theatre

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

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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

An interview with Adrienne

Hey all,

FringeArts did a nice little interview with me a while back about my current thoughts on art, projects in the Swim Pony mix and my hopes for sustainability over the long term of a long term career.

If you’re interested in reading (and seeing me sitting backwards in that omnipresent chair) check it out by clicking this picture:

Print

Enjoy,

– A

Dispatches from the Awesome Lady Squad

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Hey Awesome Ladies!

Spring has technically sprung, despite the nastiness of the current weather, and with it comes new blooms of Awesome-ness. LADYFESTO! now created we march ahead onto bigger and even better projects.

What’s next, you ask?

Let me share with you three upcoming opportunities to take part in the Squad:

1) A Frank Convo About the Classical Canon:

I’ll admit it. I’ve been having some tough conversations inside my own head and with others about how to deal with being a contemporary female artist in relation to “great” works from the past. And so, to help sort through some of these, I’ve invited a bunch of smart and thoughtful ladies who spend a lot of their time in these works to chat with me (and maybe you) about how they navigate these waters. My goal is talk openly about how and when to keep aspects of these plays from the past while still holding true to our Awesome Lady principles of the present.

Want to join? Then come to Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad St) on May 12th from 3 – 5pm to be a part of the conversation.

2) An Awesome Lady Talking Toolkit:

Back in the early months of this year we identified a series of problems the Squad wanted to solve and some things we’d like to have to help to do. One of the most frequently mentioned “wish list” items were these:

  • Skills to handle tough conversations about gender parity.
  • A way to talk about this that doesn’t become apologetic or defensive.
  • Something to say when I sense people starting to roll their eyes.
  • The ability to talk and explain the “no” to a project that doesn’t conform to my moral code.

This meeting will be the first of several to tackle this solution.

Maybe we’ll make a workbook, a writing exercise, a checklist, a document with a series of go to argument points, something even more Awesome we can’t even yet conceive!!! If you want define what form it will take, strategize a plan and timeline for its creation, and figure out how to roll it out for the Squad at large, this meeting is for you.

Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad St) on May 19th from 7 – 9 pm to join in.

And finally!

3) Awesome Lady Observerships (ongoing):

Being a director can be a lonely business. Whether you’re a season pro or a newbie to the game, rarely get to watch each other in action.  Chatting with Allison Heishman the other day we talked about much we both wanted the chance to just sit back and observe other ladies do their Awesome directing thing. In our artistic landscape – one filled with abundance and support – we figured getting to pick up tools, see problems solved in new ways or even just admire someone else in action is just the thing to help solve this.

So! If you’re intrigued, send an email to swimponypa@gmail.com and the following info:

  1. Your name

  2. If you’re interested in letting people observe you and any upcoming work they might be able to see

  3. If you’re interest in seeing someone else’s work

I’ll put some kind of list together and follow up soon.

Whew! That was an awful lot of Awesome-ness.

And I think that’s all for now, Ladies.

– Adrienne

Local is local is local

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What is local? What do we mean when we talk about all politics being local? The value of supporting local art?

To the internet!

As an adjective “local” is used to mean belonging or relating to a particular area or neighborhood, typically exclusively so. As in words like community, district, neighborhood, city, etc. As Google so helpfully points out, one can research things like “local government” or “local history.” Also, this word is used as an adjective in the sense of being at hand, near, close by, easy accessible, convenient and handy. One might eat at a “local restaurant” not only for its quality but also because of its proximity to oneself. Also as in serving or related to just a particular defined area – a local bus, a local infection. In this sense, the word local perhaps more restricted, contained or confined.

As a noun, a “local” is a person or thing, that inhabits such a local area or place. An event might be filled with “locals” as opposed to outsiders or visitors. Local here means inhabitant, resident, native. The “locals” complain when outsiders come in and make a mess.

A local lives in the local place doing local things in their local way.

Local can be small. Local can be confining. Local can be networked. Local can be supportive, limiting, loving, stifling or neutral.

It can be any these things. It just depends if the locality that’s local to you, the local, is locally working in the way you wish.

Lately my impulses have been feeling awfully local. I think about the fact that I am in the midst of a number of localities, when you think about it:

  • My local city Philadelphia with its governance and policies
  • My local neighborhood, block and street
  • My artist community at large with its myriad of members
  • My specialty of theater arts in particular and the generative/deviser/collaborative/weirdo/whatever-you-want-to call-it subset within that
  • My community of administrators and advocates for sustainability
  • My network of Awesome Ladies
  • My circle of artists also working other jobs to survive

The list goes on. These are not large-scale national interests, for the most part. There might be theater happening in New York and D.C. that I see and appreciate but until I am literally taking and making my work there, it’s still a reference point. It’s not something impacting me in particular in a day-to-day way.

This is the thing about the things around me. They are close. We share space and place and resource.

They are local.

This is why I think I feel the need so greatly to talk and reach out recently. There might have been a time when I would have said, “Ah, yeah, those people do things I’m not crazy about but they don’t affect me.” More and more though it feels like this just isn’t true. I can’t swim in the pool and not get touched by the water. I am in the mix. I am affect, even just as a ripple, a current of what’s in the soup around me. And unless I am to bounce myself out, I must respond with the currents. I can swim into them or against them but I am linked with them through nearness.

My nearby community is (literally) around me. And like it or hate it that will always be true unless I leave it.

It’s like the saying (that I just made up this moment) goes: Local is local.

So I’ve been asking myself this question: how do I take the things that I love about being a local and deal with the things I really don’t?

And something that frustrated me at first was an ability to even begin making headway on such massive and all consuming problems like arts sustainability or the funding community or the meaning of a career in this field or trying to tackle gender inequity. It seemed like there’s just SO much to do. It seemed so hard to even begin to think about where to start.

And then I thought: just start with yourself and work outwards.

These are the projects you’ve been seeing from Swim Pony:

  • The Awesome Lady Squad
  • Cross Pollination
  • Residency-based theater works like WELCOME TO CAMPUS
  • Site based plays like THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL
  • A soon to come Adjuncts Soiree

I am tackling artistic and advocacy based questions one at a time through projects that start close to me and begin to push outwards from this center. In a way it feels like I’m taking my many kinds of local-ness and smashing them all into the same super tiny space and making them reckon with each other.

For many years I did a lot of work separating out these different communities by compartmentalizing them in myself. I became a local in each locality without require the others to enmesh. But these new works buck this method. They are projects that are active attempts to put my worlds up against each other and begin to make them touch. It’s a way of easing the work I do within my own brain and heart, by letting the outside world begin to hash this out. It’s meant putting one perspective into view of the other and seeing how they both shift in relation.

So that rather than trying to constantly be outside of the place I am in for one reason or another, I can slowly grow the space just beyond my own personal physical borders into a locality that can contain all the aspects of what I define myself as local to.

So that some day the city and community and women’s group and art community are all able to be in the same space without conflict: when local is local is local in me.

– A

Ladyfesto!

cooltext1368115366Drumroll please!

A few weeks back I promised you that the Awesome Lady Squad would be soon bringing you its LADYFESTO. In case you don’t remember I said that this document was about

…asserting the things we believe to be true into the world around us: that women are not lesser qualified or weaker, that our work is not niche or in addition to. It’s knowing that there is a space in which those views are supported and those intentions are believed in. It’s a promise that if we are able to articulate it, others will eventually understand the beliefs we know to be true.

Well guess what? It’s here. So, at long last and after great amounts of work we bring you:

THE AWESOME LADY SQUAD LADYFESTO

We*, the Awesome Ladies of the Awesome Lady Squad, hold these most awesome truths to be our evident and awesome tenets:

1)   We believe art is powerful and necessary.

  • As artists, we have the power to capture and reflect the human experience
  • As artists, we have a super power in our ability to influence the broader culture with our work

2)   We believe in supporting and celebrating our community of Awesome Lady artists

  • We see our artistic landscape as abundant and plentiful of opportunity and resource and do not subscribe to model of competition and scarcity
  • We believe that the successes of our peers are beneficial to all of us
  • We believe in mentoring Awesome Ladies of the future and preserving the legacy of current Awesome Lady artists

3)   We believe in an Awesome Lady’s equal worth as an artist

  • We believe in our right to a place in the field and that our artistic products are not “niche”
  • We believe our community should be a safe and respectful place for us as creators
  • We believe in equitable pay for equitable work and in the value of parity of representation for all artists in all aspects of our field – on and off stage, in the board room, and on grant committees

4)   We believe that being a Lady can inspire us but it does not limit or define who we are

  • We see the perspectives and tools we develop as Lady artists as being of value
  • We believe a Lady artist is a multitude of things and that a variety of different experiences and identities intersect within each individual Awesome Lady
  • We believe in challenging assumptions of what “female” art can be
  • We believe our gender is not the only lens through which we understand our individual experience of the world and the work we make

5)   We believe in supporting other marginalized groups

  • We recognize that our voice is not the only voice that is under-represented in our artistic community
  • We believe that the more representative our work is of our community’s diverse population, the richer and more connective it becomes

6)   We believe in taking action according to these principles

  • We believe hard truths need to be stated publically and that there is value in honest and open critique of the mainstream
  • We believe in being uncompromising in our refusal to tolerate such oppressions
  • We believe in the power of the collective to dissolve damaging narratives and structures

 

*Expanding on a couple definitions:

Who are “we”?

We are Awesome Ladies who are inclusive of race, age and sexual orientation. We are ladies who are contained in a variety of body shapes and come from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. We can be funny, or not. We are experimenters or follow in a long line of canonical learning. We are history challengers and embracers, listeners and talkers. We are as varied a number of things as can be imagined. The one thing we share is our inherent Awesomeness.

Why call yourselves “Ladies”?

Words like “female”, “gender”, “woman” etc have long and complex histories and definitions that are in a constant state of flux. While some members of the squad may identify with all, some or none of these identities, the intent behind “Lady” is to create a new label that is self-applied for those who believe they have a kinship with the identity of the Awesome Lady Squad.

In other words, an Awesome Lady is an Awesome Lady because they define themselves as such.

And that’s why they’re part of the Awesome Lady Squad.

Adjuncts unite!

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Yesterday, I was sitting in the tiny and strange office allotted to adjunct professors at Rutgers Camden finishing up grading journals and responding to the questions and thoughts of my students. It was my first teaching gig of the day. First as in, the one before I wrapped up my assignment at one institution of higher learning and headed over to another totally different one at Pig Iron’s School for Advanced Performance Training. Two voice classes connected to the study of theater for two totally different set of students in two totally different kinds of learning environments, both taught in an hour and a half.

I do this a lot. Teaching. These past few months in particular I carried the equivalent of a full teaching course load (4 classes) as an adjunct across three institutions. The semester before I was at two others. I have no permanent status or relationship with these places, other than that I’ve come to care a lot about my classes and the students that take them. This is a journey I’ve mostly navigated alone – from course focus and intensity to the more mundane administrative stuff like direct deposit and getting the floor swept so my students can lay down for breathing exercises.

I happened to catch Aaron Oster in passing as I left Rutgers yesterday. And while normally, I’d be rushing out and on to the next thing, something made me stop and listen and chat. And we ended up having one of the first real conversations I’ve had in a while with another adjunct about what our work is like. We chatted about Rutgers Camden as a school compared to others we work at, what the students were like here and elsewhere, how we might tackle some of the challenges we encountered.

It wasn’t all that long – maybe 15 minutes – but it struck me as I walked away how rarely I do this. And then later after finishing my second class, I had drinks with Justin Jain and got into a second conversation about a student I’d been worrying over and how I might be able to solve a problem I’d encountered in class.

These two little tête-à-têtes made me aware of something I’ve increasingly noticed: that I think about my students a lot. That they take up a ton of emotional space in my life. That there are all kinds of things I see in them and the schools I work in. That I’m often wondering how this work feeds (or inhibits) the creative work I do professionally. That sometimes it sends my art in new and unexpected ways and that sometimes it zaps all the energy I have.

But most of all it made me realize how rarely I have a chance to share these thoughts with other people doing the same thing.

I’m interested in doing that. In sharing the sometimes funny and lonely and depressing and liberating thing about being this kind of a free agent in this way.

If you’re a working artist reading this who also teaches – a class here and there or the equivalent of full time – I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share thoughts/experiences below in the comments. And if you’re Philly local, I’m going to try and organize an adjunct quorum sometime in the next month. If you want in, let me know!

I’m not sure what form exactly such a thing would take, probably just a hang out with some food and a chance to chat. Maybe its something that grows into a discussion of best practices for adjuncts, discussion of fair fee for time, or advantages and disadvantages of various schools in the area. Mostly, I’d just love to see and hear from others in this large teaching artist community.

Maybe I can even swing a little cash to swank up such an event….

I’ll have some free time again once the semester ends.

:)

– A

 

PS – Hey all! I am intuiting the forces of the universe. Robert Smythe has helpfully passed along some great info about a meeting you can attend TOMORROW on this topic. Check it out:

*Adjunct Symposium: Saturday, April 19th at Media Mobilizing Project*

4233 Chestnut St. Philadelphia, PA 19104

Meet adjuncts across the city and learn about United Academics of Philadelphia (UAP) at our adjunct symposium on* Saturday, April 19th from 9am till 3pm*, with a reception that starts at 3pm. The event will include speakers and panels on academic labor and more. This event is free and open to all.

UAP site:

http://uap.pa.aft.org/

UAP on facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/UnitedAcademicsOfPhiladelphia

UAP on twitter:

https://twitter.com/UAPhilly

It will be hard, but not in the way you think

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There’s this cliché that people always throw out to young artists, “It’s such a hard life. You shouldn’t go into the arts unless you have to. Unless you can’t do anything else.”

I hated that.

As a young person, telling me something was hard was just about the fastest way to get me to want to do it. Telling me something was potentially crushing and impossible was even more enticing.

I loved the idea of hard work – rehearsals for hours, going home and reading and writing about theater, studying and researching. This kind of all or nothing attitude towards tackling something was exactly what I wanted. I sought out to fill every corner of my life with my work in theater because I thought that this was what “professional” looked like.

After a bit more than a decade of an actual life as an artist I’ve slowly morphed into the thing that I used to detest. I’ve come around to this statement with new eyes. I think that incorporating an artistic sensibility is important for all people. I think having space to think and feel and connect with others is too. I think that there is great value in a creative impulse that is divorced from a need to sell things. That’s the value of the arts and I think everyone should take part in that. But I’ve also come to see that actually making this your life’s work and career isn’t something everyone is cut out for.

A life in the arts is very hard, but not in the way you think it will be.

Earlier this year I had an exchange with a young performer about tackling a project that I wasn’t sure they were up to. We went back and forth about what digging in “for real” would look like. I tried to explain that regardless of excitement and eagerness, that I was looking for a particular kind of bravery were I to bump them into professional level work. That for me this meant an ability to show the hard and nasty bits that few of us really like to admit are in there.

And I also said that at the end of the day, it wasn’t just about whether it was possible but that it mattered equally much that they wanted to do such a thing. Because being a professional means deciding the kind of art work you believe in making.

For those who would make this career their thing, my guess is your first encounter with artwork is exhilarating. It’s new and fresh and a little like young love. It feels big and exciting and makes the person inside it feel the same. And like young love it promises that if you give yourself over totally, this feeling, this participation in something larger than yourself will fill you up enough to sustain you forever.

And just like young love, you realize at some point that the imagined fantasy isn’t the same as slogging through the day to day. It’s like a long-term relationship – it deepens and changes and is hard hard work. When you know very little about something it’s easy to love everything about it. And just like young love transitioning into something more long term, it’s what happens when you hit the first hiccup or frustration and start figuring out how you are going to be something other than the enthralled and all consumed devotee that you learn whether or not you can stick it out.

This is why I chafe at most shows that depict the artistic process in sitcom or drama form. Underpinning a majority of the plot lines is a tacit assumption that if you love the art, if you are talented, and if you work hard then your initial definition of success will come to you.

It would be nice if that were true.

It’s not.

Talent is no guarantee of success and fame. Neither is hard work. Loving what you do so much it hurts, having feelings about your art that are so strong they are consuming, is even less a guarantee. In fact, it probably makes it harder.

Being that attached to your work makes that much harder to proceed when you have to sacrifice parts of it, radically change your conception of it, suddenly realize that no one cares about the aspect of it you do, or find that the version of it you like best isn’t the version you’re actually good at. (They say Moliere wanted his whole life to be a great tragic actor.  Good thing he didn’t stop writing comedies in the interim to never getting there.)

It means there will be moments you remember your young and uncomplicated idea of art and wonder whether what you’re currently doing is actually the same thing.

In my experience creative work is a marathon rather than a sprint. It is an exercise in sustaining over the long haul. To do that one learns new kinds of skills: Defining your own path, authoring an experience you want, requiring effort of yourself instead of it being demanded of you, pulling strength from way deep down to keep going. It’s also about figuring out that you have to be more than just an artist. That you need to develop a life that includes more than your work: things like family and friends and walking in the park and reading a newspaper and cooking meals.

With this young actor struggling over the role I talked a bit about the need to take control of one’s own artistic path, not based on eagerness or earnestness that gives away a point of view, but a willingness to get down in the dirt and make some personal imperfect choices.

And the answer that eventually rolled out was essentially, “I don’t know if I actually want to be an performer.”

I think about this a lot.

I wonder if I did the right thing.

If it’s my business to push so hard to get someone to see what the real work of the profession is.

I think so.

I hope so.

Just like everything else in this career, I just did the best I knew how.

– A

Are you a habitat or are you an animal?

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Are you an animal or are you a habitat?

Rambly Friday thoughts…

I’ve been pondering a bit about the last post on non-profit boards and the artists that do (or don’t) love them. Many of the response people have posted back on the old Facebooks have been rather positive (effusive even) on the ways in which the board has supported and pushed them further than they could have gone on their own.

Point taken.

For some, clearly, a board structure can work well. If you are an organization with an alignment of mission and artists within it and a board constructed in the right way, the power structure that worried me in the last post could be a non-issue, leading to a super helpful and beneficial relationship. So it’s nice to hear from these folks and take inspiration from what they’ve done that’s working.

There are, of course, examples to the contrary. (And I’d guess these folks are probably a lot less likely to proclaim it to the internet public.) And something I’ve realized that goes along with this question has something to do with the role of the artist in the non-profit sector more generally.

I think of it as the trade off between being an animal and being a habitat.

Ok, so first off, let me admit that I know that this metaphor was something I heard from someone else at some point in the past year. But for the life of me I cannot remember who or where and for the internet of me I cannot find a source to help reference. So fair warning that what you’re about to get is a rumination on someone else’s concept, possibly expanded or re-imagined out of its original context.

So back to animals and habitats. When we examine people involved with generating works of art we start to think about their place in the field by examining two extremes.

On the one hand we have artists: the lone writer slaving away on a novel or play, the painter in their studio, the choreographer crafting a movement sequence. These people are the animals – they are individual beings with individually motivated goals. Animals consume resources – they want studio or rehearsal or office space, they need money for their own time and possibly that of a collaborator, and stuff to make what they do like clarinets or clay or costumes – and mostly they only want those resources for themselves.

And on the other hand we have habitats. Habitats are places that animals occupy, sometimes for a short time and sometimes for their whole lives, to obtain the resources they need. We can think of an arts organization like a habitat – places artists occupy to get the resources they need to survive. The same way that a deer occupies the woods and takes advantage of the trees and streams and soft downy leaf beds, a doe eyed creator might plug into an arts org in order to get access to space and stuff. Audiences are also occupants in this imagined world in the sense that they come into the habitat to receive resource – namely the art that – as well. And for organizations that mix the arts with other kinds of services (social change, youth programming, education) there are likely other occupants with needs and influences on this place as well.

In the simplest scenario, a lone master painter (the animal) makes work and then a gallery (the habitat) exhibits and helps sell that work to the adoring public. A theater company presents a new ensemble’s work. A residency program houses a new novelist in the midst of their writing process. Animal gets resources to help sustain it and the habitat is made more vital through the animal’s presence.

So though they often work in tandem, it’s important to see that the larger goals of the habitat and the animal are different. The animal’s goal is to survive and get as many resources directed at it as possible to be comfy and well fed. The habitat’s goal is to support the ecosystem of all the animals and plants within it.

To extend this saccharine metaphor just a bit further, you can think of the non-profit board like a conservation club. They themselves enjoy the habitat and see the beauty and usefulness of it to the creatures in it even if they don’t directly pull resources from it. They may work actively in that habitat to keep it tidy and unpolluted. They may raise money to support and extend its boundaries. They may simply go and admire its worth and encourage other animals to take advantage of all the habitat has to offer. The board’s job is to make sure that the habitat is sustained for the many kinds of animals that interact with it.

The kinds of things a board does are good for the habitat as a whole. And generally that means it’s good for the animals in the habitat as well. But let’s say there’s a drought. It’s possible to keep the habitat from drying up completely a board would change the number and kind of animals it offers shelter to. If there’s an influx or if one kind of animal suddenly goes through a massive increase in its appetite, it may have to cut off a certain group for the good of the larder whole. They may even shift some aspects of the habitat to help ease the burden on some parts of it. In short, the goal of the board is to sustain the entire networked ecosystem into the future.

In my view, the vast majority of creators just want to be animals. But many of us at some point find that there are a scarcity of habitats in general or of ones that are hospitable to us in particular. And so we begin to start operating a little like habitats. Some people make that switch and realize that they actually like being habitats. Some even end up finding that the tired and constant scrambling life of an animal is happily left behind. For others, they are animals who don habitat clothing for a while in order to feed themselves in particular.

The problem with moonlighting in habitat world in order to support your animal self might now start to become obvious.

To run a habitat requires different skills than being an animal. To keep the habitat going you have to pay attention to the other animals that are interacting with your resource. And if you are one particular individual animal, the concerns of the habitat may or may not align with your own individual goals for survival and thrival. (I know thrival is not a word. But it should be, no?). To succeed at keeping the habitat going, you may end up making choices that cut off your own food supply. Your conservation league, with the best of intentions, may end up saving the habitat a little animal started at the expense of the animal itself.

Which is how, I think, some artists end up starting non-profits that feel like they lose their control over their work. Your aim to become more habitat-like to serve your individual animal self is for naught because you ended up killing the animal. These are the cases, I think, where artists can end up hating the boards that they serve under. It’s not that either is doing anything wrong. They’re just aiming at different outcomes. One is trying to sustain a place; the other is trying to sustain themselves.

The closer your goal is to being an individual artist and making work that is essentially the output of your singular vision, the less the work feels like a “public” good. What happens to you if your mission is to create works of a particular edgy theater or cultural dance style and you suddenly realize you want to start shifting your focus into something else? If you’ve built a habitat out of a mission, assuming you the animal will always belong there, you might find yourself frustrated and at cross purposes. And though one of the most wonderful things about the artistic impulse is its desire to innovate, change and grow this isn’t always possible in a habitat. And even when it is, it takes a far longer time and laborious amount of effort.

Which I think behooves the creator to really think hard about what they are trying to do before they sign that 501 c 3 paperwork.

Do you want to become a habitat or an animal?

And make sure you’re making choices that help you become that.

– A

Is there any artist that loves their board?

This is likely to be the first in a series of spewed thoughts about a super complex topic – the pros and cons for the artist of interfacing with the non-profit.

I’ll say two things:

1)   I am generally anti non-profits for the majority of content generators, especially for small ensembles and individual creators. I try to be as informed as possible but I am also sure I will say any number of uninformed things. I’m trying to parse through a larger number of still evolving thoughts about how money and the arts and sustainability and still having time to actually make work all intersect. In some ways, this is an attempt to elicit challenges to assumptions I have to help me get more info.

 2)   I’m on the precipice of possibly joining the board of a relatively large and impactful organization. I’m interested in joining a board to see what it actually is like to be a part of such a thing, and to see what kinds of art “organizations” do and don’t need such a thing.

So I want to start with a question I’ve had on my brain for a while: Are there any artists who, if given the choice, would actually want to keep a board of directors if they didn’t have to? I know that many of my peers have talked to me about learning to find meaning and usefulness and sometimes even joy in the people they’ve invited to be part of their non-profit board. But if they weren’t required to find a way to live with this set up, would they still do it?

This is the question that I wonder about all the time. It’s the reason, or at least a very large part of the reason, that I haven’t myself made the non-profit leap. It’s because I fear that at it’s core, the non-profit system really isn’t set up to serve the way that I personally make stuff. Here’s how I see it: a non-profit is an entity whose primary mission or core values are prized over the generation of profit in the pursuit of a given activity.

I think many, probably most, artists who currently exist in the non-profit sphere are down with this. We’re not in it to be millionaires. We’re in it because we believe in the necessity of the thing we do to be shared with others. If we had food and housing and money to raise kids taken care of, we’d probably give it all away for free. So the point is not that our entity can’t make a profit, can’t create a surplus of funds, but that in essence the surplus isn’t the point of the work. The work is the point of the work. And in the US this means that a non-profit can pay its employees and buy things related to the work it does, but that anything above and beyond this expense doesn’t go to some group of investors but stays within the entity to be used to make or do more of the stuff they make and do.

So far, I’m in. Now on to who’s running the show.

According to Foundation Center’s website a non-profit board of directors:

“Is the governing body of a nonprofit organization. The responsibilities of the board include discussing and voting on the highest priority issues, setting organizational policies, and hiring and evaluating key staff. Board members are not required to know everything about nonprofit management, but they are expected to act prudently and in the best interests of the organization. They approve operating budgets, establish long-term plans, and carry out fundraising activities.”

So think about this. In a non-profit the ultimate status and hierarchy lies with the board. At the end of the day they are the people most responsible for the running of the entity. It’s the board of directors in this set up that are tasked with ensuring that the people who are employed by the organization are doing just that – carrying out the mission of the company.

And it’s here that I really start to wonder if we are trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

Think about the work of an individual artist or small ensemble. What is their mission as a creator or group of creators? What are they trying to do, really, at the core? To make their work in the best way possible. To follow their own artistic impulses. When they define a “mission” it may have a lot of fancy words, like mine does:

Swim Pony Performing Arts: Loud, strange and never seen before on earth! Swim Pony is committed to the creation of unique live performances that are joyful and defy tradition in order to bring contemporary audiences beyond their experiences of the every-day.

But really, these words are just my attempt to try and explain what my personal artistic impulses are. They are my attempt to give name to the ever-shifting series of interests and impulses Adrienne Mackey has in making stuff. They are the way in which those impulses expand to include a variety of people who get involved with that vision.

Which means that were I to incorporate the mission my board would be responsible for is “To make Adrienne’s work the most Adrienne it can be.”

Here’s a scenario where I chafe a little: What happens when a company founded by an artistic director under what is in essence a single visionary’s work is at odds with its board?

What happens when Jane Doe Dance Company’s board says that Jane Doe is wrong about what upcoming project will best to uphold the standards of the Jane Doe mission? At the end of the day, in this structure, when push comes to shove the board has the power to tell Jane Doe that they know better than she does. They are empowered in this structure to tell an artist that they know better about how their work should be made.

I’m not saying that this happens often. Or that most people end up in this position.

I’m saying that’s the power dynamic that is structurally implicit.

And to me that makes no sense.

There are ways to still work within the system. But at its core I think this is the wrong dynamic. It’s the wrong delineation of responsibility. I am all for advising and contribution. I believe that artists should get input from the outside about how their work is best made and how it might be financially sustainable and responsible. But at the core, I don’t agree that the final responsibility for a creator’s product can be located outside of the creator.

Yes if it’s an organization that promotes a kind of artwork or genre.

Yes if it’s an organization that curates a type of work.

Yes if it’s an organization that is at its core a habitat for artists to plug into.

But I don’t think so when it’s an organization whose sole mission is the work of a single artist’s vision.

And if that’s true, I think we need to be honest that this is probably the wrong way to do it. That the non-profit structure wasn’t designed with this in mind.

Or maybe I’m wrong.

Help me see otherwise…

– A