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?



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.


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.”


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.


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 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


The other day I spent my lunch chatting with a group of apprentices from Interact and then immediately went and had a meeting with a soon to be graduated student from a small liberal arts college. In both cases the conversation centered on navigating a career as a maker and producer of theater. In both cases I had plenty of concrete advice about resources to look for, things that I had tried in the past and either found successful or not, and how to keep a hold on the reasons one starts making art in the first place. I found myself repeating this phrase a whole lot:

“I’m not sure if it’s like this everywhere, but I know that here in Philadelphia…”

This combined with the recent discussions in relation to grad school and collaborators has me wondering how environment affects our work. A bad rehearsal space can hinder creation. An underwhelming performance locale can limit the scope of one’s imaginings. But what about a city? These smart young women I met last week have all had to weigh the question of context. They are all in the midst of deciding if this city is fertile ground from which to plant their artistic seed/selves. And I started thinking, “Why?”

Why Philly or why not? What does this city have to offer an artist and how does that offer change as they grow? I started to think about how I have been shaped by the place in which I now live and create my work. I started wondering how the daily backdrop of Philly and the people within it have made me the artist I am.

I’m interested in what questions a city can raise. What thoughts and ideas does it bring out of us? How does being here in particular color us as creators?

For the record, I didn’t intend to live here. I moved to the east coast for school and always thought that eventually I’d go back to Chicago. Somehow everything in the east coast cities I visited felt like it had a little less breathing room than back home. My family was there and at heart I felt like a Midwesterner. People here seemed a little harder, a little more closed off. I didn’t want the scale and exhausting competitiveness of New York. Boston seemed too small and insulated. And Philly was… a little off-putting.

I knew very little about this place before I came here. In college the entirety of my sense of the city was limited to taking the R3 from Swarthmore and bumming around South Street. I thought Olde City was cute but small. I had a few bewildering encounters with Fringe shows. I capped every expedition with a wait for the train in Market East. In short, my sense of the whole place was a bit gritty, a little dated and a lot dirty.

I see it differently now. That one-year gig after college turned into more. I grew up a lot while being here. I found a strong and supportive community. And something about this place now feels like a familiar if sometimes frustrating kind of home. So here I am. But going back to the initial questions – what influence does the city have on its artists? If it had gone another way, would I still be the same?

So for those new folks, looking to weigh the city on its artistic-potential inducing merits, here are a few observations:

Philadelphia feels like a small city, at least artistically. “Philadelphia County” is listed 5th most populace US city.  We’re bigger than Dallas according to 2010 census data. But I don’t think most of us think of this place as having a big city feel. The areas of Philly you move within are likely rather confined. It feels like a city of neighborhoods and we tend to stay loyal to the areas we inhabit. The artistic community in particular feels small. This can be great to be so familiar, to watch people grow and change, but it can also be limiting, difficult to be honest in critique. With the web so interconnected each shake or tear carries more weight.

This place feels like a family in the best and worst ways. It is hard to define oneself entirely out of context of the artistic family members that one is surrounded by. Sometimes it feels like funders are like parents with only so much love to go around. As a second generation experimentalist there are times when I feel like a second sibling who will always be in the shadow of those who came on the cultural landscape earlier than myself. I can’t help but wonder about those that will come after me. Will they have any room?

Philly is a place of genuine artistic fraternity and support. The arts are where the real brotherly love lies. I have shared stories with friends of mine in other communities about the help and mentorship I have received here. They are often jealous or astonished. No one can believe me when I tell them that things like Artist U are free. I have been amazed at the kindness of those ahead of me in sharing their knowledge, skill sets and literal stuff. It makes me want to do the same. We are a familiar folk, we Philadelphians, and in general we pay it forward and want to love and support each other.

We are also a city with a lot of history and legacy. It creeps into works in small and big ways. We employ a lot of theater folk in our historic cultural centers. We make stuff in sites of history. We have stuff that’s older than most US cities. There have been lots of “Philadelphia”s – from Ben Franklin’s to Rocky’s. We are still figuring out how to blend them together both in life and our work.

We are a relatively cheap city that feels like it’s on an economic upswing. An artist can own a house here. Let me repeat that. An artist can own a house here. Do not underestimate how radical that is to people living elsewhere. You can get space for cheap or free. There’s a bit of breathing room in a city that isn’t so expensive. People are easier with giving things away. You hustle a lot less. Art is more of your actual income. And at the same time, it doesn’t feel like that is at the cost of the city falling apart. Even in the midst of the worst housing crisis, many neighborhoods (mine included) have not lost property value.

There’s that Quaker thing. Maybe it’s because of my Quaker college that I feel so aware of it, but I do think there’s something about the large presence of Quakerism in the early history of this city and the quiet witness it continues to bear here that raises a sense of consensus and social justice in its people.

In a similar vein, we are a city surrounding by academic institutions. There are those obviously in its borders (Temple, UPenn, Drexel, Jefferson, PCOM, UArts, St. Joe’s, Pierce, La Salle, University of the Sciences, PAFA, Curtis, Moore, Chestnut Hill, CCP) and all the ones within the city’s reach – Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Haverford, Arcadia, Rowan, Rutgers, Ursinus, Cabrini, Eastern (I know I’m forgetting some). This is an insane number of schools. And all these are places we create our work, teach, attend and learn from, make money at, borrow resources from, use the libraries of, connect with students from. Whether you personally work or study you are still the beneficiary of the many intersections of these institutions with the arts community.

Philly is dirty. What is up with all the trash? In both 2011 and 2012, TRAVEL & LEISURE put Philadelphia in near the top of “America’s Dirtiest City” list, for having the most unremoved, publicly visible litter, selected and voted for by both magazine readership and city residents. What does that do to our sense of aesthetic? How does it change our relationship to beauty in our work?

Philly has a higher than average rate of crime for a city our size. As sensitive people, we take in our environment. Ask most artists and they have multiple stories of witnessing or personally being the victim of crime. That stuff can’t help but come out in one’s creations and the more it happens, the larger it weighs in your work.

It takes a long time to get anywhere. “SEPTA. We’re getting there.” Is this the most unintentionally accurate slogan ever? And given the small size of the city and the high number of artists that use public transport, this matters a lot. I think it holds us back as a metropolitan community. I think makes our city seem less professional and unapproachable (as do we, its artists, by association). I once had to give an NYC playwright friend directions on taking a Philly bus. Just one, in a straight line from the north part of 4th street to the south. I had to make sure she had two dollars, exactly. I had to promise a bus would come to the directed corner even though no sign would indicate such. I had to tell her to go 10 minutes before the schedule said because you can’t trust what’s printed (but then it might be 10 minutes late, sorry it’s cold outside). Thank god she didn’t need to get from south Philly to the Museum district.

We are a city with a deep racial divide. Last April I was lucky enough to be sitting in the “grantee” section at a Knight Arts. As I flipped through the book of other winners I noticed another listing for Theater: $20,000 for GoKash Productions to expand the Philly Urban Theatre Festival. It amazed me that here was an award winning company creating original works and an ENTIRE FESTIVAL that I had no idea existed. I thought it amazing that such a company has survived without support from the traditional funding sources and, as far as I know, with little support so many other small companies enjoy from the larger theater community. There’s been a lot flying around the major theater blogs recently about how get people of color to the theater. I thought of GoKash. They’ve already done it. How many others companies like them are out there? Why are they disconnected from the community I am connected to? What is my responsibility in that? More recently, as I gathered data for my women in theater posts, I noticed a trend, especially among larger companies, to produce a single “diversity” play in a season with a relatively small (if existent) number of actors of color throughout the rest of the year. I thought a lot about how I feel about all women shows  – incredibly protective of their importance but at the same time nervous about being set apart. Racial division is a backdrop to our lives. How can we become smart and aware about its influence in our art?

It’s not as easy as you’d think to be a solo creator. Though we have a lot of them, solo creator artists don’t have the easiest time. The funding structures in this city are pretty company (aka non-profit) oriented. Despite a few high profile grant programs, we are overwhelmingly deficient on residencies and grants for individuals. Most foundations won’t let you apply until you have the tax exempt status and a certain level of size. There are precious few folks past their 30’s still making their own work without having gotten the 501 c 3. Which means in general, if you want to make your own work in Philly you not only need to be a creator but a producer as well. This is not the case everywhere else. We are in desperate need of curatorial institutions. Yes, we have Fringe Arts. And they do a lot. But we need more than one voice. Where are our PS 122’s, La Mama’s, and HERE Arts spaces?

We have some crazily bizarre liquor laws. Alcohol, like it or not, is a huge part of how most people socialize. I’m going to guess that’s even more true for the coveted 20 – 30 something age range, one that theater in particular has a hard time reaching. Imagine a band in a place where no drinks were served. And while some people get around this, I think that it cuts out a huge social lubricant and money-making avenue for smaller theaters (who could never afford the insane liquor license fees) to access.

And finally, when I step back, I see that we are not actually one artistic community. We aren’t even just one kind of theater community. There is a dividing line in town between the generative artists and the interpretive ones. Between “straight” theater and devised. Between the experimenters and those who find meaning in tradition. But as different as we are, there’s an open curiosity that I see around me. What I like about Philly is that this division is, as the cell biologists say, a permeable membrane. I’ve found real growth in interacting with actors who have never written their own lines before or created a scene. It reminds you to questions your assumptions. I’ve learned a lot by jumping out of my usual role and ADing a super “play play.” And as I grow, I find that more and more useful, to seek out opportunities to watch how other people do what they do. And there’s a trust and respect that Philly fosters that allows that to happen. And if there’s anything that’s kept me in this place, that’s it.