process

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

Getting to “Fuck It” Faster

If you’ve been standing within 100 feet of me in the last month or so, you’ve inevitably heard me go on and on about my most recent directing project.

It is, in essence, a project that does not adhere to any of the rules that I follow in my “real” work. It is one that I traveled almost two hours a day to get to and from. It is one that rehearsed at odd and tiring hours after full days of other work. It is one that paid me far less than the salary I set for myself in my own company’s work. It is one that I embarked on with little choice in content, space, personnel or schedule. Never in a Swim Pony project do I allow designers to be assigned to me. Never do I cast a massive ensemble based on a day’s worth of auditions. Never do I work in a tiny and oddly shaped theater space. Never do I do so many of the things that I did for this recent production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at Arcadia.

Yet, I can hardly recall a time in recent memory when I have been this excited to get to rehearsal, felt as free in pushing and playing with my actors, as wildly open to trying any and everything that my mind could conceive.  And ironically, I can also hardly recall a time when encountering things that did not go the way I expected where I felt so easy in adapting to the new circumstance and believing that success or no, it would all still absolutely have been worth it.

I thought about this yesterday as I semi-moped about my house feel post-partum performance let down. I thought about what it might mean that I have been so very happy these past weeks and what I might need to do to capture this feeling more often.  And as I was semi-moping I thought about the times in the past when the work has felt the most fraught and when it has felt the most free. And collage-like came a cascade of things people have said to me that feel strangely similar:

A written comment from a vocal jury performance: “Adrienne Mackey is a wall of sound”

A reader of this blog: “It surprised me to realize that you could be that vulnerable.”

The remark during a training session for Roy Hart work: “Adrienne, you are like a golden tank. Beautiful but bulldozing over everything in your path.”

In a therapy session recently: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes I find you very hard to read.”

And as these thoughts fell through my mind over the course of the day, they began to layer into the shape of something resembling a realization. Not an earth shattering one, in fact something that I’ve pretty much always known, but one that I realize I haven’t totally acknowledged as a problem: that when I really intensely care about something, especially when I’ve had the chance to stew about it for a long time beforehand, I often psych myself out of really enjoying it. When I really want to do my best, when I am trying my hardest to do that, I often over-think myself out of doing what I want and having a good time.

Often in school, in training, in life, in my work I have these moments where I want so badly to do well and I feel myself failing. And this failing becomes this nasty spiral where I want to do well so I push too hard or work too much and then feel the falseness of that work, feel the desperation of it, and end up falling farther down the hole. And so I try to relax and not care, but of course, I know this too is a lie, that I do care, that I want to do well, and so feel guilty about trying not to do and bounce back and forth between half measures of forceful pushing and uncommitted frustrating motions of trying to disengage from my angry and needing and deeply caring self.

Almost always when I get to an incredibly exasperated and dark place at the bottom of this spiral I say, “Fuck it.” And only then in hopelessness despair do I finally give up trying.

And this, inevitably, cliché-ingly predictably, is when I finally break the cycle and start making the stuff that’s really good, the stuff I wanted to make the whole goddamn time.

It is so recurrent that I can even know that I have to get to “fuck it” and in mind boggling-inducing meta levels of self-sabotage manage to try too hard at finding the feeling of “fuck it” until I give up even at this and rage at the gods with a hearty “fuck it trying to find fuck it!”

And then, of course, the work gets good.

Perhaps external measures of success have become so entangled with my own sense of worth, with my own sense of desire, that when I think about it I genuinely feel like I don’t actually know what I want. Maybe I am so often in my head that I start to game out every strategy ahead of time and this removes me from actually experiencing anything in the actual moment of its happening. Or possibly the key to really loving something is the delicate balance of knowing when it’s time to try hard and when to let go.

Maybe it is all of these things.

The real gift of the process I found with my students at Arcadia was that I walked in and had absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. I was doing a play with no one to impress in a style I have almost no expertise over on a subject I pretty much didn’t give a shit about. And somehow that gave me freedom to do exactly what I wanted. Which was lovely and freeing and incredibly important to me. And by the time I realized how much I cared about it, I had already found the permission to keep doing it. And in so doing, saw the freedom and permission that all of my lovely darlings gave themselves so that together we all set ourselves free.

This is what I thought about yesterday in the afterglow of a lovely process.  And sitting here now a day later thinking about those thoughts I think this:

What the fuck (it)?

Because, really, what the hell do you do about that? What do you do with the knowledge that when you try hard you are trying too hard? That when you try not to try you end up trying harder? That you’ll keep going around that until you despair and give up and then stop trying and then you’ll finally do it right? That this always happens unless you magically manage to end up doing something where you don’t realize that you care until its too late and you’re already doing a good job?

Ugh.

If I look back at my past, I see this pattern emerge everywhere. Beginnings are so often the most joyous place for me. The moment of beginning, the time before I know enough to know enough to know when I’m messing up is usually when I manage to subvert the work and get to “fuck it” faster. It is the moments when I don’t realize what I’m doing or I go into it not thinking much at all about it that I am able to just relax and really let rip.

This is how I discovered a theater of devising rather than scripted plays.

This is how I became a funk-a-delic back up singer.

This is how I started teaching new approaches to voice.

This is how I found myself loving so fully a production of Midsummer.

This is how a person who has intense personal space issues looks at a hoard of college students and cannot help herself but to hug them, to grab them about the ears and kiss their faces. How a person whose persona is thoroughly entrenched in wanting and needing and demanding respect in my field and from my peers can have no shame. How she who is so studious and careful in letting people in has no trouble showering these students with all the feelings that I am filled with when I see them in voluminous words unprepared ahead of time (so as to ensure they accurately describe the true depth of my feeling). And how in such total lack of preparation I find truer expressions than in the many times in the past I have tried with hours and days of writing and re-writing to say something right from the core of me.

Even here. Even in this space, it feels just a bit forced trying to pin it down in words after the fact. And I am trying as I write these very words not to hit the back button, but to allow myself the luxury of letting these thoughts tumble out just as they come.

And I don’t exactly yet know just how I will do it, but I think this is the work I must be doing now. Finding my way to “fuck it” faster. Figuring out how I can be as generous with myself as I am with them. How I can give myself the sovereignty over my artistic space, to do whatever I want simply because I want to, because it makes me happy, and believe that this happiness is the key to my artistic success.

– A

Amateur is Latin for Love

Over the past six months my life has taken a radical shift. I went from the intensive grinding gears of two large scale projects – one a gig for Shakespeare in Clark Park in which I worked as a director for hire as wells as The Ballad of Joe Hill a work created and produced by my own company Swim Pony – into a far more predictable series of teaching gigs – a new post as voice teacher for Pig Iron’s APT, a residency at Drexel, coaching a mostly non-actor set to coach med students interpersonal skills at UPenn’s school of Medicine and directing a production of Midsummer at Arcadia.

As I headed into the summer I felt a sense of relief and apprehension. Relief that my time into September was booked with work that I both believed in and had found a way to appropriately compensate myself for. I felt a sense of pride at having booked myself solid for the first time ever with 6 months of artistic work alone while still paying a mortgage and socking away from money for savings. I thought and felt, “Finally, we are approaching a place of stasis, a solid foundation upon which a life can be built.”

And as I left the month of September, reasonably compensated, well received by press and peers and patrons on my work over the past months, I still felt somehow just a little unsettled by I can’t say exactly what: a sense that I’d done well but… With a feeling that I’d created two works of which I was proud, one that I felt was the first appropriately resourced self produced piece I’d ever been in charge of but… That I’d made shows that I think showed my professional skill, that highlighted many aspects of my  expertise, plays that made me proud as a professional creator, and yet…

Yet, still, something niggled at me. The audiences were a bit timid at one. The energy not quite right in another. The joy, the abandon, the feeling, the… what? the… love.

Yes.  That’s it. The love was what I felt missing. That underneath the polish and skill and work was just a little bit less love than I went into all this seeking. Somewhere in this summer of incredibly hard work and tiring hours and beautiful images and incredible ideas I was missing a little bit of amore.

Look. The people with whom I created my last two professional projects are ones that I adore. They are my core creators, most of them, the people that I will work with in many cases for the rest of my life. But something about these last two shows left me a bit cold. Not through any fault of my co-creators, but perhaps because I myself allowed myself to be swept up in the accomplishment of professionality, of the implied self worth that doing a thing at a “meaningful” level of competence and expertise did I let myself hide a little of the messy and silly and sometimes uncertain and ridiculous person that I love myself to be in a process. I doubt these co-creators would admit it, but I bet deep down they felt it.

I could not have spoken this to myself then as I do now. But I think I knew it. We all wanted a bit more of that love in our work.

So it was at this juncture that I looked into that stretch of fall to winter months with no “professional” work in sight. Here I found myself in a sea of students of varying ages and skills sets and talent levels ahead of me. It was here, with a chip on the shoulder and a block of doubt in the stomach that I set off into the wilds of “amateur” theater. I went to auditions and first classes and training session with zero expectation of artistic fulfillment, looking instead to do a decent job, make some connections, steel myself against the antsy feeling being out of “real” rehearsals. I intended to let life be simple for a bit in order to plan my re-emergence back into the “real” theater scene soon enough.

So I went to my classes with their small number of students in order to get them on board with the weirdo piece I wanted to create. I went to rehearsals to direct play that I have loathed for a very long time expecting to wade through language I could care less about. I went to work to train folks on characters and skills I have repeated ad nauseum over the last few years. I went to these things expected a heavy heart and soul. I went there ready to be frustrated with amateurism and a lack of professional rigor.

I went there expecting these things. And I found that I was wrong. I found myself, suddenly realizing that I was happier than I have been in months, possibly years. That heaviness and weight of proving myself and my worth had been freed from myself and that for the first time in a long time I have re-found a kind of love. Yes amazingly, I find myself at the near end of this time more inspired, more buoyant than I have in perhaps years. I went expecting amateurs and what I found was love.

So often we define the amateur as the absence of talent skill or training. Back in late October I read an article by Todd London about innovation in which he points out that the word Amateur comes from the Latin root for “love.” When I read this, something dropped in me. An “Ah ha” kind of moment. A moment where I realized that the amateur is not solely, as is so commonly assumed, defined as one who does something at a “non-professional” level but one who does it for no other reason than a deep and abiding love. The amateur can have no other reason for doing the thing other than the pure and true love of it, for they have no other compensation to reward them. How often we degrade it, define ourselves in opposition to it, in order to prove our own worth. How often, I realized, I myself was working, creating and doing things in so many ways simply to prove that I was most certainly not an amateur but a professional, a person worthy of time attention and thought. Worthy to be seem by foundations to presenters to peers this need for professionalism had infected my spirits. It had stopped me from silliness. It is true that over the past several months I have created things and worked with those that on almost any level one would not call “professional.” But in exchange I have found something that might be worthier still: Love.

And after months away from it there are moments that I cherish

–       The act of creating ritual, silly and ridiculous and childish

–       The moment of discovery for the very first time in a scene or a word or a movement

–       The undaunted display of failure, the expectation that one is at the beginning of a journey, and the sense that one is not worth less because they have not yet mastered the way how to do something

This thought, this core of the work as an exploit of love has lifted me. And now that I find myself nearing the end, I wonder how I take these with me back to the land of professional living. I wonder how I take the happiness and joy and love that I have lived with over these past months back to my work and my life and my collaborators.

And were this any other post here, I’d find some way to neatly wrap all this up into a perfect bow of professional conduct and meaning. But I don’t think I’ll do that just now. I’ll leave it ragged and happy and unfinished. And just be satisfied with that.

A

Sad truths about art, as imparted to an eight year old

The other day I was walking to the store to buy groceries. As I approached a park ahead on my right I heard a small voice emanating from the impending entrance and soon after saw that a young girl was standing on jungle gym equipment singing to herself.

She was maybe 7 or 8, the age before you’ve honed the full sense of shame and just how far your voice can carry in public. She clearly had no awareness that any passerby might notice her as she bent over in concentration swaying back and forth in pink high tops and purple pants to an almost trance-like beat within her. She raised her head to the sky and belted out words in her tiny voice as if her life depended on it. The song, a syrupy pop devotional, proclaimed a hunger for a romantic love that was clearly far past the understanding of someone her age. It was obvious however, that she wanted, nay needed, nothing else in the world but to feel that feeling that she sensed in the music. Her little voice strained to capture the fullness of an adult’s embodiment of love.

It was absurd and laughable, this. And also inexplicably cute. And I might have simply smiled to myself and kept walking had I not noticed something else. I might have kept going were it not for something that happened at the end of the phrase I happened to hear as I passed.

As this little girl made her way through a predictable downward cascade of arpeggiated notes – “So give me lo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ove” – she hit a stinker. In this pattern mimicked from the radio or her sister’s ipod was one big nasty note that stuck out. I turned my head for just a second as I walked past and witnessed the full force of artistic anguish in this poor little girl’s face.

And that’s when I stopped.  Just past the gates, out of her sight.

She let some fifteen or thirty seconds pass in silence, just enough time for me to almost begin walking again, and then took a breath to sing the phrase again.

“So give me lo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ove.”

Again a bum note, different this time, earlier in the progression, but unambiguously not part of the intended effect.

And from the sounds that followed I can only presume she jumped to the ground and stamped her feet in rapid alternation to the frustrated bleet of “Ugh! UGH! Gah! GAHHH! AGHHHH! I never get that riiiiight! I. Can. NEVER. GET. THAT RIGHT!!!!”

Stillness for a moment. And then crying.

“Oh no,” I thought. “You’re in for it.”

Little girl of 7 or 8 that I passed on the street who I do not know and who I caught singing bad pop songs in the on park – you’re doomed. Doomed because there’s a secret that no one tells you when you first start making art. It’s a dirty bit of knowledge those tattered survivors fail to impart on the younger set: this feeling will never go away. You think you can’t do it now because you’re small and new. And while it seems tolerable that your level of taste starts out far higher than your talent, the truth is it never quite catches up.

That feelings you have in the explicitly “learning” phases of life – the ones that say, “I know I haven’t quite mastered this yet, but I know that someday, I totally will be like the people admire and imagine have landed. Yes someday in the far distant future I know that I’ll know what I’m doing.” – you think that disappears.

Sorry, it won’t. In fact, you realize one day that you don’t ever get to get there, whatever you’ve imagined there to be. And then maybe just like now, you also will cry and stamp your feet because you feel like you don’t know how to do what you’re trying to do. Eventually, you just get better at hiding it. You might feel a little cheated that no one told you that the feeling of inadequacy that you think comes from being a student is something that not only doesn’t disappear, but grows. That feeling of faking it is something that simply become a fact of existence punctuated by glorious and terribly brief periods of belief that you actually know anything about anything. And that you too will likely hide in plain sight in front of younger artists who might even think you have landed and that you will perpetuate this facade.

Little girl of seven or eight, let me give it to you straight:

Imagine whatever you believe the end point to look like. Capture a distant island of “artistic success” in your mind. You think you can see a journey. You think you are building a boat to that island. But that too is a mirage. And by the time you’ve sailed your ship that far out to sea you’ll realize that there is no there there. There’s just you and an ever expanding horizon of what is possible. That note won’t satisfy you in the long run little one. For a moment or two, but not for a decade or more. There will be other notes you’ll get hungry for soon enough.

And were it not weird for me to presume that this tiny blonde thing needed my life coaching…

Were it not odd indeed for a professional theater director of ten years to stop a child on the street to give her advise on a life in the arts…

Were this little girl not likely to be justifiably scared of some adult woman stopping her on the street and projecting her own insecurities and fears and failures onto the song that she heard and liked and doesn’t understand but just wants to sing because she thinks it will make her feel good…

Were all those things not the case, I might have walked back a few steps and looked at her and said:  “Keep trying. You’ll get that note. And by the time you do, you’ll have found something else to worry about. And that is both the loveliest and most frustrating truth of the artist’s life – that if you really want it, you likely won’t ever really believe you’ve done enough. You will have pride and accomplishment and satisfaction. But you likely won’t ever feel like you’ve arrived.”

And then she would likely have looked at me and said:

“Lady, I just like to sing. And I’m eight. And you’re scaring me.”

She’d be right. But so would I.

But because it was odd for me to do all those things I just listened to her stamp her foot and start again. I thought of my day’s own frustrations and furious workings to beg a thing that seemed so obvious and simple to please already just come into being.

And I figured best to just continue on and buy some bread.

– A

Lonely

I know that often I write about art in a general way, one that relates to most of the people working in my field, and when possible to the arts as a whole.

Today I’m not gonna do that.

Today I want to talk about being a director. And for me that can feel awfully lonely.

A few days back I was giving a colleague a ride home from an Arcadia University gig out in the burbs. Both of us have been hired by said school to direct student productions (different ones, in case that’s not obvious) for the college. And on this day when we both happened to be heading home at the same time of night we ended up in a car together chatting about the experience.

After the expected pleasant inquiries about rehearsals and how things are going, we sat in a still silence for a little bit. We chatted about upcoming works on the horizon and exchanged a few war stories about the theater scene. It was a perfectly nice way to spend 45 minutes headed home. It was the kind of conversation I have with other directors a lot.

A few days later we ended up in the car again. This time, catching up rather quicker on the status of rehearsals we were left without some of the pat topics that usually pop up. And somehow we started talking about what it feels like to be in charge.

It’s funny, it doesn’t occur to me often that this is a specific facet of the way that I work compared to the other artists I work with. It doesn’t occur to me that often, through repetition and familiarity, that many artists don’t walk into a process with that mindset. I know that when I walk in the room, I’m expected to have a plan of what we’re going to do. I know that I am the only one of my kind there to carry out the role. And I never see anyone else do what I do and therefore I have only myself to compare with.

There is a very basic power differential. The caveat, of course is that there are lots of people that try and create a sense of communal responsibility and I am whole-heartedly one of them, but it is there. And that sense of responsibility is exciting and distancing. It means you are always a few steps ahead of the rest of the room. A simple illustration: it is hard to imagine a rehearsal in which a performer or designer walked in and stated the plan of the day or one in which the director could show up and look at the others in the room with an expectation of what they are about to do. I don’t think this has to be good or bad. But it definitely is. And unless you’re a company without a director there is likely a negotiation that’s been worked out either ahead of time or during the process in which that power is defined and bounded.

However, I’m getting off topic. That isn’t really what I want to chat about. I think there are interesting questions about what might happen if we tried to change this dynamic. It might show us why that structure is so necessary or it might open up new and exciting potential. But for me, who for better or worse, is working in this way almost any time I work, it makes me realize how lonely I feel so often.

I’ve heard a lot of directors say that every time they begin a show they ask themselves, “How do you make a play again?” I thought this might be particular to devisers so it was surprising and kind of heartening to hear that those who dwell mostly in the scripted experienced the same terror. It was interesting to hear that she too re-reads her old notes from shows past to figure out how that person from the past navigated the journey from nothing to something. And I was happy and sad to see that she too spends a lot of time feeling lonely in a process.

I wonder if that sense of “how did I do this before?” is something to do with the fact that you don’t share your process in the same way. So much of what we do is before and after the rest of the room arrives and leaves. And even with documentation, it can be hard to track all the discoveries and thoughts that by necessity are shared between actors and designers and stage managers with the people they work with. One reason I so often try and go back to my old books of notes is to sense the person who was able to do this thing before and catch some of her strength.

Another strange thing about being a director, that I think may be unique to the role: you never watch others like you work. There’s only one of you in a process. Designers and actors get to see other designers and actors. They see people like themselves develop their craft. And for better or worse they have to do this a lot. And there are times when I get jealous that in doing so they get to watch and experience other directors too. That they probably know more about the particulars of other directors than I do. I sometimes ask them “What did that other person do?” not because I have some desire to copy but because I genuinely just want to know.

My sense of myself in the work is kind of like an island. I know what my terrain looks like. I know how I traverse it. And when people who’ve been elsewhere come to visit me, they can share stories of their experiences, but I know that I really have no concrete sense of what’s going on in those other locales. And while many of the directors I know get the chance to observe early in their career, there is not the built in continuation of this practice as time goes on.

When I first started in school and was just out of it, I saw a lot of other directors directing. I was in other people’s rehearsals a lot. And it provoked thoughts in me about how they solved the problems in front of them. It made me think about my process and question what I would do in the same scenario. And some of my favorites were those that were quite different from my own sense of artistic aesthetic, not because I wanted to do what they did, but because it made me really need to define why I wanted to do it my way instead. In fact, I once had a director say to me as a fledgling AD, “I love the thoughts you send in your notes. I will use none of them because they aren’t the play I’m making, but I love them.”

I learned to be a director in a room full of directors. And since becoming one, it’s been a very long time since I saw another one in the wild.

I’d like to.

I wish I had the opportunity. To watch. To listen. To observe a bit.

To travel to another island simply to try and understand the way it works in contrast to your own.

A

Tectonic Shifts

Something tectonic is shifting.

It’s difficult to articulate the magnitude of the slow but massive moving plate of direction and force I feel. It’s something that says it’s time to let go and ask oneself what I actually want, not what I think I can achieve. Of saying aloud what I truly truly can envision.

Let me back up.

So, it’s been a while my dear friends.

I’ve been caught up in the web of work that distracts and delights. My “life” is in at least three kinds of shambles due to lack of attention. But it’s the kind of whirlwind that I adore. How amusing and ironic it is that just as I start to gain some traction in this space, pick up a bit of speed, find a voice through language that seems to start nibbling on the edges of these issues, the work itself intrudes and demands all of my attention. So I’ve had so many feelings and thoughts about making and doing and what matters over these past few weeks. But the energy that I usually reserve for this endeavor, the space and time to think and carve out reason and lessons from impulse and feeling, is currently directed elsewhere most of the time.

So there’s been a lot to ponder, but little time to share it.

Here’s a bite at least.

I’ve written before about the relentless pursuit of the perfect, about my contentious relationship with potentiality. It has been both a motivator and inhibitor. It was, perhaps is still, a trait that I both love and fear in myself.

Loved because I believed that this need to impress, to perfect, to show the world how amazing a thing I can make was/is the reason I make impressive things. I believed that an instinct that runs far back into me, as far back into the conception of myself as I can remember, must be at the core of the work that I do, that it must be at the heart of the thing.

Hated because it was the same voice that said that no amount of doing was enough, kept me awake in the middle of the night believing I would fail this task while simultaneously shouting that it was too small, too pedestrian, too simple to be worth attempting, and that had I bigger vision, I might pursue an artistic feat more real and true.

And too often what ended up happening was this: the beginning of a work is filled with the elated holiness of that first blush, and over time as the thing came into sharper and sharper focus, it seemed to fade from that Aristotle inspired image of a perfection play that lived in the clouds of my imagination. And it’s apparent to me now that near the end of every major process of the last decade or so, I’ve walked away at the moment of the work’s full birth feeling a bit like a fraud, filled with big words and ideas, and scared that someone will expose me and show that none of them have really made it into the thing itself.

But recently, and it’s been building over time, as I’ve found moments to reconnect with old works, think about what truly brought me joy in them, it strikes me that, no, the ideal that I had in my head was not the thing I wanted and loved about being a creator, but a dolly waived in the face vigorously enough that I was distracted into thinking it the goal.

This current piece in particular, this Tempest, shows more than ever how funny that idea was in the first place.

Perhaps this is news to no one but myself, but there is no such thing as THE Tempest. Certainly not with 6 weeks of rehearsal in a park with little money or people. But even with years and infinite funds and whatever space one could imagine, there is no such thing as a definitive. There is just this Tempest, just a Tempest, that I happen to be working on. A particular work made by a particular group of people based on a particular set of factors that govern how the thing is made. Some of these things we can control. Some we cannot. And while I could lament, if I cared to, about how I might better perfect the process, even if I nothing ever went wrong, even if I had more time or money, even if I never lost a performer to circumstances beyond their control, even if the bounds of physics themselves were magically lifted and anything I could see in my mind were possible. Even if all this were true, it wouldn’t change one basic thing:

At the core, the work is you wrestling it out.

 

With the need to look beautiful.

With the need to be right.

With the need to impress.

With the need to be known.

With the need to reach out to others.

With the need to be larger than you feel yourself to be.

With the need to say something that matters to the world.

With the need to push sadness away.

With the need to feel at home with others.

With a thousand needs that I cannot imagine that are totally unique to you.

With the need to make something perfect and untouchable that no one can ever criticize.

And whatever of those needs drive our feelings and impulses we are often caught figuring out whether to fight or free them as we make our way through the scene (or song, or paragraph, or whatever). Sometimes that fight can feel like endpoint of the work. But I don’t think it is. It’s never the reason we began our art in the first place.

And, for me anyway, I think I’m seeing that beating oneself up about the distance between the ideal of the thing, the perfect version of The Tempest, or LADY M, or The Ballad of Joe Hill is really not about simply getting to the penultimate amazing version of the show. It’s letting the needs dictate the process.

Because perhaps, if I could just get there and prove the worth of the work, the implicit message is that that need with which I am wrestling will magically quiet. Which is why I keep opening the door to another wrestling match even as I grow weary (and older) and feel a little less ready to duke it out inside myself.

But the voice isn’t so strong any more. And I’m a lot less interested in yelling at myself.

Which at first I feared was a mellowing of the artistic impulse.

And perhaps this is what was so disquieting to me several months back when I despaired about the state of my art and myself in it. Perhaps it’s why I felt so far away from the form and unsure if I could continue. Because the thing I identified in myself as the core of my artistic self, this need to work and work and work towards only this “best” version of a piece, wasn’t sitting right anymore. That voice just made me tired a lot of the time.

And in feeling that, I worried that I was losing the central part of myself that made anything worth anything close to worthy. And I worried that I would give in, and make stuff I didn’t care about. That I would give up and stop making at all. That I would have to concede that the making didn’t really matter.

But I think I was missing the point. That I might not make things that appeased the voice. But I also might get to ask myself what I really wanted out of all this. When I am truthful, when I think about the reasons I actually stay, it is no longer to make a perfect piece. It isn’t really to even impress anyone any more. Those used to be bigger driving forces but I don’t know that they are any more.

And somewhere in the midst of this place, one in which there are so many things I can’t control as I usually do, places where there is no way to keep perfection as an attainable outcome, I realize that I have to ask myself what it is that I actually actually want out of being an artist.  And perhaps rather than being dependent on that relentless voice to propel me into success, that perhaps I am actually succeeding in spite of it.

If this work isn’t perfect, but it still feels worth doing, something else must be at play. And I think I’ve honed in on what it might be:

It is the moment when out of nothing, comes something. Whether a room of 4 or 4,000 I am able to witness a birth of sound or movement or word that I didn’t know or only sensed was possible and by helping to direct it, or shape it, or even just witness it I am part of something much greater than the tininess of me. And it can feel perfect in that moment of birth, but the perfection isn’t really the point at all.

It is that in the face of chaos and nothingness and void, there is connection and creation and discovery.

It’s a kind of divinity really.

And I’m learning that it is what in the work actually satiates. Not the most amazing performance, or the most ingenious transition. Because a particular skill or craft does not always equate to genuine creation. Maybe those less practiced in the outcome can actually be a more direct means to find it.

And strangely, in the midst of seeing how joyful I find the moments of that spark in this process in which I am bereft of so many of my usual tricks, I see more clearly the ways in which I am setting myself up to put it lower on the docket of importance.

And so perhaps it’s why I’m coming to this funny cross roads with theater. Because I’m sensing there are ways more efficient to find that spark that ignites through the emptiness. And that the ways that seems most directly plugged into that are more and more looking less and less like a regular process, or theater, or even perhaps “performance” at all.

Like I said, tectonic shifts.

But for now, let’s just enjoy letting the angry perfect voice go in pieces. Let’s enjoy knowing that I cannot give you THE Tempest.

Just this one upcoming, which I think you will enjoy.

A

Spirits…

O the heavens, we are in the thick of it. O, yes, we are.

I often wonder what exactly I must look like in rehearsals.

The best days I am blessedly unaware of myself, seemingly like the spirit in this play I’m laboring on, a mostly un-embodied ball of energy that floats in and among the room’s inhabitants, sending thoughts and energy to and into them. I am aware of only the echoes of shape and motion – a sweep of the arm, a pacing back and forth, a note scribbled quickly in a book. In this form I feel massive and all encompassing, a thing of air and energy.

The worst days I see myself far more concretely, feel myself sitting on the floor or see the words almost tangibly come out of my mouth. On these days I am small and desperately trapped – by body, by brain, by the limitations of time and gravity. In these moments I often see a room staring at me and in the space of a breath or pause quietly ponder at the insanity of them to have followed me here.

I try to look at them squarely. I try not to shrink under the glare. I try to tell the truth of unknowing while still believing that I (for it is never they that have brought us here) can lead us out of the tangle and wooded thickets we have ventured forth into.

When in directing mode senses come into sharper contrast – sounds either exalt or oppress, the room can be a nest in which to cozy in or an overbearing push that squeezes down on the work like a trash compactor.  It’s like the sensitivity dial is jacked up to its highest point. Even clothes can suddenly itch and scratch with a fervor that seems sudden and unwarranted.

Am I alone in this? Is this why there are nights I toss and turn? Is it why I cannot help myself but to apologize again and again in the room for such sensorial dissonances, whether not I am the cause? I don’t know if it is also the purgatory of other artists to feel this way, to know you must open yourself so wide and full and then chafe at the rough hewn bits that pass through your fingers. To know that the only way to make them smooth is to sit in that roughness and work it out.

In working The Tempest at this moment, I can’t help but feel a little bit of Ariel in myself. I’ve agreed to be here, sought out this particular form of servitude. And I take delight in the use of my powers to create shape and spectacle, to send the inhabitants of this island running, hair up-staring and all aflame like reeds, in many places and then bring them back to meet and join.

But unlike that dainty spirit, I’m sometimes less perfectly certain that I can perform the task to every article, that I can do such worthy service, and do so without giving over to grudge or grumbling. Like this production’s particular version of that entity, which takes its shape not in human form but appears in and about our space’s fabric elements, I am finding that pushing too hard or getting stuck too long forces the magic to be lost. I see how the promises made and kept earlier in this process are no guarantee for pay off and that there is plenty more toil to do.

But when I sit and ask myself on this morning why undertake this service, I cannot help but believe that unlike that spirit, that when it comes to the end of all this I will not gladly demand my liberty. That for me, the strive towards freedom from this earth-bound form is the freedom. That it is not in the finishing of the task, but in the doing of it that we mere humans glimpse at the capacity for magic. That like another in this play, I will miss it well and be sad in giving this work its freedom, even when I know well the necessity in completing the contract to do so.

The time twixt now and the end will be spent by us all most preciously…

A