theater

Week 3: Being and Storytelling

Raph is a breakdancer, Adrienne is a director and vocalist, and Manu is a director and clown. Before the residency week started, the three started discussing an interest in masks via email. From what I gathered, they were curious about masks in both a theatrical and an emotional sense. Which are the masks we wear that allow us to pretend to be something we’re not on stage, and which are the masks we hide behind offstage, in real life? Thematically, the week revolved around the act of unmasking, and I’ll go through the exercises that brought this about.

On the first day of the residency, the group decided to take turns leading each other in exercises. Adrienne would lead a vocal exercise, Manu a clowning one, and Raph a dancing one. Of course, Raph said he couldn’t sing, Adrienne complained that she wasn’t funny, and Manu insisted she was a terrible dancer. In the spirit of overcoming fears, they determined that Raph had to sing, Manu had to breakdance, and Adrienne had to be funny. The focus shifted quickly from the artists leading exercises in the things they are good at to the other artists doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Eager to try breakdancing, Adrienne and Manu tried one of Raph’s dancing exercises. Laying on their backs, knees bent, they were directed to “find the hole,” with no further direction. At first, Raph looked on while Adrienne did somersaults, and Manu comically pantomimed falling through the hole. Raph joined them on the floor and turned gracefully over his shoulders a few times, showing us that you “find the hole” by finding the space between your body and the floor and threading yourself through that space. Though the “point” of the exercise was to introduce us to Raph’s style of dance, the exercise encouraged a sense of playful experimentation along with some laughter and flailing.

after raph singing

Next, Manu introduced an exercise I’ll call “Being in Front of an Audience.” The instructions were short; one by one, each person would get up in front of the rest of us and “be.” This meant no thinking ahead, no joke-telling, no forced movement. The exercise focuses on letting no, not forcing a performance in to being, and just allowing yourself to “be.”

I know this exercise sounds like it should have been really easy for Raph, Manu, and Adrienne, but it wasn’t. In fact, I think it’s a very difficult exercise for most trained performers. Performers spend years learning how to perform in front of and audience. Performers are required to bring about a series of premeditated actions when they get on stage, and spend years learning acting techniques that obfuscate this fact. Traditionally, performers are conditioned to perform on stage, rather than enter a state of “being,” the performance flowing organically from that state.

To get at the heart this concept, and to understand exactly what these performers were asking of each other this week, I want to take a quick detour and talk a little more about what it means to perform. If I go to see my friend, Jill, as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. I know that Jill’s actions on stage are not representative or indicative of who Jill is when she’s not on stage. In this example, Jill is performing actions she’s practiced and is repeated. She is “forcing” the performance of Juliet into being. She is not just “being.” This also applies to performers that perform on stage. Take the case of singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell. When Joni is performing on stage, who is she? She is not performing a character like our friend Jill was performing Juliet. Yet, I suspect that when Joni is performing on stage, she’s not just Joni Mitchell. She’s Joni Mitchell performing the very practiced, premeditated role of Joni Mitchell. No matter how confessional, convincing, or personal the performance might be, I think Joni Mitchell on stage is not representative of who Joni Mitchell is when she’s not on stage. From this it follows that traditional modes of performance are almost the opposite of “being” as Manu describes it.

So, what fascinates me about Manu’s exercise? It’s a performance that runs contrary to a lot of what we understand to be performance. “Being in front of an audience” is so different from performing, even if it might not look like it. “Being” is not Jill performing the role of Juliet, and it’s not Joni performing Joni. It’s a little more transcendent.

So, back to the room, in which Adrienne, Manu, and Raph are all about to try this exercise. It was Adrienne who said she could feel her heart beating in her ears when she stood in front of us – not on stage, just in the middle of a big room in front of friendly faces. She stood and Manu guided her through the exercise, offering suggestions like “breathe,” and “try adding in a little movement.” Adrienne stood for a good few minutes, punctuated by deep breathing and a few sighs of nervous laughter. And then, out of the silence, something happened. Or maybe it was that something stopped happening. Adrienne was “being.” Manu invited her to follow her impulses, and invited Adrienne to start swearing as a way in to the exercise. Adrienne dropped into a new body. This body was playful, mischievous, and definitely rude. This body had a silly voice, pointy and piercing. This body yelled a terrible and ridiculous word (that Adrienne would never say) over and over again, each time funnier than the last.

Manu was the last to get up and do the exercise. She had led everyone else through it, and now we all had to lead her in her own exercise. At first she stood in front of us and stood still, looking out. She started shaking subtly, tears welling up in her eyes. “This always happens to me,” she said. She took a few deep breaths and, regaining composure, stood in front of us. Watching her “be” was difficult at first. It’s easy to watch a performance, but this was observing humanity. It was active. It was empathetic. It was hard.

The next day Raph, Manu, and Adrienne started talking more explicitly about the masks they wear. Honest conversations, like the very candid one we had about masks, were brainstorming sessions as much as they were therapy. This particular conversation yielded the idea to use a technique, seen in Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s show, Romeo and Juliet, that would help them “be” on stage. Nature Theater’s Romeo and Juliet consists of two actors reciting recordings of people attempting to recount, from memory, the plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Underneath the actors’ faux-Elizabethan garb and hokey trans-continental accents, the actors are wearing headphones, listening to recordings of real people and repeating those stories, verbatim, to the audience. Intrigued by the kind of fidelity this technique offered, they began recording stories about the masks they have adopted in their lives.

Raph went first. He recorded a story about prejudice he faced in grade school as a suburban black boy and how that moment transformed the way he sees himself to this day. You can hear the original recording below:

Manu listened to Raph’s recording through headphones and repeated his words in front of Adrienne, Raph, and I. Suddenly, the story Raph had recorded just moments before was Manu’s. The story was no longer about a black boy dealing with racial prejudice; it was about an immigrant girl in a suburban school facing a different racial prejudice. The words, pacing, and pauses were all Raph’s, but the same words in a different mouth told an entirely different, yet equally convincing, story.

Manu described performing as “being overwhelmed” by Raph’s recording. Left with little time for judgment or interpretation, she was left to recite his words without thinking. This state was similar to “being.” Watching her, I felt uncomfortable. Even though I knew it was Raph’s story, the disjunction between Raph’s words and Manu’s extreme honesty on stage was troubling. Imagining I didn’t know Manu, I started asking myself questions – “Why would a white girl be grouped with the bussed in black city kids?” Then, doubling back on myself, “Am I that sure of her racial identification?” and “Why do I assume she’s female?” Raph’s story directly contradicted the assumptions I had made about Manu, and Manu’s honest delivery made me evaluate what felt true in the story against the assumptions I made about Manu based on her physical appearance.

They continued to experiment with different people reading different stories, and came away with two observations about this technique. Firstly, it works best when the person reading the story has never heard it before and cannot predict where it is going. By the time Adrienne recited Raph’s story, we’d heard it a few times. While it remained difficult to stay with the recording, as an audience member I could tell when she was remembering part of the story versus saying it blind. Those moments stood out because the remembering took her out of the moment of “being.” Secondly, they found that things were actually more interesting when the performer and the narrator were noticeably or physically different. For example, a man telling a story written by a woman, or a person with an accent reading a story recorded by someone who has a different accent. While they were initially concerned that these differences might confuse people, they decided that they were also more thought provoking and challenged people’s assumptions and prejudices in a more profound way.

At the end of the week, sitting in a coffee shop, we all got really excited about the ways this storytelling technique might bring people together. We imagined the power of hearing one person’s recording of their side of a fight, and hearing the other person they’re fighting with tell their story. The other person would have to say the other person’s side of the argument and that could be a really powerful experience. Can you imagine your significant other telling you the story of how you first met them? Can you imagine what it would feel like to hear someone decades older tell your story? How about your boss?

If the beginning of the residency was about these artists unmasking each other by the end they’d found a way to unmask their audiences too. While this was a very process-oriented week (compared to Ken and Cindy’s very product-oriented residency), they walked away with a new way to “be” onstage. While this residency week started in a nebulous place, it ended with a tool that help’s people feel empathy. It encourages people to change, or at least reexamine, their beliefs because it forces them to see and hear their exact words in another person’s mouth. They might be surprised to find them equally true, equally relatable, and equally human.


Arianna Gass is a recent graduate of Vassar College. In addition to documenting Cross Pollination, she is the Program Manager for Drexel University’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio. Her own art practice is located at the intersection of digital and embodied play, and her scholarship focuses on feminism, performance studies, and game studies. You can find more of her writing and work at www.ariannagass.com.

Week 2: Just Up Ahead

Cindy Working

Ken Working

The second collaboration in the Cross-Pollination series was between Ken Kalfus, a novelist, Cindy Stockton Moore, a visual artist, and Adrienne (aka Swim Pony). This group was very project oriented; the majority of tour time was spent telling story we devised together. Consequently, I chose to focus on the process that lead us to that story and the story itself.

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Freewheeling thoughts on “Row After Row” at People’s Light and Renée Zellweger’s face

There’s this moment in the production of Jessica Dickey’s Row After Row I saw last night at People’s Light and Theatre Company that almost makes me cry.

It is a moment near-ish to the end of the play in which the character Leah, carefully and conscientiously played by Teri Lamm, tells a story of how her body is like the war that her two fellow characters, Tom and Cal, re-enact on the battlefield of Gettysburg. She tells a story about an attack on a subway train. Of being groped and choked. Of the resulting shock and surprise and disbelief leading eventually to rage and explosion in screams that erupt from instinct.

This moment of the show is so carefully thought, so well crafted, so agile in its depiction of a feeling, and this care is the reason I feel so much that I want to weep.

I have never been attacked in this way but the monologue makes me feel as if I might, through seeing it, understand just a little bit about such a terrible thing. It also articulates a feeling I know so very much about, a feeling that comes as a result of being a women who lives in a world akin to that of this character. It bespeaks an understanding of the heaviness that living in a female-gendered body sometimes carries, of all the outside signifiers and shorthand “understandings” that such a body must sometimes undo and undercut if it wishes to appear other than as this surface glimpse would offer. It bespeaks the work of such a task. It bespeaks the way in which it slowly wears down the task’s undertaker and the way that we sometimes crack at our weakest moments and places, not because the weight is so onerously heavy but because sometimes we are just simply tired of holding it up. It is a beautiful moment of art that carries the power to potentially open up the minds of the viewer to understanding just a little bit about such a terrible thing.

There is another moment in this play that also almost makes me cry.

It is a moment, near-ish this time to the start, when this same Leah is arguing with this same Cal about the propriety of women in Civil War re-enactments, about the supposed opposition of historical accuracy with a need for inclusivity. She is talking, as best as I can remember, about how she sees Cal’s anger as a symptom of a dominant status slowly dying, its indignation as a signal that such status is truly under threat. She makes some decent points and her logic clearly stings her opponent. Cal regroups and then asserts back even more harshly in his arguments. The fight escalates in raised voices and wild gesticulations to a pitch that almost makes one fearful of the outcome.

And then Leah kisses Cal.

This is the other moment that almost makes me cry and it does so because it is such a disappointment.

I cannot and do not, as a single representative of my gender, claim to speak definitively on behalf of all women, or even all feminist identified women, but I can say with great deal of certainty that it has never occurred to me when in the midst of an argument with a misogynist over issues of misogyny that it would be beneficial to make out with them as a means to win my argument.

Not even, as the character Leah asserts, to shut them up. Especially not, as she claims, because other more logic-based tactics are failing.

I see this moment onstage and I become sad.

I think, “Ugh… That’s… too bad. I was really liking this play.”

I see the actress valiantly fights her way through this action, through the moment of satisfaction the character takes in the surprised silence that follows the kiss, through the lines explaining that she did it to make him stop talking. And it’s possible that I am projecting, highly probably even, but at that moment I sense her backing off this piece of the script. To me, at least, it comes off so much less embodied than her other electrifyingly deep stage moments. And this distancing, in some measure made up of my reaction and perhaps some part the actress’s, means that even though the action of the kiss echoes later through the play, even though I understand its foreshadowing significance, I can’t help but do much more than hate the trope and the statement it makes about how this character’s intellectual beliefs are hopelessly feeble in comparison to a single sexualized act.

So it bespeaks the power of the words that follow that this early moment in the play does not end up tainting the latter one for me. It must say that on the whole this early moment is less the predominant case and more likely a blip on the judgment radar. It must be so because I walk away from the play truly wanting people to see it.

This same night I see Renée Zellweger’s apparently unrecognizable face everywhere on my Facebook feed.

And for some reason I can’t quite articulate, the play has made it such that I simply cannot stomach a million people’s discussion threads in which this human is reduced down to a question of cheekbones or botox. It magnifies the sadnesses from earlier in the night a thousand fold. It makes me want to yell that the answer to these questions are not the point, that the questions themselves are a war. That her intent in taking whatever action towards her outward appearance is beside the point. That by simply framing this conversation as one in which a famous woman is discussed as a series of pieces that should or should not have been modified, we have removed the agency from this person to be a person and in her place created a series of scrutinizable body parts that are something a bit less than human. That I do not think this is what any of these people intended but that it may still have this effect all the same.

And all this just feels sad and sad and sad and sadder because I do not think it is conscious and that is somehow saddest of all and this is what made me want to cry for a third time in a single evening.

Is it because of the earlier moment or the latter one from Row After Row that I cannot stop myself from responding to these posts?

Perhaps it is both.

Perhaps it is neither.

Perhaps it is everything that is pushing and the weight has finally found a tiny crack in me.

I think about writing something. Something long. Something thoughtful. Something that will explain why, just at this moment, this thing that is rather stupid matters to me in a way that is not stupid at all. But I have already wanted to cry thrice tonight and I do not think I have enough energy to figure out how to say it well enough. Instead I find a snarky article in which someone does it for me and post it to accounts of friends and former students to provoke a battle I am sure I do not have ample enough resources to win but which I still cannot stop myself from charging at.

In the morning, as I shower, I catalog all the ways my own past works contain such little failures. I think of the stereotypes that on reflection I must admit I too have put forward into the world. There are such plentiful numbers to choose from. And I think about how we are all such imperfect carriers of moral value, how it is such a struggle, such a desperate war, this way we wage to find and root out the darkness that we all carry.

I think about the genders of the bodies on that People’s Light stage and how even in this play about feminism and the equity of representation of voices that ever-present ratio of men to women persists like an echo of history into the present day. “2 to 1, 2 to 1, 2 to 1,” it calls to me…

I think about the idea of a war, of our own capacity to fight, and of the times in which giving up feels like such an easier choice. I think about how sometimes we look to those we think ourselves in lock step with and find ourselves wondering whether they are working in any way from the same strategy and plan.

I think of how strange it is that there are times when we all find ourselves kissing the enemy. I think about how potent such a foe is when such a thing can happen and we realize it with surprise and sadness and confusion only after the occurrence.

I think about the line from Row where Leah talks about being a kind of angel, of using her softness and love and desire for healing to kiss and pull the pain and anger out of those who fight. I think about what it would mean to be each others’ better angels, to try, as Tom says, to strive at making ourselves more perfect in our unity with each other.

I think of all these things as I open my computer and read the responses to my snarky article’s link. On my screen I see the glimmer of armor, of “Do Not Tread On Me,” and I picture this playing out in a hunkering down of camps, of defending of fortifications and attempts to keep one’s body whole and intact.

I think, this is so natural, this response, when one is on a field so wholly uneven and unsuitable for honorable struggle. When we are so far away that we cannot really see whom we fighting, when we are suddenly unsure of whether they are friend or foe.

I decide to treat them all as allies. I decide that they must all be my fellow fighters and I do my best to run towards them screaming not in rage but in concerted defense, trying to explain that I think I see something dark and trap-like ahead. That from my vantage on this field of battle I see a potential weakness in their advance. Not because they are weak but because sometimes we simply cannot see every angle of our opponent, especially when they are so dastardly. I hope they know as I run to them that I fully expect myself to be unknowingly walking toward a dark and trap-like thing some day and that I hope I too have a comrade willing to stop me before I fall. I hope they see that together our tactical awareness is stronger if we can trust and be tough enough to engage in such scrutiny.

Amazingly, they do see this.

Perhaps this is what truly composes bravery, I think.

Perhaps bravery is not simply plowing into the unknown but the ability to trust another’s sight. To take it in and contend with it. Perhaps bravery is also the ability find something troubling and not shy away from it. It is holding a person close and saying, I just want to say that this is what I see.

It is both the utterance and the listening.

– A

A totally blank canvas

blank

White. Open. Unknown.

This is the feeling I had this morning. This is the premise of this project: Starting from a totally blank canvas.

Not even a canvas. The idea that something has to be painted on. The idea of paint. The idea of having an idea to paint something at all.

Because really, where do a visual artist, a theater maker and writer and harpist logically begin if they want to try and make something together?

foot

This morning I walked into a room with two creators I’d met only once before. I had butterflies in my stomach, big fat ones, like first day of school jitters. We started, carefully, delicately, hesitantly to… What? Carefully try to suss out exactly who the other is and what exactly we might find in this insane thing we’ll be doing.

I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”

I thought, “I have literally no idea what is going to happen.”

I thought, “Do your best not to fall into things you already know how to do because they are easy, or familiar, or you know how to make them work.”

I thought, “This is terrifying.”

I thought, “It is really tough to know where to begin.”

I thought, “Listen.”

I thought, “Try and stay open to something you’ve never imagined before.”

NickIt is a pace I am so thoroughly uneasy with because it is so thoroughly rare in my regular artistic life. So rare that I allow myself permission not to be in charge, not to have the active working idea, not to try and keep the energy of the room moving forward and productive. As a director, I feel myself wanting to know the answer, wanting to show people their faith in me as leader is secure, wanting to get us on track already towards where we are going.

But all this well-intentioned Midwestern productive attitude-ery also means that you can slip into taking yourself where it’s easiest to lead, rather than really waiting until the very new, very strange, very uncertain thing emerges.

And despite my fear, despite my worry that it feels like nothing is happening, after 8 hours I can see there are some things emerging.

I have put my hands on an instrument I have never touched before. I have watched an artist demonstrate his iterative process – one that normally takes acetate and photoshop and a vinyl cutting machine – on a sideways laptop screen with a piece of tracing paper, some scissors and tape. I’ve enjoyed seeing an actor confront a harpist on stage and I’ve seen that interaction photographed and then turned into a looping gif on a computer screen with a different selection of the musician’s playing as it repeats again and again and again and again and again. I’ve talked about why a video on Vine might be a meditative experience and what it would mean to create audience customize-able art.

I’ve shared a vision for a super strange, exciting and foreign line of inquiry. And despite my fears, I think it’s pretty interesting. Even if I have no idea of how to evaluate it yet. Maybe especially because of that.

I think I also had a moment where I realized that contrary to how I feel on almost every other artistic project I work on, in trying strange, potentially crazy ideas with these two I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

I also ate a lunch of donuts and fried chicken. That was pretty good too.

At the end of the day I am tired. It is work, searching so hard across the ocean of discipline to find some common ground. But tired in a good way. In a way that makes me excited to get up tomorrow and try again.

Thanks Nick and Liz. I’m excited about more to come…

A

Everything old is new again

everything_old_is_new_again_by_ekzotik-d4cdlz3The process of change is so slow we barely see it.

This is how it is possible that I am sitting with a dear friend and fellow creator on Friday and realize in the midst of our conversation that I am… happy. That I am open and new. That in front of me lays fields of possibility. That the anger and confusion and pain that I felt not so long ago is actually melted and revealed something quite unexpected and different.

Do you ever wish you could sit down and check in with a version of yourself from the past?

I can.

“I need to know it’s worth doing this art, in this way, at this time,” says Adrienne in December of 2012.

The truth of the matter is that the works I’ve made are things I’m proud of.

The truth of the matter is that I increasingly lost an internal sense of why I needed to make them.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t really care what anyone else thinks “theater” is or if I’m “good” at it.

The truth of the matter is that my “theater” is simply a means to a deeper question about connection and understanding and thoughtfulness and desire and finding a way to make sense of what I’m doing here.

The truth is that for a while I got a fair bit better at making “theater” as other people define it and a bit worse and making sure it was still answering the deeper questions I wanted to be asking.

The last year and a half has been a concerted and nearly constant effort to realize this and get myself in a place where that was no longer the case.

It has been hard.

I have felt like a failure often.

Most of the time progress was slow to the point of imperceptibility.

But today, for whatever reason, it has hit me: the work I’m in the midst of making now is worth doing. This work. In this way. At this time. And for the first time in a long time, I feel really really free.

Today it seems I’ve gotten far enough from there to really see the distance.

Random snapshots from recent life:

Friday: I am randomly invited to a conference on game design in Boston the next day. I drive 6 hours the same day to get there. The next day I have conversations about ethics and narrative structure and audience agency. I feel like I am talking about my theater.

Two weeks ago: I hand in the first draft of a study plan that predicts the next two and a half years of reading and artistic practice which will make up my self-directed graduate degree in interdisciplinary arts. I know almost nothing about anything on my reading list. I am ecstatic. I wish there was more time I could add to the universe because the list is already too large for the time I have to tackle it.

One month ago: I decide that I need to do something creative that requires my hands. I decide I need to learn to play the piano. I start downloading beginner’s sheet music. I spend 30, 40, sometimes 60 minutes a day with Für Elise and simple chord progressions. I love being a beginner.

This week: I chat back and forth with a painter and novelist about the possibilities of a week’s worth of collaboration and experimentation for Cross Pollination. There is a little trepidation about what exactly we will do. I do not know. I do not care that I do not know. I do not, as I normally would, make a bunch of plans of things I do know how to do so that the trepidation subsides. I decide to wait until I genuinely think of something I want to do.

Today: I watch a video by game designer Brenda Romero about her “The Mechanic is the Message” series. I hear her talk about her love/hate relationship with her ascension into the ranks of “professional” creator. I hear her speak about a nascent need to remove herself from the industry of her craft, to make things by hand. I hear her explain how she took time, extensive time, away from digital design to play board games. I hear how she begins to make games about things she never imagined possible, games explore deep and vast tragedies. Games that challenge the player to examine their own agency and choice in participating. Her elements are handmade, deeply personal, unreproduce-able. This is the point, it seems to me. It also seems to me that in the end, the rewards her games reap are equally unique, meaningful and rich. They fill the creator’s soul rather than the professional’s resume.

Thursday: I have two conversations in the same day about ideas for new projects. One is a piece for only two people at a time and the other for a potential 2,000. One takes place almost entirely inside the mind of the viewer, the other could cover most of the city of Philadelphia. They feel like the same kind of inquiry. I feel like I can start working on both of them tomorrow, by myself, if I wanted to. Not researching, not imaging, literally, making stuff that will go in them. I like not having to wait to get started.

Six months ago: I decide I want to write. I decide I want to write fiction. I decide I want to write a novel. Every few weeks I pull up the document and write furiously for a few days. At last count I am up to 170 pages and 39,949 words. I also decide I can show it to people someday or not. Either way it won’t matter. I just need to write it.

And so it is that I find myself at this moment feeling the most vibrant and true expression of my theater-related creative impulses into forms that look almost nothing like what “Theater” would typically be defined as.

And so it is that I find myself confronting new projects that are amazing and daunting and unknown in almost every way.

And so it is that I have met more people and had more new conversations about creativity in the last few weeks than in the last few years.

And so it is that I have stopped feeling so crushed and frustrated.

And so it is that I don’t worry about whether what I’m doing is right.

And so it is that I know the only thing that matters is if it’s what I feel myself needing to be doing.

And so it is that finally finally finally… it seems I’ve found what that is.

And so it is that I stand in the shower today thinking about my conversation on Friday and realize that it feels like something I have to share and so I write this, hastily, before I run out the door because it is also clear that it has to be done today, right now, before I lose understanding of it in just this particular shower-inspired way.

And so it is I share it with you.

And run.

To be late.

To the next amazing thing.

– A

Writers of Stage and Page: Erlina Ortiz and Kirsten Kaschock

erlina and kirsten

Two more “coffee date” creators! Today we have:

Erlina Ortiz (directing, playwrighting)

Kirsten Kaschock (writing, choreography)

This particular brand of cross-pollination feels unique.

Unlike almost all of the other pairings we did in this round, these two are creators (at least partially) in the same medium. And yet in most every other way – cultural influence, stage of career, form in which your words are expressed – their works differ. Couple this with me and my own burgeoning sense of language and you have three pretty different wordsmiths. The panel and I really liked the idea of a conversation between writers at different ages, of different races and cultural backgrounds, using different kinds of means to communicate language. And yet, despite those differences we do have a common a background in some kind of live performance form either theater (for Erlina and I) and dance (for Kirsten).

Erlina, third from the left

Erlina, third from the left

What struck us most in Erlina’s application was the review by Citypaper for her piece Minorityland. That the reviewer admits to all her preconceived notions about what Erlina’s work would be and how she would assess it, that she admits to not wanting to participate in the issue that the work is addressing and that she then flat out says that she was totally and completely wrong on every count… What a powerful testament to a young creator’s ability to transcend the powerful stereotypes that others will put on her as a young woman of color. What great evidence that her writing is something we should be paying attention to.

For Kirsten it was clear that she’s hungry to take your writing in new places. And how exciting to find a writer in this place after a Sleight-356x535successful career with a large body of output, how amazing to be on a precipice of something wholly new. I loved the bit from her novel Sleight, loved the slow burning build of tension that the back and forth between the interviewer and subject creates. It’s a lovely and quiet power. One that made me guess at answers in advance, trying to anticipate the person I felt myself in conversation with.

I think… well, I think I sleight because I always have. My mother sent my sister Lark and me I guess for poise and I was good. And when you are good and a girl at something you stay with it—maybe for all the goodgirl words that come. Goodgirl words like do more, keep on, further—instead of the other goodgirl words—the if-you-are-you-will words—be nice and softer and you don’t like fire do you? – From Sleight

It was this sentence from Kirsten’s application:

“So far, what I have not been able to achieve as a writer is a creative (rather than scholarly or documentarian) relationship with the performing arts. Because I have a background in dance, I often wonder if I have shied away from more text-based theatre because I felt more qualified and educated in movement techniques.”

that made me think of this pairing. Because it would be so exciting for Kirsten to offer Erlina the gift of decades of experience and vice versa for Erlina to offer the memory of the gusto and daring of first setting her words free on a stage. It would an erlinainteresting mash up to see how these two writers might write together. How their differing experiences and approaches could inform each other. How their experience with their respective strengths might shift each other’s sensibilities.

Erlina’s application describes her creation process in a sample convo with her collaborator:

“Wait! Omg.. what if she was her daughter!?”

“Oooo that’s good.. omg I can’t wait to write that.”

A typical conversation for us.

Needless to say, we are very open to change.

"thread" right over the heart

“thread” right over the heart

In person, it was clear Erlina is excited, articulate and energized. She’s a young director/creator/writer I met last year and one who I think Philly ought to be watching. We should all be psyched about where her work will go. And Kirsten is a language island of sorts – the writer in a dancing family. Her seamless transition back and forth and back and forth between language and movement (having worked and studied as both a writer and choreographer) are like a ballet in themselves, one that weaves and binds these two disparate elements together. Can it come as a surprise that she has the word “thread” quite literally written on her chest?

Pick three adjectives that describe what you make:

Erlina: Entertaining, Scary, Real

Kirsten: Visceral. Unnatural. Haunting.

What was exciting about this conversation was the fact that we span such a range of experience levels. Erlina is literally just embracing that role of playwright with her second piece for the Fringe this year. Similarly, she talked about how it was leaving home that really inspired her to embrace her Dominican heritage and begin to use it as the fodder for her artistic expression. I am a director who came to writing semi-unwillingly, creating scenes for language initially out of necessity and then discovering non-fiction writing as a means to express in the in the long in-betweens between shows. And Kirsten is both a poet and novelist – one who talked about needing the distance that fiction provides, that getting too close to reality weights and drowns the work. She often employs the metaphors of science fiction to create an othered world that can allow us to examine our own.

From Erlina’s play Minorityland:

Deb: (sighing) You know… I don’t think bees were every meant to sting humans.

Otis …what?

Deb: I think one day some stupid bee went astray and stung some human and now, that’s all anyone thinks bees are good for. And everyone started running away from all the other bees and the bees said well fuck it. I may as well sting humans too…You make your own enemies by assuming the worst out of everyone.

We also discussed the intersections of language and performance, about authenticity and the difference between movement and story. I think that there could be lots to do in this group, plenty of interesting experiments to try. There was also a lot of talk about convention – for example the choice made from necessity for Erlina’s company to cross gender cast or cast young actors in roles that are older – and how it changes the performance, whether the “real” thing is actually better.

Thanks to you both for meeting with me!

A

An interplay between effort and ease: Lauren Rile Smith and Francois Zayas

Lauren and Francois

The latest “blind date” from Cross Pollination! Today we meet:

Lauren Rile Smith (trapeze, circus arts)

Francois Zayas (music, composition, percussion)

Muscularity mixed with grace. This was a theme that emerged in both their applications.

lauren door 1Whether expressed through a virtuosic solo on maracas or the twisting expertness of a trapeze act, this pairing grew partly from a sense that both acrobatics and jazz are art forms that require intense training, years of study in almost formulaic muscle memory, in order to achieve a sense of freedom and flight in the moment of performance. They are also both mediums that depend on deep trust – of the instruments/objects used to perform, of the people who join us in that performance – in order not to falter and fall.

Francois: “Through all the years of my career I have experienced the benefit of collaboration with other artists many times. This is something that I seek out in francois maracasmy everyday life and constitutes an essential part of my creative process.”

Lauren has mentioned to me in the past that she is often seen as unique in her work for being a woman who acts as an acrobatic “base” or support (a position usually occupied by male performers). It strikes me that perhaps (though I will admit to having had only the first tastes of the banquet that is jazz music) it is also unique to have a percussionist as the leader of a jazz ensemble. In this way both of these creators strike me as participating in tradition while simultaneously innovating within it. It also seems as if your part in your artworks creates a kind of foundation, a ground floor on which everything else can be built.lauren trapeze

Lauren: “I see a powerfully interdisciplinary potential in circus, as an art form that straddles genre, from dance theater to variety-hall burlesque.”

And there’s a parallel too in the way that their works re also a vehicle to express personal identity: be it in the way we are allowed to see a female body moving through the air or in the awareness of how one’s Caribbean roots can be expressed through pulsating waves of rhythm.

Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:

Lauren: feminist, muscular, inventive

Francois: Unique, thoughtful, Cuban

francois drums close

Credit: Alan Jackman

This was a conversation that wove its way through all these things and more: Lauren talking about the way that the aesthetics of ballet are sometimes necessary in trapeze but sometimes not, Francois talking about how standard jazz improvisation has become a default that people expect but might not really strengthen the composition of the music.

Thanks to both of you!

– A

What exactly is “devising” anyway?

Hey folks, something a little different for today.

This past Sunday I gave a presentation on “devised” theater for Directors Gathering. As I sat down to prep for the evening, I realized that for so much of my career I’ve defined my work (or had it defined for me) as a series of oppositions. My work tends not to exist in a traditional space. It tends not to take a linear form. It tends not to let the audience sit back and passively observe.

As I started trying to describe this “style” of work I kept asking myself, rather than thinking about what it isn’t can I articulate was it is?

The short answer is yes, I can.

And because I was so pleased with the reply that I found in answer to that question, I thought it would be worth sharing with you.

So here it is…

A

 

Interlude

federal copy

This is where you start

The life of a creator can be tough between projects. It can be especially frustrating if you feel like the work you make is dependent on others being around to help you do it. Some days it feels awfully tough to “direct” all alone in my apartment. And on days like this it can feel like my work is dependent on so many factors out of my control to come into being.

I recently had a convo with a friend who was in a slump, feeling down about the announced seasons of most of the local theaters (the perennial “No parts for me” frustration), wishing that could she saw a creative outlet on her horizon. Like I said, I know the feeling. But I also wonder sometimes if we don’t unconsciously do ourselves a disservice thinking this way –  giving ourselves an out from really going after what we want. If it’s up to others to determine our creative fate, it’s not our fault if we don’t feel ourselves moving ahead.

This blog is the product of one of those long stretches between rehearsal processes. It was a way for me to put all that energy I had into something even if it wasn’t a show. This space, this writing, has been a reminder that there is a way to keep a practice active and moving even when you can’t work it in exactly the way we might wish. Like taking up rowing after getting a bad sprained ankle. Doing something similar but a little different might mean, as I’ve found, a challenge is also an opportunity to find that one’s output doesn’t have to be so narrowly defined.

Anyway.

In this spirit, I’ll try to share ways that I find to keep the research and performance work alive in these interludes between the work. And to start I’ll share a small theatrical experiment.

This is a walking sound journey. It’s rough, a very first draft, but a style I’ve been really interested in playing with recently. This piece came out of a two day exploration at Headlong’s Dance Theater Camp with Amy Smith on “Experiential Journeys.” The goal was to research how to create experiences that bring people into their environment in new and different ways. I wanted to try a solo experience that integrated the real world with an invented narrative. The way that I feel when I’m walking down the street and the music I’m listening to suddenly, serendipitously, syncs with what I’m seeing around me.

So here’s what you do:

1) Download the two files at this link and put them onto your phone. (Or if you get decent service you can play them online.) Grab some headphones.

https://soundcloud.com/swimpony/sets/federal-walk

2) Go to the northeast corner of Broad and Federal. Stand next to the mailbox.

3) Before you move, orient yourself. For this experiment you will walk east on Federal, take a left on 13th, another left on Elsworth and then a final left onto Broad as you pass the diner. You’ll essentially make a loop around the block and end up back where you started.

3) Start playing the first track. Then go for a walk.

4) When you finish track 1 go back to the mailbox. Start playing the second track and wait until it tells you to “Start walking” and repeat the same path.

That’s it. You’ve just participated in a little work in progress.

Feel free to let me know what you think.

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