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The Art Of Falling Behind

We’re two days out of the fall semester. Finals week is behind us, the spring semester and graduation looms. But enough about that.

This semester I fell behind. I fell so on my ass so hard that I made an imprint. I was balancing three playwriting classes, an overloaded course schedule, a dramaturgy gig in NYC, and anything else that popped up along the way. Before I regard this past semester as a bleak memory, here are some tips I want to give to other conservatory students who may fall behind in the future:

  1. Don’t lose sleep- I know this might sound oxymoronic, but I would much rather produce good work then work completed on a half-conscious mind. If you’re already behind, make a plan, but don’t sacrifice less than 7 hours of sleep a night. Your quality of work will thank you.
  2. Eat peanut butter- Rather than turn to coffee for nourishment, turn to high-protein healthy fats. I was strung out for weeks on end in homework woes, but I never had more than two cups of coffee a day. Learn to love avocado toast.
  3. Meditate-I know, this might sound counter-intuitive again, but taking that time to focus yourself will give you a much more focused attitude towards your work.

Falling behind, whether you had a say in it or not, can feel claustrophobic. Your most important job, is to provide yourself the space to keep producing the best work you can. It’s still your education, after all. Even if you do slip-up on a deadline or two, apologize to those who that impacts, and then do the work that you are still proud to call your own.

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A Playwriting Podcast

To those who have ever engaged with me on the topic of the accessibility of theatre vs. film, I will tell you that I do not think it is film we have to worry about, but the growing trend of podcasts. Podcasts allow for listeners (for free or for a very low cost or donation) to listen to long-form stories whenever and wherever they’d like. Now, a new podcast about the life of a playwright has come about headlined by playwright Simon Stephens.

You can read about this podcast here.

What initially made me skeptical was a thought I’ve been struggling with as a young playwright: would you still read my stories the same way if you did not know my identity? What I admire so much about Annie Baker and Caryl Churchill is just that. They rarely, if ever, interview, letting their plays speak for themselves.

What is different about this podcast is that it is a lot about playwrights answering the questions many young playwrights like myself are beginning to ask: what’s it like to have a play flop in a major theatre, where do you like to write, what do you think of actors who flub your lines? Playwrights asking playwrights playwriterly questions. There’s a simple genius in that.

Rather than pose this as a celebrity sort of journalism, which I’ve read from playwrights in Vogue or the New York Times, this podcast has a more James Lipton vibe, coming across as a more introspective resource rather than externally driven page-turner.

For young playwrights looking for some support during our long holiday break- Playwrights Podcast debuted December 9th and new episodes are released every Friday for the next 12 weeks.

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To Those About To Go Abroad…

…travel alone.

I know that can be a frightening concept. I know, especially as a solo young woman, that is a potentially dangerous thing to suggest. But I can also tell you that as someone who has traveled for a cumulative month alone, I was anything but that. I think, as theatre artists with varying political agendas, it is essential to our craft to break from our BFA bubble and engage with others who are far from familiar to us.

I hiked the West Highland Way in Scotland two summers ago on my own. I met and befriended people from four different continents, for no other reason that we were all solo hikers. I helped save a young boy’s life as he was having a severe asthma attack in the middle of the Highlands, and I was the only one who spoke fluent English and could understand the first responder’s thick Scottish brogue. I then sat down for soup with several of the other hikers who were also taking care of the boy. We talked about art from our own countries, from America, Brazil, Paris, and Australia. How else would I be able to meet such an array of individuals in only ten days time?

Traveling solo in Rome,  I befriended the owner of a successful restaurant and was invited back the next day to open the place with the rest of the staff over wine and pesto. This all happened once I told the owner I was a writer, and he sat with myself and another solo traveler and we shared stories. In Florence, I met a woman who’s partner heisted her family’s artwork years after they were forced to flee their homeland. She never shared her name.

Even if only for a day trip, spend some time flying solo. Tell people from other countries you are a theatre artist, track their reactions. You may be pleasantly surprised by how much respect that can garner you depending on who you speak to. Share stories, and then share them again once you return to the US in your work. If all the world’s the stage, then go see it for yourself, and report back to your audiences.

To those of you going abroad: there is no better way to learn about who you are then to travel somewhere where nobody or nothing can identify who you were.

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Demystifying the Dramatis Personae

It’s a sound that every performer has heard, be that a dance recital or a Broadway show: the inevitable folding and refolding of a program.

Let’s make one thing clear: I am not out to get rid of programs altogether. Our entire midterm was spent creating program notes. Programs are an artful craft, an opportunity to synthesize the play with the audience at hand.

But here’s the thing.

When a program includes the dramatis personae before the show begins, I know exactly how many actors to expect at any given time onstage. And once all of the actors listed have entered the stage at least once, I know the opportunities for surprise are now limited. If we are to compare the success of film and theatre (again, I know…) what draws me to film is the fact that I never know how many actors I will see on screen. Yes, part of that is budgetary, but a part of that is still an element of surprise.

In the UK, programs cost money. I am not vouching for that (no wonder Europe is less supportive of dramaturgs), but what I can say is that unless I knew the play ahead of time, I could never anticipate how many actors I would see onstage.

Let’s take the play People, Places, and Things, which went onto an encore presentation by the National Theatre. What made this one of the most remarkable theatrical experiences I’ve ever seen were the use of bodies onstage. When the lead character is entering drug withdrawal, it appears as if her body has multiplied tenfold, and several actors in blonde wigs replicate her movements. I had no idea this was going to happen because there was no dramatis personae in sight to tell me that there would be a chorus of body doubles at some point in time. See what I mean?

The unexpected presence of actors onstage, in my opinion, is a theatrical tool that is shortchanged by knowing the cast of actors ahead of time. What do I propose? Keeping the dramatis personae separate from the program, and leaving it as a separate sheet of paper that is accessible to an audience only after the performance is complete.

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Performativity of Religion: Christmas Edition

It’s that time of year again: houses decorated, sweaters knitted, trees killed and hauled inside dwellings made from dead trees, it smells like the holiday season. And before we gather round the fire to sip chocolate flavored powder dissolved in scalding hot water and wait with bated breath for an old man to fill our really large socks with a bunch of things, let me take a moment to step back and examine Christmas tradition as it pertains to Christianity itself. Before we begin, I do want to acknowledge that many other holidays from many other religions take place at this time of year, but as the United States is by in large built on and around Christianity and its holidays, and because my neck of the woods (Western North Carolina) is predominately the same, I find I’m only qualified to engage with the tradition from which I hail.

Christmas, for the most part, has nothing to do with Christianity: nearly all of its traditions are adapted from pagan rituals, the Bible makes no mention of a celebration of Christ’s birth, and the Coca-Cola company played a large part in solidifying our image of Santa Claus as a rotund, jolly old man garbed in red and white. Yet these images dominate American culture as soon as Thanksgiving ends until the 25th takes its final bow at 11:59pm and we eagerly wait its return next year. The holiday as an event is so divorced from the religion to which its tied that its devoid of authentic religious substance. Yet every year around this time comes a cacophony of tone-deaf carolers screaming, “put the Christ back in Christmas” and proclamations that there is, in fact, a literal war on Christmas.

How any of this could be an actual issue when considering the discord between Christmas as a holiday and the total lack of its scriptural significance is a matter of performance. Performance of outrage is certainly nothing new amongst dominant groups in societies (racial, gender, sexual orientation, etc…). Decrying the notion that one might have to make room for an alternative experience as some sort of reverse oppression is nothing new. However, within the context of Christmas, it becomes far more insidious. Firstly, by claiming a set of traditions that evolved from rituals of other faiths as belonging uniquely to the dominant religion, there’s an active erasure of those who practice faiths that engage in those rituals. Furthermore, it provides a concrete frame for the performance of Christianity in a non-religious manner. There’s now an opportunity for false religious practice to invade the radio, the shelves at the supermarket, and the yard of those old people that live in the neighborhood with whom no one enjoys interacting. And that’s just where the belligerence of the Christmas spirit begins. It’s followed by the whines of millions who can’t imagine saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, who use the event to bemoan the notion of sharing a season or month or country with another religious tradition, who believe freedom or religious means that they’re free to do whatever they believe in the name of their faith.

And then it will end. The dead green trees in our living rooms will slowly turn to dead brown trees, the high-fructose corn syrup industry will be chuckling as our teeth hurt from consuming too much candy, and environmental degradation will continue at its current alarming pace.

But so it goes.

It only happens once a year, right?

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Maintaining Distance: What Revivals Teach Us About the Contemporary Moment

Over the past few months I’ve been working on a production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, a pro-union musical written in 1937, which closed yesterday. The musical focuses on the disproportionate influence the wealthiest members of society have on public policy and consumer culture. At a time when income inequality is at its most severe since the Great Depression, producing this musical is absolutely appropriate. As expected, we spent much of our rehearsal process discussing how applicable the issues that the piece addresses are to what’s happening in the United States at our current moment. Furthermore, after the presidential election produced a the wealthiest victor in history, it nearly felt like this piece was written about our current situation.

However, the true power of reviving theatre of the past isn’t in contemporizing it, but rather in maintaining distance between then and now and facilitating conversation across time. The notion that we’re having nearly identical societal problems 80 years after the play was written illuminates the progress, or lack thereof, in the development of the middle and working classes in the United States. Actively maintaining that distance allows for interrogation of the illusion of progress, of the notion that things are better than the were in the past.

Revival productions of plays encapsulate within them a duality of existence: they exist both as a relic of the past and a conversation with the present. Any effort to close that gap jeopardizes the temporality of a production, diminishes the potency of the ephemera of performativity. A unique quality of live performance is the tension between a piece of text and its production, a collision of the two that creates an entirely different work of art that can only exist in the exact conditions under which it is produced.I find the notion that theatre demands that a fixed piece of writing explode into a completely different staged work is an incredibly exciting prospect, but it’s only possible when fostering that tension between the two.

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Tension. Discomfort. Paranoia in LA.

You know those performances that rob the audience of a ritual applause for discomfort’s sake, never releasing them from the experience? Keeping the audience in the play even once they’ve entered the real world? Yeah, those are scary. Well, The Tension Experience takes this idea and amplifies it by ten, creating a narrative that never stops. The Tension Experience is an immersive theatre experience in Los Angeles designed by film Director Darren Bousman (the mind behind the Saw films and REPO!) that invites you to feel deep tension, discomfort, and paranoia.

First, the audience member must go through a screening process to be allowed into the theatrical experience. You have to register online and give up personal information. This makes sense with the Tension narrative that revolves around a cult known as the Oracular Order of Anoch (OOA). Next, they infiltrate your life: call you, email you, and send messages through social media forums. The world of Tension becomes your world. The line between performance and the real world is blurred.

Megan Reilly, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Macalester College, St. Paul, MN joined The Tension Experience and describes a moment in which real life and the world of Tension were intertwined and she wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. At one point she was asked to a secret meeting with a Tension character at a bar. He wanted to tell her his story about his previous involvement in the OOA cult and eventually asked her to persuade the bartender into joining. Reilly couldn’t do it – it was weird to involve someone who wasn’t a part of the Tension world, pull them into it against their will. Tension sent her a message from the character who had set up the meeting, telling Reilly that had she spoken to the bartender she would have had the honor to meet the elusive character. Reilly realized that maybe her potential encounter with the bartender may have been planned by Tension. Maybe the bartender was a part of the world, after all. But there was really no way of knowing.

Reilly talks about how Tension tries to “get into your head.” In another instance, she talks about when she was sent on a duty to find a hidden envelope in a park that was essential to discovering more about the narrative. She was told to film the search and other “audience members” or initiates (?) watched and live messaged her, supporting her as she fulfilled the important task.  At a certain point, a conspicuous zooming motorcycle passes by and immediately after Tension texts her saying they just saw her and that she “looks nice today.” Reilly says if they were watching her then there’s the possibility they may be watching her all day, and it’s the possibility that’s important, not the reality. She says, “The show doesn’t have to run all day as long as the audience believes that, on some level, it does. By demonstrating that they were physically in the park with me, I began to doubt my own certainty that they weren’t following me elsewhere.” Talk about paranoia.

These were moments Megan Reilly experienced in the first part of The Tension Experience. As of September 8, 2016 the second part, Ascension, became open to the general public, and Bousman has said that he hopes to continue what he describes as a franchise, next on his list being The Tension Experience presents: Adrenaline and The Tension Experience presents: Lust. I’ll be the first one to buy a ticket. How about you…?