Since our chat last weekend I keep thinking back to this phrase you used, “The Big Quiet.” I wrote it down in my notes, added stars around it then underlined it three times. Each time I’ve sat down to work/think/dream about making this experience I look at that phrase and wonder to myself about it’s opposite. If the big quiet is something to do with energy diverted from the self to care for others, what’s the converse impulse to send it inward. What exactly might be the big loud?
To be honest, there’ve been a number of things I’ve been thinking about from our convo on Sunday, a lot of pieces of my notes I circled and starred. I also don’t like talking on the phone, specifically because of the thing about not being able to see people’s faces for reactions. I also love taking care of others and hate receiving gifts or being cared for myself. I surround myself with artifacts, shrines, and other marginalia as a way of reminding myself of things that make me happy. And though I enjoy human connection I really, really, like the experience of being alone. (I’ve done a decent amount of my own world traveling entirely solo, which a lot people think is kind of weird.)
I’m not from Northwest Montana but as I mentioned I am descended from a very quiet, very internal, very depressed bunch of people who spend a lot of time taking care of each other and very little time taking care of themselves. I remember traveling to Norway in my late twenties in search of my family’s town of origin and standing on top of a mountain with a yawning and terrifying emptiness stretching around me in every direction and thinking, “Oh… I bet this is why.”
I felt a particular resonance, if you’ll excuse the terrible pun, with your instincts and articulations on feeling burnt out by theater and moving towards those tiny operas, about the need to reinvest in art that feeds you, on breaking down of the formal separations in performance, on visceral and immersive experience, on the creative deliciousness of a gut punch, and the power of a backyard concert that could barely be called a concert that offers the glorious sensation of being caught between competing cacophonous sound waves as they bang into the body and shake it apart.
As an artist I’ve spent a lot of time navigating between my instincts for unison and dissonance, wandering back and forth between big quiet and big loud.
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All day Monday I was kicking myself for signing myself up to make one of these one person experiences. It’s been an absolute monster of a week: I’m teaching two classes this quarter for the first time, we just moved to Seattle two weeks ago and I barely know where the grocery store is. I’m also wrapping a major phase of work for a game design project that I’m premiering back in Philly next fall and my Dad (who I’m almost totally estranged from) got COVID two weeks ago, was hospitalized and almost died.
I don’t know if you experience this as a creative professional, but I have a way easier time working on things I don’t care about than things that I do. When I’m directing or teaching something I want to complete competently but don’t have a whole lot of emotional investment in, I’m pretty easy with myself. If I don’t feel the need to make something authentically real or meaningful, I can knock it out in a couple tries without sweating the details. But when the opposite it true, when I really want to hold someone in care, I can get in a habit of spinning my wheels, making sure that outward energy is conveyed well, sometimes to the detriment of the task.
Monday afternoon I had a one-on-one with Amanda, who wanted to check in about her progress on the assignment. I think she’d be ok with me sharing that part of her worry was that she wanted to do justice to the conversation she’d had with Michael. It sounded like a lot of what they talked about centered on the power of simplicity and paring down to the most intimate kind of connection they might make. She said something else that came up was the struggle with the fatigue of workload and a self-imposed pressure to perform. Amanda seemed to already know that the thing she really wanted to make was based in a kind of smallness, in something that captured that uncomplicatedness and present-tense-ness she and Michael had talked so much about.
As she was sharing I found myself looking over at my marked up notes from our interview, specifically the chunk where you talked on what you love about teaching – how watching someone grow and discover is the best kind of feeling, how seeing a student become more themselves is an incredible reward.
I said it seemed like she already had a clear sense of what she wanted to do, that all she actually needed was permission for it to be as simple as her instincts were telling her it should be. We ended up talking a lot about the way an external expectation of what our work should look like can get in the way of actually letting ourselves give over to the tiny but potent moments we want to make.
I admitted I was feeling a similar pressure, that I was also having impulses to do something small like writing a letter, or encouraging someone to stop and stare out a south-facing window, or sharing a few pieces of music, but that I kept stopping myself because it didn’t feel like enough. I said the voice in my head kept telling me, “You can’t be the teacher and do a shitty job on the assignment.” After all, here I am, a brand new professor tasked with showing off my fancy devising skills. Am I going to let the first creative prompt reveal that I don’t have any ideas?
Another thing I told Amanda during that convo was that I didn’t want the time in the experience I made for you to be spent in talking about myself.
So, clearly, I’ve not managed this well at all.
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Oh right, and this prompt is also supposed to include an exploration of “liveness,” which I also haven’t even begun to touch on.
I will say when trying to bring that element in, I thought about sending this missive as a series of text messages. Child of the AIM generation that I am, I loved that you said that was a preferred form of communication because I’ve always found it easier to converse with others “live” via writing than through sounds coming out of my mouth. But every time I thought about trying to force all this into that format, I kept sensing that it didn’t quite fit. It felt like I’d be doing it just to prove a point, just to show you I could do something fancy. And that didn’t seem like the right impulse to give voice.
In this moment, as I type these letters on the screen in front of me, I can viscerally, palpably, feel myself living in the present moment. In front of me is the small furry feline who spent four days in a carrier sleeping quietly as my husband and I drove for hours, admiring that big, blue, Montana sky. I can look out my not-South facing window as the earliest rays of light try to make their way through the Seattle gray and imagine you reading my words as if they were appearing in front of you in living time.
I can take a deep breath in. Then out. I can feel the solidness of the chair underneath me. I can feel the sensation of air moving across the back of my neck as it flows through the room. I can sense the myriad of sounds even in this supposed space of “quiet” – the computer fan’s whir, the birds chirping outside, the slight rustle of my husband in the other room.
I can wonder about you now on the other side of time and distance. I can ask you to notice what it’s like where you are.
Is this liveness?
Are we really “here” together?
Are the light waves hitting your retinas in this present moment doing the same kind of bouncing and banging and reverberating through the brain and body that a backyard concert does?
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This past fall I guest lectured for a class at a BFA theater program for seniors about to embark on a professional life in the arts. One of the questions I was asked was what advice I would give an artist who wanted a sustainable and long-term creative career.
I gave an answer that I later wrote down and keep on a post-it in my daily planner: “Softness isn’t weakness.”
Near the end of our conversation on Sunday you mentioned something another artist had once said to you, and I’m quoting specifically here because I went back to the recording to confirm exactly what the language you used was: “I don’t want to be a part a world where being kind or being soft is considered weak.”
In the moment, I was tempted to remark on the astonishing specificity of this concurrence, but didn’t, partly because I didn’t want to interrupt your train of thought with a random side story of my own, and partly because I thought it might sound like I was repeating your phrase and claiming it as mine.
When I started putting together my first inklings for this experience I so wanted to invoke something that pulled on the thread of “tiny opera” – music that I loved that was in some way in tune with this idea as I heard you articulate it to me. I was taken by the idea of a series of songs that have in some way vibrated my physical or metaphorical body, either because of the story behind them or the particular resonance or dissonance their melodies contain. I also liked the comment you made about La voix humaine being great when not performed in English and thought it might be nice to only select songs that didn’t have this shared common language.
Then you sent your email with the five song series of inspirational music and I thought, “Well now it’ll be really clear I don’t have any good ideas of my own.”
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In the end, here’s what I’ve ultimately come up with: a simple collection of five songs you might want to listen to while staring out the window towards the sky ahead. I’ve offered my own take on each song’s utility and in the parenthesis that follow it, its length (aka 2:15 is two minutes and fifteen seconds) in case you need to negotiate how long you have to spend in its midst. Take them in whenever the impulse strikes, in any order you feel like. That might be all in a row, throughout a day, maybe not in their entirety or maybe not even at all.
Each of them is in some way an invocation of a tiny opera: voices reaching out into the abyss to fill the big quiet with whatever bit of humanity they can.