The Tempest

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

Eureka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eureka!”

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A

Confidence

As I sat down to write my last essay I started thinking about a single word that could sum up what I wanted from this collaborator thing. And then I started thinking about the times when I have felt at my own personal best as a creative maker. I thought about the times when I didn’t know enough to know that something should have seemed impossible. And thought about the times when something seemed so easy, so obvious, and I totally psyched myself out and was unable to complete the task.

What’s the magic sauce of the first that is missing in the second?

It’s something to do with confidence, with brazenness, with daring with to use the very best of your abilities. It takes courage to believe that you can even if you don’t yet exactly know how.

More than anything for myself and for the people I make with, I want an attitude of:

“Yeah!!! I am TOTALLY going to do this. And if I don’t know how, I will TOTALLY figure it out.”

And:

 “This challenge is awesome!!! It is exciting to me. And above all it is one I will find a way to be capable of.”

You know that feeling, right? The one where you are on top of the world and able to tackle anything creatively thrown at you? That’s what I want: people who believe in their own badassery.

And if you are like me you also know the opposite, the feeling where supposedly you should be able to do this thing you are tasked with, but for whatever reason you keeping messing up, or feeling blocked, or actually do fine but still feel like you escaped without others knowing you’re a poseur that is just skating by on luck.

What’s up with that? I don’t actually think that about myself. So what makes me feel that way? And more importantly, how can I avoid it?

There are some things that seem obious: We prepare. We study. We learn enough so that we are armed with the info needed to tackle the situation. Without that we might literally lack the tools to achieve our aims. This is the eager student who is handed an instrument he has no experience playing. No amount of “want” will make him know the fingerings on a trumpet.

But it’s not just that.

Because there’s that other end of the spectrum where we’ve been doing something forever and then suddenly, weirdly, we start to realize the mechanics of it. We start to over analyze. We choke. We guess and second guess our choices and things that were once easy are now ending up muddy and unclear. When we know we are smart enough why do we let our own selves get in the way of just doing it?

There was a daring and obliviousness in my early work that I sometimes mourn. That stuff wasn’t as clean, as well thought out, as cogently researched or thoughtfully put together, but somehow, that didn’t seem to matter a lot of the time. It felt like it just had a kind of “heart” in it that was going to come through regardless. And often these days in my theater making I feel myself getting bogged down or distracted by knowing every cultural implication of writing this particular line or so totally aware of the piles of books I ought to read before claiming something in that particular scene.

The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know. And it makes it that much harder to feel like that brazen “I know I’m right” confident creator I want to be. I’ve been burned with saying or displaying things I didn’t know enough about in the past. And I’m now smart enough to know that I might not always be right, know that not every choice is the right one. But in creating you have to act like it is. You have to choose and commit or you hesitate and end up doing even more damage than if you’d just gone ahead.

Sometimes I look at others and think, “How do they know they are right? How do they just continue to believe their art is so good?” I wonder where that magic ability, the one that allows them not to question whether they have made the right decision, comes from. And I want to know if I can have some of it.

I suppose there are people that might think the same about me.

Because I try very hard to look like I know what I’m doing. Sometimes I do. But there are plenty of times I have to make a decision or answer a question and I am simply flying by the seat of my pants. Or rather, feel like I am falling by that pants seat. I want to fly. I want to stop looking at the ground fast approaching and stop worrying if I’m going to hit it. I continue to want that confidence in the people I work with. I want it in myself. I want to be in a state of flow in which my high level of challenge is matched with an equally high level of prowess. I want us all to feel like the beasts of creation I believe us to be.

How do we do that? Literally, in a way that I can implement today, how do I start to nurture that? Do I ask more questions of the people that I think do know stuff so that I can steal their wisdom? Do I just assume that everyone is in the same boat and fake it until it feels real? Both? Neither?

I was talking to someone the other day about how I sometimes wish I weren’t a deviser. I said that I wished that there was a single method or cannon that I wanted to subscribe to. Wouldn’t it be awesome to believe that there was one way, one method, to pursue? To know what success looked like and how I could emulate it? To find the art in every finer and more beautifully crafted depth of a detail rather than starting anew with each and every project?

Then I started to think, maybe it’s a kind of an out, this starting over and over from scratch. Is starting from nothing every time a little bit like waiting until the night before a paper is due to begin?

“I would have researched and written a better paper but I only had one night.”

“I would have made a richer play but I’ve no one’s ever done this before.”

I do believe that it is important to question how and why we make the choices we make. I believe we need to make our work useful to contemporary audiences. But a little part, a hidden part, knows that a little bit of the thrill of starting from a blank canvas is that it’s an impossible task. Create something revolutionary that has never been done before. Defy everything that’s come before and do something richer, better and more relevant to today’s audience. And if one gives oneself an impossible task, any success, even a partial one, is a win.

And it’s in the midst of this that I sit right now heading into a summer project – The Tempest – whose measure of success will be just the opposite.

This is no Lady M. This is a straight up, no f-ing around with it, in the park, saying all the lines, Shakespearian drama. For the first time, I have to think about how to make a cut of a script that a lot of people know a lot more than me about. That’s not self deprecating, that’s just true.  Think about it. There are people that spend their whole lives on this one play. There are people who study single lines for years. So when I decide to get rid of this or that, I’m claiming dominion over all that expertise.

Can I stress how different this is than in a work in which I am the originator, where the only person I answer to is myself and my co-creators?

I was reading a scene in The Tempest in which Miranda meets Ferdinand and I was looking through to see if there were any cuts I wanted to make. Then I read this line where she talks about her modesty being the jewel in her dower. Initially, I passed over it, leaving it in. Cutting it doesn’t really help shorten the play and the whole keeping her pure thing is a big undercurrent in their relations with each other and Prospero’s oversight of their courtship.

And then I stopped and said, “What the hell? Would I ever in a million years let a female character in a show I created tell a dude that her modesty was the jewel in her dower?”

No. Emphatically no. I think that is bullshit. I know it’s a historical text. But it’s a historical text that will perform in a modern world and speak on behalf of how I think it should be shared with a modern audience.

And then I started to think, “Oh god. But there’s probably a million scholarly reasons that thing is in there. It’s probably so important for reasons I am not noticing. And they’re all going to be upset if it’s gone.”

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, I just can’t. I guess people will have to yell at me. Because if I am doing this play, I have to believe in its message. And leaving that line in is a tacit and casual agreement that the foremost concern in that young woman’s mind should be staying a virgin until marriage. And that’s not a world I want people to see, or a view I personally espouse. I want Miranda to be the weirdo, awesome, strange wild child of this island. The same one to whom it never occurs not to carry logs like a man when the guy she has the hots for gets tired.

Because while I want the benefit of others’ expertise and analysis, I can’t let it stop me from my own opinion.  I can’t let it stop me from my own confidence, because that’s the thing that really makes me the artist I am.

A