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


Progress in the speed of real time is hard to see.

For years when I thought of the person I was back in college and the first early years out, I just imagined the same person I am now, maybe a little smaller, a little poorer and a little blonder (I was using Sun-In, one of the greatest follies of youth). Essentially though, I believed myself to be the same. I’d look pictures of the work I did at that time and imagine me in the work just the same as now. Some days it could feel frustrating to see myself stuck in sameness, not feeling the same clear progression I used to have demarcated by an academic calendar. This was partly the impulse for a return to such a place, where the promise of measurable and specified growth is inherent in the enterprise.

Yet… There are hints to the contrary:

  • Re-reading my directing notebook from The Ballad of Joe Hill as I prep the return to the piece now in 2013 I think about the fear I had that the work would all come crashing down around me. I realize how much more I’ve learned to love and trust intuition as a guiding force in my work.
  • Re-visiting my alma mater to teach or share work, I find myself talking with students and seeing more starkly the different between where they and I each are.
  • In a moment of fretting about someone else’s perception of something I’ve done or am doing, I catch myself, let it go, and think about times previous when that wouldn’t have been possible.

But mostly, I think our awareness of change is commensurate with its actual occurrence, meaning we acclimate to our new selves in the slow and steady forward tempo they are created. So our evolving selves seem to us a constant, even though someone who leaves and returns to us might be amazed by the effected change on us by life.  Easy to see in others, hard to catch in yourself except in passing or in shadow.

And because of this it gets easy to get frustrated with growing, easy to miss the reward of experience (which seems to have been so clearly a fixed part of who we are) and mourn the vigor of youth and the promise of potential. This happens big (looking at the major arcs of our careers) and small (looking at what we have accomplished in a week of work). We go back and give our younger selves the benefit of the intelligence gained and then find fault in current ourselves for not having the future predicting foresight to avoid new mistakes, forgetting that the old ones got the current knowledge to us in the first place.

It’s a fallacy, just as much as the perfect unformed, undone, artwork whose imagining will never be tarnished by the reality of actually doing it. But fallacy or no, it works on us. And here at Swim Pony, I like not only identifying a problem or trend, but trying to alleviate the problem.

It just so happens that last 7 days have found me at home working mostly on my own. Tracking the progress of anything is hard, doing so in a bubble with no outside contact even harder. So nearing the end of the week I found myself saying, “I’ve done a lot. I swear I’ve done a lot.” With less and less conviction. But happily, near the end of the week I stumbled on a lucky accident that I wanted to share.

I am a semi-luddite, with a dinosaur phone and an instinctual late-adopter policy on technology. My to do lists are one area in particular that has stubbornly resisted updating from analog. Which is why each morning for the last week I’ve started the day with a sheet of legal paper (it’s longer) folded in half, a pen and a highlighter. I re-write the things left uncrossed from the previous day’s list onto the clean paper, add anything that has since arisen, and then highlight the things that are most urgent for the day’s doing.

Day to day, this tool is functional, helping me keep track of what’s come up and what should be on my radar and the priority in which I should be aware of it. And day to day, this list is a kind of metaphor for my growth and progress on the larger scale: taking in new info and removing things completed or learned. But unlike my larger progress I was left at the end of the week with a tangible record of each day’s doings, each step along a week of accomplishments.

Last night I stopped for a moment to take stock of this catalogue of agendas. On first glance, I was a little disappointed to see that the list size from day one to seven was roughly the same and that the number of things removed from each day was also just about equal across each list.

But then I looked closer.

I saw how things I’d thought I needed were taken off based on new information. I saw things I had delegated to others to share the burned of work. I saw things listed early in the week too vaguely had broken down into specific steps that I could (and did) complete. I saw that each day had been a small piece of progress on a multitude of fronts that added up to some big advances in the larger scheme.

And then, just to see what would happen, I went back to the first day’s list and crossed off all the things that I’d managed to finish in the 6 that followed and I actually (if you can believe such silliness) gasped at my desk.

But for one task, everything I’d wanted to achieve at the start of that week, I’d completed.  What struck me so completely was that, yes, the lists were the same size today as they were last Tuesday, but my wants kept updating with the days’ lists as well. And a little posting here day after day, we add to the finished pile one piece at a time realizing only at the end that each little step does add up to a whole body of work completed.

Perhaps it’s worth taking such moments of stock once in a while. Perhaps it might be useful to record the state of the self, to define one’s wishes and ambitions and current capabilities as they are and then compare them with the same measures from the past. So that we do not only, as we are often encouraged, measure our current selves against the prospective ones we hope to be, but also see that we have become “future” selves, ones who can take a moment to go back and gasp and be proud of how far we’ve come.

– A