performance

A Million Female Gandalfs

Today I had my final class of the semester at one of the schools I teach at. For our final class of Voice For The Stage, I ask my students to perform a monologue they have worked on for several weeks on the large stage in front of each other. They pick these monologues themselves and I allow them to be from movies or television, from a favorite play, anything that they are genuinely interested in. I do this because it is the chance for these learners to test their abilities, honed over the last 14 weeks, to hold the stories they have chosen to tell in their bodies. I want, and encourage them, to choose words thrilling for them to inhabit. It is their chance to see if they can transmit those narratives’ feelings and emotions out of their imaginations and through their voices and into the audience.

Earlier this semester a girl stepped onto that stage and performed a monologue from Lord of the Rings, playing the wizard Gandalf. I think about this now as I watch the same girl again. I think about the fact that a year ago I was watching another girl performing another Gandalf monologue during this culminating performance day and that earlier this semester I heard another female Gandalf at another school.

I think about how every year there is a female Gandalf.

Last week I sat in my living room and heard six fast and sharp pops from somewhere to the south and west of my window.

Oh no, I think. I know what this sound is. I hope that it is something else, though if I am honest I know exactly what this sound is, but I keep working, hoping somehow that I am mistaken. Minutes later when I hear the parade of several sirens in the distance I cannot pretend any longer that what I know is not true.

In the moment I am afraid, I am scared, and I am sad.

I think, I should call Brad and make sure he’s ok. Even though I know he is at the theater, having left nearly 40 minutes ago, I should still just make sure.

I walk to the window and I see two police cars parked on the corner and several police walk into a mini market. Moments later I see several people, males of varying ages from teenager to thirty something adult, all walk quickly out of the store. They are all African-American. They are looking at their phones. A microsecond-long thought passes through my head, “What are the police doing? Why aren’t they stopping these men? What if they need to question them? What if they are involved?”

This is the first thought that instinctually comes into my head. That they are guilty. It isn’t one of reasoned or rational thought. It is gut reaction. It is fear. It is instinct. It is the first story that comes to mind.

A moment later I am actually thinking about that thought that first flashed in my mind and I feel disgusted with myself.

In that moment later I say, literally, as in actually, as in out loud to the room, “What is wrong with you Adrienne? Why would you think that?”

I think, Why is the first narrative construction you have built around these humans who are leaving a store and looking at their phones one of guilt? What is it about them that makes you think this way before you even have a moment to think? Why is the story you instinctually tell one of guilt and violence and implication? Why is the story you tell not one of a person scared and wondering if the people they know are alright? Why is their looking at of phones something that nonsensically becomes something nefarious rather than the EXACT SAME INSTINCT you yourself had?

And of course it is because they are black.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize this.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize that I do not want this in me.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize that even though I do not really think this, something about the world I live in has made this the gut instinct.

And in this moment I hate the world and I hate the gut instinct and I feel privileged and stupid and small.

I think, Why on instinct do you not assume that these fellow humans are going to their own friends and families and making sure they are ok, that they hurry from this place because they too are scared and worried and want to feel comfort in a moment of stress and tension and possible tragedy?

I think, Why, why, why on earth is this not the story you instinctively picture?

I think about how quickly that default story comes to my mind. I think about the fact that I am a storyteller by trade. I wonder about whether I am telling stories that make it easier or harder for this kind of terrible default story to emerge.

I think about all this and I am ashamed.

There is a darkness in you, I think. There is something dark and sticky and terrible and it is not something you put there on purpose but it is part of a much bigger problem that is so so so terribly sad. I think about the color connotations of the words that my brain has just used, ones that again simply came to mind. I think about how these too are problematic color tropes that also infect so many kinds of the stories we tell.

This is not darkness, I think. You cannot think of the terrible thing that feeds the bad stories as darkness. You need to think of it as evil and hatred.

I am ashamed of the story that emerges from my brain without my asking it to appear. I hate it and I stand at the window and I look at the people walking by and imagine a new story. In the new story I can see the lines of worry in their faces. I think, You need to step back and work harder to see the world better. You need to work harder to get these instinctual stories out of yourself, to find their roots and pull and pull and pull. You need to create new stories that are better to plant in their place.

Today between the myriad of moments in which I smile and clap and laugh with the group there is a different kind of moment, one where I pause and purse my lips for a moment and feel very very sad.

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

I am sad because every year there is a female Gandalf.

I am sad because there are a million female Gandalfs it seems. I am sad because though I have seen students play sponges and mutants and demons and even a human embodiment of a font, though every year I see so many of my female students find power and depth in speaking like Ian McKellen playing a bearded wizard I have never, not once, not even one single time in seven years of teaching, seen a male student decide that they would find something exciting and inspiring about speaking words originally intended for a woman.

I am sad because this must mean we are not doing well enough in the stories we have for my female students.

I am sad because if the first story that comes to my mind when I see a group of African-American men reacting to a gunshot the story that I have for them is the worst kind of story. I am sad because this is not the story that should be brought to my mind. If it is this must mean we are not doing well enough in the stories we have for them either.

I am sad because I know that I get so tired hearing stories about women that conform to all the stupid and terrible gender norms. I am sad because I get so tired of having to hear these same stupid stories that are such a tiny part of the larger whole of what being feminine can mean. It hurts me that there aren’t a larger number of better stories for the women who stand on that stage.

I think about the times someone has created a story for me that I do not want to be a part of, of the effort it takes to remove this story from myself. I think about the way that I must do the same to others without even realizing it, without wanting to, and that I need to keep striving to find a way to stop.

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

I think about how we are literally wasting people’s lives by casting them in shitty stories.

I think about how even a million female Gandalfs can’t outweigh the imbalance.

And I think that this rooting, this active undoing and this need for rewriting for the better must be the job of our lives as artists. If we are not doing this, what good will our stories be? At this moment, as storytellers, we must take responsibility for the telling. If we don’t, what on earth are we here for?

– A

Labeling

hello.label

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

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

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

But labels having been causing me agita lately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some days I just don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– A