messy

Applied Mechanics gets an Awesome Lady Squad Commendation!

Hey friends,

Many, many things a brewin’ here at Swim Pony HQ.

I know I promised you Cross Pollination would unveil here today but this weekend was just too terribly full of fantastic awesomeness and I need just a couple more days. So Wednesday it will be! (This time I promise, for real…)

Awesome Lady Squad is in high-level action mode! We had the first meeting to for the Awesome Lady Lady-festo last night and I am humbled and awed at the fantastic minds of Philadelphia creators. Look for updates on that soon!

Today, however, I thought I’d share something new. While much of our attention in this space has been on shedding light on things I’d like to change, I think it’s also worth pointing out the amazing artists who are already modeling the kind of work that ALREADY gives voice and space to women creators (and gaining a stellar artistic rep at the same time). So every once in a while I’ll be asking some questions of folks doing just that so they can share how they are successfully getting their work into the world in a way that the Awesome Lady Squad commends.

Today, get a bit inside the mind of Applied Mechanics. I chatted a bit with Becky Wright (a good friend) to find out more. But first! A pretty picture of their work to entice you:

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1)   How does gender parity and awareness of women in theater play a role in selecting your material?

We are a very collaborative company, founded by women, with majority female members and an alternative-model labor-sharing administrative structure.  Every piece we’ve ever made has come from an idea or a spark of inspiration from a company member, so in a sense the work is always reflective of the concerns of the group.  I think it’s safe to say that most of us identify as feminists and that our artistic motors have been shaped by our experiences as women in the world, as female artists—and, for our one male company member, his experiences as a gay male artist.  Collaborative art-making involves such intense processes of interrogation, exploration and reflection—so I’d say, overall, gender and female-artist awareness play a major role in everything we do.

To speak more specifically, we’re currently working on a piece inspired by [Russian feminist art/punk activist group] Pussy Riot.  This idea came from two company members who were following their story particularly closely at the time of their arrest.  We all intuitively leaped on this seed of an idea; as we began research and exploration (the early stages of our development process) we quickly discovered that a big reason why Pussy Riot’s story and the questions it brings up resonated with us so deeply is specifically because they are female artists.  Their story is our story.  And they have done these powerful, dangerous, earth-rocking things with their position as female artists, claiming that position as one of profound subversive power and gigantic imaginative and radical influence.  Our piece has expanded to encompass questions about contemporary feminism, its oppositional relationship to global capitalism, protest art, 21st century resistance, and the socio-historical qualities of a moment when artists’ voices are politically important. These questions are close to our hearts and central to our ongoing artistic project.

One thing that’s been really nice about working on this piece, the first of ours that takes on explicitly political content, is that it’s made us realize that we’ve actually been dealing with these questions all along: all of our past pieces in some way engage questions of power and control, allocation of resources, society’s power to shape identity, and the possibility of communities to affect change.  These questions are central to feminism.

Again, some brief specifics: in our recent piece Vainglorious, a large-scale historical fantasia about Napoleonic Europe, we had a woman playing Napoleon and a man playing Josephine (and lots of other cross-gendered casting, mostly in the form of women playing men, throughout the world of the piece.)  While we made this choice based purely on company members desires and personal qualities, we had to recognize after the fact that the choice “says something” about gender.  Embracing this allowed us a deeper exploration of the power plays and politics of that piece.  We’ve also made pieces with trans characters (Portmanteau), de-gendered characters (Some Other Mettle), and always always make pieces with strong, unusual female characters.  It’s worth mentioning, too, that our performers create the characters they play—so the women of Applied Mechanics, through engaging in our group authorship process, have a huge amount of agency in their theatrical and artistic output.

In all these ways, I’d say gender parity and women in theater are at the heart of our material.

A tiny post-script: I think there was a while in there where some of us in the group would worry about not having “enough male energy” in the company.  And then at a certain point we were like, “why are we worried about this?”  It’s amazing how pervasive the norms of the dominant culture can be.

2)   Does this inform your working and administrative structures in any way?

It does, actually.  We have worked really, really hard to cultivate an egalitarian working model that embraces all participants, distributes company labor, and values communication and consensus over hierarchy.  For me, this is a self-consciously anti-patriarchal model.   It looks at the ways most theaters run, the received narratives created in overwhelmingly large part by straight white men (and thus designed to reward male-socialized habits and aesthetics) and says: we reject that, and reject the goal of gaining access to it, and we claim the space to work in another way.  This is often difficult, and certainly does require a great deal of energy, presence, and mindfulness from all company members, but the result is that we have this thing, this company, that allows us a sense of shared ownership while granting us all agency and a supportive artistic home.

3)   Do you know your statistics (number of actors, directors, designers, etc) in terms of representation? Can you share them?

For several years, the company consisted of five women and two men.  It has now shifted to consist of six women and one man.

Of the 32 “outside” actors we’ve hired in our history, 21 have been women and 11 have been men.

Of the 4 guest designers we’ve hired (to work with company designer Maria Shaplin) three have been women and one has been a man.

Of the 5 stage management/production assistants we’ve hired, four have been women and one has been a man.

There are also an assorted bunch of folks we’ve hired for one-off work/labor calls; this is an estimate, but I think on those we’ve been about half and half women and men.

4)   What would you say to a female artist feeling discouraged about her place in the arts community?

It can take a while to find your people.  Don’t worry: you’ll find them.  All of my collaborators I met through working other gigs, going to see stuff, or coincidences born of just doing my thing.  It makes a huge difference to have people you love to work with.  It makes it easier to feel like, at least in some respects, you have your own place and your own community.

Keep your eyes open for folks you admire and are interested in working with or for.  It’s not that hard to track people down in this town, and it never hurts to ask for a coffee—or an assistantship.

And I know this will sound a bit “follow your bliss,” but—follow your bliss!  Don’t wait for permission to make the art you want to make.  Do what you think is cool.  Claim the space to do it.

Art life is a weird life without a clear path.  There is so much bushwhacking to do, and so much stumbling.   I think men and women tend to be socialized differently, and it can often be harder for women to access the kind of assertiveness and entitlement that’s so useful sometimes in getting gigs and attention and carving out a niche.  But I also absolutely think that self-doubt and failure and periods of frustration are natural parts of the artists’ life.  Finding a way to accept those stages of the cycle without being too self-punishing can make it way easier to fight the necessary battles—whether that’s about accessing particular kinds of assertiveness or asserting other ways of working.

5)   Anything else you’d like to add?

When Maria Shaplin and I started this company, it was because there was art that we wanted to exist that didn’t exist yet.  We realized we could make it exist by making it ourselves, and we realized no one was going to give us permission to do it.  So we had to just do it.  So we did it.  And we were incredibly fortunate (still are) to have access to a community of brilliant collaborative artists who were down to do it with us.  The company, which grew out of that initial project, consists of the people who stuck around and were excited about working on the artistic and organizational experiments that Applied Mechanics has come to pursue.  I don’t think that the experience of wanting to make art and having to give ourselves permission to do it happened because we’re women (it happened because we’re artists) but I think the lesson of claiming space and asserting new working models is vital to the feminist project.  I’m not saying it isn’t a worthy battle to fight for access to existing systems, but I also say it is a necessary battle to fight for new systems.  For me, this goes for both artistic concerns (structural, as well as aesthetic) and organizational models.

Thanks Becky!

You can check out Applied Mechanics bio below or their website for more info: http://www.appliedmechanics.us/

Applied Mechanics is director Rebecca Wright, designer Maria Shaplin, and performers Jessica Hurley, Thomas Choinacky, Kristen Bailey, and Mary Tuomanen, and stage manager Bayla Rubin.  This ensemble of artists collaborates to make work that challenges conventional ideas of theatrical space, narrative, and performer-audience relationship: they create visual landscapes for the audience to wander through, and multiple intersecting storylines for them to choose how to watch.  Their plays are immersive, multi-sensory, and choose-your-own adventure.  Their process is collaborative, democratic, and based on a commitment to organizational and artistic innovation.

Applied Mechanics’ pieces include the apartment plays Selkie and Ses Voyages Sauvages; It’s Hard Times at the Camera Blanca (Fringe 2009) which took over a Fishtown Bar; the invasion play Portmanteau (Fringe 2010) which, following its Philadelphia premiere, toured from Texas to Louisville to Maine; the dystopic environmental piece Overseers (Fringe 2011); and the large scale historical fantasia Vainglorious: Epic Feats of Notable Persons in Europe After the Revolution, which involved a cast of 26 Philadelphia actors and which  remounted to great critical acclaim in the Philadelphia International Festival of Art (PIFA) in April 2013.

Reframing

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

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

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

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

At least it does for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see this as my chance to have choice.

– A

Jealousy

Hey folks,

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

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

Let’s decide this isn’t the case.

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

Hope to see you next Sunday and Monday.

– A

mon Some people have all the luck

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

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

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Rounding Up #TheSummit

Hey all,

At about the halfway point in the month and looking back at what I’ve been writing so far, I thought it might also be interesting to share Ilana Brownstein’s round up of all the reactions to #thesummit so far.

PS – Mine’s in there too…

Drama Lit Blog 2.0: BU School of Theatre

On Feb 17, 2014, Peter Marks of The Washington Post hosted an event called The Summit — it was a public conversation with several of D.C.’s leading artistic directors. As Peter noted in an article for The Washington Post, “Several months ago, Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, approached me with an intriguing offer: organizing and moderating a series of discussions, with theater people and topics of my choosing, onstage before an audience at her theater.” It was the first of three planned public fora — the others are scheduled for March 24 (focusing on actors), and April 28 (playwrights and directors). The event with Artistic Directors was not livestreamed, but it was live-tweeted by several attendees, chief among them Elissa Goetschiusartistic director of Baltimore’s Strand Theater. It’s probably fair to say that no one involved expected the event to blow up twitter as it…

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Tired

How best do you root this shit out?

I have been seriously trying to think on this one in the past couple days.

I keep thinking about #thesummit and I’m still not sure how best to proceed, both when it comes to talking with folks who are semi-anonymous AD’s I don’t personally know and with my close friends and peers. There are a couple of recent specific incidents that have sparked this post’s train of thought, but it’s also an issue that I’ve struggled with for a while, and, based on convos from the Awesome Lady Squad, a phenomenon that I think is much much bigger than just me.

It’s easy to make a list of female directors. I’m glad I did it. But it’s harder, by a lot, to actually get people who are making artistic choices, to take that list and hire them. I really believe that almost everyone, in theory, supports that list. Is there anyone in this community who would admit they don’t want women to hold an equal place? But somehow, seasons get chosen, shows are cast, and it continues to happen. If we all agree it’s bad, how and why do such inequities persist?

The problem, I think, isn’t that any one choice is particular misogynistic or horrifying. I think that’s actually pretty rare in this community. What’s more likely and perhaps far tougher to solve, far more problematic, are singular well-reasoned, well-intentioned choices across many many companies that still add up to a gender inequity in the community as a whole.

The problem, I think, isn’t intentions, but a lack of culpability for outcomes.

Which is why trying to tackle such a thing is so tricky. You don’t want to feel like you’re attacking any particular person or company, any particular choice, because of course those people have well reasoned and thought out plans for why they’ve chosen the way they have. It feels mean. It feels punitive. But then what exactly are you supposed to do about the fact that women are still vastly under-represented on and off the stage in almost every theater in this city? How in particular does one try and make a dent in this?

I’m trying. I’m trying to throw darts at what I think might be the board. I’m trying to initiate conversations with a fair number of different people on both the very tiny and very large scale of company sizes to see if I can get them to engage. I’ve been having this conversation everywhere, from theater lobbies to parties and even in my own home with my own fiancée who has his own company.

But I’ll be honest, right now, I think I’m failing. Right now, this morning, it’s feeling like a real uphill battle. And at this moment, it’s feeling a little defeating. Because despite trying to be intensely careful about my wording, despite continuing to reiterate my respect and admiration for folks, it still feels a little like I’m the one who has to constantly justify what I’m seeing. That if I perceive an imbalance that I want to unpack or converse about, I have to ensure that I’m completely grounded in my observations before we can engage. That it is my job to make sure I don’t put people on the defensive, even if my aim is to provoke and question an aspect of their work. That I better walk in knowing an awful lot about the person or company and their reasons for doing what they’re doing or I’m doing something wrong. It feels like I’m the one with the onus to prove there’s a bias.

And that’s hard to do. And it feels a bit like an impossible task at this moment. It’s hard to know everything about why someone selects a season, why someone has picked a particular play. It’s hard to be sure that under intentions, there are less obvious things that still might be worth addressing.It’s hard to know exactly how the issue is feeding into the situation, especially the closer in you zoom.

What I do know is that as I’ve looked at a few companies, I still see that fewer actresses will get cast and fewer female playwrights will be produced next year. That’s what I wish I could fix.

When I talked about this conversation with my fiancée he said this:

“The thing is, I just think it would be sad if people felt inhibited to talk about things. Or if their imaginations were squashed because they were trying so hard to be careful.”

I thought,  “I feel that way so much of the time.”

I feel that way whenever I try and bring this up. That if I’m not so terribly careful, I’ll make people feel unfairly labeled and then I’m the bad guy. That I’m not giving them a chance to show their side of things. Sometimes I so get tired of always having to hear the other side of things first. Because my aim is never to put people on the defensive but it feels like regardless of my tactic this is always the result.  And many times, the risk of alienating someone doesn’t feel worth it in a given moment and not bringing it up is the only way I can ensure someone won’t get their hackles raised.

So sometimes I don’t.

And sometimes when I do, the result doesn’t always feel that I’ve been able to communicate what I’d hoped. More times than I wish, I’ve walk away feeling further from the person I wanted to engage than when I started. And this in particular makes it harder to do the next time.

This must be part of why these things persist, no?

I don’t want to squash the imagination of others. But it sometimes feels to me, and I hear from other women that they feel this too, that this problem squashes us all the time. And it’s hard to know what to do when I don’t think people aren’t trying to do it. It’s hard because it feels like for me to ask for what I think is fair, I’m also punishing or taking something away from someone else.

We’ll have to think on this one a bit more…

– A

The Means To Manifesto

cooltext1368115366Hey all,

After a couple of mammoth posts past, and a few I’m working on to come, I’m keeping things short and sweet today, if still terribly important.

Instead of sending tons of my thoughts out to you all, I’d like you to send me your thoughts so that I can compile them in time to undertake a task for the next Awesome Lady Squad meeting.

Here’s our first official creation mission: A re-framing of how we look at each other as female artists. Replacing the model of scarcity and competition to a model of abundance.

In other words? An Awesome Lady Lady-festo.

I want to create a code of ethics for how the Awesome Lady Squad will function.  This document should contain clear and simple guidelines that underpin the way Awesome Lady Squad members promise to work with each other and the world around them. It is an agreement that details the ways we can model the behavior we want to see around us.

So you tell me: what does it mean to be an Awesome Lady creator? How do we define what kinds of working models we want to hold up?

Think specific, think concrete, and ideally concise.

Throw thoughts in the comments or on facebook or by email (swimponypa@gmail.com). I’ll be compiling and setting up a committee for this soon.

– A

PS – for some initial inspiration look to the Core Principles of Artist U

Talking about talking

So I’ve been thinking a lot in the hours since my last post about how to have this conversation.

I’ve been thinking about how we can best begin to discuss issues of unequal representation in a way that both is honest and straightforward and is also productive and provokes dialogue instead of defensiveness?

In other words, I want to start by talking about how we talk about this.

I find it easy to provoke and push when the target seems large and imposing. I find strength in feeling myself becoming a David in the face of a Goliath. My guess, without having been there, is that this was the awesome power of what happened at #thesummit. It was a moment where the folks on the stage, the ones with some degree of sway and power and perhaps a degree of unknowing complacency, had to take in the might of opinion and feeling of the voices sitting on the other side.

But in a business as tiny as this, in a community where community is key, when networking and positive relationships determine your ability to get a job or a grant next week, month or year, it is easy in the micro-moments of inequity to excuse the tiny things. Too often any one moment or choice or thought seems isolated or small enough to swallow.  And as the distance between we and the “giants” gets smaller, the harder it is to see them as the Goliaths they once were. Little things amass because it’s sometimes hard to know what is and isn’t a battleground.

And let’s also point out that these are really hard conversations to have.

Because so often I see an cry to battle dissolve when it has to translate into the daily implementation of such ideas on the nitty gritty detail level. Based on the conversation in our few meetings of the Awesome Lady Squad I hear female artists find the balance of when and how and where to try and bring these issues up the biggest barrier to change. “Do I really want to make this tiny line or scene or interaction a soapbox?” “Do I want to be that actress today, tomorrow, through this whole process.” “Am I really seeing this or am I being overly sensitive?”

It’s exhausting constantly trying to parsing it out in the moment.

And even if you are sure and you do know it’s an issue, it is so so so so so so so much more difficult to say things that are tricky and sticky to people we know and care about. It sucks to be a watchdog. To be a nag. To feel like you’re stopping everyone’s fun. To put people on their guard. It can feel like the opposite of the artistic impulse, where we want to feel open and accepting of each other. And I think it’s so hard because to have that conversation is also to acknowledge that the ills of our culture, the biases and darknesses that float around us all the time, also make their way into our brains. That we are sometimes making choices with little pushes from beliefs or stereotypes we’d never support if we said them out loud.

I wrote a while back about a study that showed how academic scientists displayed preferential treatment of men when filling a position for a lab manager.

In that post I explained how candidates in the study were never seen in person and scored based on identical applications save for the gendered first name of the potential employee.  I underscored that this bias was shown in both men and women assessing the candidate.  And I made a particular point of noting that none of the decision makers felt their choice had been affected by the applicant’s gender in any way. They all felt they were being totally gender objective in their assessments.

In other words, you can display bias and stigma and stereotype even when you don’t subscribe to them, EVEN when YOU are the negative recipient of them.

It is scary to think that stuff is in us. Even scarier to come to terms with the fact that it can affect our actions despite the best of our intentions. And when confronted with it, defense is natural. From the outside it seems ignorant and bigoted. But my guess is that the real cause is that no one wants to find in themselves dark things they didn’t ask to be in there. So sometimes it’s easier to believe they aren’t.

And it is here I want to point out the latent superpower we are missing: Yes, this is hard. Yes, It is tricky to talk David to David rather than David to Goliath. But.  The closer we are, the more potential impact we are likely to have. The closer we are to them, the more likely we can get people to let that guard down. The closer we are to the offending source, the more likely we are to find a safe space to excise these demons with their hosts intact. And if we can win them to our side we grow our army of soldiers. The less it looks like a war and the more it looks like a conversion, I think the faster the battle will be over. If we have to kill them all, we may still do it, but I bet we lose much more time and resource and energy.

So I think we should begin with two assumptions, even if it may seem idealistic or naïve:

1)   No one intentionally wants to make harmful choices to women artists.

2)   Everyone imbibes some level cultural crap that will predispose him or her to doing so.

So when we look at the choices of a company, or another artist (or in our own work for that matter) and we see something that makes us feel squicky, our goal should be to remind them of #1 and help them see where they might be displaying the crap of #2 (pun by the way, totally intended).

To do that I think we start by asking these questions:

Is it conscious? – i.e. Does the person or company know and realize what they’re doing? Do they identify their behavior as a problem or are they truly unaware of it and its effect?

And

Is it conscionably contextualized? – i.e. Have they passively presented potential problematic material/decisions or have they taken steps (even if imperfectly) to justify them through dialogue or contextualization? In other words, do they balance a guy heavy Glengarry Glen Ross with another play with mostly female cast? Do they perform a problematic cannon text in context of a conversation series about historical representation of women in history to point out the potential in conflict with the morals we have today?

How we assess the answers to these questions will help set the stage for the modes through which we express our concerns and I think also help start to identify the solutions. And in tailoring it in this way, I think we get closer to coming to real understanding of what’s at play in each specific case. Because the devils really are in these details. And if we don’t treat all offenses alike, I think we’re likelier to find specific tailored solutions, likelier to find and commit the people who are ready and wanting to change but may not yet be brave enough or know how on their own to do so.

More on this tomorrow…

A

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

Connor’s Story

When I first started doing theater I was in 7th grade. It was a way for me to get out of my own skin, skin I wasn’t super comfortable in yet. It was a way to escape and be someone else. It was also a chance for me to be with other people, to find community. I liked having what felt like a secret club of people who got together to create something bigger than any one of us individually.

When I first started doing theater the stories I told didn’t really matter: Annie, The Music Man (twice) and Neil Simon’s Start Spangled Girl. But it was the act of telling them that made meaning for me of my experience, the act of being together with people. In high school, I wanted very much to be Bernadette Peters, to have big hair and a big voice and a fancy costume and to be very good at what I did. Somewhere in the midst of that time my desire transformed from simply wanting to be a part of something to wanting to be a part of something amazing, to create it at a high level of skill.  So I trained in music and acting and having always prized myself a very good student, I threw myself into that study with fervor and drive.

When I first started doing theater I thought that the purpose of it was to raise myself up to the level of the creators whose works I was enacting. I thought that playwrights and composers had some kind of magical skill. I thought that their works can from some nebulous place that was very different than the kind of place I pulled my own artistic feats from. And it wasn’t until I first found myself making a piece of my own that I realized that I too had that capability, that capacity. And it wasn’t until then that I was really really hooked.

When I first started doing theater, my experiences shaped my ideas of what the end product was supposed to look like: fancy, professional, expensive. When I first started making theater my experiences shaped my ideas of who the audience for that work was supposed to be: increasingly large and anonymous groups of people who come to see me and my works because of my skill and excellence. It was an impulse to impress. And when I first started doing theater I thought that my job was to try and tell the stories that matter to the most people. To try and create as universal a message as possible. To create a Great American Play.  To try and reach people I didn’t know and pour into them the experience of my greater artistic truth.

I don’t really think that any more.

If your plan is to see Welcome To Campus and you haven’t yet, don’t read this next part. If you’ve already seen it, or know you won’t make it, go ahead and proceed.

There’s a moment early in Campus where the student tour guides, who have been up to this point manically presenting Drexel in a shiny brochure-style intro, crack just a little. They are listing, as one ought as a highly school spirited representative, their favorite letters in the word DREXEL. Student Cami, a go-getter, chooses D for its primary position. Garth relates his choice of the E as the “workhorse” of the word. And so on through L and X. And then just after Dean has also chosen D (without which he would “just be EAN”) there’s an awkward pause. A sort of looking around and then realizing “Oh right…” kind of moment. And then Lexi breaks the uncomfortable tension with a plaintive, “Connor’s supposed to be the R.”

Through the rest of the play – a walking tour in which the students relate their actual college experiences in the locations in which they actually occurred – Connor and his obvious absence are hinted at and remembered. His return is promised and reiterated. And while we grow closer to Lexi, Carl, Cami, Garth and Dean, our sixth tour guide Connor remains an enigmatic mystery. The audience knows only that he seems to have been rather important to our tour guides and that clearly he isn’t going to be here.

The stories the tour guides tell (once having broken their shiny personae) do not relate to him really. They are stories about their experiences from their actual college lives. They are stories of a kind that no traditional tour will give. What the actors and I aimed for was to find a way to share the intimacies and strange details that really make up their experience of higher education. And yet, in these moments in between performances of the most awkward dates of one’s life or ruminations on feeling terribly alone in a new place, they all keep hinting at this other unseen person.

An outsider to the show might wonder what exactly the decision process was behind including such a motif through the show.

I could create a fancy and artistic sounding justification. But the real reason is this: there really is a Connor and he really was going to be a sixth tour guide. He also doesn’t  go to Drexel any more.

I taught a class last fall in preparation for this show. All the tour guides in the performance were part of this class. We spent 10 weeks together talking and playing and writing and reading and sometimes farting around trying to create an idea for a play. Over the course of this term we found together this idea of a college tour, an offshoot of an initial idea I’d proposed, one that included their own personal stories. And for their final I prompted them to give a theatrical tour of an actual moment from their lives in a non-theatrical space, ideally the actual location if possible.

One of the last ones we took was Connor’s tour, which happened in a large and scary building called Drexel One Plaza (Garden Level for those in the campus know). On a cold day late in the term we walked from the black box theater over to the building, tried the back door with no avail and then walked around to the front to be told by a security guard that the building wasn’t open to the public after 6.

We got in anyway; the group managed to sneak in through a side door after one of the students confidently declared he could find a way to get us in. When we did get in,  filled with excitement and giddiness at having outsmarted the proverbial castle guards, we walked through the empty building’s halls. And though I pretended not to notice the security cameras lining the ceilings, I did gently encouraged Connor to get a move on with his tour.

We walked through the strange windowless floor to a simple and unremarkable classroom. Connor’s story was relatively straightforward. It talked about feeling a distance from the Drexel. It talked about being displeased with the administration and academic environment. It talked about how his long distance girlfriend and her support was really the only thing standing in the way of him throwing in the towel on this version of the college experience. And then he told us about the day that she sent him a text message.

He told about a recent day he had been sitting in this classroom and how he had been looking at the board (the one we were now looking at just then) and how he had been holding his phone (the one he was now holding) and how he’d received a text message. He told us that reading the text he knew he would break up with his girlfriend later that day and how he knew when it happened he was going to have to leave Drexel.

It’s how I found out he wouldn’t be there next term.

And we all sat there. Sat and stared at him and his phone and the room and each other. Each thinking about the fact that this was the room where that choice had been made. The same way you stare at the walls of Versailles knowing a king used to sleep in a bed there. It was a weird kind of re-enactment, one where you become aware of just being. Aware of your being in a place where someone else’s being has just been.

As I was sitting with the class thinking about all this a security guard arrived and told us we had to leave. We giggled and pretended to be sorry for breaking rules we clearly weren’t sorry to have broken at all.

This is one of my favorite moments of teaching, ever. I still have trouble putting into words quite why.

I really like the play I’ve made with these Drexel students. I think that Welcome To Campus is a really lovely play. But it’s funny sometimes when I watch the audience. I think about the fact that to them Connor is just some name. That even though the actors and I went to the trouble of re-creating the whole thing – mentioning Connor’s absence, staging a security guard denying us entry to a building, building in a covert break in, telling the story of the text message, the sitting in silence and getting kicked out at the end, all of it – there’s some part of me that is sad that they don’t know that what they’re seeing is just a re-creation of the real moment that has stuck so hard with me in this process.

A few days ago Connor came to see the show and I got to watch him watch his scene.

This is one of my favorite moments from teaching, too.

I didn’t direct this play solely for this moment. There’s more in this piece than just this particular layer. But it felt like the right kind of full circle. That finally we had an audience member who really knew what the journey of this play had been. Because even though he wasn’t there when we built so much of the later parts of it, he was an insider in one of the moments that sits at its center. And now I could watch this insider see the thing as an outsider. See a creative voice get to be an observer of the artistic result.

Connor is the opposite of the kind of person I used to want in my audience. He knows more about the moment of his personal scene than I can, than I ever could, understand. But that scene feels like the kind of gift I feel my work needing to be – a way to see our own lives reflected back to us, to parse them out for meaning and beauty – through the help of the artistic process. And while I don’t want to deny the anonymous who see the work their place, for the few I’ve met have been lovely and effusive, I wonder in a piece like this if the point is not for this insular community to create a message to send to the outside world, but for us to use the work as a way to understand our place within it.

How do we open our process to an audience that will not only be our external viewers but our internal community? How do we bind them to the building of the thing? How do we share in the depth and power of expanding and filling our stories with shape and craft?

I don’t yet know. But it feels like the calling.

– A

52 Weeks, 52 Plays: Week 1

Back in high school my theater department’s office had a giant catalog of scripts. My senior year I decided that I would read a play every week for an entire school year. A lot of those plays I’ve forgotten, a few have burrowed into my brain very deep. But I think the real lasting impact was less any particular show, and more the fact that I felt like it gave me a concentrated bit of time to sit and ruminate on theater, on how I would stage that play, if I would stage that play, what I thought the playwright wanted and whether I would want something similar or different.

2014 has, at least nascently so far, been a year of initiatives.

A few weeks back I was thinking again about plays. Scripts, specifically. Being a deviser I so rarely read “finished” scripts. And I thought that it could be interesting to check back in with the writer-first world that most of my profession lives in. I wanted to know more about contemporary playwriting, what trends are out there, and who the outrageous creators were. But I also wanted that sense again, the time to look at someone else’s idea of theater and to just… react. So I put up a post on the old book of faces asking for play submissions, bound only by the stipulations that it should be something from the last 3 – 4 years with a bonus for female playwrights.  Happily, I got a ton of response.

The public-ness of this blog, another formerly nascent initiative of its own, was very helpful in  keeping me on track with getting writing out back in the earlies of 2013. A rule lover by nature, I liked knowing that I was in a little way publicly accountable for doing what I’d set out to. So I liked the idea of trying to catalog this idea of reading a play a week for the entire year of 2014. I made a list, started thinking about how to organize the endeavor and I start off the very first week with a copy of a play called The Noise by Rachel Bonds.

Here’s the thing though…  I don’t want to write a review of this play.

I am incredibly aware of how subjective a given random day’s awesome-ness or shitty-ness affects my view of a thing. I am also aware that reading an assessment of another’s work will bias future people about that work because you’re either reacting to or against their positive or negative assessment.  So while I don’t think I’m incapable or unqualified to read a play and assess it, I kept thinking, what end am I aiming for? I am certain that this project will not result in Swim Pony suddenly deciding to produce new young American playwrights. I also don’t particularly want the responsibility of advocating for or against another artist’s work. This space, for me, it feels like it’s really for something else.

So I’m trying to shoot instead the kind of feeling that I had back in high school: using a particular play as a springboard to jump start the way about the way I think about theater, what I want to make and see, and how it reminds me of the possibilities of what are out there and what I can imagine could be out there if I were to make it. So without further ado, Swim Pony musings from The Noise.

A synopsis in a just a few lines: The plot of The Noise centers on four characters – Ellie – a 28 year old math teacher who has lost her mother, Amos – a 30 something history teacher with whom Ellie becomes romantically entangled, Bert – Ellie’s father recently remarried and finding a sudden need to tend the garden his last wife once kept, and Janice – Bert’s new wife who is trying to deal with his blocks in processing his previous wife’s death. Ellie and Bert both work to try and deal with their feelings at the loss, Ellie by guarding herself against new love, Bert by an obsessive need to rebuild to the vegetal life his wife once tended. It’s a story about people searching for connections to each other. Added to this is an eerie/magical presence of The Noise – a form that emerges from darkness and beckons Ellie into the most quiet, silent and still places in the world and in herself.

This is in many ways, a play about grief – a daughter who has lost her mother, a man who has lost a wife. But for me it was equally as much a play that explores darkness and silence. I was captivated by this idea throughout the reading, how we can create a performance that invites an audience into such a deep and still place. I wondered as I read if it possible to ask the audience to do what The Noise asks of Ellie, to invite them into a “moment of utter and complete stillness.”

There’s a kind of anticipated rhythm of drama that I feel in most of the theater I see. Working in the field you can sometimes start to sense a kind predictable structure. Even in the messiest of emotions, there is a kind of arc that becomes ingrained – the anticipation of the lights going down, the building action of conflict, the perfect timing of a character coming to catharsis, knowing just when you’re supposed to cry or laugh as an audience whole. It’s funny how in a way this journey can become incredibly familiar, perhaps even to the point of banality. It’s why, sometimes, a person in the audience coughing can so thoroughly draw attention of everyone in the room – because such events stubbornly refute the tempo and timing we expect of the moment.

Such an occurence, pedestrian as it may be, is living by the pulse of some other kind of world. It rubs so coarsely against the slickness of a polished piece, it is so imprecise and un-theatrical, that it can stubbornly demand our attention.

Reading this play I wondered, how long could you ask someone to sit in the dark and close their eyes and just… be?  Talk of such stillness in concert with dialogue so sharp that it snaps (Which this piece has, by the way. If you want a scene for young actors that is smart and sweet, the first pages of this play are quite fitting.) such contrast highlights my hunger to really experience such a sensation for myself. What if you created a space where a room full of people were asked instead of watching someone listen for the most perfect silence possible, actually were invited to find it for themselves. Silence is of course, a kind of sound, one end of a spectrum, and as a creator who very often lives in my ears, I love the idea of taking a moment with a listener to turn off the lights and work at awakening this sense. The Noise is a play filled with the sense and absence of sound, with vibrations and reverberations that move in and through us, and as a director it makes me wonder how one might take this impulse even further.

The other element suggested in the staging is The Noise itself, a kind of fantastic presence that emerges from and pulls others into darkness. The playwright notes that she first imagined the presence as a girl (10 – 16) standing in a doorframe unmoving from a nightmare she used to have as a child (can I just say, I’d love to see this nightmare?). She instructs the reader to seek an ageless quality but not an overly heavy creepiness. Like Victorian child in a frilly dress. Which is funny because it’s exactly what the others who read the play mentioned envisioning.

The Noise appears in the shadows of streetlamps with an unsettling howl. And though nothing in the play suggests it, for some reason all I could imagine was a picture from a friend’s facebook profile that looks like this:

The noiseI kept imagining the character one part jaunty animation and one part black oil from the X-Files. And it made me wonder how to create such a thing in a live performance setting. Made me want to try and create a presence out of the kind of things that theater does very well – where a thing that has no life or seems very ordinary transforms into a kind of magic.

And last, this play made me wonder about my taste for messiness.  It made me think about how strong the impulse to tie things up neatly can be and how perhaps our work, like our lives, might benefit from a bit of nasty bits left in.

So there’s week 1.

Here’s to another 51.

– A

PS – For those interested here’s her website and a bit of info on her recent work with the Arden Writer’s Room.

52 Weeks and Flux

I used to put pictures up with my posts a year ago. Does that make them better?
I used to put pictures up with my posts a year ago. Does that make them better?

A year ago I wrote this.

One year.

It sort of seems impossible.

Dear reader, in some ways it feels as if that person and her impulse to write could have been me both 10 years and 10 minutes ago.

Yet, in thinking about this past year, I also sense a slow tectonic level type of shift. And while this movement has quite possibly been in the works for a very long time, perhaps since the start of my creative career, it also feels like a wave finally beginning to crest.

And troublingly, I don’t quite know how to say any of this. Not in a way that feels specific enough. That feels like it really articulates it. I just know that there is a high level of Flux in me right now.

I like this word – Flux.

First searched in the dictionary Flux is listed as this: “A series of changes.” And also “continuous change.”

Back when I was studying science I learned about Flux in the context of physical passage: The amount of a defined thing moving through a defined amount of space in a defined amount of time.  In this context Flux is a rate. Something whose motion feels closer to a verb than a noun. I remember in particular a problem on a multivariable calculus final in which bees were flying out of a hive at great speed.

Flux is not the hive. Nor is it the bees. It is a measure of them as they pass from one place to another.

When I get to ruminating poetically, the Flux in me feels like the measure of something moving internally from the person I was to the person I am meant to be.  And right now that feeling, that rate of movement of stuff from one place to the next, that series of continuous changes, all of it feels as if it is being pushed very hard. Like a swift current, the force is visceral. It is gathering momentum.

This is why it is so funny to read my thoughts from a year ago.  Because so much in me feels like it is in motion, but so many of the words remain applicable. Most notably from that year ago, the question of what I am doing and why remains.

Most days planning spools further and further away from the present: a year before I can re-apply to this or that, to get funding to start on the next thing, maybe more before I might be ready for this other opportunity.

And at the same time, the passage seems so quick: A year, an entire year of life and what really is different? What do I have to show for it? Is it enough?

So to the feeling of Flux I must ask: Have I actually, tangibly, changed or does it just feel that way? 52 weeks later what can I say to the person who asked if I could define what I want out of art and cut out the rest of the crap to “really concentrate on making what matters”?

A year ago I was looking for change that was easy and obvious to show myself. I thought about changes in location, in career, in love, in life. I ultimately decided that these weren’t the changes I actually wanted to make.

But perhaps there are other changes. Things that are invisible forces. Changes that are harder to see with the naked eye but that move continents if given enough time.

Here is what I do know:

I don’t feel the need to make a new “play” any time soon.

I might be done making “plays” for a while.

But I do want to make something, and I need to figure out what that is.

And while all my creative impulses are terribly impractical from a producer standpoint, for the first time in a while that feels like fun and not a hindrance.

With luck (and hopefully likelihood) I’ll read this in a year’s time and see what Flux has forced me to find.

– A