Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas as an Atheist.

Two stories.

Story #1:  I was standing in line at the post office a few weeks ago, mailing a bunch of packages filled with Christmas presents for friends and family.  The line was LOOOOOOONNNNGGGGG, of course - who goes to the post office in the couple of weeks before Christmas expecting a short wait?  And while standing in line, the man in front of me started a conversation with those around him.  He said that what would make the wait more bearable was if the post office was playing Christmas music (there was no music playing).  Then, after a pause, he said "well, I guess that's offensive these days."  He then proceeded to talk about how stupid it was that people think Christmas is offensive, and how one day he said "Merry Christmas" to someone at the cash register at the grocery store, and they said "Happy Holidays" in return.  He then turned to them and said "I FIND THAT OFFENSIVE!" as though that just ended all arguments on the subject.  And all I could think was, that kind of just makes you a jerk.  This person wished you happy holidays.  As far as I can tell, that's a nice thing, it should make you smile, or at least that was the intention.

Story #2:  I unfortunately have to spend a lot of quality time on I-35, and noticed this year that someone on 6th Street had put up the words "Merry Christmas" in giant, red letters on the side of their building, facing the highway.  And my immediate reaction was to sigh and think cynically "this must be because of the supposed 'War on Christmas.'"

The holiday season - the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day - is my favorite time of year.  It always has been.  There's a sense of peace that permeates it, of contemplation, quietness, joy, and celebration of those we love.  It's the time of year when I want it to be freezing cold so I have to stay in, bundled up on the couch next to a glowing Christmas tree.  It's the time of year when I most appreciate my family, chosen family, and friends.  I get excited about having to buy presents for people and have to try very hard to reign in the spending and shopping impulses every year.  I love wrapped presents and winter holiday music and baking cookies.  Most people are in fairly good moods.  Houses and neighborhoods are decked out in beautiful lights.  Annual local celebrations occur.  Coworkers bring baked goods to work to share with everyone.  Bosses let you off early.

But, of course, in the last few years people have gotten crankier.  More defensive.  More hostile.  Someone has decided that there is a "War on Christmas" and that it has to be discussed ad nauseum in place of actual news or even things that actually are in the spirit of the season.  I have to resist the urge in myself every year to do some sort of daily photo blog showing how Christmas permeates everything around us and isn't an endangered species at all.  When people complain that Christmas decorations go up in the stores too early and then a few weeks later complain about not being allowed to publicly celebrate Christmas, I have to resist the urge to jump in and show them (probably angrily) the flaws in what they're saying.  I resist those urges because that hurts MY Christmas spirit, and MY holiday mood.

Listening to the man in the post office, I really wanted to interject and tell him that actually, I have NEVER heard someone tell me that Christmas offended them.  I have, on the other hand, heard a lot of people talk about how OTHER people are are offended by Christmas.  The man tried to demonstrate how progressive he was and say that if he wanted to say "Happy Hanukkah" instead, he would, because he's that kind of good guy.  And I wanted to interject and ask him when he had actually last done that.  The truth is, he probably hasn't ever wished someone a Happy Hanukkah, because he probably rarely thinks about Hanukkah.  There are very few daily, constant, visual reminders that Hanukkah is even taking place.  But those who celebrate it walk around in a world filled with Santa and reindeer and Christmas trees and news anchors spouting off about how everyone is ruining their Christmas.  I doubt that they actually forget for one second that Christmas is happening.

And, I understand that to Christians, Christmas isn't about Santa Claus.  They want to "put the Christ back in Christmas," a sentiment which is beautiful when thought of as a personal reminder to celebrate the season in the way that is most meaningful to an individual who is Christian, but feels more like someone wanting to force ME to celebrate that way.  I don't want to harbor negative feelings, anger, and resentment at this time of year, and yet others seem to delight in it.  Instead of spreading the Christmas spirit, they want to talk or hear others talk about how persecuted they are because there is a little less "Christmas" in Christmas today and a little more "something else."

Every year I send out almost 100 cards to family, friends, coworkers, and collaborators (both mine and Travis's).  My cards are always non-denominational, usually referencing "peace" in some way, because that is what I experience most during the season.  I also add a personal note to every card.  I do this because I have friends who are not Christian, and I'm uncomfortable sending them cards that reference Christmas specifically.  I never, ever resent getting a card from someone that references Jesus's birth (and those of you that send them to us, please don't stop doing that because of what I'm saying here), but at the same time when I read it I feel like a non-participant in my favorite holiday.  I don't think that this is ever intentional on the senders' part, but because I've felt that way on occasion I am aware that I might make others feel that way, and I want to avoid that.  One person on my list of recipients celebrates Yule, and another celebrates Hanukkah, and the other 98 - I don't want to assume that they all celebrate the same way that I do.  Writing personal messages inside 100 cards takes a lot of time, energy, and money once you figure in the cost of stamps.  And, unfortunately, last year when I was doing it I felt more than a little conscious of the fact that some of the recipients would probably look at my non-denominational happy holidays peace loving card (carefully chosen and bought from an artist on etsy) and mock me for my attempt to not offend.  Once that thought had taken root in my mind, I couldn't enjoy sending the cards anymore.  And so this year I chose to avoid that experience altogether.  That's what the "War on Christmas" has done to me - made me a little more cynical about how people perceive my celebration of the holiday.  I WANT to drive down the highway, see that "Merry Christmas" sign and feel happy.  And I hate that a part of my mind has to have the cynical reaction now.  Until *I* feel good again about sending cards, I probably won't.  It will be put on the list of Things That Make Me Feel Unhappy at Christmas, alongside shopping malls and airports and cable news and listening to my cats fighting.

And I will, instead, celebrate with Travis, our cats, family and friends that are in Austin and New Hampshire.  I will try to make those people feel loved.  I will arrange Skype calls with our families on Christmas morning, at least one of which won't really make any sense because our nephew will just run around a lot and scream, and I will be happy with the traditions that we've created together.  I will bake a LOT of cookies.  I will listen to Stuart McLean's "Polly Anderson's Christmas Party" (if you don't know this, find it and listen) and laugh a lot.  I will try to keep a certain 8 month old kitten from tearing down the Christmas tree.  And I will try to put my Christmas in a protective bubble for six weeks, long enough for me to quietly celebrate my favorite holiday in the way that is most meaningful to me.

Winter Solstice - Dan McCarthy

Friday, December 6, 2013

That unpaid internship thing.

There's been some criticism levied against Emursive and/or Punchdrunk and/or Sleep No More this week because of a post advertising for unpaid internships.

For the record, I can't speak to the particulars of THIS internship, or how much anyone involved in the show is paid, or how hard they work (though it's very obvious it's a demanding show).  I have no firsthand knowledge of how they are treated, whether they are exploited needlessly or beyond the norm for the industry.  It's absolutely possible that they are treated more unfairly than they might at other companies or on other projects.

What I can speak to is my own experience and my own knowledge of theater and trying to build a career in the industry, particularly from the technical and design side of things.

I worked an unpaid internship.  Most people I know have, at some point, worked one.  They are so common in theater that it's practically expected you will take one at some point early in your career.  Mine was great because it provided housing* - not all of them do.  In fact while I was working mine, in the middle-of-nowhere Maine, a friend of mine from school was working one for an off-Broadway company in NYC without pay or housing.

There are high-profile internships out there that not only aren't paid, but require you to pay them to work there.  I was offered one once, while in graduate school, and I had to turn it down because I couldn't work for nothing, let alone pay more money.  When I turned it down, I was told point blank that since I was not getting my MFA from NYU or Yale, I would never work in New York City without their credit on my resume.  I cried, a lot - not because I would "never work in New York City," because I'm not one to buy into that - I cried because I WANTED the internship.  And it was mine, and I couldn't take it.

People want these things.  This is how many (if not most, if not all) of us build our careers.  And yes, a lot of us consider ourselves extremely lucky when and if we get them.

And if you google "theater unpaid internships," you'll find that some of the biggest theaters in the country don't pay their interns.  Yesterday morning I spoke to a friend who has worked at one of them for 14 years, and she confirmed for me that none of their interns, in any discipline, were paid.

The headline of the article above also expresses some degree of (surprise?) (horror?) at the long hours worked by these interns - as in 10 hours.  As a software developer, I worked 10 hour days.  As a master electrician, I worked 16+ hour days with very few days off.  And that's nothing compared to some of the bigger, more prestigious places that an early career artist might find herself.  And that's not unique to interns - that's the job.  We work long, ridiculous hours for very little, if any, pay. (Side note:  the intern says that her hours are 4pm-3am.  That's 11 hours, not 10.  Someone is making the assumption that she is getting a one hour break.)

I am absolutely not saying that unpaid internships are RIGHT.  They aren't.  And in many instances it's downright abusive.  I'm saying they're COMMON, the norm even.  I've heard a lot of people reply to this by saying that if people stopped taking the internships, they'd have to start paying.  That might be true, and maybe it's the "right" thing to do for the group and industry as a whole.  But it could very well be the wrong thing to do for your individual career at this moment.  A career in theater is built on connections and relationships, and the company you intern with might be where you meet that designer you've always wanted to assist.

Sleep No More didn't dream this idea up - neither did Black Swan.  It might be true that SNM's internships are more grueling than most, and maybe they should be called out for it, but every single one of us has some ridiculous horror story of what conditions we've worked in at some point in our careers.  Please don't make the mistake of thinking that this is a unique situation; please don't tell me that paid positions are everywhere, or common, or easy to come by, or will put me on the same career path.  And please don't think that we don't know what we are getting into, or that we aren't WANTING these opportunities.

The woman in the linked blog post above, the "luckiest girl in the world," writes "As a stage management intern, it'll be my job to run props up and down the six floors, move audience members out the way of choreography, and do rapid problem solving.  Before and after the show will be the standard paperwork and preset duties.  My hours will be from 4-11pm Sunday-Thursday and 4pm-3am Friday and Saturday."

Or, you know.  Working in theater.

* Addendum on my "housing" as an intern:  I was housed with two other people in the attic of one of the theater's regular patrons.  No air conditioning, in the summer.  At least three times while living there I had to catch live bats that had flown into our space and let them go outside (my roommates were actually shaking at the thought of having to help me do this, so I did it myself).  I was very, very happy to have this living situation, as I was allergic to the building where all the other interns lived.  I could only spend about 20 minutes in there before getting extremely dizzy and nauseous.  We all have these stories.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Five Things: Updates from Dance Tech

I'm in tech for the Choreographers' Showcase at ACC this week, and catching up on Thanksgiving thoughts.

Five experiences for which I've been immensely grateful this year:

1.  The weekend-long out-of-town trips that I took with Travis this year (to Dallas and Marfa) and also with Travis & Will (to Houston).  They're like miniature vacations for people who don't currently have the resources to take longer, actual vacations to far away places.  They pull me away from my routine and root me in the present.  Favorite memories include seeing the night sky at McDonald Observatory, standing inside a Turrell installation, running through the corridors of a Dan Flavin installation, eating Indian food on top of pizza, swimming at Balmorhea.
Us at Balmorhea.

2.  Designing "Invisible Inc" for Hidden Room Theater in January, and having Daphne Mir fly out to visit and work as my amazing assistant.  Having a good friend staying with us for a week while also making my job easier and allowing me to concentrate solely on the design - it's one of my favorite theater experiences to date.

3.  Designing "Bus Stop" for Texas A&M Department of Performance Studies - I really treasure the times I am able to design for university theater departments while also interacting and working with the undergraduate students.

4.  The time spent at the state capitol this past summer - the experience of being present at Wendy Davis's filibuster and being a part of the "citizen's filibuster."  Progressives and liberals in someplace like Texas can very easily feel powerless.  This was a moment that proved we could have an effect, and inspired people to come together and fight for women's rights in the year ahead, and possibly through the next election.

5.  Becoming friends with the kitten that decided she lived under our deck - Ygritte has now living happily (for the most part) indoors with us for over two months and we've become really close.
Happy indoor kitty.

Also, if you're interested the dancers at ACC have a blog called A Community of Dancers, and they're writing about their experiences with this week's performance.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm.

My brain and body experience a fairly negative reaction to the way our world is structured today around media.  It's too easy for me to spend hours in front of a laptop, television, or both at the same time.  It's much easier to choose to do this rather than to spend the hours socializing in real life, listening to music while cooking good food, reading, or engaging in creative pursuits.  The fact that new kitty Ygritte wants to sit on my lap and/or cuddle with me 24/7 doesn't make this any easier, nor does the cold weather that finally hit Austin this week.  As a result of constant television, Facebook, Twitter, other social media, reading blogs, email, playing games brain isn't quiet.  It's always jumping from one thought to another, one idea to another, without spending any time contemplating, meditating, or enjoying.

I don't know how I stumbled upon Wallace Steven's poem "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm," but it made me long for this exact feeling:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there. 

I can imagine the times I felt this way, sitting on my back deck and reading a good book, or practicing yoga first thing in the morning as the sun comes up.  Watching the snow fall in a street lamp on Christmas Eve back in New Hampshire.  Traveling out of town with Travis for the weekend.  Getting a really good massage, the kind that's deep and therapeutic but not insanely painful.  I miss it.

Visual representation of not my mind.

Experiencing James Turrell's art is a great cure for this.  In September, I dragged Travis and Will to Houston for a night so that we could see/experience the retrospective at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.  I've been really interested in his work for a long time, unsurprising I guess for a lighting designer, but had never experienced anything of his first hand.  They might have thought I was crazy with how insistent I was that we go to the exhibit before it closed, but once they saw what Turrell was about, they understood.  I think it's nearly impossible to sit in silent awe in the middle of one of his immersive environments and not feel your mind empty and calm while your perception of space is distorted.  The only drawback to the experience was that there were too many people - I really wanted to experience these pieces in solitude, not feeling rushed to let the next person in or distracted by what they were saying.
Also we had Indian food on top of pizza.
Travis and I got to experience some of that in October, when the new Turrell Skyspace at UT Austin opened to the public.  We were among the first to see it, and of our group the first to arrive.  Before anyone else got there I was able to lie on my back in the middle of the floor and look at the sky through the opening.  Once people arrived and the "show" began (basically a sequence of lighting shifts that begin at sunset and play for maybe an hour), we sat on benches surrounding the walls.  For over an hour.  I don't know that anyone who was there got bored and left - conversation and silence alternated among the group, one man slept through part of it, several people took out their phones but only to take pictures of the beautiful colors and sky above us, not to make calls, check email or do anything else that we are so accustomed to doing every five minutes.  It was an hour of meditation, even if we weren't always quiet as a group.  The thing I remember most from the experience was the occasional bird or plane flying overhead - something about viewing only a piece of the sky through a small opening made me so much more aware of those occurrences.  When we left, I felt noise from my brain and tension in my body had faded.

The Turrell skyspace at UT

I need to seek out more experiences like this.  And it doesn't have to be quiet, hour long experiences of installation art - anything that keeps me away from my phone, my laptop, or the television for an hour or more will do.  Sunday I met with local filmmaker/animation artist Jeanne Stern for a one-on-one handmade animation class.  For three hours, I played with basic stop motion animation, taking photos, importing them into Final Cut and watching what I had created with very simple tools and some actual time of concentration and quiet.  The cold weather had made it so that I didn't want to leave the house earlier that day, but once I was there, working and playing, I relaxed.  When I left I could feel how different I was.  I will probably be experimenting a lot with some of these kinds of animation in the next few months, especially while brainstorming and working on projections for "Sila."

I still find that I struggle with my use of media.  I frequently feel the urge to leave Facebook entirely, just because experiencing the daily updates of a couple hundred people creates so much more noise in my head.  I try to be very conscious of my use of my iPhone, I turn it off when in a class, at work, in meetings, in tech, or out with friends or with Travis.  It's not easy to step away from it and not constantly want to check my email or text messages.  But it's worth it.  One afternoon walking on campus to my car I counted the number of people (mostly students) who passed by me while staring at their phones.  I try to remind myself that I don't want to look like that, and also that I would probably just trip and fall if I tried.

Monday, November 4, 2013

How Games Ruined A Biology Career and Created a Lighting Designer.

My experiences in gaming and my love for theater and design are inextricably related.  While I can remember when I first worked as an electrician on a show and first learned that lighting design as a field existed, I think that my interest in it began earlier than that, when I played Riven in my dorm room in college.  Back then I was a marine biology major.  Myst was the game that really got transitioned me away from the various Nintendo games played throughout high school (Super Mario Bros, Zelda, and most especially Star Tropics, which could actually be considered my first experience with intermedia storytelling...) to more story-based games played on my desktop computer (a Hewlett-Packard, if I remember correctly, which lasted me from 1996-2001).  But Riven really sparked something designer-y in me, I think.  There are so many beautiful places to explore and the lighting is key to the feel of all of them.

Yes, I wanted to recreate these lighting fixtures in my dorm room.

I've actually brought images from Riven and from Myst to the table as research for designs.  This probably makes me a huge dork.

(Side note:  I know that a lot of people don't consider me a "gamer" and I hesitate to use that word to describe myself.  I've gotten a lot of flak over the past 18 years for the kinds of games that draw me, and how they aren't "real" games, or they're "girl" games (because anything modified with the adjective "girl" is, of course, lesser than), or something.  Maybe because I'm not into World of Warcraft and the like, or not hugely drawn to first-person shooters.  Or something.  It doesn't matter.  These are games, and I play them.)

In Myst and in Riven, you are (mostly) free to explore and discover whatever you can about the world in which you find yourself.  The story reveals itself slowly over the course of the game as you discover pieces of it.

In the spring of 2001 I had another gaming experience that was a huge influence on my theater career.  I joined a yahoo group called "Cloudmakers," a hive mind that formed around the first Alternate Reality Game, which didn't have a name at the time but is now called "The Beast."  Back then it was the "A.I. game," because it was devised as marketing for the Spielberg film.  A lot has been written about this game, from the points of view of those who played and solved, those who have studied, and from those who created it.  At the time it was groundbreaking and the fact that several thousand people came together online to solve its mysteries was amazing - it's probably my only experience with any kind of game that requires a community of other actual players, aside from Second Life.  When the game ended in July of that year, I remember feeling like I had become involved in a performance, in some sort of interactive piece of theater, and I wanted more.

Limited edition A.I. movie poster - the lines in the figure are the names of all the Cloudmakers.

These two experiences sparked an interest in me to find a way to combine theater and live performance with the interactivity and discovery found in games.

And then ten years later I found "Sleep No More."

A lot of people have compared "Sleep No More" to Bioshock, largely (I think) due to the atmosphere and design and music played throughout.  I think that yes, it resembles Bioshock if all the overbearing audience members are the Splicers and I'm free to shoot them.  In reality to me it's a lot more like Myst or Riven.  As an audience member I'm free to explore as I see fit, and I may, or may not, uncover parts of a story along the way.  I might interact with characters in that story, or I might simply read their letters and files found in desks and rooms.  What I walk away with is very open ended.  There are also a few "tasks" strewn in the show here and there (see: my futile attempts to find the ring) giving a select few audience members the experience of an objective to achieve.  I need to replay Bioshock to see just how much of this freedom to discover exists in it - can you go off a path and explore as you wish?  Can you finish the game without getting the entire story?  I felt very forced along a specific track, which drives me nuts unless everything else about the game is just awesome.

I finally got a chance recently to play a game that a lot of people have been talking about recently - Gone Home.  THIS is, to me, a much more apt comparison to "Sleep No More."  There is still a "track" of sorts, but it's at least a little more subtle, and I know that I missed part of the whole story entirely which says to me that my experience of the game is possibly different from someone else's.  In Gone Home you (the audience) take on a specific role, someone who has come home from studying abroad for a year to find her family's house empty.  The only thing for you to do is discover what happened to your family in the year of your absence.  There are no other characters with which to interact, just letters, hastily scribbled notes, cassette mix tapes that you can play (it's set in the 90's), newspaper articles, etc.  It makes me want to find a house somewhere and "stage" something similar for a small audience to "play" within.  "Sleep No More" adds the layer of performers and interacting with them, which is similar to "The Beast," but the intent of the entire game is exploration and discovery.

Living rooms in the 90's, complete with VHS tapes of all the movies I had.

It looks like I'm heading back soon to NYC and will have another opportunity to visit "Sleep No More," as well as "Then She Fell," if tickets can be procured.  Another similar immersive experience in NYC sounds interesting - "Speakeasy Dollhouse."  That show scares me a little though, and right now might still be outside my personal comfort zone.  There is a reason why I have never played any kind of role-playing game (aside from various entries in the Final Fantasy series, if they count - I'm speaking here of D&D and WoW and MMPORGs).  I am really, really bad at pretending to be someone I'm not, and "Speakeasy Dollhouse" requires its audience members to take on an assigned character for the duration of the performance.  I think that adding that level of gamification to my theater experience is going to take a few more years, or decades, of some kind of self-discovery thing in order to feel comfortable with it.  My first experience interacting with Hecate in "Sleep No More" was terrifying and risk-taking enough for this current version of me.  Nevertheless, I'm really interested to see how much more we can meld the experiences of gaming and theater.

Just please don't ever give me any kind of grenade launcher or crossbow while I'm in the McKittrick.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In Which I Admit to Using Fog and Liking a 3D Movie.

Trouble Puppet's production of "The Head" has teched, opened, and closed.  This was my second collaboration with Trouble Puppet, after 2011's "Riddley Walker."  Lighting Connor Hopkins's work always takes a mental adjustment for me - lighting puppets is just like lighting people!  Except they are shorter!  And handled by larger beings wearing black that you really don't want to see if at all possible!  But it's definitely worth it - Trouble Puppet is one of the best companies in town to design for, because the work is always good, always collaborative, always imaginative.

This review in Arts & Culture Texas made me smile - the lighting is briefly mentioned, with a positive reference to the "tasteful use of fog machine."  I know that lots of lighting designers use fog machines frequently, but I always hesitate before using it, questioning if it's really necessary for the piece.  I was approached earlier this year about designing a show, and during the conversation with the director she mentioned that she did not want to use fog in her show, saying that she knew that according to a previous designer, "fog makes the lights look better," but it wasn't what she wanted for this show.  I had never heard that as a reason for using fog - to me, a design element has to NEED to be present.  This means that I don't use every effect at my disposal for every show just because I have it.  I need to understand why, in this case, we need the fog.  Or the strobe.  Or the moving lights.  That was something I struggled with in grad school - after two full semesters of automated lighting classes, I didn't really understand why we would NEED to use moving lights in a play until I was assisting at Cincinnati Opera.  I've just never been a fan of lighting effects for the sake of effects.

That's some tasteful fog right there. (photo by Stephen Pruitt)
Last weekend, Travis and I went to see the film "Gravity," in IMAX 3D.  Usually I avoid movies that tout their 3D-ness.  Usually, I hate it.  I never really see the need for 3D, why a particular movie has to have 3D, why this story can't be told without it.  And the glasses, well, they give me a headache.  But everything that I had read about "Gravity" told me that it was necessary to pay extra to see it this way, and so we did.  And all I can say now is that "Gravity" is the first and only film I have seen that NEEDS to be in 3D.  There aren't enough synonyms for "stunning" to really do justice to what the effect did for this film, the way that the size, scope, vastness, emptiness of space was so palpable because of it.  I am so used to feeling so analog, "old school," get-off-my-lawn curmudgeonly about the because-we-can overuse of technology and effects in art - I was overjoyed to have experienced something for which the use was justified, was the RIGHT choice to make.

(And, as an unrelated feminist side note on "Gravity" - when we complain that there are no good roles for women in movies and theater, THIS is what we are looking for.  "Gravity" is a film with a female lead who is not defined by her relationship to the men in her life and is not, in any way, romantically involved with someone else in the film.  Spoilers, sorry.  This is, to my mind, a film where the lead role was written to be the normal male protagonist that we always see in these parts and then given to a woman.  I've heard a few complaints about the gender politics of the film, specifically in how George Clooney relates to / flirts with Sandra Bullock, but as someone who actually LOOKS HARD for these things in every film and play she sees, it did not bother me at all.  So, as far as I'm concerned, halle-freaking-lujah.  Please make more movies like this.)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Five Things: Updates from "The Head" Tech, part 2

The entire Reilly-Bedard household is still in tech - opening night is tomorrow.  Limited brain space means another quick "five things" post this week.

1.  Myst is 20, and there's a great article about its legacy.  There's actually a much longer, more in depth blog post in my head about Myst, gaming, and its connection to my lighting design career and love of certain kinds of theater.  Keating sent this my way earlier this week and it took me back to freshman year, playing this game on a friend's Apple computer in Scott Hall at UNH.  Myst, for me, led to Riven, Zork: Nemesis and all the old Zork games, interactive fiction, eventually The Beast, which directly relates to my love of Sleep No More and new media art.  My roots as an artist extend back 20 years to that island. 

2.  Fantastic Fest is going on in Austin right now, and they're showing Escape From Tomorrow, and I'm in tech!  I've been waiting to see this for months.  While I'm so happy that it seems like this movie is gaining wider release, great reviews and an audience, waiting for a showing of it that I can actually attend involves holding my breath and crossing my fingers that a certain major corporation doesn't pursue a lawsuit first...

3.  I'm immersing myself in anything and everything that feels like the arctic to me as part of my research for "Sila."  My favorite thing found so far?  This series of photos, "Vanishing Spirits," by Ernie Button.

4.  Did you know that overactive kittens left alone all day long because their owners are in tech can contribute to sleepless nights?  For three nights now I have woken to a very needy, purring kitten licking my face.  Other than this behavior, Ygritte is doing really well in our house and things are starting to calm down with Sansa and Asha.  Here is a photo of Ygritte helping me with paperwork for "The Head:

5.  Finally, if you're in/near/around/inclined to visit Austin in the next few weeks, come see the hard work of a ton of great artists (including Travis and myself) in Trouble Puppet's latest production, "The Head," which opens tomorrow night!  Tickets can be purchased here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Five Things: Updates From "The Head" Tech

I'm currently in tech for Trouble Puppet's production "The Head," which opens next Thursday, September 26.  You should see it, it's a ton of fun.  Five brief snippets from this week:

1.  Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Lacuna is just fantastic - art, politics, social justice, cultural identity.  Tomorrow is a full day off from the show, and supposedly it's going to be pouring rain outside, and I plan to spend the whole day indoors with cats and this book.

2.  The Kitten Formerly Known as Jon Snow is now the kitten named Ygritte.  Because she was a girl.  She now lives with us, indoors, and it's pretty awesome, except that both Travis and I are in tech for "The Head" right now, which leaves 5 month old ball-of-energy Ygritte at home with no one to entertain her.  We get home at 11:30pm from rehearsal each night, and she's all "OMG TIME TO PLAY!!" and we're all no, seriously, bed.  Never, ever bring a kitten home on purpose when you and your partner are going to be in tech; wait until the show opens.  Ygritte chose us and chose us at this specific time, so I don't feel too badly.  She likes to bite my toes and sit on my face if I am not playing or cuddling enough.

3.  I've been thinking a lot this week about the tendency that many people have to cut down other people who work to create something in their lives.  Some of this stems from having to dig up David Wong's great piece on, which addresses this specifically and calls out its own comments section as an example.  And some of it is because of this critique of CrossFit, and critiques of CrossFit always sound to me like they are coming from people who would rather sit on the couch and criticize anyone wanting to be fit (I don't know if this one specifically does).  There's a longer blog post in my head somewhere, when I have time and energy to think through it.

4.  I'm currently following the ARG "The Blackhollow Project" - just watching for now as it has already been going on for two months, but isn't so complex that it's impossible to catch up and follow the story pretty quickly.  REALLY wish someone would create an Austin-centered ARG!

5.  If you get a chance, check out Penfold Theatre's production of "Red," which closes September 29 and is DEFINITELY worth your time.  And I was pleasantly surprised to see that a colleague of mine from grad school designed the set!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Creating in an Analog Way.

This morning on the drive in to work, I listened to the most recent Radiolab podcast, which was a brief overview of the band Dawn of Midi.  Their music began with these sort of unstructured improvisation sessions and grew into something completely different because the members of the band were listening to different kinds of music from all over the world.  That music seeped in to their work and their music evolved because of it (research!).  I was completely fascinated by their music before they got to the best part of the piece:

"I think that something is going on in the world right now, the last 10-15 years, you see it in a lot of fields right now...people doing things "in an analog way" that, ten years ago, would have been assumed absolutely impossible without the aid of technology.  You see it from big wave surfers who found out they could ride huge waves if they have jet skis to pull them into these waves, and now they're saying "hey wait a minute, we could catch these with our arms again."  But the jet ski needed to be there to show them that this was even possible.  And you see it with this French beat boxer video online...he's doing something that just sounds impossible...the kind of stuff that Aphex was programming in its music, but this guy's doing it with his mouth.  And it's like, the computers showed us a world of possibility, and now we're sort of realizing that world was inherent to us, not the machines."

That (probably badly transcribed) quote was from Aakaash Israni, bassist for Dawn of Midi.

I joke a lot about doing things in an analog way, whether that's in creating art or insisting on reading actual paper books and not electronic devices or continuing to balance my checkbook manually.  Travis is insanely digital in the way he does things - everything he does appears to be handled online in a streamlined way, often in a way I didn't know existed.  And despite my interest in digital technology and new media I find myself frequently drawn to the aspects and uses that are more "analog" in either nature or aesthetic.  And I LOVE the idea that we could only fully come to appreciate some of the "analog" ways of doing things BECAUSE of the ways that digital technology, machines, computers, etc have helped us find new ways of doing those things.  That, because of technology, we now know of ways to approach problems or create art that we can now look at solving or creating without that technology.  I love seeing things like overhead projectors or handmade animation or puppetry used in theatrical productions because of this.  We have the technology and ability to do that all digitally now (well, maybe not always the financial resources) and yet we turn around and do it manually, and in doing so create a different aesthetic.  And it really becomes about which aesthetic best supports the work at hand, and not about simply using the newest technology because we can.  It's about what that technology can teach us, and how our work evolves because of it, whether we end up using it or not.

Recently Travis, Will, and I took an impromptu road trip to Houston to check out the Turrell retrospective at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts (I'm sure I'll write about that at some point).  After seeing the Turrell works, we found ourselves in the basement of the museum where there was a photographic exhibit showing ways artists manipulated photographs before the advent of Photoshop.  I loved seeing these works that might be "easily" created using software today but which were created by manipulating negatives or using other manual techniques.  It really made me curious about what I might be working on right now using the Adobe Creative Suite and how I might be able to accomplish the same things without Photoshop, Premiere, and After Effects.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Research partner.

The big exciting news in my world this month has been that this little guy - or girl - has decided to live on our back deck.  Much to the chagrin of Sansa and Asha, I've been slowly getting him/her to trust me by sitting out on the back deck in the evenings while he/she eats.

We are slowly getting there.  And, as you can see, I have plenty of research and reading to be doing while I'm out there, building trust.

I am absolutely addicted to books.  Travis has made half-hearted attempts in the past to get me interested in having a Kindle, but honestly, I just want the actual, physical BOOK, the pages in my hands.  And an upcoming show involving a culture about which I know very little is the perfect excuse to add to my collection.  Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut arrived today, and I'm waiting on others.

Call it multitasking - reading and research for a show while getting a kitten to trust me.  I hope that if he/she has a home, I'll be able to find the owner, though having this ritual time to read and be quiet & still has been a great way to start each evening.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Marfa Adventures.

When I was in graduate school at UT Austin years ago, I was constantly hearing about how awesome Marfa was for seeing art.  It took nine years of living here for us to finally journey all the way out there to check it out.

Driving there all day on a Friday, it seemed like an unlikely place to see art, but having spent 99.99% of my time in Texas in the bigger cities it was great to finally see what other areas of this gigantic state look like.  After arriving on Friday we drove out to the McDonald Observatory to see whatever stars and planets they could show us that night (we saw Saturn!), and it's just stunning what getting away from light pollution and experiencing true darkness will do for your view of the night sky. 

On Saturday we took the full collection tour at the Chinati Foundation, which went from about 10:30am-4pm.  What struck me the most about this experience was the site-specificity involved in this collection - there was an intentionality to the placement of THIS art in THIS space.  Some of the pieces in the collection, especially those by Donald Judd, were not works that would normally resonate with me, but within the context of the space - the buildings in which they were permanently installed, the view of the desert that could be seen through the windows - they were arresting.  This was most true, for me, of Judd's 100 untitled works in milled aluminum.  I sat on the floor of that room looking out at the desert through the sculptures, enjoying how it reflected in the aluminum, how the light coming through the windows affected the pieces.  Had I been looking at these pieces in another gallery, I'm not sure I would have lingered as much.

The highlight for me was the Dan Flavin installation, which covered six separate buildings.  Travis and I went from one building to the next, exploring the hallways and frequently being surprised by what we found in each (despite the fact that they were nearly identical).  Upon entering each building, you would see two hallways branching off at the end of the room, with a different colored light washing the walls of each hallway.  Approaching the hallways, you could look down to see the source of that colored light, and there were times when we were both actually surprised - in that Christmas morning kind of way - by what we saw.
Running through empty hallways of six buildings in the desert, discussing color mixing.  That's how I spent that Saturday.

I also loved the immersive installation School No. 6 by Ilya Kabakov.  This was probably helped by my current interest in the immersive theater phenomenon (and my love of "Sleep No More").  I love walking through a space, multiple rooms, where there is a narrative to discover.  I love having to figure it out, and I love never being sure that I have figured it out because the entire story hasn't been told to me overtly. 

By the end of the tour, my brain was full.  I couldn't handle any more art.  This was unfortunate because one of the final stops on the tour was a display of poetry by Carl Andre, and I couldn't do anything more than look blankly at the poems and acknowledge that they were EXACTLY something that would fascinate me, but mentally I was out of disk space.  Looking at them I wondered if Mark Z. Danielewski had seen these, or something similar, when writing House of Leaves.  The Chinati Foundation should offer a backwards version of this tour so that the pieces seen at the end can be better appreciated by people who have not been walking through the desert, bombarded by art, for hours.

Of course we couldn't go all the way to Marfa without the visit to Prada Marfa...
It's unclear in this picture just how "middle of nowhere" this installation actually is - it's not in Marfa, it's about a 35 minute drive from Marfa.  I read in the comments on Foursquare that the artist's intention was to allow the piece to degrade/disintegrate over time without repair into the landscape, which means I need to return to it in 20 or so years to take this photo again.  The most frightening thing about this trip happened at Prada Marfa - when we went to leave to head back to town, our car wouldn't start.  I highly recommend possibly being stranded at Prada Marfa.  Thankfully, the car eventually started and we headed back to civilization.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On Caring.

We recently held our first design meeting for “Sila,” which is being produced at UNH in February 2014.  Early design meetings equals a lot of discussion of themes, imagery, and this conversation went on for over two hours with a lot of material being discussed and ground being covered. 

“Sila” by Chantal Bilodeau deals with Inuit issues surrounding climate change.  Instead of just dealing with climate change from a western perspective, or even a purely scientific one, as I am used to, it delves into how the issue and the conversation surrounding it affects those living closest to the Arctic.   I was studying to be a scientist before I became a theater artist, and probably would have gone into conservation biology had I stuck with it, so when it comes to dealing with this and many, many other issues I am extremely pro-science.  Does the science support it?  Are there peer-reviewed papers in reputable journals on the subject?  Where is the information I’m currently receiving coming from – the media?  A politician?  A scientist?  These are questions that are important to me when dealing with some of the more “controversial” issues.  To my thinking, the fact that 97% of climate scientists support the theory of man-made climate change should be enough for the rest of us to accept this as fact and work to change it.  That should be enough.  In “Sila,” it isn’t.  Several Inuit characters in Bilodeau’s play express frustration at the unwillingness of climate scientists to work in conversation with them – they feel talked AT, and not included, in this global issue that currently affects them the most.  In our meeting (held via Skype, since I am not in New Hampshire) we talked about this and the issue of caring, the role that acts of caring play in broader issues like this.  Tragedies occur and lives are broken, but in “Sila,” healing and real change occurs when people listen to each other’s stories and forego preaching facts in favor of showing empathy and working to understand another human being’s life, how it has been affected, how it can be healed.

This discussion resonated with me because of the recent events in the Texas legislature, which I witnessed first hand.  I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time when Senator Wendy Davis filibustered an extremely restrictive abortion bill.  I was not there when she began, taking my seat in the gallery around 5:30pm on June 25.  I stayed in that seat (or standing in front of it) until about 12:30am the next morning and was part of the incredibly moving, powerful experience of shouting the bill to death.  Earlier in the day, Davis read letter after letter from Texans about their personal experiences with abortion, and she (and I, and many of my friends who were watching the livestream) began crying during one particular letter about a woman’s experience seeking a late-term abortion.  I find myself beyond frustrated when it comes to the right’s insistence on legislating abortions after the 20 week mark because there is a marked lack of LISTENING to women who require this medical treatment.  Women attempting to obtain an abortion at this stage of pregnancy are often vilified, and the discussion always centers around how five months should be “enough” time to decide what to do about a pregnancy, instead of centering around the heartbreaking reasons that women frequently need late-term abortions. There are many, many other stories that have surfaced on the website 1 in 10.  Read them.  And, as I should have expected in a political debate, this one letter and these many stories and the facts surrounding why a small percentage of women seek an abortion after 20 weeks did not matter.  There was a lack of listening, a lack of caring.

These are huge issues.  Action and inaction on them affects many.  How do we incorporate those human stories into the ongoing discussions?  How do we listen to the actual experiences of others, and not just the information being fed to us by the media, politicians, or even science? 

Notes from Dublin: Rambling, Emotional, Barely Coherent.

This has been a strange two weeks to be in another country, especially one that isn't a major world power. Ireland doesn't have the ...