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A Peek Into STORY TRAILS

Intrepid fans of Swim Pony, founder Adrienne Mackey here with some exciting updates!

You might have heard that we here at Swim Pony HQ have been busy with research for our newest project STORY TRAILS, created in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) to bring original audio stories to nature trails throughout the Philadelphia region.

Since getting the funding go ahead earlier this year (Thanks NET, William Penn and Barra Foundations!) we’ve been delving deep into that funky space between digital and analog, between the mind’s imaginary space and the natural world. Some of the goals behind STORY TRAILS are practical: for example, how we might offer experiences akin to immersive and site based theater to a wider network of audiences. However, on the macro-level we’re also looking at creative and philosophical questions that reimagine how we experience what form stories can take and who gets to tell them.

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Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Photo: John Hawthorne

Before we get into all that, let’s start with a few quick words we’ve been using to explain what the heck this thing will be:

STORY TRAILS is a brand new mobile app, designed to re-imagine how people interact with recreational trails and, by extension, expand the diversity of users that seek them out. The core of this work lies in the creation of 10 unique narrative walks: intimate journeys that use GPS to link audio storytelling to physical attributes along a mapped route. Each selected path will feature text from a local writer along with underscored music and sound design, all tailored to sync to the movement of a listener as they travel along a trail.

STORY TRAILS grows out of two lines of inquiry that have been simmering in Swim Pony’s pot over the past several years. If you’re even peripherally aware of what the company has been up, you know that we’ve been keen to explore how the design of games and other interactive media might teach theater makers something about how to structure immersive works. The lessons learned in works like WAR OF THE WORLDS have spurred us to dig deeper about what it means to place an audience in the center of an experience. Similarly, projects like WALK AROUND PHILADELPHIA  have spurred a curiosity about what it means to curiously explore the tangible world in relationship to one’s own personal narratives and experiences, with the moving body as the medium through which these two collide. In THE END we got a first chance at blending these impulses, and with STORY TRAILS, we’re also aiming for the process and product to create space for a wider variety of Philadelphia’s voices. In short, this new work is a creative process that will examine the narratives of place – who dominates the meaning we make about the natural world and how we might re-imagining those stories from new perspectives – while simultaneously giving its eventual audiences a visceral experience of literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

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Schuylkill Banks, Photo: John Hawthorne

While we can’t yet share the actual stories that will be part of the project but we can share some creative insight we’ve gained in exploring what aspects of a story best suit this particular format.

In July, Swim Pony and Toasterlab, our tech partners in the STORY TRAILS app creation, undertook a narrative workshop, visiting potential trail sites across the area to explore writing specific to trails. In the same way a novel, screenplay, or standup comedy set all include language but utilize hugely different techniques to best serve their medium, we wanted to learn what kind of story is uniquely heard best while walking and listening through headphones.

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Swim Pony & Toasterlab near Bartram’s Garden,  Photo: John Hawthorne

We took away a LOT from that workshop but a few things stood out. The first lesson seems obvious in retrospect: when writing to place you have to spend LOTS of time there doing the same thing you expect the audience to do. When writing for a form that will eventually require you to move as you listen, it’s best to write in motion and on your feet as well. We spent tons of time walking trails and noticing the stories that made sense there and what we found is that there’s a balance between density of language and the ability to stay connected to what you see. Useful silence is key.

We also found that simple details that connect the listener to the world they are surrounded by are hugely powerful. One of the most effect pieces of language was also the most humble: standing in Heinz Wildlife refuge hearing someone talk about wind washing over reeds.

Our last big summer takeaway was that while this form is tricky on plot-heavy stories – relatively little happens or changes on a trail – it is uniquely well suited to putting you in another’s state of mind. We found language that traversed that space of internal thought or invited us as users into contemplative spaces of our own super exciting.

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Jenna Horton on the Delaware River Trail,  Photo: John Hawthorne

In November, we brought sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman into the mix to delve deeper into the aesthetics of sound as well as an overarching narrative structure for the app . We brainstormed and begin to define how sound will influence the user experience. We also strategized questions about how audio triggering might work. We shared research on other projects that felt inspirational to this one and finally started trying out ideas again in real space.

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Brainstorming notes, Photo: John Hawthorne

A few key takeaways from this workshop centered on the interface experience the user will have. We began wondering narratively who it is that the user is interacting with when they first download STORY TRAILS. Some questions that guided that process:

  • Is there a guide that has put together the overall experience?
  • What is the aesthetic that one encounters as they interact with the app?
  • What is the journey from the first story to the last? What is gained? What is the narrative connection, if any, between each trail?

We began developing a character we’re currently calling The Ranger, a mysterious curator and guide who will over see the experience that each user will have. In tandem with this development we started thinking about the difference between a piece of immersive theater and a pre-recorded audio tour. What is it that makes “liveness” so palpable and special? Why does the story “being there” with the audience matter?

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Adrienne walking Gateway Park,  Photo: John Hawthorne

Finally, we began very functionally playing with ways that sound might overlay story content and actually began testing sound scores underneath previously generated text from our summer workshops. And if you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing you might even like to experience it yourself.

Below are three pieces of audio we experimented with. Stream or download one of files above and play it while you take a walk. Each of these files are an little tests in pairing different kinds of language, music and soundscape. To assess what “works” and doesn’t think about the following:

  • Is the experience you connect most to located in your ears, in the world, or somewhere in between?
  • Are there places where your thoughts are in conversation with what you hear?
  • How much (or little) does the language feel connected to the place you are in?
  • What about this experience feels uniquely suited to this format?
  • Is this even a “story” at all?

 

A Horror Inspired Creature Story

A Banal Convo About Appliances and the Future 

A Nostalgic Tale of Cicada Pee 

 

If you give it a try, we’d love, love, love to add your creative thoughts to our own. Just throw a few thoughts quickly into the box below!

An essay on the emergence, at long last, of spring

I’ve been musing this morning on divining rods.

I’ve never actually used one, but the idea of this object – a stick that subtly helps point one to something desired – is one I love. I invoke the divining rod all the time in my teaching as a metaphor for thinking about creative impulse like water that hides under the surface, a flowing material that needs a bit of focused attention in order to be found. I like that using a divining rod is a tactile endeavor, an action-based object held in the hands rather than examined in the mind. I like its connotation to something spiritual, a channel to something just a little bit mystical and beyond the natural realm. And too, I like that the tool is one that requires the body to listen to a pulsing current already existing in the world. A divining rod insinuates that creative spirit requires one to get outside and muck around a bit in order to be found.

The past months have felt a lot like interminable winter. There is, of course, that literal season which I’m sure we can all agree outstayed its welcome far beyond what was appropriate and polite. But too, it’s felt a bit like the space between last year and this one has been a creative freezing that is frustratingly resistant to a thaw. In the din of the daily artistic grind there are so many forces that pull towards themselves – funders with ever so slightly magnetic needs to fulfill their board’s directives, students with aims that require an ever so mild adjustment to the inner compass, collaborators that exert subtle forces on the instincts of the work. In the midst of this one can lose that inner flow of water, that first thirst that drew the body to drink. None of this is to say that I feel I’ve been creatively unproductive. In some ways one could look at the last year in Swim Pony’s work as a time of far greater produce than any in the past decade. But, to take this metaphor to its fullest, it’s also felt in some way like ground that has been over-planted. The nutrients that allowed the soil to yield such fruits feel depleted, as if there is simply not much left from which to grow.

What is that thing that I sense myself seeking?

Heart?

Impulse?

Maybe it’s easiest to just call it water. At this moment the current feels slack and the tide feels low and while I know I’m a savvy sailor who can ride the ups and downs, I fear without finding a source of liquid force, the boat is going to get stuck. As the weather warms, and the ice begins to melt, it seems imperative to get outside with that stick and figure out where all the water has gone.

A few weeks ago the husband and I undertook an adventure to the Wheaton Arts Center in Millville, NJ. I found an exhibit listed on a “Things To Do” website: something to do with biology and the intersection of science and art in the form of glass. It seemed promising enough that we set out on a 45 minutes drive to a small museum devoted to the roots of American glass manufacture in the local area.

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Much of the museum was chintzy in a charming kind of way. Not terribly interesting, I’ll be honest, but relaxed enough that our general lack of said interest didn’t interrupt an enjoyable walk through a faux-Victorian-styled home filled with fragility. We wandered through the exhibits on the origins of American Revolution-era glass blowing, the  catalogue of a building up and then eroding away of an industry throughout the area. We saw shelves of Tiffany and mass-produced Depression glass. We learned that creation of a “Millville Rose” paperweight was a sign of a high level skill for those craftspeople that managed to master it.

cactiAnd then, at the very end of the circle through the museum, we came upon an exhibit cataloguing the work of an artist named Paul Stankard. His form: nature-inspired themes encased to form paperweights. Collected in this area were hundreds of small round objects taking nearly identical form in perfect rows. His early stuff felt about the same to me as much of what we’d already encountered – pretty but a bit too delicate and girly for my tastes. These first works were thing I would never buy for my home because a) where would I put them, b) fancy glass makes me nervous, and c) the only thing they do is gather dust on some shelf where they never get looked at.

What I’m saying is that Stankard’s early works provoked little of the spirit of water in me. They were decently photorealistic depictions of flowers that seemed nice enough to spend, say, a few seconds on noting that it probably was really hard to make a cactus flower out of glass. They were objects that offered an “Oh… Huh.” level of artistic response. Then we turned a corner into another room, one filled with Stankard’s later phases of work. From the very first approach, they literally took the breath right out of my body.

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The images I took will not do them justice, these intricate tiny creations of flowers and roots and bees. They were small dioramas of surrealism, of ritual, of things sprung from supernatural purpose. They were absolutely transcendent tiny worlds encased in crystal, suspended in motion so perfect it’s hard to believe they are not alive.

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Some minutes after first encountering at these objects, I stood in front of a video playing an interview with the artist in which he articulated a turning point in his creative practice from mimicry and re-creation into something more metaphoric and representational. I walked back inside to look again at the tiny bodies hidden in the roots of flowers made of glass and heard Stankard’s echoing voice explaining something about metaphors of life and death and giving oneself leeway to let go of what a flower literally is and instead dive into what it might have the capacity to reveal.

These art works are deeply comforting to me, not only in their intense and vivid beauty but in the way they underscore the long arc of creative trajectory for the maker. They hold in their perfect suspension the promise of something unseen to break through. In the midst of what has felt like the unending cold and gray sterility of long winter, it was a reminder of future warmth and growth much needed, that perhaps every mundane step can be a tiny pull towards an inner stream of something downright divine.

Right now, the best I can think to do is to take time each day to try and feel the pull of water, even when all that seems to be present is its absence.

To take small steps, in whatever direction a bit of wood demands.

To read, if only as a practice of feeding the soil.

To write, regardless of whether or not the work finds its feet.

To whittle away at the dam, without worrying too much about what’s released.

So here’s a letter of well wishes to you all, written in the hopes you are finding the emerging spring.

– A

 

An Open Letter to my Awesome Ladies and my Awesome Lady Allies

Before I get started lemme just say if you’re not in the mood to read a lot and just want the details on the upcoming Awesome Lady Squad event, jump down to the bolded stuff down below…


At the end of April of last year, as civic unrest was sweeping Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I was feeling awfully heavy about the world. That sense of weight was born out of the inequity I saw in society, in the brutality of an “othered” community being discriminated against, and a sense of helplessness about what to do about it. It seemed clear to me that I could no longer sit back in my own privilege, that I needed to ask myself some hard questions and begin to find better ways to hold myself accountable for how my personal actions echoed out into larger cultural forces in the world around me.

At the same time, I was teaching a class called Voice for the Stage. The course was structured to end with students performing a monologue of their choosing in the college’s main stage theater, a place that required them to show off their newly acquired vocal prowess. During the final session of that class I watched a female student perform a monologue from the movie Lord of the Rings in which she took on and totally owned the character of Gandalf the Gray. As I watched her I felt a moment of something cracking. It was a thread that pulled on my desire to show empathy for those who were suffering unfairly. It also pulled on the frustration I felt as a teacher for the way that our society’s impoverished narrative landscape had pushed so many of my female students towards male roles as they sought to embody power and status as characters.

In the wake of that class, I wrote a post for the Swim Pony blog called A Million Female Gandalfs. That post was my attempt to make sense of a deep heaviness I felt at the time. A bit from that writing:

I have seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I have seen African-American students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson again (this time fighting wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls whose heritages are both Mexican, play Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I am sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologue there is so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

Another quote from farther on in the piece:

I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be forced onto people while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world we live in. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who do not yet have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults to pull them out of ourselves.

Awesome Ladies and Awesome Ladies’ friends, I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks have evoked a lot of the same heaviness of feeling. I’ve been feeling a lot of the same sense of frustration about the landscape of dialogue and narrative we’ve been living in. And similarly, I don’t have a clear sense yet about what exactly it is we do about it.

But, once again, I do know that I can’t sit passively by.

And so.

I’m reconvening the Squad.

Because if there’s anything possible to be done, I know that Awesome Ladies are the ones to do it. And thanks to a generous space donation from Headlong, Swim Pony’s Awesome Lady Squad will host:

A Two-Part Awesome Brainstorming Town Hall

Monday Dec 5 from 8 – 10pm &

Saturday Dec 10 from 2 – 4pm

at Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad)

The focus of this time will be to share our feelings and responses to recent events, imagine some concrete actions that we as an intersectional Lady community might imagine being useful to the world, and come up with a plan to put our Awesome might into action.

Come to one or both armed with your ideas and your readiness. We’ll do our best to facilitate a convo that helps create a plan of attack from there.

RSVP to SwimponyPA@gmail.com if you can (though please still come if you haven’t and pass along to anyone in the creative community you think would want to take part) so we get a sense of size to watch for.

Keep on Awesome-ing and hope to see you soon.

– Adrienne

Why I’m Walking Away

I’m giving you all fair warning.

In the next few weeks or months if you come up to me and start talking about how horridly busy your creative life is, how you’re overwhelmed and not totally committed to the work you’re doing…

If you open the conversation with how much you hate that you have no time for all the other parts of living but you seem to keep ending up in this situation and you’re scattered and can’t really feel yourself fully doing anything…

If you start talking to me about this quandary like it’s normal and something we all have to share as a natural given of our artistic existences and though you don’t really like it, it’s just this thing we all will agree to keep doing…

If you do that to me I’m going to walk away from you.

Maybe not right away. I’m probably going to nod with you for another minute and then make an excuse to go to the bathroom. Or grab another drink. Or to say hi to someone else that walked in the room. But make no mistake that I’m leaving because of what you’re saying, and I’m doing so because I’m trying to be done with it.

I would like to publicly declare a divorce from exhausted distraction as the expected baseline.

Look, I like working hard. If you’ve spent ten seconds with me ever this is obvious. But there is a difference between useful rigor and running in random circles. Lately, I feel myself stepping back and watching people I love – smart people who are thoughtful and intelligent makers – talk about projects in this way that makes clear they don’t really like them. I hear seemingly everyone around me detail work that drains their reserves of time and creativity and doesn’t pay enough.

This is the definition of absurd, no?

And yet it is the default operating mode of most of the artists I am surrounded by.

Here’s a question. Taking a long-term view, what’s going to be more fulfilling and useful to your creative practice: taking on that role you don’t much like with the company you feel ambivalent about for that tiny bit of money or spending that extra time at home reading? Or volunteering at a hospice center? Or taking a long walk and seeing what comes to mind?

These are actual questions I’m asking myself these days. Because I’ve really started to wonder what it means about all of us that we physically can’t stop ourselves from working. It makes me wonder if we’re laboring smart or just laboring hard so that we don’t have to get into stickier questions about meaning and value that are WAY more difficult to answer. It makes me wonder if at the end of all that frantic effort we’ll have given ourselves any room to actually be living the substantive lives from which we’ll want to draw meaningful creative source material from.

Not to be the kind of person who talks about this thing that happened a few weeks ago in a therapy session but, yeah, here’s a thing that happened to me a few weeks ago in my therapy session:

I finished talking about a ton of exciting new work projects on the horizon. I catalogued a bunch of stuff that I was wrapping up that I felt proud of. I talked about the effort of finishing the wedding planning and how great my classes were going. I spent 45 minutes talking and talking and talking about all the things I was doing and doing and doing.

And then, right near the end, I ran out of things to say and my therapist and I sat in silence for a minute. In that minute this feeling began to rise out of the center of me, like a steel weight but in reverse, a balloon of heavy emotion that needed to bubble out. And because it was quiet and because I was in a place where I didn’t need to do anything else and because I took a second and actually let it happen, it popped and I started to cry.

It was a combination of things: watching police shootings over the past few months and feeling guilty and helpless at our collective lack of compassion for those who experience racial prejudice in this country, the bile of Donald Trump and the way it has unleashed a whole new level of misogyny into the open American air, the hangover of sentiment in the days after a massive personal event and realizing I’ve made this huge step forward in my life, and a whole jumble of other influences that I’d accrued and had remained unexamined. In that moment of silence all the actual life that I’d been squeezing into the edges of my working existence came bursting up and out of me. And for once I gave myself room to sit for another few minutes in my tears and notice the need to process these reactions to the world.

We need to create room for these moments. We need to create room for such noticing.

Not because of some self-care “keep yourself sane” kind of way. (Though shouldn’t this be enough of a reason…?) We need to do it because without that space we are all action and no reflection. We are only functional systems without mission and ethics to evaluate the meaning of the products we produce. I wonder if doing less and doing it with more (to paraphrase an Artist U maxim) will mean that in the long run we’ll all be more genuinely productive in creating things that we value. Maybe rather than feeling constantly exhausted by having to generate new stuff, I’d be far better off creating work about the things that are already somewhere in me and needing to be expressed, if only I could give myself space to notice that they need to get out.

I get all my ideas for blog posts in the shower because it’s one of the few places there’s silence and room to wander.

These days I’m dreaming about what a life of mostly shower-sized room might look like.

And that’s why if I feel like we’re normalizing the opposite in out conversations together, I’m going to find a way to walk away, walk off into the silence, so I can see what bubbles out.

 – A

Orlando

True fact.

On the dressing room mirror of the Macy’s bridal boutique at the Cherry Hill mall there is a decal that says the following:

Be the kind of SPECIAL you want to be.

If you are Adrienne Mackey such a decal will make you cry.

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Now I’d like to talk about Orlando.

(deep breath and another warning shot to those who might need it)

I have followed the story of the Orlando shooting with the predictable mix of sadness and anger. I do not carry an LGBTQ+ status and in the aftermath of the events, I’ve felt a thorny mix of privilege and frustration: a feeling that has coalesced into uncertainty about what exactly to do, lo these several weeks later, for the beautiful colleagues and friends and students that I know and love who have been reminded with this event that no, they are not safe and that yes, they are under attack, and that indeed, we still live in a culture that denies them the equity they deserve.

And in my sadness and privilege and anger, I’ve wanted to come up with a plan of action because this is how I understand myself useful in the world: not in my sympathy or feelings (which should be a given), but in my doings towards different outcomes for the future. I want to come up with something that moves our culture even a tiny step away from such a thing that seems so thoroughly and obviously horrible.

Weirdly, I have also spent the last weeks planning a wedding.

It’s my wedding, if you’re wondering, one that has been in the works for about 8 years now. Or rather it’s mostly not been in the works for 8 years now. Up until a couple months ago when I told people I was engaged and they said the usual, “Oh my god! Congrats! You must be SO SO SO HAPPY!!! When’s the date?” I would usually look at the ground and tell them that it’s not that big a deal and we’ve essentially been all but legally married for a while now and please, please, please just don’t make a big fuss about it.

There are a lot of things about a wedding that freak me out, many that I am only just beginning to realize the depth of my discomfort with. I don’t like engaging in an activity that makes me feel so poor. I don’t like events that constantly put me in a place to feel super girly and hyper stereotypically feminized. I don’t like feeling that my relationship to a man (however genuinely wonderful he happens to be) is the most salient feature about me as a person.

For a long time after getting engaged, my husband to-be and I continued not setting a date and thus the wedding just kept not happening. At some point, when the length of betrothal got long enough (somewhere on the scale of three years) people started to tilt their heads and raise one eyebrow and then sort of shrug their shoulders about it with a meaningful kind of look and say, “Huh…” or “Oh… That’s interesting… What are you waiting for?”

Eventually, when the engagement got really really long (somewhere on the scale of six years) people would say the same thing and then I’d see this silent other thing pass through their faces which I always took to mean, “Well clearly you can’t really be in love and want to marry this guy if it’s taken you so damn long to get around to doing it, I mean Jesus, he’s already given you a ring, girl.”

On the Sunday when the news of the shooting broke, I had tasked myself to follow up with a myriad of emails to caterers I’d been putting off all week. It seemed about the single stupidest thing to be focusing on the midst of such a terrible tragedy but my mom and I had planned months before that she would come into town and tag along with me on a variety of wedding related events the following few days.

So this is what I did in the midst of the news about 49 innocent dead people: set up meetings to talk to people about dress fittings and pressed bamboo disposable plates and rose gold earrings that matched the shoes I’d ordered.

“You family is safe. You partner is safe,” I kept thinking as I did all this. “Do not take these blessings lightly.”

At this point, I’d like to say for the record that I love my partner. I care about him deeply. He is unequivocally one of the most important people in my life. But on the same token, taking part in the stereotypical “head over heels” goo-goo ga-ga romance narrative one sees in dumb rom com movies has always made me feel uncomfortable.

The most extreme and cliché stories about romantic love – one in which a person happily, eagerly, gives up their individuality and throws themself into being part of an eternally linked soulmate-style couple – uniformly upset me. Women who take their husband’s names freak me out. Wearing a veil and dressing in the symbolism of white, walking down an aisle and being “given away” from one man to another, standing in front of people all dolled up like the star of some wedding play I’ve dreamed about my entire life, all these things feel like they cut hard against aspects of my self-definition that I’ve worked quite hard to cultivate in my life.

There are plenty of people that take these traditions and re-appropriate them in ways that make them happy, and for those folks, power to ‘em. For me, such rituals are things that feel disempowering and trigger-y. They make me feel like an archetype, like a generic thing I don’t identify with. They make me feel like an imperfect version of “bride” rather than the actual person I am.

And at this point, let me say that I’m going to try not to “wedding” all over Orlando. One is a huge and massive tragedy and the other is a small and totally self-oriented event. One is so so so big and the other so so so small.

At the same time, I bring up my personal struggle over my wedding because I see it as an example of the sensation that arises when one’s personal sense of self is in conflict with a larger cultural story. Surprisingly intense feelings of helplessness have sprung from moments in which I feel myself wholly out of sync with the way that I sense this wedding story is supposed to be told.

It feels like there is this way, a way that we all can sort of intuitively feel, that such a thing is supposed to be done. And yeah, sure, one can unseat and come up with an alternate solution to every single one of the defaults. It is indeed possible to ask to please not be shown a white dress, or quietly undercut people’s assumptions that you believe that this is the most magical day of your life, or say that no you really won’t need to set up the dining area like a 12 year-old’s idea of a royal palace. You can politely negate the assumption that someone will give you away like a set of family dishes or awkwardly explain that you have to check with your partner about the rental agreement not because he’s in charge of paying for shit but because he actually and seriously cares about the aesthetics of table linens, maybe more than you do if we’re honest, and he’s the one whose done most of the research on decorative place settings.

One can do all these things but eventually it just gets tiring explaining that all the things people assume about you are wrong. It’s tiring even when they aren’t mean about it. It’s tiring because you have to keep doing it over and over and over. It starts to feel like you’re being a pain in the ass when you just wish someone would shut up about telling you that you’re going to look so pretty. It’s even more tiring to try and explain that it’s not even that you hate looking pretty, you just wish pretty was maybe 2% instead of 99% of the data coming at you.

You can do these things but – for me anyway – it mostly feels like you’re some kind of cranky and difficult person that hates the things that everybody else blissfully and easily loves doing. Like you’re some kind of problem that needs to be solved.

Here’s a thing I kept thinking about in my cranky difficultness and privileged sadness of wedding planning in the wake of Orlando: I don’t think people go from zero to massacre. I don’t think people are born murderous.

I think they accrue tiny morsels of discomfort within themselves, discomforts about things in themselves they do not like and discomforts about the people around them they do not know well enough. I think these discomforts can slowly aggregate into a kind of soil into which hate can be seeded. And I think that once in a while such seeds find a particular climate and soil that grows into the kind of rage that makes an Orlando.

Tangent: once when I was in high school, a close family member told me that the idea of two men dating each other made him uncomfortable.

As I remember it, admittedly now nearly two decades later, we were out to dinner when the topic came up. I was performing in a musical at the time and mentioned offhandedly that the lead role of the play had been double cast – two young men splitting a role and performing it on alternate nights.

“You know what’s funny,” I said. “I think they’re also together. Both pretending onstage to like the girl playing the lead while offstage they’re dating each other. At least, that’s the rumor.”

“Can I admit something?” my family member said. “The idea of two men holding hands, kissing, anything romantic… It weirds me out. I mean, I know that’s wrong. I would never do anything because of it… but if I’m honest, that’s how I feel.”

I remember a very particular state of dissonance that my relative kept articulating: that logically they understood it was not good to feel grossed out by a man holding hands with another man they care about, but that this “ick” factor was an instinct, one born out of the environment in which they were raised.

I think there are stories that as a culture are collectively comfortable with and I think there are those that we are not. I think some stories cause this discomfort simply because we haven’t encountered them enough. Like the first taste of coffee or red wine, they are foreign and untested to the aesthetic palate and as such give our senses a shock. But such discomfort doesn’t appear because they are bad stories. It is simply that our brains and guts have not yet figured out what to do with them in their newness. As we grow, hopefully, we learn to widen our circle of comfort and not only tolerate but appreciate the ways in which such things make our lives richer than we have previously known the world to be.

But what if we don’t? What if we spit out otherness and confine ourselves to only a small number of definitions about what stories are good stories to hear? What if we continue to needlessly limit our ability to acclimate to such diversity of narrative? What happens when we confront people who do not, cannot, and should not need to fit their tales into the limited palate we have created?

And as I wrote in regards to another mass shooting, I have been wondering in the wake of Orlando if this kind of rage might not stem in part from a kind of poverty in our narrative landscape. I wonder what would happen if we lived in a world in which we had swaths of stories about lives that looked like the ones in all those tragic articles I have been reading: ones about people living as theme park ride operators and travel agents and restaurant managers and community college students while simultaneously being gay.

What do we do with people who elicit discomfort in us because our experience is not yet adequate to the depth and fullness of this complicated world?

What we should do is figure out how to hold our discomfort in our mouths and taste it for richness. What we should do is sit with that discomfort and wrap ourselves in it so that we might get to know it. What we should do is mine our own patterns of defense so we might notice when that discomfort is everything to do with we the havers of dissonance and unquestionably not to do with those that provoke it within us.

But this is hard to do when we live in a culture that gives some of us the leeway not to bother.

It is hard when some of us are never required to imagine ourselves holding the dissonance of difference, when some of us never have to bother to strengthen the muscles of such holding.

What if we had, say, a whole three mainstream sitcoms or rom coms or heady dramas in which the central romance between main characters we narratively invest in wasn’t a straight couple? And not because they are doomed or tragic but because we like watching such a couple fall in love? What if we had a lead character that was trans and their trans-ness wasn’t the point of the story?

Is it possible that if we decided something like those things were important that the inherent discomfort of such things might be something we all had to practice getting comfortable with earlier and more often?

This is what I was thinking about as I tried to be the kind of SPECIAL that I wanted to be.

And so it was that Orlando plus one final stink eye from the saleswoman communicating nonverbally that I was being the bizarre kind of woman who seems not to want to be beautiful and happy and celebrate my love in a white dress made me start to cry in the Cherry Hill Macy’s bridal salon dressing room.

Just before it happened I said I didn’t want to wear white. The woman replied, “Ah ok… So a color more like… Champagne? Or Eggshell?”

And as I walked into that dressing room with a dark blue dress she begrudgingly handed me I was so fucking mad at that stupid woman and her shitty pen with a giant fake flower taped to it for being able to make me feel small and dumb and unlike the person I generally believe myself to be. I was so fucking mad she had elicited this feeling over something as insignificant as a color choice. I was so fucking mad at myself for feeling sorry for myself three days after a crazy person shot 49 people for no reason other than just being who they are.

I looked at that word “SPECIAL” hovering on the mirror and I just started bawling. I stood there weeping over feeling so tired at having to re-write the script of my wedding story in all these tiny but slowly accumulating ways. It was a moment of actually letting myself feel the freaking work of subverting all the defaults of this one dumb ceremony that I voluntarily bought into. It was, to paraphrase Ann Patchett, the realization that I was reading one slender volume of such hardship while others I cared about had catalogued an entire library. It was me feeling so goddamn angry at the stupid vinyl decal that lyingly promised to hold people in their specialness in their moments of major personal catharsis and growth.

I see the story written on that Macy’s mirror in this way: the world would appreciate it if you, the dissonance provokers, could just be a little less weird, that it would be great if you could just make things a little less hard for those of us that aren’t used to your desire for otherness, that if you could just default into a story that’s not quite so umm… odd it would be easier, and if you could just do things in this way that’s a little less stereotypically gender-non-conforming this story would just be so much better and satisfying, so yeah, if you can just be a slightly different kind of person than the one you are and act a little more normal so that you’re recognizable as something I am used to seeing, if you could do all that it would be so so so SO great!

I mean, you don’t have to be exactly the same – be the kind of SPECIAL you want to be! – but a little decorum would be appreciated.

So.

(deep breath)

Here’s what I figured out about what I think we can start to actively do.

I think we find the moments in which we feel a dissonance within ourselves and note that we could give over to the ease of weakness, that there are times when we can sense in the back of our minds and hearts that what the “other” is asking of us is to imagine our usual stories in a way slightly out of our “normal” conceptions and that it would be easier for us to do what feels comfortable.

And then we actively work to make the opposite choice.

I think we intentionally work to put ourselves into such places where we must hold discomforts. Not the discomforts that we have already acclimated to. Not the red wines and coffees we have already learned to love. No, we put ourselves in places where these dissonances make us itch, where they make us feel weird and maybe stupid, like we can’t instinctually sense what’s “normal.”

We put that discomfort in our mouths and chew on it until we’ve acclimated to the taste.

This cannot happen if we fill our theaters’ seasons with love stories only between women and men.

This cannot happen if we never allow those who look unlike us to design, act and direct for our companies.

This cannot happen if we only cast minorities as sidekicks to the central journeys of straight white cis male characters.

I think we need to look at our choices and say, “Hey, it feels a little weird to let this person do this thing that I am not used to someone like them doing. It feels like maybe I’m taking something from this white/straight/dude/cis/whatever person who I know is super talented and with whom I am used to working. It feels like it’s a little out of my comfort and knowledge zone. But I’m going to trust that the dissonance I feel is the thing that eventually gives me a wider understanding. That discomfort is an opportunity to take my own internalized and problematic instincts and make them mine to hold.”

I think this is what we do so we starve those fertile climates of hate of the seeds that grow rage.

I think this is what we do to truly let people be the kind of SPECIAL they want to be.

I think this is what we do to help stop an Orlando.

So for now, it’s what I plan to do.

– A

 

This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.

young me now me

Quit romanticizing whatever you had then. Whatever it was, you can always get it back again…

Several weeks ago I was on the phone with my sister.

She lives in Knoxville and among other things runs a business in which she sells delicious pastry treats under the aegis Dale’s Fried Pies. Her pies, I think, are something like my plays. They are the most obvious manifestation of what she does with her days. They, semi-imperfectly, become a container for her myriad of interests. They become a vehicle for the underlying questions she wants to explore. Anyway, Dale and I were on the phone several weeks ago. She was in prep stages for an official opening of a new building she and her husband purchased, renovated, and turned into a professional kitchen, office, art gallery and community space called The Central Collective. I was just coming off of opening The Children’s Hour at Ego Po and was readying to head into another tech this time at Drexel for some Halloween Lovecraftian silliness with my student cast for From Beneath It LurksDale told me about the myriad million little things she was discovering one needs for a building about to open to the public in a shmancy ceremony complete with a mayorial ribbon cutting: paper towel dispensers and garbage cans for example. I told her about the emotional drain of gearing up to head into another weekend of 12-hour days and lots and lots of light cues.

At some point, Dale said to me, “I mean it’s good. It’s not hard, really. Just busy. There’s just lots and lots to do. But it gets done, right? In some way it gets done.” At least, this is some approximation of what she said, to the best of my memory’s ability to recall.

And, in the best of my ability to remember my response, I stepped off the curb at Tasker and 10th as I walked to the subway and replied, “Yes. I mean, all the times I have down time and I’m dreaming about doing my work. All the times I’m imaging the future utopia I’ll be in when I’m making the art… This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

When I think back to the projects I enjoy the most in retrospect, the only thing I regret is that at the time I was so busy in the making that I often forgot to remember that I was there in the present tense moment. I’m so often imaging back to a bygone time when the work I made was younger, simpler, more directly created somehow or thinking ahead to a day when I’ll be making that ideal project in that ideal way with all the support and resource I don’t currently possess. It’s a comfort in some ways, this imagining that at some point in the past or future there’s this amazing thing. But it also means that that amazingness is never actually happening.

Has there ever been a milestone that when actually achieved felt solidly like the end of something, like a destination?

Maybe you all are better than I am but if I’m honest the answer is: Not for me. Too often by the time I’ve gotten to the thing I set out to do in some “back then” moment, I’ve already defined a plan and a road map to some other future moment when for sure this time it’ll really be the thing I need and actually feel like I’ve landed.

When was the last time you stopped for a second, a minute, an hour, and thought about the fact that the thing you always say you’re waiting for is in some way happening right this very now?

What if in that brief sliver of time we just all stopped to relax and enjoy our work in its present tensity?

For today, this is my mantra, however humble it may be: “This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

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