inspiration

Introducing the TRAILOFF Writers!

Swim Pony friends and family!

Adrienne here, writing today to bring you two exciting pieces of news about our latest creative undertaking. Back in January we shared updates on a project that was then called Story Trails, a mobile app we’ve been creating in partnership with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and app developer Toasterlab, to bring original and underrepresented stories to the trails of the Philadelphia region.

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Photo: John Hawthorne

First off, our project has a new name! While Story Trails was certainly descriptive, it lacked a certain… panache. It was a label that started as a working title, always with the assumption that at some point down the road we’d change it to something better. Until now! Over the past few weeks, the core creative team of the project undertook a #namestorm together and are super excited to announce our newly minted project moniker: TrailOff.

The new name says a lot about what I hope this project will be. It has allusions to writing, to thinking and meandering, to the promise of leaving the main road for the potential in trails less traveled. It’s about discovering something you never knew was hiding just beyond the obvious path. It makes me think of a favorite quote from Rebecca Solnit’s fantastic book Wanderlust: 

I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.

The second, even more exciting announcement is that we have selected 10 amazing writers, after nearly a year of outreach and connection to artists all across the region. This process was incredibly competitive and we could have chosen almost any one of the creators that submitted applications for the project. Our ten final authors are a blend of rigorous artistry, thoughtful connection to the project’s values, and communities that will connect to their works:

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afaq is a philly based daughter, with grandmother tendencies. assembled in yemen (from sudanese parts) afaq considers herself a  global citizen of her own country. this international award winning poet, museum exhibiting photographer, activist, and educator seeks to love the world until it loves her back. she has collaborated with Netflix, Pen America, Beautycon Media, Poetry Out Loud, the Barnes Foundation, and several universities including NYU, Columbia, and UPenn. Continuously targeted and previously arrested for her activism, afaq uses her art, experiences, and the violence she has witnessed to combat injustice while spreading messages of empathy and change. She’s writing for Camden’s Gateway Park.

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ari is a spoken word poet and educator based in north philly who began their career writing erotic fan fiction and large scale games of dungeons and dragons. Their work focuses on the Intersectionality of queer identity, trauma, and the latin experience as an outsider. ari is a member of Babel & deadname collectives and has been featured in Bedfellows and Paperback; and was featured on the philly poetry show, Drop The Mic. ari is currently looking to adopt a large cat whom they can name King Bastard. They are writing for the Chester Valley Trail.

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Carmen Maria Machado‘s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. Her essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, Harper’s Bazaar, Tin House, Vogue, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife. She’s writing for the northern portion of the Schuylkill River Trail.

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Denise Valentine is a Master Storyteller, historical performer, consultant and founder of the Philadelphia Middle Passage Ceremony & Port Marker Project. Denise is a storyteller of forgotten and neglected histories of the African Diaspora with special emphasis on the early history of Pennsylvania. Her workshop, Historytelling, integrates archival research, folk heritage and oral history to demonstrate the role of the expressive cultural arts in creating sustainable communities. Currently, Denise works as a program facilitator for the Museum of the American Revolution and serves as advisor to the curatorial team of the new Early American Art Galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art opening in 2020. She’s writing for the Tacony Creek Trail.

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donia salem harhoor is an Egyptian-American co-conspirator with her 12-year-old cub. ED of The Outlet Dance Project, she is an alumnus of the Community of Writers, Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute, Open Mouth Poetry Retreat, and several Winter Tangerine Review & Speakeasy Project workshops. A principal dancer and choreographer with Sakshi Productions, she is part of the Brown Girl in the Ring Collective. She was a 2016 artist-in-residence with Swim Pony. Her poetry has appeared in Anomaly, Ballet Review, and Sukoon magazines. donia believes fervently in game nights. She has her MFA in Interdisciplinary Art from Goddard College. She’s writing for the Perkiomen Trail. 

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Eppchez! (Ep-chez Yes) is a Quaker, gender expansive, Cuban & Jewish theater maker, musician, and designer. In 2012 Eppchez started up Alma’s Engine; a process focused production company/creative ministry developing eir new work across a variety of genera and medium; spreading whimsical and earnest dis-ease. Ey also collaborates with several other Philly theater companies as a performer deviser, choreographer and writer. Eppchez is also the founder of Darb Garb, making soft wearable sculptures for gender adventuring bodies in need of other lumps. Ey are writing for the southern section of the Delaware River Trail.

erin.png Erin T. McMillon is an urban horror and suspense author, blogger, and artist, from Trenton, N.J. Her work has been viewed and purchased by readers and curators from around the world. She is the author of several books (What’s Hiding in the Dark?: 10 Tales of Urban Lore, They Eat: An Episodic Zombie Thriller, and The Abducted), with a forthcoming release, Simone, to be released in the fourth quarter of 2019. Erin can be found on Facebook and Instagram @TheLadyWrites82 and on Amazon @erinmcmillon. She’s writing for the D & L Trail. 
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Jacob Camacho is a CHamoru writer, educator, and activist born and raised in Guåhan, Islan Marianas. He received his Creative Writing MFA from Rutgers University, Camden. He is an alumni of The University of Guam and UCLA’s Extension Writers Program. He’s a Lead Teacher at All Things Are Possible, Foundation in Willingboro New Jersey and Lead Educator for the Move Mountains Project 501 (c)(3) in San Luis, Colorado.  He’s a former English Teacher at Philadelphia’s alternative high school, CADI, and NJ’s YMCA of Burlington & Camden Counties’ Academic Coach. His short story, Proclamation, appears in University of Guam’s Storyboard 18. Half-Moon is featured in Philadelphia’s MadHouse Magazine Volume 4.  His poem, Kao siña hao fumino’ Chamoru?, is in University of Hawai’i Press’ Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia. He’s writing for the north Delaware River Trail. 

jacob w.png  Jacob Winterstein is an artist, event producer and educator from Philadelphia. Through performance art, poetry and events, Jacob’s work explores how we have been separated from and how we can joyfully connect with each other and our environments. Jacob is the co-founder of The Philly Pigeon collective which organizes, poetry slams, multi-media productions, workshops and artists retreats. Jacob is currently attempting a pilgrimage down every block in Philadelphia, asking people “when life is difficult, how do you feel better?” and towing their answers on a mobile altar. He’s writing for the Heinz Wildlife Refuge.
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Li Sumpter, is a mythologist and multidisciplinary Philly-based artist. She uses world-building, D.I.Y media, afrofuturism and gameplay strategies to cultivate eco-awareness and community action around the “art of survival”. Li’s artistic practice and collaborative design initiatives address existential threats to mind, body and spirit through speculative tools and sustainability projects that illuminate symbols and patterns of change. She was the 2017 Artist-in-Residence for Haverford College’s Urban Ecology Arts Exchange and the 2018-2019 Leeway x NextFab Art and Technology Artist-in-Residence. Li strongly believes in hope and the power of myth as a catalyst of personal and collective transformation. She’s writing for the Schuylkill River Trail at Bartram’s Mile.

At the end of March we held a workshop to bring these ten amazing humans into the TrailOff fold and, wow, they did not disappoint. Swim Pony fans, you are in for what I know will be our most intimate and heart-filled project yet. This group is awe-inspiring in their sensitivity, capacity, and thoughtfulness. They are a group of deep and challenging makers that are more than I ever could have imagined when we began to dream of this project years ago.

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Photo: John Hawthorne

More to come in the coming months as their work begins to take form!

Be well. Be kind. Be curious.

Adrienne

A Peek Into TrailOff

Intrepid fans of Swim Pony, founder Adrienne Mackey here with some exciting updates!

You might have heard that we here at Swim Pony HQ have been busy with research for our newest project TrailOff, created in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) to bring original audio stories to nature trails throughout the Philadelphia region.

Since getting the funding go ahead earlier this year (Thanks NET, William Penn and Barra Foundations!) we’ve been delving deep into that funky space between digital and analog, between the mind’s imaginary space and the natural world. Some of the goals behind TrailOff are practical: for example, how we might offer experiences akin to immersive and site based theater to a wider network of audiences. However, on the macro-level we’re also looking at creative and philosophical questions that reimagine how we experience what form stories can take and who gets to tell them.

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Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Photo: John Hawthorne

Before we get into all that, let’s start with a few quick words we’ve been using to explain what the heck this thing will be:

TrailOff is a brand new mobile app, designed to re-imagine how people interact with recreational trails and, by extension, expand the diversity of users that seek them out. The core of this work lies in the creation of 10 unique narrative walks: intimate journeys that use GPS to link audio storytelling to physical attributes along a mapped route. Each selected path will feature text from a local writer along with underscored music and sound design, all tailored to sync to the movement of a listener as they travel along a trail.

TrailOff grows out of two lines of inquiry that have been simmering in Swim Pony’s pot over the past several years. If you’re even peripherally aware of what the company has been up, you know that we’ve been keen to explore how the design of games and other interactive media might teach theater makers something about how to structure immersive works. The lessons learned in works like WAR OF THE WORLDS have spurred us to dig deeper about what it means to place an audience in the center of an experience. Similarly, projects like WALK AROUND PHILADELPHIA  have spurred a curiosity about what it means to curiously explore the tangible world in relationship to one’s own personal narratives and experiences, with the moving body as the medium through which these two collide. In THE END we got a first chance at blending these impulses, and with TrailOff, we’re also aiming for the process and product to create space for a wider variety of Philadelphia’s voices. In short, this new work is a creative process that will examine the narratives of place – who dominates the meaning we make about the natural world and how we might re-imagining those stories from new perspectives – while simultaneously giving its eventual audiences a visceral experience of literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

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Schuylkill Banks, Photo: John Hawthorne

While we can’t yet share the actual stories that will be part of the project but we can share some creative insight we’ve gained in exploring what aspects of a story best suit this particular format.

In July, Swim Pony and Toasterlab, our tech partners in the TrailOff app creation, undertook a narrative workshop, visiting potential trail sites across the area to explore writing specific to trails. In the same way a novel, screenplay, or standup comedy set all include language but utilize hugely different techniques to best serve their medium, we wanted to learn what kind of story is uniquely heard best while walking and listening through headphones.

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Swim Pony & Toasterlab near Bartram’s Garden,  Photo: John Hawthorne

We took away a LOT from that workshop but a few things stood out. The first lesson seems obvious in retrospect: when writing to place you have to spend LOTS of time there doing the same thing you expect the audience to do. When writing for a form that will eventually require you to move as you listen, it’s best to write in motion and on your feet as well. We spent tons of time walking trails and noticing the stories that made sense there and what we found is that there’s a balance between density of language and the ability to stay connected to what you see. Useful silence is key.

We also found that simple details that connect the listener to the world they are surrounded by are hugely powerful. One of the most effect pieces of language was also the most humble: standing in Heinz Wildlife refuge hearing someone talk about wind washing over reeds.

Our last big summer takeaway was that while this form is tricky on plot-heavy stories – relatively little happens or changes on a trail – it is uniquely well suited to putting you in another’s state of mind. We found language that traversed that space of internal thought or invited us as users into contemplative spaces of our own super exciting.

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Jenna Horton on the Delaware River Trail,  Photo: John Hawthorne

In November, we brought sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman into the mix to delve deeper into the aesthetics of sound as well as an overarching narrative structure for the app . We brainstormed and begin to define how sound will influence the user experience. We also strategized questions about how audio triggering might work. We shared research on other projects that felt inspirational to this one and finally started trying out ideas again in real space.

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Brainstorming notes, Photo: John Hawthorne

A few key takeaways from this workshop centered on the interface experience the user will have. We began wondering narratively who it is that the user is interacting with when they first download TrailOff. Some questions that guided that process:

  • Is there a guide that has put together the overall experience?
  • What is the aesthetic that one encounters as they interact with the app?
  • What is the journey from the first story to the last? What is gained? What is the narrative connection, if any, between each trail?

We began developing a character we’re currently calling The Ranger, a mysterious curator and guide who will over see the experience that each user will have. In tandem with this development we started thinking about the difference between a piece of immersive theater and a pre-recorded audio tour. What is it that makes “liveness” so palpable and special? Why does the story “being there” with the audience matter?

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Adrienne walking Gateway Park,  Photo: John Hawthorne

Finally, we began very functionally playing with ways that sound might overlay story content and actually began testing sound scores underneath previously generated text from our summer workshops. And if you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing you might even like to experience it yourself.

Below are three pieces of audio we experimented with. Stream or download one of files above and play it while you take a walk. Each of these files are an little tests in pairing different kinds of language, music and soundscape. To assess what “works” and doesn’t think about the following:

  • Is the experience you connect most to located in your ears, in the world, or somewhere in between?
  • Are there places where your thoughts are in conversation with what you hear?
  • How much (or little) does the language feel connected to the place you are in?
  • What about this experience feels uniquely suited to this format?
  • Is this even a “story” at all?

 

A Horror Inspired Creature Story

A Banal Convo About Appliances and the Future 

A Nostalgic Tale of Cicada Pee 

 

If you give it a try, we’d love, love, love to add your creative thoughts to our own. Just throw a few thoughts quickly into the box below!

 

An essay on the emergence, at long last, of spring

I’ve been musing this morning on divining rods.

I’ve never actually used one, but the idea of this object – a stick that subtly helps point one to something desired – is one I love. I invoke the divining rod all the time in my teaching as a metaphor for thinking about creative impulse like water that hides under the surface, a flowing material that needs a bit of focused attention in order to be found. I like that using a divining rod is a tactile endeavor, an action-based object held in the hands rather than examined in the mind. I like its connotation to something spiritual, a channel to something just a little bit mystical and beyond the natural realm. And too, I like that the tool is one that requires the body to listen to a pulsing current already existing in the world. A divining rod insinuates that creative spirit requires one to get outside and muck around a bit in order to be found.

The past months have felt a lot like interminable winter. There is, of course, that literal season which I’m sure we can all agree outstayed its welcome far beyond what was appropriate and polite. But too, it’s felt a bit like the space between last year and this one has been a creative freezing that is frustratingly resistant to a thaw. In the din of the daily artistic grind there are so many forces that pull towards themselves – funders with ever so slightly magnetic needs to fulfill their board’s directives, students with aims that require an ever so mild adjustment to the inner compass, collaborators that exert subtle forces on the instincts of the work. In the midst of this one can lose that inner flow of water, that first thirst that drew the body to drink. None of this is to say that I feel I’ve been creatively unproductive. In some ways one could look at the last year in Swim Pony’s work as a time of far greater produce than any in the past decade. But, to take this metaphor to its fullest, it’s also felt in some way like ground that has been over-planted. The nutrients that allowed the soil to yield such fruits feel depleted, as if there is simply not much left from which to grow.

What is that thing that I sense myself seeking?

Heart?

Impulse?

Maybe it’s easiest to just call it water. At this moment the current feels slack and the tide feels low and while I know I’m a savvy sailor who can ride the ups and downs, I fear without finding a source of liquid force, the boat is going to get stuck. As the weather warms, and the ice begins to melt, it seems imperative to get outside with that stick and figure out where all the water has gone.

A few weeks ago the husband and I undertook an adventure to the Wheaton Arts Center in Millville, NJ. I found an exhibit listed on a “Things To Do” website: something to do with biology and the intersection of science and art in the form of glass. It seemed promising enough that we set out on a 45 minutes drive to a small museum devoted to the roots of American glass manufacture in the local area.

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Much of the museum was chintzy in a charming kind of way. Not terribly interesting, I’ll be honest, but relaxed enough that our general lack of said interest didn’t interrupt an enjoyable walk through a faux-Victorian-styled home filled with fragility. We wandered through the exhibits on the origins of American Revolution-era glass blowing, the  catalogue of a building up and then eroding away of an industry throughout the area. We saw shelves of Tiffany and mass-produced Depression glass. We learned that creation of a “Millville Rose” paperweight was a sign of a high level skill for those craftspeople that managed to master it.

cactiAnd then, at the very end of the circle through the museum, we came upon an exhibit cataloguing the work of an artist named Paul Stankard. His form: nature-inspired themes encased to form paperweights. Collected in this area were hundreds of small round objects taking nearly identical form in perfect rows. His early stuff felt about the same to me as much of what we’d already encountered – pretty but a bit too delicate and girly for my tastes. These first works were thing I would never buy for my home because a) where would I put them, b) fancy glass makes me nervous, and c) the only thing they do is gather dust on some shelf where they never get looked at.

What I’m saying is that Stankard’s early works provoked little of the spirit of water in me. They were decently photorealistic depictions of flowers that seemed nice enough to spend, say, a few seconds on noting that it probably was really hard to make a cactus flower out of glass. They were objects that offered an “Oh… Huh.” level of artistic response. Then we turned a corner into another room, one filled with Stankard’s later phases of work. From the very first approach, they literally took the breath right out of my body.

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The images I took will not do them justice, these intricate tiny creations of flowers and roots and bees. They were small dioramas of surrealism, of ritual, of things sprung from supernatural purpose. They were absolutely transcendent tiny worlds encased in crystal, suspended in motion so perfect it’s hard to believe they are not alive.

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Some minutes after first encountering at these objects, I stood in front of a video playing an interview with the artist in which he articulated a turning point in his creative practice from mimicry and re-creation into something more metaphoric and representational. I walked back inside to look again at the tiny bodies hidden in the roots of flowers made of glass and heard Stankard’s echoing voice explaining something about metaphors of life and death and giving oneself leeway to let go of what a flower literally is and instead dive into what it might have the capacity to reveal.

These art works are deeply comforting to me, not only in their intense and vivid beauty but in the way they underscore the long arc of creative trajectory for the maker. They hold in their perfect suspension the promise of something unseen to break through. In the midst of what has felt like the unending cold and gray sterility of long winter, it was a reminder of future warmth and growth much needed, that perhaps every mundane step can be a tiny pull towards an inner stream of something downright divine.

Right now, the best I can think to do is to take time each day to try and feel the pull of water, even when all that seems to be present is its absence.

To take small steps, in whatever direction a bit of wood demands.

To read, if only as a practice of feeding the soil.

To write, regardless of whether or not the work finds its feet.

To whittle away at the dam, without worrying too much about what’s released.

So here’s a letter of well wishes to you all, written in the hopes you are finding the emerging spring.

– A

 

An Invitation to The End

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There’s a story I tell about myself as a child that goes like this: around 5th or 6th grade I learned about infinity and it gave me an existential crisis. Trying to wrap my middle school mind around a never-ending mathematical concept opened up a door to the idea that there were things vastly bigger than my own consciousness. Once that door was opened, once those interlocking curves of a sideways figure eight began unspooling, I couldn’t go back to a conceptual space where the world could be wholly known. Infinity showed me the universe was unending, while I on the other humble and human hand, was not.

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In the fall of 2008 while in France I took a trip to the Catacombs of Paris. I don’t know what exactly I thought I would be doing there. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that a massive shrine containing the skeletons of over 6 million bodies might not be the emotional equivalent of visiting the Monet museum, but I honestly went in thinking little more than that I was in for a light afternoon of cultural purveyance.

The worst part was the bones just sitting in massive piles. Somehow arranged in intricate designs the skeletons were abstracted in a way that was tolerable, but the piles, the vast and completely unremarkable piles of bones, and the sense that those inanimate objects used to be people and that it is likely no one alive remembers or cares about them… It left me with the intense and pressing desire to do something, to make my life mean something, to create a legacy that helped me feel alive in the face of those sad and lonely mounds of former humanity. That night I wrote for hours, trying to unpack the intensity of the feeling the experience had provoked.

While I couldn’t directly bring myself to think again about that trip to the Catacombs and the panic it produced for some number of months, I will say that within a year of going I made three original plays, quit my day job, and got engaged.

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On page 14 of psychotherapist Irving D. Yalom’s book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, he and a patient undertake a thought experiment grounded in Greek thinker Epicurus’ writings, imagining the oblivion after death as the same as oblivion before birth. In the book, he talks about this as a tool to find solace. We do not fear the time before we were born, he says, and so too, might we come to lose our fear of the time after we die.

The first time I read the book, I made the following note in the margins:

This thought is in NO WAY comforting to me

The thesis of Staring at the Sun is that death anxiety manifests from a fear of a life unlived. Yalom’s point, as I understand it, is that by acknowledging our current actions in the context of their inevitable end, we can gain perspective about what is important to us. Such “existential shock therapy” gives us a sense of whether the things we currently are preoccupied with will really matter to us in the long run and leaves us grappling with our need “to construct an authentic life of engagement, connectivity, meaning, and self-fulfillment.”

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Multiple times as I read this book I started to get the infinity feeling. But I also realized that the more I read, the more the reading got easier. The past year I’ve begun to talk about death and dying a lot, and the more I do so, the less weird and horrible the topic feels. These days, while I can’t say I never get that spinning unending queasiness, it definitely doesn’t have the same hold over me that it once did. And I’ve made a lot of changes that have moved me away from what I feel like I’m “supposed” to be doing and towards what feels authentically who I am.

It’s a strange thing to ask a person to think about dying. Not dying in the abstract or dying in the context of a gritty television drama or immersive video game but dying in the way that each one of us personally, inevitably, and unquestioningly will have to experience.

But then again… isn’t it equally strange to walk around as if such a thing doesn’t exist?

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The End isn’t a game, exactly. It isn’t theater, exactly, either.

It’s a month-long contemplation. It’s a structure designed to create a little existential shock. It’s room to step back and reflect on what it is you want your life to be.

And I’m inviting you to it, into what I hope will be an experience of bravery and questioning and meditation and fear and, yes, I hope, even fun.

Some basics:

  • The End will last from May 1 – 27, 2017 with a culminating event the evening of May 28, 2017
  • It will take, on average, 10 – 15 minutes a day
  • Each day you will choose a card from a deck that offers a different task aimed at examining your values, choices, and wishes for life.
  • It can be played on your own at home, on your lunch break, and even on your way to work
  • It will interact with you in all the ways you live – through text message, email and social media posting, phone and in-person experience – and the “playing” of the game can be tailored to suit the mode of communication that best suits you.

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If you’ve made it this far and you’re interested in being one of the first 50 players who take part in The End

 [Edit: Applications are now closed. Thanks to everyone who applied – stay tuned!]

Or write to SwimPonyPA@gmail.com to ask for more info.

Be well, dear ones.

– Adrienne

Why I’m Walking Away

I’m giving you all fair warning.

In the next few weeks or months if you come up to me and start talking about how horridly busy your creative life is, how you’re overwhelmed and not totally committed to the work you’re doing…

If you open the conversation with how much you hate that you have no time for all the other parts of living but you seem to keep ending up in this situation and you’re scattered and can’t really feel yourself fully doing anything…

If you start talking to me about this quandary like it’s normal and something we all have to share as a natural given of our artistic existences and though you don’t really like it, it’s just this thing we all will agree to keep doing…

If you do that to me I’m going to walk away from you.

Maybe not right away. I’m probably going to nod with you for another minute and then make an excuse to go to the bathroom. Or grab another drink. Or to say hi to someone else that walked in the room. But make no mistake that I’m leaving because of what you’re saying, and I’m doing so because I’m trying to be done with it.

I would like to publicly declare a divorce from exhausted distraction as the expected baseline.

Look, I like working hard. If you’ve spent ten seconds with me ever this is obvious. But there is a difference between useful rigor and running in random circles. Lately, I feel myself stepping back and watching people I love – smart people who are thoughtful and intelligent makers – talk about projects in this way that makes clear they don’t really like them. I hear seemingly everyone around me detail work that drains their reserves of time and creativity and doesn’t pay enough.

This is the definition of absurd, no?

And yet it is the default operating mode of most of the artists I am surrounded by.

Here’s a question. Taking a long-term view, what’s going to be more fulfilling and useful to your creative practice: taking on that role you don’t much like with the company you feel ambivalent about for that tiny bit of money or spending that extra time at home reading? Or volunteering at a hospice center? Or taking a long walk and seeing what comes to mind?

These are actual questions I’m asking myself these days. Because I’ve really started to wonder what it means about all of us that we physically can’t stop ourselves from working. It makes me wonder if we’re laboring smart or just laboring hard so that we don’t have to get into stickier questions about meaning and value that are WAY more difficult to answer. It makes me wonder if at the end of all that frantic effort we’ll have given ourselves any room to actually be living the substantive lives from which we’ll want to draw meaningful creative source material from.

Not to be the kind of person who talks about this thing that happened a few weeks ago in a therapy session but, yeah, here’s a thing that happened to me a few weeks ago in my therapy session:

I finished talking about a ton of exciting new work projects on the horizon. I catalogued a bunch of stuff that I was wrapping up that I felt proud of. I talked about the effort of finishing the wedding planning and how great my classes were going. I spent 45 minutes talking and talking and talking about all the things I was doing and doing and doing.

And then, right near the end, I ran out of things to say and my therapist and I sat in silence for a minute. In that minute this feeling began to rise out of the center of me, like a steel weight but in reverse, a balloon of heavy emotion that needed to bubble out. And because it was quiet and because I was in a place where I didn’t need to do anything else and because I took a second and actually let it happen, it popped and I started to cry.

It was a combination of things: watching police shootings over the past few months and feeling guilty and helpless at our collective lack of compassion for those who experience racial prejudice in this country, the bile of Donald Trump and the way it has unleashed a whole new level of misogyny into the open American air, the hangover of sentiment in the days after a massive personal event and realizing I’ve made this huge step forward in my life, and a whole jumble of other influences that I’d accrued and had remained unexamined. In that moment of silence all the actual life that I’d been squeezing into the edges of my working existence came bursting up and out of me. And for once I gave myself room to sit for another few minutes in my tears and notice the need to process these reactions to the world.

We need to create room for these moments. We need to create room for such noticing.

Not because of some self-care “keep yourself sane” kind of way. (Though shouldn’t this be enough of a reason…?) We need to do it because without that space we are all action and no reflection. We are only functional systems without mission and ethics to evaluate the meaning of the products we produce. I wonder if doing less and doing it with more (to paraphrase an Artist U maxim) will mean that in the long run we’ll all be more genuinely productive in creating things that we value. Maybe rather than feeling constantly exhausted by having to generate new stuff, I’d be far better off creating work about the things that are already somewhere in me and needing to be expressed, if only I could give myself space to notice that they need to get out.

I get all my ideas for blog posts in the shower because it’s one of the few places there’s silence and room to wander.

These days I’m dreaming about what a life of mostly shower-sized room might look like.

And that’s why if I feel like we’re normalizing the opposite in out conversations together, I’m going to find a way to walk away, walk off into the silence, so I can see what bubbles out.

 – A

Eureka

Yesterday I was out running when without warning my right brain exploded.

It began as I was listening to a piano concerto and randomly thought, “What if we had a toy piano in The Tempest?” And something about the concreteness of that image began to open up a series of others, piling on top of each other: from set pieces to staging visuals, ways to solve a problem moment in Act IV to songs that would completely underscore a given moment at the beginning. These ideas began to vomit up so fast, so rapid fire that I was actually afraid I would forget them before I was able to get back home and write them down. I spent the next fevered four miles trying to create a mnemonic to help me remember.

It’s things like this that make me angry at my brain.

For the past week I’ve been slowly and methodically working my way through a script, trying to come up with potential cuts and updating the text to reflect the cross-gender casting choices I have made. I wanted to make sure I understood all the language, the references, and that I would be able to speak intelligently about what the play was about. But more than any of those functional things, I was looking through this text trying to get to the heart of the thing. I wanted to know the texture of this piece, I wanted to find the essential flavors of the thing.

I think of it as tasting the play. Until I know that feeling in the mouth, until it is tangibly sweet or crunchy or spicy, it’s only surface level research. Until I can really bite on the qualities and chew them up, anything I say feels paper-thin and insubstantial – something from brain but without soul.

I can’t explain exactly how I know when I’ve found that texture. The form the inspiration takes is never the same. It’s been many things – a song, an image in a book, a color pattern on a building, a series of words in a script – but whatever it is, it’s some tiny thing that opens everything else up. It’s the trickle from which a stream begins to flow. When I find it, it seems like a dam breaks, like a tiny hole bursts in the wall between me and the piece. It’s a way that I can start to glimpse the other side. And rather than a feeling of randomly trying to move forward on all fronts, my direction finally has purpose and, well, direction. I can use that momentum as a vector to channel my efforts and start to chip away and the division. It’s the first step to getting closer to the thing I seek.

The trick is finding that crack. Without it, it’s just banging away at a brick wall.

Yesterday, while running, I felt something crack (“We split, we split!”) and I truly had the impulse to yell “Eureka!”

As if I were in some Renaissance laboratory with my alchemy agents. As if I’d just turned steel into gold. It felt like something had just been bequeathed to me, magically, divinely, I’m not sure, but totally random and out of my control.

“Eureka!”

This “Eureka” is not singular, there will be more to come. Always, one finds them multiple times throughout a production’s life, a random punch that busts through a plateau a given stage of the work has hit.

But weirdly, as grateful as I was for  the ideas and their clarity – ones I had felt in desperate need of in order to tackle this play – it also reminded me of how out of control the whole process of inspiration feels. If I’ve found any pattern in the Eurekas I’ve had in the past, the consistent thing about them is that they’re frustratingly indirect.

I have committed myself to time and space to work with collaborators only to have the Eureka come in the last hours together. I have had them about a project I just finished during the project I should be currently working on. I’ve had them randomly and intensely about pieces that do not yet exist and that then vehemently demand themselves into being. I have had them in the midst of giving a interview about a piece, suddenly knowing I will shift things in a massive but yet untried fashion. I have had them on the bus while randomly chatting with someone about the play.

They are sometimes convenient. They are sometimes not. They are almost always unexpected.

In the shower, while running, cooking, traveling, whether I have pen and paper or not, whether I am able to remember them, sometimes in vivid nightmare, sometimes in distracted day dream, they come when they feel like it but never ever ever when I ask them to. And the more desperate I start to feel, the more intensely I crave the Eureka, the faster and tighter I try and grasp for it, the more elusive they are.

Ugh.

It makes me a little nuts that I can spend 20 hours in a week trying to pull the play apart and it’s only in the moment that I take a break that my brain floods in with the amazing perpendicular and unexpected ways of seeing the thing. It’s in the moment I’m thinking about something totally different that I start to make connections.

Gods of Eureka, I don’t mean to anger you. But I spent all week offering sacrifice of time and thought. Why are you so random? Why must you wait until I don’t have a pen and am really sweaty and out on Festival Pier?

It’s no longer is a surprise. And in some ways, I can see that the sacrifice of the research was not wasted, it was simply percolating. But it’s still maddening.  It feels like I’m just doing all this work in order to distract myself. I wish I could just get to the meat of the thing head on.

I’m trying not to hate on this. I’m trying to just relax, and let it be, which probably helps the thing come quicker.

But it’s hard. It’s so hard when you put in effort and don’t see an equivalent result right away. I want to be able to just DO the thing, not do and do and then suddenly have the thing appear in front of me.

It’s hard to sit there hammering away at the wall.

A