I was searching through HowlRound’s archives trying to find a particular article I liked (about writing characters of a different race than your own) and in the process came across this piece by Polly Carl that really resonated with me. I haven’t posted very frequently lately–I’ve been struggling with a lot of different things–and sometimes it’s really refreshing to read something that makes you want to get back on your blog and share it everyone:
If we let it, life will drown us in transactions. The life of transactions is not a satisfying way to live. I prefer transcendence over transaction. Which is why I have chosen to work in the theater—for those moments in the rehearsal room that lead to something revelatory, something glorious or more than anything I could accomplish on my own. No money is exchanged, and in the very best moments transcendence feels within reach.
One major struggle I’ve been dealing with, though certainly not the only one, is finances. I feel like I don’t make enough to live. I mean, I do, but then there’s rent, student loans that are almost as high as my rent, utilities and other bills, food, and random crap that comes out of nowhere right when you least expect it. Like my kitty Oskar needing to go to the emergency room on Saturday. I have pet insurance, but it’s the type where you pay it all upfront and then submit a claim. I was worried about having enough funds between what’s left on my credit card and what’s left in my bank account to cover it. Luckily, that all worked out, and he come home earlier (and more affordably) then originally expected.
I would put off things that might help some of my other problems and stress, like seeing a therapist, because I was afraid of the copay being too high. It’s often been a game of “can my bank account hold out until the next paycheck comes through?” “Will I have enough to cover the next bill that comes in?” It’s so stressful and so frustrating. I start feeling guilty and beating myself up if I do something “fun” like buying something I don’t need (like the patio chairs and tiny little grill I bought a few weeks ago) or ordering food on days I’m exhausted. Ordering food is extra guilt-inducing because I feel financially irresponsible AND fat at the same time. Between working in publishing and writing plays, I feel like I have one job that pays poorly and another that doesn’t pay at all.
So it’s really refreshing to see this essay talk about the idea of transcendence over transaction. The times careerwise that I’ve felt most confident and happy were when I had moments like this. One I love looking back on is my first Boston Playwrights’ Theatre holiday party. Jake was making a speech about how wonderful the local theatre community is and how great it is to belong to it. I had this moment of “wow, this is really what I want to be doing with my life” where it all sort of made sense. I also felt a lot of this clarity when I got to go on the Freedom Art Retreat last year. It was a whole week of collaborating, of feeling like I could actually contribute to a group of artists and have something important to offer, and of knowing that the things we created together were better than what would have resulted if I’d attempted it myself.
It’s little moments like this that I have to think back to when things get particularly stressful. It’s good that I was reminded of it at a time when I’m trying to get everything in my life back on track. Knowing that eventually things at work will get better, that that will help the finances fall into place, and that my whole life shouldn’t be spent letting this anxiety get to me because I risk missing out on the moments that make all of this worth it.
AND I just realized we have chicken nuggets in the freezer, so I don’t have to grill the chicken that I’m not entirely convinced is still fresh! Lazy dinner that does not involve spending money on ordering food. yay!
*EDIT: I just want to add that the rest of the article goes on to say pretty much exactly how I feel about the state of theatre in this country and it’s a great read. I was just jumping off one little quote that felt really personally relevant right now.
I’ve been struggling more lately to keep up some semblance of balance with trying to work full-time, do what I love doing, and have time with my family and friends and just in-general downtime. There’s so many shows I want to see and friends I want to support in aforementioned shows, but all too often I find myself feeling so tired or overwhelmed that I can’t do it. Then I feel overwhelmed AND guilty.
The Gan-e-meed discussion I went to last week on the work-life balance was really helpful. They talked a lot about the need for self-compassion, which is something I know full well that I struggle with. I hold myself up to much higher standards than I’d ever hold anyone else. It’s like, I need to be seeing classic shows that I never saw or even read growing up, I need to see new “big” shows so I know what’s out there in contemporary theatre, I need to see shows my friends are involved in, and I need to keep up with my own writing so that there can be shows that I myself am involved in. 😛 I should also say that “need” here encompasses “want” too… I don’t feel obligated to do any of these things–they’re all things I want to do, but I feel guilty when I can’t get everything done.
The panel also talked about how it’s ok to say “no” to some things and to keep that time for yourself. I struggle with this a lot. I felt myself in my head saying to the panelists, “yeah it’s ok for YOU to say no, because you’ve already established yourself.” I feel like someone like me needs to go out there and see everything I can so I don’t end up with the reputation of being totally noncommitted. But I think instead of driving myself crazy I should just be a lot more realistic about what I can handle and have that be ok. I need to realize that it’s ok to take a step back and say “I am going to go insane if I am running around all the time.” And I’ll also never get my own work done if I never have free time.
I also really related to Jennie, the actress on the panel, talking about the necessity of being away from her family at night when she rehearses or directs. In that sense, it is a lot like writing while holding down a regular 9-5 job–all of my writing time is on nights and weekends, which leaves less time with Allan and with friends. It makes it harder. When I was on the Freedom Art retreat and could spend all day working on theatre projects, I kept wishing that my normal work week could always be like that. Of course, the world doesn’t work that way. It’s never going to make me stop doing what I love doing, but it just means that I need to be better at time management and be ok with taking time away from my family/friends time when I need to write.
I have a really great support system… my job allows me to work from home, Allan is great about doing things on his own so that I can write, friends are super-understanding and supportive, and I actually know people in the local theatre world who are dealing with the same balancing stuggles as I am. So I feel really bad even whining about any of this at all. I know it’s all going to be fine. I just need to relax a little not be as crazy about putting so much pressure on myself. I’ve always been like that though, so it’s hard to follow your own advice sometimes. I think I’m always paranoid that if I DON’T put insane amounts of pressure on myself, I’ll devolve into laziness and just give up because it’s easier that way. Which is stupid. I’ve never done that. I’m a huge procrastinator, yes, but I’ve never just stopped doing something I really love doing because it’s too frustrating or too hard. Why do I have such a problem listening to this rational side of myself?
A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling up to North Conway, NH, with ten other theatre artists on Playwrights’ Commons’ Freedom Art Retreat. The experience was nothing short of amazing. I’ve already blogged and twittered about it during that week, but it totally deserves a full-out blog review–with pictures! (Pictures are courtesy of Ilana Brownstein unless otherwise noted… hooray for not having a decent camera!)
We went up to the woods for a week with the intention of spending a week on collaborative theatre projects–brainstorming, creating, and sharing. And also having a dance party. The natural surroundings were inspiring.
Frogs! And the food was wonderful because Ilana is an awesome cook. She even invented The Playwright–the new signature cocktail of Playwrights’ Commons. yum.
Heading into the retreat, I basically only knew Emily from my playwriting class at BU. And Ilana, who organized the retreat, taught my dramaturgy course last year. But I went into it not knowing most of the fellow participants. In simple terms, there were three designers, three dramaturgs, and three playwrights, but everyone had such a wide range of skills–designers who were equally as strong playwrights, playwrights who could also act and direct, dramaturgs who write fiction–basically everyone was multitalented. It made me think about what else I had to bring to the plate besides playwriting, so I started thinking a lot about my dance background, which I’ve always wanted to try to weave into my writing more.
Our first night there, we each showcased about ten minutes of our own personal work, as a way of introducing ourselves and our styles to each other. The next morning we broke into our first collaboration groups and were given five hours to go off with our groups and just see what we could create. It felt overwhelming at first. My group, fight choreographer/writer Meron and dramaturg Corianna, together with the awesomeness that is Phil the intern, walked down to the beach, talking about how when we were little we would have been in the woods looking for fairies and wishing to play with baby foxes. We began at the beach by taking a look at the fun stage weapons that Meron had brought with him, including a katana. We talked about the possibility of doing some sort of movement piece and highlighting the juxtaposition of violence and peace. We continued to brainstorm–what did we have with us that was not a violent instrument?–and came up with a bottle of bubbles. This led to attempting to pop bubbles with a katana, which is pretty difficult. We let the whole group share in this exercise that night:
This little experiment led us to crafting the idea for a children’s fairytale play in which the hero is given a magical sword that at first appears unbeatable, until he is confronted with a problem that the sword is completely unsuited for. We played off the saying that “if your only tool is a hammer, all of your problems look like nails.” We talked more about the fairies and baby foxes. And we presented the outline of our story to the group that night.
The wonderful duo of Phil and Corianna also worked out a song that our Bard will sing to our hero about the legend of Hammer, the magical sword. Video is from this Playwrights’ Commons blog post, which I also mentioned in a previous post. It’s worth posting again because the song is awesome.
The next morning, we continued working with these same groups for a couple more hours to expand on what we’d started. We wrote one of the scenes, in which our hero, feeling a bit arrogant with his new powerful sword, mistakenly attacks his little fox friend and then admonishes the fox for getting in his way, much to the horror of the fox and the Bard.
That afternoon, it was time for new groups! This time, instead of three groups of three with Phil floating among all of them, we broke into two groups of five with the mission to explore our surroundings, find a place to be inspired by, and craft a five- to ten-minute piece of site-specific theatre. I worked with Phil, dramaturg Tyler, playwright Nina, and designer Allie. Maybe it was the rain that had fallen that morning, the woods, or just something about New Hampshire, but both groups separately conceived of ghost stories. Our group found a boulder next to a water supply shed reading “No Trespassing” that we thought it might be fun to explore. We talked about things ranging from hobbit residences to coming-of-age stories. Then we noticed the broken headlight glass on the road near our site, a broken Yield sign on the ground, and a crutch tied to a tree branch. We team-wrote a piece about a group of teenagers who had died in a car accident and their friend who survived it. The survivor revisits the site of the crash, where the spirits of his friends, unseen to him, are discussing their lives that could have been.
Acting at its finest by me right there. 😛 At the end, the friend lifts his bottle to the memory of his friends and walks away, while his friends return the gesture.
The next day was field trip day! We went up to Wildcat Mountain, which I’ve blogged briefly about before. There was a zipline ride:
A gondolda ride up to the summit (photo by Nina Morrison):
Some hiking around the summit:
And of course, because we were a bunch of theatre nerds, pretending we were in The Sound of Music:
We also hiked a (small) portion of the Appalachian Trail:
Which led to this amazing lookout tower:
All in all, a great field trip day. Ilana had told the designers in advance to use our field trip as inspiration for our next group project, in which the designers would serve as generative artists. Our designer had been inspired by the juxtaposition of all this man-made stuff (gondolas, ziplines, hiking trails) in a place of nature. We devised a movement/sound piece that would address the subversion of nature by technology and how that reflects on interpersonal relationships. I sadly have no pictures of this piece. If anyone posts any later I will add them. We had a crazy six-minute soundscape piece created by our phenomenal designer Jason, while dramaturg Tyler and I crafted the “script,” which consisted of only four spoken words. It was so amazing to work on something like this. I had never written any sort of movement piece before, and this type of collaborative environment was the perfect way to try one for the first time. It felt safe to experiment with things. Jason’s sound piece really felt like it scripted the entire show because it defined the emotional beats that Tyler and I worked out, so we knew how long to flesh out each moment for. Jason also made this really cool video backdrop that we played on the tv. It was so interesting to see how simply (and inexpensively) a multimedia piece could be done.
Our final full day there saw us working with groups of our choice–and everybody agreed that we wanted to split into groups of people we had not worked with (or worked closely with) yet, so I broke off with Allie and our dramaturg Amanda (which, coincidentally, makes Emily, the only person I really knew heading into the retreat, the only person I never shared a group with). We began discussing things we hadn’t gotten to work on yet–Allie, who works on puppetry design, had done a puppet piece the previous day and was eager to try something new. We somehow got onto the topic of the elusive games closet that apparently existed on the second floor but hadn’t been explored. This led to talking about board games and taglines from games (“Sorry!” “Go directly to jail.” etc.). I mentioned how I have always hated the Game of Life because it is so unlike real life. We talked about how sad it is that the purpose of the game is to make the most money. Our dramaturg got to work on researching the history of the game, and we were shocked to learn that it originated as a parlor game in the 1860s and was called “The Checkered Game of Life” because the board was laid out like a checkerboard. The object of this version of the game was to collect 100 points by landing on “good deed” spaces, culminating in “Happy Old Age” at the top, which was worth 50 points. It had some elements similar to the modern game Chutes and Ladders, where landing on a “good” quality like “Honesty” would move you forward to the “Happiness” space but landing on “bad” qualities like “Intemperance” would lead you back to spaces like “Poverty.” And there was also a “Suicide” spot on the board. We borrowed some of these elements from the historical game, coupled them with the modern game, and created a ten-minute play about one man’s journey through the Game of Life. We played with a lot of the conventions of the game.
Because we had to perform the piece with lots of paper signs to keep track of, we had some of our fellow retreaters read the script for us as we sort of pantomimed it out. It was so weird because this style of presentation arose out of necessity, but in the discussion afterward, the group thought that that style actually worked for the piece and that it could easily be adapted into a larger-than-life puppet-type show. Which is hilarious considering that Allie specifically said that she had had her fill of puppet shows for the retreat. It’s always really interesting for me when a choice that is made out of necessity ends up opening up a whole new well of ideas.
And that’s what a lot of this entire week was about. Working with who we had, what we had, and the resources all of us could bring to the table and seeing what we could make out of it. I learned a lot about my own process, and I learned that I love collaborative projects even more than I’d realized before the retreat. I love working with other people and getting to create something even better than I could have made on my own. I went into grad school not knowing anyone else who wrote plays. After I finished school, I knew a nice group of amazing writers, but I didn’t know many other theatre artists working in different disciplines. I now have a group that consists of not only writers but dramaturgs, sound designers, puppet designers, and fight directors who I feel I could call on when a project needed it. It made me want to work collaboratively so much more often. Too much of playwriting seems to take place alone at your computer, trying not to cry or rip your hair out with frustration (well, maybe that’s just my own personal process). I also hadn’t created any new work since my dad died. The support that this group offered helped me feel strong enough to dive into new projects again and to once again feel excited about my work. It made me feel like I could really belong in the greater theatre/artistic community and reaffirmed that this is what I want to be doing with my life.
I’ve been mentally singing that song all day. Today was field trip day on the Freedom Art Retreat. We drove out to Wildcat Mountain and did some zipline-ing, took a gondola up to the summit, and did some hiking. We hiked a small section of the Appalachian Trail. I forgot my phone/camera, so there will be pictures eventually but I will have to steal them from others. The zipline was awesome. I have issues with heights, so I thought I’d be terrified, but it was really fun. The slope helped me not feel the height as much. After the hiking, the three playwrights decided to take the gondola back down the mountain (rather than hike back down) and head back early for some swimming. There was some floating-on-the-lake-in-tubes time which was much appreciated.
Yesterday we had site-specific theatre day. My group found this really cool site at an intersection with some big rocks, a water shed with No Trespassing signs all over it, and a weird crutch hanging off a tree by a rope. As we explored the site more, we found broken headlight glass on the roadside and a broken Yield sign and some broken fence posts. We ended up crafting a ghost story about teenagers looking ahead to the life that could have been. It was cool… I’d never done site-specific theatre before.
I will have to write more about everything when I’m home. It’s been such an awesome week so far, and it’s hard to find time to just sit and write about it all.
Just a quick update from the first full day of the Freedom Art retreat. The house is beautiful. It has really high wood-paneled ceilings that I love. And it’s a short walk to a private beach. We got in yesterday and a small group went grocery shopping while the rest of us settled in and got to know the surrounding area. Last night we did a “show-n-tell” session where everyone showcased about ten minutes of their work. I chose the first scene of Prayer Bargain. We also in addition to plays saw dramaturgy blogs, puppets, a swordplay piece, a song, and some fiction.
This morning we broke into groups by random draw. My group was me, Meron Langser, and Corianna Moffatt. Meron is a playwright/stage combat specialist and Corianna is a dramaturg. We started off checking out Meron’s amazing collection of swords he brought with him and then tried to pop bubbles with a katana. Somehow that led to plotting out a children’s fairytale play. It totally works. We just had dinner (grilled pizza! Ilana is awesome), and we’ll be doing another show-n-tell night in a few minutes where the groups will share what they came up with this morning/afternoon. Then tomorrow we will switch the groups up and see what else develops.
It’s the weekend before I head out into the woods for a week on the Freedom Art Retreat! I’ll be joining a small group of playwrights, designers, and dramaturgs for a week of collaboration and creating. And also swimming. It’s like how when I was younger and I had friends who were going to theatre camp, only this time I actually get to go with them.
I got to meet everyone on Thursday night, which was really cool. I already knew Emily from school, and I’d briefly met a couple others at the Playwright Nights Out that I’ve gone to, but there were some people I hadn’t met before. It’s a really great group. I’m still nervous though. Like first-day-of-school nervous. What if they all become super-best friends and I am on the outside? haha. I didn’t have trouble making friends with my BU MFA class (unless they’re all just humoring me? ;)). But I still get nervous. The group is awesome though and I know I’ll be fine. I’m sort of half-joking about being afraid of them all going off and making friends without me. 😛 It will be fun. Want to see pictures of where we’re staying? Check out this post from the Playwrights’ Commons blog. ooh, pretty! yay!
I also got to go to the July Playwright Night Out meetup last week. It was good that I went because I missed the June one. I got to meet John Shea, another (far more established) Somerville playwright. That was pretty cool. He knew my mother’s Recreation friends, reinforcing the stereotype that everyone from Somerville somehow knows everyone else. And I met my brother’s playwriting professor from Stonehill. That was random and funny. Saw some people I recognized from the May meetup and met some new people who had been there in June who I’d missed out on meeting last time. I feel like I’ve been in super-social mode lately. It’s weird. I also got to see Matt & Ben at the Central Square Theatre last night. That was fun. Really funny. AND it technically took place in Somerville even though it’s all inside Ben’s apartment. It’s up for another week–you should all go if you haven’t! hehe. The only thing I’m sad about is that I’ll probably have to miss 1001 at Company One. This week coming up is the final week, and I’ll be away. And with all the picking up prescriptions and packing and doing laundry to do before Monday morning, I just don’t think I’ll have time. I’ve heard great things about that show and I really wanted to try to make it.
So yes, just a couple more days and then it’s off to “theatre camp.” I’m really excited about it. Hopefully I will get some really cool collaborative-y ideas and work done. I love the idea of collaborating on a project from the start. I think a lot of interesting new theatre is being created that way. Because Cooperation Makes It Happen. Why do I remember that song from almost 30 years ago? There’s something wrong with me.
It’s been difficult to write anything lately. I’ve even been avoiding just little blog entries. My friend sent me this link from July 4’s entry in the Letters of Note blog. It’s an open letter from Pixar animator Austin Madison written to aspiring artists as part of the Animator Letters Project, which collects letters from successful animators to inspire those seeking to enter the industry. I love Pixar. I overanalyze their screenplays like a complete nerd. It’s a not-so-secret dream of mine to somehow be one of their writers even though they do all their stories from within and I have zero experience with animation and no hope of getting hired. So even though it’s geared towards animators specifically, I’ve found it helpful to think about as a writer and also just in getting through my day-to-day life.
You should definitely read the whole letter, but here’s an excerpt for you: “PERSIST on telling your story. PERSIST on reaching your audience. PERSIST on staying true to your vision.” It’s what I’ve been struggling with recently. I have revisions I need to make, I have new projects I haven’t started, and with everything going on in my life, I’ve had zero motivation to write or to do much of anything. Even going out and being with a group of more than a couple people has felt overwhelming. One month from today I’ll be heading up to Maine for the Freedom Art Retreat, and I don’t want to feel completely out of it or rusty when I go. I need to find a way to persist. To be able to know that it’s ok to feel the confusion and loss, to feel overwhelmed at times, and to still be able to carry on. First get started writing again, and then work up the strength to write through the creative droughts and keep pushing forward.
It’s just been really hard. It’s not a step-by-step process where you feel a little stronger every day. There’s good days and there’s bad days. Good hours and really horrible hours. Days where I don’t even want to get out of bed. Other days where I’m so worried about the rest of my family that I don’t let myself focus on how I am dealing with things. There’s times where I’m feeling ok and then feel guilty that I’m feeling ok. Which I know is silly, because my father wouldn’t have wanted me to feel sad, etc., but I haven’t been able to make the guilt go away yet. Nice sunny days make me feel awful because I think about how he isn’t able to be there and enjoy it. I feel bad if I feel like I’m mentally painting too polished-over a memory of him, but I also feel horrible if I remember the not-so-great times too. I know this is all part of the process of dealing with things, but being aware of that doesn’t help much at all.
So that’s where I’ve been. Persisting. Or at least attempting to. Knowing that I still have stories to tell, visions to stay true to, and (hopefully) an audience to reach. Knowing that eventually I’ll get back to a place where I can write without all of this hanging over my head. But in the meantime just trying to persist.