Archives For dog & pony dc
Blog schedules be darned! This big eyed fish explored a new bowl and so the editorial staff has done a switcheroo.
Who out there noticed?
Ok, maybe this is my way of telling you 1) we plan 2) there’s a “we” 3) this post has a lot going on and it’s possible the dots are not all connected.
This weekend, I was slapped across the face. Literally. In front of my dog & pony dc co-ensemble members and a collection of artistic collaborators. By a man who we invited into our ensemble as part of a training. There are many other details I could share, but let’s open with this simple telling of the story.
Being an ensemble member is hard.
“Team membership” brings with it immense power and responsibility. My guess is many few of us outside of the military and professional/life-practice team athletics truly knows this. In my world we tend to call it “ensemble member” or “ensembleship.” The variation between military or athletics, and ensemble, for us at least, is: the agency we endow individuals within the group; the equity with which we seek to operate and realize; the responsibility we share in manifesting shared vision and values; the trust we place and hold in the collective.
The thing about run-of-the-mill colleagues is that in most situations, they can easily avoid making choices, they can kick-back within hierarchy, they can maintain a narrow focus of impact, and everyone’s actions to superiors are either gestures of obedience, pledges of loyalty, or both.
The thing about run-of-the-mill leaders is that in most situations, they can give and take the semblance of power, they can tip over scales, they can give/ take/ reward/ punish/ spotlight/ ignore behaviors, and everyone else needs to have their trust earned by you.
But in our ensemble at least:
Every member of the company has an impact on the work and processes of every other member.
Membership in the company is a constant exercise in awareness, both of one’s own “orbit” within the company, and awareness of all the others. It requires personal flexibility to balance the work of the whole.
- Agency can be taken or ignored.
- Equity can balance despite variance, or it can remain disturbed and partisan.
- Responsibility can be embraced or shrugged off.
- Trust can be given and accepted, or withheld.
Reverse to #1 to launch into #3
So I was slapped across the face. Literally. In front of my co-ensemble members and a collection of collaborating artists. By a man who we invited into our ensemble as part of a company training.
Everyone physically remained in the room. I made a joke shortly afterward; transmitting a coded message to the ensemble (which turned out to be too coded). We processed through the moment, whether to engage in the exercise or not. I told everyone I was totally fine, and not to worry, transmitting another coded message to the ensemble members. (A number of them received it!) For the rest of the afternoon, many of the ensemble members were keenly aware of one another and the other collaborators in the room. Afterward there was informal processing in all sorts of small, private groups. There was some individual processing with me.
What stinks is that as a leader of an ensemble I’m keenly aware of how I must strive to epitomize our values and, sometimes, suck it up and ignore both ensembleship and me. However: I am still 1) an ensemble member and 2) an individual person. These three identities—Ring Leader, dog & pony dc ensemble member, Rachel—are a shifting triangle. When I add to that being female, white, young-ish, small statured, a loud talker, et cetera, the identity intersections I’m navigating at any given moment are mindboggling.
(What’s even more !KA-POW! is: everyone else is also navigating their own identity intersections. But, I’ve digressed. The point is…)
Back in company training this weekend, after the slap, I wasn’t fine. I’m not fine now. All the “processing” I engaged in didn’t take away the fact that I was slapped across the face in front of my co-ensemble members, because my leader-ensemble member-individual triangle held tight with “leader” at the apex for 36-hours. Should it have? Should I have re-triangulated within the group because ensemble? (aka “trust in the system”) Should the ensemble have recalibrated in such a way that encouraged or even forced that to occur? What does “leadership” actually mean within ensemble?
My initial simple telling of the story was inadequate. It was a moment bursting with complications that continue to spill out and spread across the floor. This writing is a necessary step in my clean up process. I’ve returned safe and sound to my bowl, and now am attempting to discern what I learned. And so, I leave these questions with you
What roles do agency, equity, responsibility, and trust play in your communities?
How can we all lead and follow by example?
How do you negotiate triangulating within a tetrahedron?
This is a Helen Hayes Award:
It does close to nothing to advance individual theatre artists or arts organizations. Being nominated or receiving one. That is not meant to be an ungracious statement in the least. But really: let’s dispense with this belief.
I was over the moon ecstatic for my husband the year he was first nominated for Outstanding Lighting Design. It was one of his first shows at a larger regional theatre, early in his professional career. I was even more ecstatic when he received his first award. Both designs, in my hyper-critical-but-also-super-biased opinion, were high caliber. In subsequent years, regardless of the quality of the production, designs of his that were truly outstanding were looked over and functional designs which looked like lights on stage or were just nothing earth-shattering were nominated for awards…. and nominated in “competition” with one another. My husband has been nominated over 10 times and received 3 HHAs. He has received ONE (1) gig as a result of the award. (Which is a long story.)
I was shocked, like scene-from-a-movie said “did they just say Beertown?” shocked when dog & pony dc received its first and only HHA nomination for Outstanding New Play or Musical for Beertown. Making the show had nearly broken up the ensemble, and to have made it through the 14-month devising and production in one piece, have the show critically well received, have decided to remount a show for our first time ever, then suddenly be heading into the remount with either an HHA nomination or an HHA winner felt like a triumph for a barely 4-year old company. More importantly for us, a company no one seemed to understand, we got to the the first ensemble to be nominated for this award: 17 of us were “the playwright.” 17 of us attended together with significant others and sat together and had a lovely reunion. When they didn’t say Beertown had received the award, we breathed a strange sigh of relief. When they showed the Beertown artwork last in the coming-soon montage, all of us agreed this was the Awesomest Night Ever. Because we were there with each other.
Yes, d&pdc lists the HHA nomination as an accomplishment because it gave us street credit and matured us slightly in the eyes of some larger funders, out of town producers, etc. However: no one locally sought to hire any of us, book any of us, or give any of us money. No one who saw Beertown in summer 2012 reported on our audience survey they came because they heard about the HHA. Most reported they heard it was a great show that they missed the first time around.
The largest thing Washington, DC’s theatre service organization, theatreWashington, does for theatre companies and artists is to produce an annual awards ceremony and party. Instead of questioning that fact, the community always seems to be questioning the way tW is coordinating and producing the awards and party. In every sub sector of our community, at every budget scale level.
Radical inquiry, but are we experiencing a tension here between service priorities and community needs? Possibly a tension DC theatres and artists are unable to see because we just accept the status quo of service?
- Create and invigorate audiences
- Strengthen the regions theatrical workforce
- Celebrate the excellence on Washington stages
tW’s first goal is to ensure its own operational stability; second is to heighten awareness of the theatrical landscape; third is “TO UNIFY AND STRENGTHEN THE PROFESSIONAL WASHINGTON REGIONAL THEATRE COMMUNITY THROUGH INNOVATIVE AND VALUED PROGRAMS AND SERVICES.” (emphasis mine)
Once I start meditating on tWs “about us” information these questions come to mind. And so I leave them with you:
Who is in control of the service–needs narratives in our personal and professional lives?
How can providers be responsible and accountable to their communities?
How can communities see beyond a set needs or a sphere of interests to one that is more broad or limited, more strategically short or long term?
How can a community leverage agency?
My husband and I sit side-by-side most mornings here drinking coffee in bed, staring at a gorgeous rising sun and reading the newspaper. On our devices. I read the backlog of blog entries from the last 4-11 months. Sometimes I tweet them. I’ve been accused of not really being on vacation, because I’m using my iPhone. [sigh] No, I’m not disconnecting myself from the rest of the world while on vacation. I spend so much time disconnected from it as is on a daily basis. It’s a pleasure to have the time to re-engage with it. In fact: last year after vacation I attempted to carry forth the morning coffee and news reading ritual throughout the year (mild success). This year I’m experimenting with not bringing my phone, also my camera, with me everywhere. No access to anything, happy haters?, BUT, no picture taking. Gotta tell you: not missing it. Don’t need to document every day at the beach. Even tested a theory that no one would notice and posted a photo from two years’s ago vacation on Facebook:
This all reminds me of the study/project I was a part of at Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History’s Museum Camp 2014 about whether the use of technology allows you to enjoy nature more. At first I was on the “screw you anti-technology people, let us Instagram if we want to” side of the debate (impartial in the study, obviously). Now, definitely not so sure.
On my mind a lot these days (read: years) but nothing like being on the beach with your spouse and good friends in January to bring it to the forefront. It’s also primary in my thoughts because of my work on Squares. (which has been in development since fall 2013 but kicks into higher gear in 2015) and an upcoming dog & pony dc ensemble meeting to review year one of our diversity and inclusion initiative, and plan for this year’s work (year one significantly changed our landscape). I’m in the privileged position of being able take personal and organizational-based action in myriad ways to raise awareness of privilege, seek to educate myself and others, create space for dialogue in which I can listen and be heard, promote intersectional thinking, and increase the spheres of people who are openly conversing and acting for equity. (Check this recent HowlRound post, I dug it.) So, no, I am not feeling guilty or bad (ok, maybe occasionally a little) In the midst of all this sunshine, sand, and surf, but this vacation allows me important reflection time. It’s vital amidst all the upcoming activity to remind, to reinforce that this work is a journey. There is no final destination we to reach. But we must always keep moving toward it.
Work /Life Balance
Two colleagues mentioned they’re working on this in 2015, one who is trying to weight “life” more and one who is trying to weight “work” more. If I asked them, my guess is both–hell, everyone–would say I weight work too much…to the point of having almost no “life.” As a person with no children, though, and who currently manifests her passion in her job, my “work” and “life” are complicatedly intertwined. But let’s pause for a moment: what does this phrase “work/life balance” mean? Life means: friends? pets? significant other? children? going to happy hour? working out? binge watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? taking a figure drawing class? all of the above?
A friend/collaborator and I were talking about another mutual friend who’s spouse is very into cosplay. If I worked at a bank, but spent all my free time and disposable income on costumes and travel to conventions, would I have a work/life balance problem? No, we determined. “dog & pony dc is your cosplay.” she declared. Yes. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t seek out relationships with others and go for drinks, hit the gym, binge watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or expand my horizons. I like doing those things, and they make my work and life richer, more vibrant. They balance my scales.
For the first time since high school I am actively trying to learn another language, American Sign Language. It terrifies me. I’m known to utter the phrase “I barely speak English,” and I don’t think people understand how much that’s actually true. I’m highly insecure about my understanding of parts of speech, grammar, syntax, and my inability to spell. I eschewed formal classes, knowing that environment didn’t serve me in the past, finagled a most excellent ASL tutor and have excellent, understanding friends and collaborators who are Deaf or ASL interpreters. None the less: I’m petrified that it won’t actually take me years upon years, it will take me never. Is it possible that I’m too old to acquire a new language? Or is my brain not hardwired to learn languages? Yes, I am doing my ASL homework on vacation but I’m also obsessing about multiple intelligences theory and the diversity of mine.
Which is to say I thing “the ocean is beautiful,” or “am I going to fall asleep,” or “rum is good,” or “I love my husband” for extended periods of time.
The initial three source texts for dog & pony dc’s next show, Toast, include Steven Johnson‘s Where Good Ideas Come From. Recommended to me by friend and, now, Toast ensemble member David LaCroix, I pass the recommend on as a wellspring of inspiration about how ideas are birthed, cultivated, promoted, and transformed into life-altering inventions and movements. Today I was struck soundly by one of the final passages, which compares types of “platforms” (read: environments) that cultivate innovation. Still wrestling with what my metaphor is, but I know the below passage gets at why I encourage in collaborative or ensemble work.
“Generative platforms require all the patterns of innovation we have seen over the proceding pages; they need to create a space where hunches and serendipitous collisions and exaptations and recycling can thrive. it is possible to create such a space in a walled garden. But you are far better off situating your platform in a commons.
But perhaps “commons” is the wrong word for the environment we’re trying to imagine, though it has a long and sanctified history in intellectual property law. The problem with the term is twofold. For starters, it has conventionally been used in opposition to the competition struggle of the marketplace. The original “commons” of rural England disappeared when they were swallowed up by the private enclosures of agrarian capitalism in the 16th and 18th centuries. Yet the innovation environments we have explores are not necessarily hostile to competition and profit. More important, however, the commons metaphor doesn’t suggest the patterns of recycling and exaptation and recombination that define so many innovation spaces. When you think of a commons, you think of a cleared field dominated by a single source of grazing. You don’t think of an ecosystem. The commons is a monocrop grassland, not a tangled bank.
I prefer another metaphor drawn from nature: the reef.
You need only survey a coral reef (or a rain forest) for a fewminutes to see that competition for resources abouts in this space, as Darwin rightly observed. But that is not the source of its marvelous biodiversity. The struggle for existence is universal in nature. The few residents of a desert ecosystem are every bit as competitive as their equivalents on a coral reef. What makes the treef so inventive is not the struggle between the organism but the way they have learned to collaborate–the coral and the zooxanthellae and the parrotfish borrowing and reinventing each other’s work. This is the ultimate explanation of Darwin’s Paradox: the reef has unlocked so many doors of the adjacent possible because of the way it shares.
The reef helps us understand the other riddles we begin with: the runaway innovation of citities, and of the Web. They, too, are environments that compulsively connect and remix that most valuable of resources: information. Like the Web, the city is a platform that often makes private commerce possible but which is itself outside the marketplace. You do business in the big city, but the city itself belongs to everyone. (“City air is free air,” as the old saying goes.) Ideas collide, emerge, recombine; new enterprises find homes in the shells abandoned by earlier hosts; informal hubs allow different disciplines to borrow from one another. These are the spaces that have long supported innovation, from those first Mesopotamian settlements 8,000 years ago to the invisible layers of software that support today’s Web.
Ideas rise in crowds, as Poincare said. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection. So if we want to build environments that generate good ideas…we need to keep that history in mind, and not fall back on the easy assumptions that competitive markets are the only reliable source of good ideas. Yes, the market has been a great engine of innovation. But so has the reef.”– Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, pg 244 – 245
This is the first post in a series I am am collaborating on with the assistance of Melanie Harker and Kate Ahern Loveric under the stewardship of Howl Round / Center for the Theater Commons. Posts on A Big Eyed Fish will inevitably wrestle with related topics, questions, and musings, but those which are part of the official “series” (like this one) will also appear here. -rg
Robert Frost famously professed the benefits, when approaching a point of divergence in a journey, of taking the road “less traveled by.” Yet: I’ve found the travels that made all the difference for me have been on roads created from the convergence of multiple paths, merging snakelike into one another. The goal isn’t to explore undiscovered terrain, but the intersection of lands (supposedly) already traversed. How can investigating the crossover between disparate spheres provide fresh perspectives, possibly new insights?
Armed with this question, I enter into a year-long quest exploring the junctions of my two paths, or rather passions, in life: ensemble theater and audience.
I possess a self-described “healthy obsession” with the triangulation of art, artist, and audience. In other words—I am endlessly fascinated with the relationships formed around a work of theater by artists and audiences. This fascination guides, even “dictates,” everything in my career as a theater artist, producer, and administrator. Luckily I found people to share this obsession with: the eleven other company members of dog & pony dc and the host of artists with whom we collaborate.
d&pdc is an ensemble-based company in Washington, DC focused on devising performances that provide audiences new ways of experiencing theater. We weren’t audience-fixated at first. d&pdc was initially founded as an ensemble company focused on remixing classical texts into contemporary performances. My two co-founders and I wanted to increase collaboration between all the players in the theatrical production—producers/administrators, artists, and audience. We believed ensemble-based collaboration would not only create stronger, more complex productions, but it would amp up the intensity and immediacy of shows in performance.
Over the course of a handful of productions, the audience experience quickly emerged as d&pdc’s raison d’etre. We had always wanted our shows—whether original works or productions of previously written scripts—to shake up the stagnant theater-going experience, aiming never to take the audience’s presence for granted. With every show we were inclined to increase the audience’s agency and participation: first we acknowledged the audience’s presence; then we casually interacted with them; then we moved them around the theater; invited them to create their own characters; requested (almost required) they perform with us—literally assigning the audience parts integral to the show’s narrative arc. We came to view the audience as our final collaborator in shaping productions; so much so that the company and board almost immediately came to agreement at our annual retreat last year that one of our defining values is “the audience completes our ensemble.” Our collaborative, ensemble process transitioned to becoming the means to our “audience integration” ends.
When d&pdc began dialoging at the national level we were surprised by how broad and inclusive our definition of “ensemble” was in comparison with our colleagues. While we don’t operate at the “consensus” end of the collaboration spectrum, we value transparency and inclusivity at all points in the production process from all participants and the audiences’ experience is the central component of our devising process. As we plan our company’s organizational development and artistic growth, we’re trying to figure out—where do we fit into the spectrum of ensemble theater? What can we learn from our colleagues? What do we have to share? How can we make stronger work? And, most importantly, how can we alter artists’ and audiences’ expectations for theatrical events in DC and the country?
I see myself as an artist of two “types”: 1) a maker of theatrical experiences that are conversational in nature, and 2) a maker of interpretive opportunities around performances that build community. As much as my devising, directing, and performing is affected by my art-artist-audience, so too is my interest in engagement initiatives. My enthusiasm ignited quietly and smoldered throughout a twelve-year career in arts education and community-arts projects in regional theater.. It fully manifested and unleashed during my time at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company leading the conceptualization and launching of their “connectivity” innovation. I served as the first Connectivity Director at a critical point in the emergence of the “audience engagement” field in regional theaters: social media became mainstream, “marketing departments” widely began reframing as “engagement departments,” and dramaturg-led audience engagement activities (e.g. post-show discussions) peaked in popularity.
At Woolly, I submerged myself in shaping systems that would allow the theater to harness the power of its art and the resources of its city to reposition theater itself as a center of discourse. I sought to develop processes that would be repeatable and yet yield results unique to each production, and involve many voices (staff, artists, current audience, future/potential audience, community members with a stake in the conversation shows teed-up). But as engagement became a leading buzzword, it remained almost exclusively on the lips and in the minds of administrators—and select administrators at that. In the past few years the conversation about audience and their engagement with and around the art has not been dominated by the artists making the work or the audience that takes it in. This feels like playing a football game without your receivers, most of the coaching staff, and another team.
What are the lines of communication between artists, arts leaders, and audiences? Why are artists/leaders making the art that they do? How is this vision translating to shared sense of purpose in organizations? With audiences? With connection to communities?
One + Two = ?
At the 2012 TCG conference, Howard Shalwitz examined the “innovative” concept of a shared sense of purpose around productions in American theater, making a case for increased collaboration between artists and institutions in play development and productions. Ensemble-based companies responded to the resulting benefits Shalwitz listed with a fairly resounding “but of course! it’s why we chose this method of creation.”
I am curious: do ensemble-based companies have this shared sense of purpose? They are primed and inclined toward artistic collaboration and exchange already, aren’t they? But who is involved in the production process and at what stage (particularly for devising ensembles)? How does process affect project? What is the relationship between the makers and the receivers, the artist and audience? (Is there one?) How do your “art,” “artist,” and “audience” triangulate?
As I seek to define the uncharted land dog & pony dc has inhabited, I need to survey the vast landscape around me—to learn about the transitioning relationships between ensemble companies, the communities they’re based in, their impetus for creating, the people they create for, the manner in which they shape their experiences, and how all of this ultimately impacts the work they make. For myself and for my ensemble, beyond naming my healthy obsession with the triangulation of art-artist-audience as an ensemble theater maker, I must interrogate and share.
Care to help me on my journey?
Take five minutes to complete my Ensemble Theater & Audience Definitions Poll here.