Standing the Pressure

I have gotten into a couple heated conversations in the past couple weeks over my assertion that my art doesn’t need to be what makes me a living. People have accused me of perpetuating the starving artist stereotype, of not dreaming big enough, and of being under-committed to myself as an artist. As someone who feels she is nothing if not dedicated to herself as a professional artist, sacrificing many of the “normal” comforts of American middle class life in the stubborn pursuit of a pretty crazy dream, these statements cut me to the quick. However, I haven’t been able to combat them well, and so have been mulling it over a lot. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

I need money all the time. Like, basically everyday. In the grand scheme of things, I live pretty simply, and yet, every month, it seems I require a regular influx of money. My art, while awesome, is not yet commercially successful, and doesn’t happen all the time. If my art were to become my regular paycheck I would need it to happen more often in order to make me money. Additionally, I would need it to be really financially successful and viable all the time. This would lead me to worrying about making risky choices, rather than simply following what is interesting. Currently I try to make without concern of popularity. I consider my audience, but not as judge and jury, more as fellow collaborators who will find the work and then react to it. They don’t have to like it, they just have to engage with it. The honesty of making outweighs the need for the show to be popular because even if I make a terrible show, I can still buy groceries.

Every artist I admire lives off diverse sources of income. No one I think of as great, with a career I am working to emulate, survives only on the supply and demand level of Capitalistic art-making in the US. They teach, they lecture, they raise grants, they have generous benefactors. They maintain a part-time day job, they fall back on other skills when art-making is less-inspired, and they live simply most of the time. Sacrifice is constant, but the reward is that the art can continue to be something that potentially is so ground-breaking that it’s not ready to be commercial. Maybe this is the life that people are describing when they tell me that I should dream of being able to make a living as an artist, but it doesn’t seem like it. It seems like people want me to say “I dream to make shows and earn a living solely from them.” But I don’t. In fact, one of my fears is that my company will grow so large that I am forced to be a full-time administrator to my company and that I won’t be able to make the art anymore. I want to live as an artist in America, and that equals doing lots of different things in my lifetime, including making a lot of art which sometimes I make money from, and sometimes I just make.

Does this make me a turn-coat? An amateur? Part of the problem? I am making experimental plays in a society that still thinks Ionesco and Beckett are cutting edge; that barely has room for the NEA; that, yes, loved Broadway last year, but I am as far from Broadway as my local farm share is from McDonald’s salads. We are in a great resurgence of support for experimental work, but that doesn’t equal financial security, it equals a spotlight on some awesome art. Call me delusional and insane for choosing such a gutsy career choice as a woman from a lower-middle class background covered in debt. Thank god I don’t also expect to get paid a steady salary from just making plays.

I didn’t invent this thought. My teacher Thomas Prattki told it to me. He said that making money is a huge burden that your art doesn’t deserve. This sentiment provides me relief. I can stop wondering why doctors and lawyers have a path to financial security, but artists don’t. Instead I can keep making the work, however I can, and feel delighted by my own resilience. Should I ever find myself making a salary from making art (without also teaching, lecturing, and administrating) I will be happily shocked. I will gleefully eat my hat. For now, I can love the life I have, however it works.



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Introducing R.I.P.E., or Pull off the Band-Aid

I am starting a collective.

(Wait. Is that the right word? I hate how that sounds. And am I “starting” it? I don’t want to “start” something. Let me try again.)

I am recognizing and organizing an already-existing community. (That is so not sexy. But accurate.)

Anyway, here’s a slightly edited version of what I proposed in early May:

Hello Friends,

You are on this list because, like me, you are part of Rhode Island’s small theatre community. Since moving here in 2009 I have been asked more times than I can count about what it’s like to make work here, and I think my favorite part is that the community is small enough that you can invent your own rules. I am hereby making a proposal. I would like to form an Alliance. With all of you — and all the other small theatre makers that I either don’t know about/don’t have contact info for. Maybe we call it something like: Rhode Island Small Theatres (RIST) or Ocean State Small Theatre Alliance (OSSTA) or Rhode Islanders Making Performance with Less Resources (RIMPLR). Or Rhode Island Fringe Theatre (RIFT). You get it.
In the past couple weeks a few things have crossed my mind that have made me crave more community. Namely, Perishable closed, was thankfully reopened, but some folks still feel adrift. Also, I went to a theatre Town Hall where Curt Columbus and Tony Estrella laughed about how their audiences perceive some sort of competition between them. I laughed too because the idea of theatre artists competing for audiences just seems funny to me. But then I read this blog post this morning by Four Frogs (thanks to Wilburys repost) and thought “oh no! We all perceive some sort of competition.” That along with this bizarre article in the Cranston Herald (again, thx Wilbury) made me want to create a space where we could all proclaim that we exist, we support each other, we share resources. There is room for all of us because we all do different things. The AD at the Huntington, Peter DuBois recently compared different theatre companies to a selection of restaurants. A thriving city doesn’t just have one offering. The human palate doesn’t always crave one taste. The problem with American theatre-goers is not that there is too much competition, it’s that too many of them have decided that they don’t like theatre. By continuing to make theatre affordable, independent, and diverse everywhere; by becoming more present and maintaining a presence, we remind the people of our state that theatre is for them, and that their community has a lively theatre-making scene. 
Here is what RIST (or whatever) could look like:
A simple website and a facebook page. Anyone can join. You can be an actor, a designer, a producer, a writer, a director, a choreographer, a solo performer, etc. You can run your company and still perform at Trinity, or do grant-writing for the Gamm or whatever. The only real requirement is that you should feel that you are/want to be a part of the community of small (or “fringe” or low-budget or independent) performance-makers here. You should want to share your resources (props, hook-ups, press contacts, grant review, actors, audience, ideas, etc) and be counted by all the people who do the counting (the press, the granters, the audiences, each other). On the website we can link to everyone’s websites, post audition notices, shows that are running, dates of strike and if anyone needs a hand. We can put a call out to the community for help or for cheerleading. It’s whatever we want. If that all starts to work well and feel good we can go further. We can have parties and pubic forums, we can get political and lobby the government. All that stuff. 
There is something exciting happening here right now, but it is not being harnessed, channeled, supported, and nourished. If we band together people will realize we are here, and that Rhode Island is lucky to have us. The larger theatres in the area are lucky to have us. And we are lucky to have each other.
Here’s what the similar Boston group (STAB) looks like.

People responded overwhelmingly, “yes.” We had a meeting, which went pretty well. We formed a google group to discuss more. We landed on a name (RIPE, Rhode Island Performance Exchange). As is usually the case, everything has felt too slow. I have wanted to shout about it from the rooftops, but then realized I had nothing specific to shout about.

Today I am recovering from the TCG Conference, which is an annual weekend-long conference in a different US city every year where theatre-people get together from around the country to share, brainstorm, and network. It’s impossible to come away from TCG idea-free, and while I did get a lot of juice to feed my theatre company, Strange Attractor, I also got some revelations for RIPE, and have now taken two action steps.

  1. I am posting this blog, thereby shouting something from a very small and very public rooftop, continuing to let people know of my intentions and desires without fear of stepping on toes.
  2. I changed the description on our google group. Here’s what it says now:

RIPE is:

  • a non-rivalrous forum for resource and knowledge sharing for performance-makers in Rhode Island; 
  • a network to collaborate on new ways of promoting and creating theatre that happens in/for/with/by Rhode Island while strengthening existing models and methods; 
  • a community dedicated to staying generous while opening the gates of opportunity for each other, because a rising tide lifts all boats; 
  • a place for your needs to meet other’s ideas in order to build better theatre through a stronger community, and a stronger community through better theatre.

In the spirit of open-source, full-disclosure, I borrowed much of this language and basically all of the sentiment from the good, smart, and hopeful people at The Commons, whom, over the weekend reminded me that I don’t have to have the answers, I only need to open the door. It’s wide open everybody. What should we do now?


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Workshop Feedback on My Workshop Feedback (To My Self)

This past weekend Aram, Jed, and I taught a workshop on an aspect of devised physical theatre. It was free and open to the public thanks to a grant from RISCA and the generous donation of space from Tiverton Four Corners. It  was the fourth time we’d hosted such a workshop, but the first time I’ve wondered if we’re going about it the right way.

In the past our workshops had been mainly populated with “theatre people,” specifically performers. Whether in Juneau with Perseverance actors or in Providence with the Rhode Island theatre folks, and even in Spanish with the performers of ECAS, the bulk of people who showed up were used to being on stage and all of the exposure that comes along with it. Because of the nature of Lecoq-based work, however, I never thought it mattered much. There is a general belief in the training that anyone can take on these exercises; that they are in fact not theatre until you reach the second year of training; that being “an actor” will sometimes get in your way. This past weekend we got to put that to the test, as most of the people who came to the workshop do not classify themselves as performers.

From a teacher’s perspective, I was, as always, incredibly impressed with how far our participants took themselves, how well they grappled with the impossible tasks presented, and how lovingly they took care of each other. From where I sat, I saw strangers bond over two-days of working physically together. I watched a group of people take on the journey, play really hard, and come out on the other side. Even for people who work in theatre, Lecoq-based work can be very different. There is intentionally little emotional or structural analysis. Instead your body jumps in and lets your mind catch up later. You learn by watching other people make proposals, by trying it yourself, and by working together without a teacher to invent something new. The work is always frustrating and incredibly engaging and people from all walks of life often say they have never done anything like it.

At the end of this past weekend we overwhelmingly heard that our participants wished that we’d told them a little more about what they were getting themselves into. They wished they’d known that the whole day would be physical and that we had put it all into a bigger context. I hear all of this and simultaneously think “no, that’s wrong” and “my god this must have been so crazy for you.” It’s wrong because I wouldn’t even know how to contextualize the work in words without lessening the work. It’s all so simple from your brain’s perspective because it’s your body that turns it on. And yet, it must have been crazy for a normal person just living a normal life because (shocker) I am on the fringe. While my pals and I have been living on a corner of the playground building an imaginary world with rules and games and beliefs, we didn’t notice that everyone else left to put on clothes with buttons and work at desks. Suddenly, we invite them back in and expect them to what? Just understand the basic rules? Be ready to jump around and make stuff up? Without knowing why? (yes, yes yes! My heart still shouts through the monkey bars!)

One of the biggest tragedies of life is that we can only live in one world of discovery: our own. We can imagine, but we can never know. Once you have arrived somewhere, it is a challenge to remember what it was like before. That’s one reason teaching is an art: You are continually forced to return to that beginner mind. I came to this work after a childhood of ballet dancing and musical theatre, followed by a college career of Alexander Technique, Pilates, and lots of acting, followed by an enormous world of physical theatre influences in San Francisco before moving to London to pursue a degree in the subject. Namely, I have been living a physical and theatrical life and was so obsessed by it that I changed my entire existence to get closer to the source. In some ways I am as far from someone who casually takes a free weekend workshop as possible, which is why perhaps, in the wake of last weekend, I am wondering if I have any business teaching them.

Jed says we need to start charging — even just a token fee — because a person who invests a little money will feel that much more ownership of the experience.  I have been wondering if we should start advertising them as “trainings” rather than “workshops.” Jed also wants to have participants fill out a screening form, asking them what their physical practices and theatre backgrounds are. While I do think all these questions will help potential participants understand a little more of what the workshops are like, I also feel how it might remove great people from the mix.  The non-theatre people are amazing teachers for us and the other participants. The choices they make and the requests they have bring us new levels of understanding the practice we are giving. I want to learn how to offer our workshops so that the participants feel better-prepared, but I don’t want to scare off people who think “I’m not a theatre person, so this isn’t for me.”

Another tragedy of life is that we can’t see our influences on each other in the long run. We touch each other’s lives and then roll away and we don’t know what ends up happening. Just as the people who come to our shows take a chance on seeing new work, the people who take our workshops risk something. They see an ad in the newspaper that is intentionally vague and yet think “that is for me!” A friend says “hey I’m going to this thing” and they think “yeah, I’m game.”  They show up in their movement clothes and trust us for a few hours over two days. At the end they are physically and mentally drained. They feel confused and maybe angry. Just like our shows, however, no one ever says they were bored or that they’d seen this before. No one ever says we moved too slowly. Typically, at the end people have a lot of questions that they are too exhausted to verbalize. I wish I could talk to them a week later and then a month later and then a year. I wish I could see how they felt about the whole thing after the whole thing was long-over.

At the end of it all, I guess I have to go back to the man who started it all. Jaques Lecoq said to”listen to your students, but not too closely.” They are the key to teaching, but they are also lost in the mud of learning.  My own teacher Thomas Prattki once said “Teachers are on their own journey of discovery.” I guess I’ll just stay on the path.

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Acting Administrators

It seems that a popular option for the  New Model of American Theatre is to allow for artist/administrators. Being one of those artists who likes to administrate, I concur with this realization (and add a resounding “duh” to the statement), but I would also like to propose a further addition to the New Way: Administrators should also make art.

Our cerebral culture has cut off our bodies, turning them into containers for our brains. As we the initiated believe, theatre is one of the remaining forums that keep humans connected to humanity, but it’s not the administering of theatre that connects us. The heart of the theatre is the person pretending in front of other people. Everything else is an accessory to that bare moment.  How much more powerful could a theatre’s marketing be if the PR team also had to take scene study? How much more playful could a whole organization be if the AD was regularly seen on stage? (Not that this is unheard of. Tony Estrella at the Gamm is an awesome example.)  I am not advocating for more people to become professional artists. I am advocating for more people to understand what goes into the art they are selling, and I am advocating for business to be equally infused with creativity, from both sides. Do we accept that an actor can be a bookkeeper faster than the reverse because we value the brain as a resource over the body? Or because it is collectively more embarrassing to put on a wig and do a funny walk than to balance a spreadsheet?

While I have had a lifelong love affair with performing, I have always found it vaguely humiliating. The deeper I go the more I realize that acting requires me to be honest and then foolish and then a complete idiot publicly.  I keep doing it because performing changes my ability to relate to the world; it makes me a happier, more comfortable, self-aware human; it is the most direct route I can take to understanding what is happening for the consumers of my product. Even with all of these benefits, I have a deep-seated belief that I will never be taken seriously if I am still on stage making funny voices, and so always wonder when I will give it up.  However, by continuing to perform I force myself to confront this ever-evolving me while reconnecting with why theatre matters. That recognition is the well I return to every time I write a press release or a grant application, just as all the time I spend marketing and grant-writing prepares me for rehearsal.

Maybe I seem particularly actor-centric to all the writers and designers and directors out there. This is not a solipsistic oversight, but a real belief. My dear teacher and mentor Martha Boesing once said: “You want to work in theatre? Take an acting class. Theatre is a lively art and it doesn’t matter what role you hope to play in its creation, you have to understand it from the viewpoint of the actor.” I go one step further and say you have to keep understanding that. All the time. Maybe if we all agreed on that we could push our New Movement onward with the loud honesty and foolish integrity only our profession can bring to this all-too-serious world.

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From Day Jobs With Love

The single most important decision for an American artist to make is how he or she will make a living.  From this one decision comes all the other ways that one can make a life in art.

An artist friend who works part-time and teaches sometimes recently had a student wander into his day job. My friend, so insecure about his student seeing him at “work,” hid in the hallway rather than be seen. Without betraying too many details,  my friend is not a stripper, he does not work in food service or at a mall. His job, while far from glamorous, is practical, with flexible hours, non-emotionally taxing demands, and above average pay for an hourly wage. Why would he hide?

I consider my own situation. I have the best day job I have ever had, but I still don’t like to talk about it.  Even writing about it on this blog makes me feel uneasy. I like to pretend that all I do is run Strange Attractor. I make phone calls on my lunch break, and act like the office I’ve been slaving away at is Strange Attractor’s and the work that I will get back to is also Strange Attractor’s. Anyone who looked at our history could clearly see that Strange Attractor cannot pay anyone’s bills right now, but I rely on the fact that nobody thinks about me as much as I think about me (thanks Steve Lambert) and just keep pretending.  When I am at my day job I am also careful how much I bring up all this theatre-making stuff. No one needs to know that this low-level customer service employee has dreams of hitting it big in the experimental theatre world. However, something about my friend hiding from a student makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be healthier for the field as a whole if we were all a little more honest about how we do what we do.

Howard Stern says that only rich people and gay men are in the theatre.   I see what he’s driving at. Even when you are successful in this business you are struggling by normal standards.  Unless you were born into money you have to do something else to get by, and if you are lucky, that something allows for you to also be a creative person with other interests. Working a day job for an extended period of time is confusing because in our society, the work you do for money represents who you are. Your ability as an artist to make a living off your art proves your artistic merit, with converse also being true.  But I would like to teach the next generation a different story. This business is a marathon, not a sprint. There are many ways to define success and many roads to get there. The path you choose to make your living will inform the ways you can make your art. The job that will make you money won’t necessarily give you a good career. Only you can know the reasons for your decisions, and if you feel good about where you are then you are in the perfect place.

I wish we could retrain people’s attitudes. I wish no one would ask me ever again if I wanted to be on Broadway. I wish my friend had said hi to his student and then allowed the next thing to happen, rather than hiding in the hallway. However, these battles are not won through wishing so much as a stubborn daily commitment to living a life that doesn’t make sense to anyone else. Oh, and being happy about the whole thing. That’s probably the most important part.

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Twitter as a Precursor for Change and Destruction, or the Providence Town Hall

On Monday night I attended a theatre-based town hall meeting at Trinity Rep hosted by Boston’s StageSource. It was a meeting to gear Providence up to participate in the annual TCG Conference, which this year happens in our own backyard in Boston.

Per usual, not too many people came. We are a rather small community, and sometimes I wonder if we won’t  grow because there aren’t enough people who like to nerd out at town hall meetings. I was, however, happy to see a few people that I knew and that the moderators were Tony Estrella of the Gamm, Curt Columbus of Trinity Rep, and Julie Hennrikus of StageSource: all three interesting and quality people. Because my friend Leigh was already there and sitting in the front(ish) row, I sat beside her and readied myself to hear about logistics of the Conference and in general, a sales pitch of why we should attend.  I had been planning to go since last November when  I realized it was happening in Boston, and came to the town hall just to stay in the loop. Little did I know I was in for something way better.

Rather than advertising to us, they wanted to have a conversation all together about what should be discussed at this year’s Conference. At first Tony, Julie, and Curt batted around topics and the rest of listened and chimed in. This year’s Conference is about “modeling the movement,” which is hinting at how the current non-profit regional theatre model is broken and we as a community of makers have the chance to build it in a new way.  As a deviser making new work, uninterested in pursuing a career in regional theatre, I get particularly excited about the questions this topic proposes and talk about it a fair bit with my experimental theatre colleagues.  Having such a conversation at Providence’s own regional theatre with two traditional artistic directors (whom I respect very much), felt a little dangerous and exciting.

Most of the conversation remained essentially how you would imagine something like this to go: “The money’s all dried up,” “Share resources,” “New audiences.”  It was when we got to the topic of Twitter that things got really good.

Julie brought up the very controversial “tweet seats,” which have sprung up in theatres in an effort to get some sort of youth demographic. In case you haven’t heard, the proposal is that there be a theatre seating section where people can tweet while watching the play, thus creating a live newsfeed of the show to do the marketing for you while making people who can’t put down their phones happy. A lot of people have passionately hated this idea, and the town hall audience was no different. Everyone began railing about how tweet seats defeated the whole purpose of theatre, and, in quick succession, the conversation about tweet seats turned into a conversation about how terrible Twitter is.

Because I was sitting next to my friend Leigh I felt powerful. We are both theatre makers, we both like experimental work, and we both like social media. All this Twitter bashing made us antsy. I began thinking about Twitter and plays and how, yeah, I don’t want to make a show where people are just sitting in the back tweeting the whole time. That would be annoying. But, I start thinking, maybe you could use it somehow. Like, in a specific moment in a play you could have everyone start tweeting for some reason. . . I propose this to the town hall meeting. I explain that I don’t like the idea of tweet seats because when I make shows I want to curate the entire experience. If you just let your audience be on twitter whenever, then you don’t have enough control over what they are receiving while at your show.  By creating a moment where you need them to tweet,  in order to keep the play going, you still give them a specific experience.

Well, maybe in another town in another town hall another set of AD’s would have smiled and nodded and we would have moved on, but not in Providence. Curt did not like that idea. He passionately did not like it. Not wanting to misquote him, I will say that I remember him saying something about how when we are making theatre we are trying to connect with something older that will withstand time that touches a deeper part of us. . . or something. . . And that the smallness of Twitter is antithetical that experience. Other members of the audience too began agreeing with him. One woman even went so far as to say that someone who went to the theatre based on a tweet wouldn’t have a good experience because just that way of receiving the marketing was misleading.

Here’s where perhaps the conversation could have gotten bigger, but didn’t. What Curt was hitting on is very deep: What is theatre as we move forward? Is it an old deep resonance for the ages? Of course. But isn’t it also a party? Isn’t it also an experience; a reflection of the world we live in; a journey into what fascinates us right now? Maybe that’s what makes me part of some shallow generation of artists, but I don’t know.  My performance art goofs of treating every audience member to their birthday or giving them a haunted house runs deep with people, even in its ephemeral and silly nature. If someday I need people to tweet in a show to bring them somewhere, and I come to that decision with excitement and curiosity, then it is a brave artistic choice worthy of being taken seriously. Letting people tweet during shows for the  sake of marketing is as sad as stopping a play mid-way through to sell cookies, which of course happens all the time. So this thing of Twitter is really a question about what sustainable 21st century theatre is. We aren’t just talking about subscriptions and marketing, we are in a moment where the very act of what goes on stage must be pulled apart.

I didn’t say any of that at the meeting. Instead, Leigh spoke up in defense of Twitter and I reiterated my point about curating experiences,  and eventually everyone calmed down and, yes, we moved on to other topics. In the meantime, though something has shifted inside me. There was an acknowledgement in that moment of disagreement that if we are to move forward and create a new movement, then we will need everyone to be ready to be honest and brave with their beliefs. On Monday night I fell deeply in love with Providence again. A town that’s the right size for me to get into a debate with its top artistic director in his very own theatre, and so tenacious that he will fight back.

See you at TCG, where we can really mix it up.

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A Very Long Thought on a Very Short Time Where We Kept Building a Play

I am coming up for air and have an urge to contain the experience of creating A Terrific Fire before it ends. The time that exists after it’s over will stretch in front of me like the ocean and the desert combined, but this moment is finite. I will try to write it down.

Roblin and Aram arrived in Providence on a Sunday night at the end of February. Monday morning we went into the studio with a team of people who had signed on to our project: a playwright, a director, a stage manager, a lighting designer, a technical director, an intern/video artist. As a group we usually do everything by ourselves and no one is in charge. We asked for all this help and even as we approached people to collaborate they would say “and what will it be like” and we would say “we don’t really know, but let’s find out together.” We knew we had the right people because they all said “okay.”

Everyday straight for the next 18 days we worked from 10am until 2am in the studio and in meetings. While we had piles of material from a year of creation, it needed to be exploded. Sometimes it felt like we had tricked everyone into thinking the play was more finished than it really was. Adara would reference a scene in the phase II video in some funny minutia and I would think “I doubt that scene even exists anymore.” Sometimes I looked at the roomful people watching us battle with our own material and wonder what the hell is so great about devising anyway. A smart playwright could just write us a story.

These good-intentioned new people had all these questions: what does it mean when this happens? Why does this happen? It was exhausting and liberating, and partly why we invited them.  We don’t always like answering those questions. We like playing in characters and letting the characters make decisions. However, we knew what we were building was potentially so big that the audience needed more bread crumbs to follow, and so we tried to solve the puzzle. For a few sad days we all thought we’d actually created a very boring and linear play. D’Arcy wondered if she’d ruined our fragmented style. Then we put it in front of audiences and realized we’d been in the fog of war. Absurdity still reigned and people still laughed while wondering exactly why it was so funny.

But I am getting too far ahead. I want to remember the weekend that we moved into the theatre and we put the play itself on hold to build its physical universe. Walls of a study open and a snowy forest and a dilapidated shack are revealed. The audience is moved all over the space and so every inch of the theatre is a curated space, full of specific objects and identity. Teams of people came and painted and drilled and carried. Friends who just wanted to help joined the people who we’d hired. We ordered pizza for everyone which felt like a tiny nothing compared to the joyous labor community created by building a world in a black box.  At the beginning of the weekend I felt nervous about abandoning creation time at that specific moment and I remember Aram saying “no, building the set will help us build the play.” He was right of course. Once we saw those universes we could more clearly see the play we were making, proving once again that ideas live differently in everyone’s mind but once you put something in space, everyone sees it and can talk about it from a place of mutual understanding. The wall is there. The wall is not there. The wall is green.

When the set was mostly up we returned to the action. Here’s really where it all blurs, which is too bad because it’s also the moment that we went from wondering about things to setting things in motion. People kept asking us why and we kept making up answers and trying them on and then rejecting them or dealing with them and then at night there was painting and more ideas for the space and the sound cues to fix and Andres made more videos of us and Amy needed to tech the show but we told her it would just keep changing and did I learn Adara’s lines well enough and what if I learn the scene but Aram doesn’t isthereanypointinanyofthat? All the while an audience is coming soon which doesn’t really worry us but maybe sometimes it worries some people and every time someone tells me they are worried and scared I reflexively make a sign over my heart that says you keep that doubt out of my play-space and then worry that I am not being respectful to my collaborators and think hard about honoring emotions that I find tedious.

First preview. This is where I come back to remembering. Because the play was very different at that first preview than it is today, one week later. After we put something in front of an audience we make massive changes. We like it. The day after our first preview we came in exhausted because the night before we decided to paint the white snow line along half of the stage and up the wall and then went to Wes’ Rib House to drink beer and eat nachos and meat and imagine our play as a German fairy tale. We had not gone to sleep until 3am and then had an 11am rehearsal. We told D’Arcy we were going to change it all and she said she would walk. She said that what we had was an under-rehearsed show, not a show that needed changing. The first battle. The first moment of wondering who was in charge here and if we had hired her for this very reason. Maybe she was right.

We get excited about making changes because it somehow liberates us from our boring present. But maybe this is the laziness of devisers that other “rehearsal-script-bound” play-makers see. Instead of justifying things we don’t rigorously create, we dump them. But of course the other side of the coin says, hey, we are the ones making this thing. It’s not Shakespeare, no one’s done this play before, we don’t know how it goes. There is no time to be precious when we can be inventive. We agreed on changing a few things for clarity’s sake, and not dumping the entire thing. However, in the Rubic’s Cube of play creation, once you move one idea the whole piece moves. We spent six hours following that movement and then presented a new show on Saturday night. Sunday we came in and continued.

Monday was the worst day. I had marveled up until that point that we had not had a day off in two weeks, we’d all been working like crazy and yet no one had complained or really gotten grumpy. We’d had artistic debates, but no real blow-outs. I guess that’s what Monday was for. In retrospect I think we should have taken it off, but it was also the day before Jed and I had to go back to our day jobs (we’d taken two weeks off to build the play) and there was a lot of pressure to find the extra whatever-it-was that was still missing from the show. The morning was good. D’Arcy worked smaller moments that needed cleaning while other people finished painting trim around the space. We took lunch and had a bigger over-arching talk about the show. Two distinct proposals came into the space to solve one of the major issues audiences seemed to be having. D’Arcy went to teach a class and we fell into a version of hell.

Three hours of talking out a strange if-this-then-this type of proposal. Jed and Aram yelled at each other. Roblin got very quiet. I blacked out a lot of it because every time I would try to cut through I felt like I was drowning. One thing we all believe is that too much talking without being on your feet trying proposals is equal to artistic death. Our last full day in the space together and we committed the ultimate sin.

Like everything though, this also passed and shifted. It took a couple of days but we made friends again, with the piece and with each other. We still haven’t taken a full day off. Aram said the other day when he had the morning off that he “doesn’t know what to do out there.” It’s true. We have all been so singularly focused that being in the world now feels strange. What are people doing? Random things, productive and not. In the theatre we are all this animal working towards something common. There is something so comforting in that unity of vision.

We keep making small changes to the piece. We all know that it is not “done” per say, though it’s at a point where audiences have a good time and many of them may even be fooled into thinking it’s a full piece. We have reached that place where in order to take another leap forward we need some time and some distance. It’s a great place to be for a company like ours. Typically time and distance are what we have in spades, which means that when we are together we move fast, dig deep, and rarely come up for air. It’s a recipe for madness that we all subscribe to.

People see our work and ask who wrote it. Did we all write it? How did you make that? Truthfully, I don’t know. But maybe reading this gives a little insight into what happened this time.

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For My PVD

I am loving the city series on HowlRound.  A different city is chosen periodically and various people making theatre within that city write about how the scene is and then other people read that stuff and, in true blog fashion, discuss. So far  San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul have gone under the microscope, with very different results.

Because Providence’s theatre community is small when compared to bigger markets like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Portland, Seattle, etc, etc we are probably a long way from getting HowlRound’s “city spotlight.” However,  as I read the Twin Cities theatre-makers big debates  I reflect on the state of my own backyard.

I arrived here two years ago, after the Black Rep folded, post-New Gate Theatre and right in time for Rhode Island’s only center for new work and  rentable, sizable black box, Perishable,  to gasp its last gasp.  As a pushy newcomer with an agenda, I have spent the last two years wondering if this was the best time to arrive or the worst.  However, we made it through the summer and saved the black box. Perishable is now in the process of being reborn as 95 Empire and a program of AS220. With this new development, the entire Rhode Island theatre community has been forced to ask itself a lot of big questions. Turns out, being a part of big conversations is something I love.

Last night many of us who will be using the new 95 Empire in the near future gathered to discuss the proposed contract and the new models for presenting. I was surprised by how few people showed up, but also know that not everyone values public discourse the way I do. Plus, for people who have lived here longer than I, this is a difficult conversation to have. Some of the people in attendance had been programming in that very space for decades, and are now being given new rules, guidelines, and numbers.  We live in a state with the word “hope” on its flag, and it’s times like this that I see the value in that persistent little word. The artists who keep showing up are generous and clear. AS220 and 95 Empire’s new manager are flexible and reasonable.

As we discussed the new policies and procedures I heard two repeating themes: 1. “This new model won’t work for me and my shows. I should open my own space.” and/or 2. “How can we turn this into an opportunity for greater collaboration and partnerships among all the small companies?” Both of these reactions are music to my ears. They affirm the reason that I am not leaving for a bigger market anytime soon. Much the way I like to make performance in an open no-rules/reinvent-the-rules kind of way, I relish that I have managed to move to the Wild West (and it’s in New England!) in terms of infrastructure.

So, yes, Providence is far away from a debate like the one the Twin Cities is having on HowlRound.  The Twin Cities is steeped in the necessary conversation that comes when a community has a diverse and thriving scene. Were I to compose something for Providence, my concerns would be more over-arching. I would encourage theatre artists to apply for the funds that are available  every time they are available; to give comps to artists who you really want to come; to see each other’s work; to show up to the meetings and gatherings and info-sessions; to involve other people from outside the theatre community; to show up at each other’s strikes and load-ins; to look beyond Rhode Island for models of work and structure; to think of us as big, even though we are small. I would also rhapsodize about how lucky I feel to arrive somewhere right at the moment that everything is changing; how after living in places where I wasn’t sure where I fit, I have found a place where everyone fits because we need everyone. I would end by saying that I hope the decisions we make today push us forward,  so that someday theatre-makers in Providence can debate each other on HowlRound too.


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Beating a Horse Long-Dead

An amazing thing is happening. This show that I’ve been pounding away at and rehearsing and sweating over opened last weekend and people really  like  it. This translation of a French absurdist play from 1960 is selling out and getting rave reviews. This play that runs a non-stop one hour and forty minutes without intermission, is all about death and mortality and features cyclically strange language is popular.

Anytime I work on something I am happy when people received it well, but in this case, it also irritates me. As someone typically creating original work, my greatest interest in theatre as an art form is in pushing the genre forward. I like to create new. I grew tired of scripted theatre around 2003, was never very good with older texts, and have only dipped my toes in occasionally since. Working on this particular production of a previously-scripted play interested me because I was asked to direct, was curious about how I would function in that role, and saw it as a chance to delve into someone else’s historically strange logic.

Once again, I am left scratching my head at the public and critics in Rhode Island. Why do they come all out and support a 1960’s experimental play and not contemporary experimental plays? People are so excited to see something that is essentially a historical presentation — because they’ve heard of it? because it’s passed some sort of quality test of time? I am glad they are coming and enjoying. It gives me hope for our shows, because Ionesco is strange and unnatural, as are we. I only wish people were also curious about the new versions of strange; to the burgeoning movements right under their noses. I doubt we are the next Ionesco, but I do know that by dint of our training, our friends, and our contacts we are a part of a new lineage of experimental theatre makers and that other cities are embracing this wave of new live performance.

Maybe this is always the plight of people who choose to push forward instead of look back, especially for those of us choosing to push forward and not live in New York. Maybe Ionesco also had trouble getting butts in seats because everyone just wanted to see Ibsen or Chekhov.  I should probably just be happy that people want to see a history lesson in experimentation and that the fans Strange Attractor has are as loyal and supportive as they are. But you know me. I’m always pushing the boundaries.


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2012 Resolve

People keep asking me how the latest Special Happy was.  If I rehash it here, perhaps it will seem clearer when I state the facts verbally.

The first time we produced Special Happy it was on a whim of a dare of a suggestion. We didn’t know what it was going to be. We (and the audiences who participated) were delighted to discover the outcome. Who doesn’t want to show up to a theatre on a Friday night, be told it’s your birthday, and watch 35 minutes of absurd party acts that end in pizza, cake, presents, and Duran Duran? People liked it so much that when we were offered a remount, we knew we had to say yes.

Last summer when Perishable Theatre was trying to save itself, in search of programming we could contribute to the space, we dreamed up a new iteration of our beloved Special Happy. On the fifth Friday of the month (which happens four times a year) we could bring back the party with a slight twist. Each month we’d hire a special guest from the community who would perform an act for the audience and then be interviewed by the Hostess. Other than that, it would be the same. Simple, right? We already know the show, it can be performed on any set (with our signature green glitter curtain hung behind us) and any general wash of light.  Plus, people love it so we’ll make some money.

December 30 was our inaugural run. We had little time to rehearse before the show date, but did manage to meet a few times and work our special guest in (Vanessa Gilbert, the former Artistic Director of Perishable who decided to play the accordion).  Because we were attempting to run the show as part of late-night programming (like the improv and story-telling folks), our plan was to arrive at the space on the morning of the 30th and have a casual day of running through and setting the flexible piece on whatever set was up before our 10pm curtain. If we were to run this new Special Happy as a late night semi-monthly one-off, then simplicity was the name of the game.

That’s the way I thought back in 2011. Maybe now that it is 2012  I will have learned that anytime I hear myself using “simple” and “theatre” in the same sentence, I am deluding myself. More than that, I am belying exactly what I love about theatre: all of the problem-solving messiness that goes into creating an experience that feels easy for the audience. The seamlessness only comes with time in the studio, well-rehearsed plans, and a team of people to help you make it happen. Manifesting seamlessness through inadequate planning and great ideas is a recipe for disaster.

Here’s how the day was supposed to go:

9am: Arrive and set up

1-2pm: Break

2pm: Rehearse

6-8pm: Break

8-9pm: Tie all loose ends

10pm: Showtime

Here’s how it went:

10am: Arrive and begin taking apart the remaining risers that still needed to be moved downstairs.

11am: Realize that there are no lights currently hung, let alone focused on the stage. Spend the next several hours hanging and focusing.

2pm: The rest of the cast arrives and tries to understand when we’re going to rehearse. We begin to hunt through the remaining bin of blacks to hang some sort of masking as there is no set in the space at all.

3:30pm: Our friend Jeremy pokes his head in to see how we are. He offers to buy us burritos. We take him up on the offer. This is a high point.

4:30pm: A first run-through. No one can remember much. We talk through a lot of moments and set cues and space.

6pm: Run through finished, Jed and Chris figure out their decorating sequence, Bobby figures out what he’s going to say, Vanessa plays the accordion. I flit among the three sectors offering my encouragement, reminding them that we’re doing another run at 7pm. When they ask me what time the break is I refrain from breaking anyone’s pinky finger.

6:45pm: We run through the show. It goes much better.

7:15pm: The space is reset, but the lights are still not entirely focused. Jed can’t get the whole grid to work. I remember we need to get change for the box office. And notecards. And part of Jed’s costume. I leave to find these things.

8pm: I return to discover that the light problem has been solved. Jed and Vanessa are focusing the remaining instruments, Bobby is making his costume, Chris has gone out to find dinner. I sweep the stage.

9pm: My box office help arrives. I give her the drill, lay on the floor for ten minutes and then put on my costume.

10pm: We do the show! People come! (Not as many as we had hoped!) It is great!

11pm: The last party people have finally gone. I pay Bobby and Chris and thank them for their work. Jed and I clean the space and then stop halfway to grab a drink with his folks before finishing the job.

12:30am: Back to the space to finish the clean up.

1:30am: Jed and I arrive at home and I realize I don’t know where my keys and my phone are. After a drowsy search Jed finally convinces me to go back to the theatre with him to look.

2:30am: Back at the theatre. No keys no phone. We decide to take a chance and go to the bar where we’d been earlier. Some kind employees having their shift drink before leaving tell me that they didn’t find anything, but that I am welcome to look.

2:45am: I find my keys and my phone on the floor near the chair I’d sat in. This was the second-best part of the day.

3am: Bed.

8am: Wake up for work. Good lord. What have I done?

So, the show was enjoyed by the audience. My life, however, saw no improvement. I realized that I make plays for the joy of experimenting. I produce those plays because that is the way that they will be given to audiences. However, to remount a show requires greater attention.  I want someone else to produce it. Or I want to create a situation where all of the ducks are lined up and all we have to do is perform. Entering into a 24-hour-nightmare only makes me feel old and unsuccessful.

Here’s to smarter decision-making in 2012; to valuing my energy as a resource and not squandering it on stuff that seems simple; to bringing back parties when there’s more than just a date on a calendar. Thanks to everyone who came, and who everyone who has said “Oh, I’ve heard about that show! I would love to see it. Are you doing it again?” No. You missed out. And yes, it is every bit as good as you heard.

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