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.