:

1)   We believe art is powerful and necessary.

  • As artists, we have the power to capture and reflect the human experience
  • As artists, we have a super power in our ability to influence the broader culture with our work

2)   We believe in supporting and celebrating our community of Awesome Lady artists

  • We see our artistic landscape as abundant and plentiful of opportunity and resource and do not subscribe to model of competition and scarcity
  • We believe that the successes of our peers are beneficial to all of us
  • We believe in mentoring Awesome Ladies of the future and preserving the legacy of current Awesome Lady artists

3)   We believe in an Awesome Lady’s equal worth as an artist

  • We believe in our right to a place in the field and that our artistic products are not “niche”
  • We believe our community should be a safe and respectful place for us as creators
  • We believe in equitable pay for equitable work and in the value of parity of representation for all artists in all aspects of our field – on and off stage, in the board room, and on grant committees

4)   We believe that being a Lady can inspire us but it does not limit or define who we are

  • We see the perspectives and tools we develop as Lady artists as being of value
  • We believe a Lady artist is a multitude of things and that a variety of different experiences and identities intersect within each individual Awesome Lady
  • We believe in challenging assumptions of what “female” art can be
  • We believe our gender is not the only lens through which we understand our individual experience of the world and the work we make

5)   We believe in supporting other marginalized groups

  • We recognize that our voice is not the only voice that is under-represented in our artistic community
  • We believe that the more representative our work is of our community’s diverse population, the richer and more connective it becomes

6)   We believe in taking action according to these principles

  • We believe hard truths need to be stated publically and that there is value in honest and open critique of the mainstream
  • We believe in being uncompromising in our refusal to tolerate such oppressions
  • We believe in the power of the collective to dissolve damaging narratives and structures

 

*Expanding on a couple definitions:

Who are “we”?

We are Awesome Ladies who are inclusive of race, age and sexual orientation. We are ladies who are contained in a variety of body shapes and come from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. We can be funny, or not. We are experimenters or follow in a long line of canonical learning. We are history challengers and embracers, listeners and talkers. We are as varied a number of things as can be imagined. The one thing we share is our inherent Awesomeness.

Why call yourselves “Ladies”?

Words like “female”, “gender”, “woman” etc have long and complex histories and definitions that are in a constant state of flux. While some members of the squad may identify with all, some or none of these identities, the intent behind “Lady” is to create a new label that is self-applied for those who believe they have a kinship with the identity of the Awesome Lady Squad.

In other words, an Awesome Lady is an Awesome Lady because they define themselves as such.

And that’s why they’re part of the Awesome Lady Squad.

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

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

I hated that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would be nice if that were true.

It’s not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think about this a lot.

I wonder if I did the right thing.

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

I think so.

I hope so.

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

– A

Are you a habitat or are you an animal?

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Are you an animal or are you a habitat?

Rambly Friday thoughts…

I’ve been pondering a bit about the last post on non-profit boards and the artists that do (or don’t) love them. Many of the response people have posted back on the old Facebooks have been rather positive (effusive even) on the ways in which the board has supported and pushed them further than they could have gone on their own.

Point taken.

For some, clearly, a board structure can work well. If you are an organization with an alignment of mission and artists within it and a board constructed in the right way, the power structure that worried me in the last post could be a non-issue, leading to a super helpful and beneficial relationship. So it’s nice to hear from these folks and take inspiration from what they’ve done that’s working.

There are, of course, examples to the contrary. (And I’d guess these folks are probably a lot less likely to proclaim it to the internet public.) And something I’ve realized that goes along with this question has something to do with the role of the artist in the non-profit sector more generally.

I think of it as the trade off between being an animal and being a habitat.

Ok, so first off, let me admit that I know that this metaphor was something I heard from someone else at some point in the past year. But for the life of me I cannot remember who or where and for the internet of me I cannot find a source to help reference. So fair warning that what you’re about to get is a rumination on someone else’s concept, possibly expanded or re-imagined out of its original context.

So back to animals and habitats. When we examine people involved with generating works of art we start to think about their place in the field by examining two extremes.

On the one hand we have artists: the lone writer slaving away on a novel or play, the painter in their studio, the choreographer crafting a movement sequence. These people are the animals – they are individual beings with individually motivated goals. Animals consume resources – they want studio or rehearsal or office space, they need money for their own time and possibly that of a collaborator, and stuff to make what they do like clarinets or clay or costumes – and mostly they only want those resources for themselves.

And on the other hand we have habitats. Habitats are places that animals occupy, sometimes for a short time and sometimes for their whole lives, to obtain the resources they need. We can think of an arts organization like a habitat – places artists occupy to get the resources they need to survive. The same way that a deer occupies the woods and takes advantage of the trees and streams and soft downy leaf beds, a doe eyed creator might plug into an arts org in order to get access to space and stuff. Audiences are also occupants in this imagined world in the sense that they come into the habitat to receive resource – namely the art that – as well. And for organizations that mix the arts with other kinds of services (social change, youth programming, education) there are likely other occupants with needs and influences on this place as well.

In the simplest scenario, a lone master painter (the animal) makes work and then a gallery (the habitat) exhibits and helps sell that work to the adoring public. A theater company presents a new ensemble’s work. A residency program houses a new novelist in the midst of their writing process. Animal gets resources to help sustain it and the habitat is made more vital through the animal’s presence.

So though they often work in tandem, it’s important to see that the larger goals of the habitat and the animal are different. The animal’s goal is to survive and get as many resources directed at it as possible to be comfy and well fed. The habitat’s goal is to support the ecosystem of all the animals and plants within it.

To extend this saccharine metaphor just a bit further, you can think of the non-profit board like a conservation club. They themselves enjoy the habitat and see the beauty and usefulness of it to the creatures in it even if they don’t directly pull resources from it. They may work actively in that habitat to keep it tidy and unpolluted. They may raise money to support and extend its boundaries. They may simply go and admire its worth and encourage other animals to take advantage of all the habitat has to offer. The board’s job is to make sure that the habitat is sustained for the many kinds of animals that interact with it.

The kinds of things a board does are good for the habitat as a whole. And generally that means it’s good for the animals in the habitat as well. But let’s say there’s a drought. It’s possible to keep the habitat from drying up completely a board would change the number and kind of animals it offers shelter to. If there’s an influx or if one kind of animal suddenly goes through a massive increase in its appetite, it may have to cut off a certain group for the good of the larder whole. They may even shift some aspects of the habitat to help ease the burden on some parts of it. In short, the goal of the board is to sustain the entire networked ecosystem into the future.

In my view, the vast majority of creators just want to be animals. But many of us at some point find that there are a scarcity of habitats in general or of ones that are hospitable to us in particular. And so we begin to start operating a little like habitats. Some people make that switch and realize that they actually like being habitats. Some even end up finding that the tired and constant scrambling life of an animal is happily left behind. For others, they are animals who don habitat clothing for a while in order to feed themselves in particular.

The problem with moonlighting in habitat world in order to support your animal self might now start to become obvious.

To run a habitat requires different skills than being an animal. To keep the habitat going you have to pay attention to the other animals that are interacting with your resource. And if you are one particular individual animal, the concerns of the habitat may or may not align with your own individual goals for survival and thrival. (I know thrival is not a word. But it should be, no?). To succeed at keeping the habitat going, you may end up making choices that cut off your own food supply. Your conservation league, with the best of intentions, may end up saving the habitat a little animal started at the expense of the animal itself.

Which is how, I think, some artists end up starting non-profits that feel like they lose their control over their work. Your aim to become more habitat-like to serve your individual animal self is for naught because you ended up killing the animal. These are the cases, I think, where artists can end up hating the boards that they serve under. It’s not that either is doing anything wrong. They’re just aiming at different outcomes. One is trying to sustain a place; the other is trying to sustain themselves.

The closer your goal is to being an individual artist and making work that is essentially the output of your singular vision, the less the work feels like a “public” good. What happens to you if your mission is to create works of a particular edgy theater or cultural dance style and you suddenly realize you want to start shifting your focus into something else? If you’ve built a habitat out of a mission, assuming you the animal will always belong there, you might find yourself frustrated and at cross purposes. And though one of the most wonderful things about the artistic impulse is its desire to innovate, change and grow this isn’t always possible in a habitat. And even when it is, it takes a far longer time and laborious amount of effort.

Which I think behooves the creator to really think hard about what they are trying to do before they sign that 501 c 3 paperwork.

Do you want to become a habitat or an animal?

And make sure you’re making choices that help you become that.

– A