Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Top Five Works of Art Discovered/Experienced in 2017.

I love writing this every year, trying to recall every piece of art I encountered in the last twelve months. This year, because of the Edinburgh Fringe, I saw a lot more theatre than usual and so there are a lot more contenders to choose from, though not one single Broadway show or David Bowie album (sadly). I think this may actually be the first time that all five actually came from the current year - no books, movies, or albums that I was just discovering for the first time.

1. Andrew Schneider, YOUARENOWHERE

Without a doubt, this has to be number one. I called that way back in January when I saw it. This might be the best theatre I have EVER seen, not just the best this year. Nothing has come close to affecting me the way this did. Of course the recent circumstances (Travis's heart attack) helped tremendously, as well as my love for performance that incorporates technology, David Lynch, and anything that reminds me strongly of Synecdoche, NY. But, god, theatre has never fooled me like that before, never made me feel as though actual physical magic had taken place and I was unaware of it. The best word I have for it is "transcendent," and the best way I can describe my reaction to it is that it wrecked me for days after. You need to go into this show knowing nothing. Not one damn thing about it. I am dying to see his new show, AFTER, at Under the Radar in January but unfortunately can't afford a plane ticket to NYC at the moment. Hopefully it will be at the Walker in January, or somewhere else in NYC when I have more time and money, or maybe in Los Angeles on one of my 97 trips there.

2. Theatre Conspiracy, Foreign Radical

My first show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, I saw this before anyone else in my company did and spent the rest of our time there nagging everyone to go see it. This was a perfect blending of immersive and political theatre, bringing a subject that affects not-me to an intensely personal level and forcing me to relate directly to it. It's one thing to hear about how the terror watchlist in the United States is used but it's another to have the same tactics applied to you, someone who would (likely) never have to worry about being targeted. One of the brilliant things about immersive theatre, when done right, is how effectively personal it can make any story. Foreign Radical did exactly that because after being introduced to the overall theme, that theme seemingly went out the window to be replaced by a game. By the time it came back around to being serious at the end, I was caught completely off guard and I will never forget that moment. This show wasn't about learning about myself as much as it was learning about others and about my lack of knowledge and empathy, and how I had to change.

3. Darren Lynn Bousman & Clint Sears, The Lust Experience

This feels a bit premature because it is still ongoing, but the damn thing has been ongoing since February and has taken up not only most of my year but most of Travis's as well, by proxy, and has had a massive impact on me. Last year's The Tension Experience was one of the best experiences I've ever had, but it pales in comparison in just about every aspect to what they are doing with Lust. The narrative is stronger, has more complexity, there is a deeper sense of world building and a feeling that we are an intrinsic part of that world (some of us to a greater, more disturbing, less trustworthy extent than others). I am not normally this affected by a piece of art, I am not a paranoid person, I'm incredibly logical and reasonable - but they got me, with a frightening amount of precision. At the recent "Mid-Season Event," Anointment, there was a special invite-only final show in which the performance operated like a giant sandbox: we were allowed to go wherever we wanted, interact with anyone we wanted, and the number of narratives that were taking place simultaneously was astounding. Seeing people piece together their experiences a week later from an event that only ran for four days - with one special performance lasting only one night - has been incredible. And this is a piece of immersive theatre where I am learning about myself, though not exactly pleasant things. It's making me work through things I didn't want to work through, which is not entirely what I signed up for.

4. The Theatre Practice, Blank Run

I saw this performed at World Stage Design in Taipei this past summer, as part of Scenofest. Short, simple, stunning, it's performed in Mandarin (there isn't very much language used at all) without subtitles, and it's largely a movement/video piece in which one performer is literally piecing together fragments of a memory of what happened to her. The brilliance of it to me was the structure used for projection, which allowed the projector to be mounted on a moveable frame (on castors) on which she could hang white articles of clothing. The projector served as a rear projector on these, but the entire structure could be moved without moving the image, because the projector would move with the frame. Put three of these frames together, three projectors, and you have endless combinations of "puzzle pieces" to assemble. The overall piece was haunting, the imagery was stunning, and even though "what happened" was predictable from the start, the way she discovered it was anything but.

5. Penumbra Theatre, Wedding Band

Oh look - an actual traditional play with an actual script on my list! I took my first year students to see this in the fall semester and it was beautiful. I ended up seeing it twice, taking Travis and sitting almost in the front row, which put us smack dab in the middle of the full-on rage scene between Julia and Herman's mother. I loved the discussions my students had about this play, too, and how much I learned from them, because they were so astute when it came to picking up cues from staging and design choices. The acting was phenomenal and the designs were all beautiful, and of course, because I loved it it must have morally grey areas, which of course led to all sorts of lengthy discussions in class. I'm still reading papers the students wrote on it. Of all the plays I took them to this semester this was the one I was looking forward to least, and it ended up being my favorite.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Rambling III: The Longest Night.

I used to be pagan and there are days I really do miss it - not because I miss believing in something, since I don't think that my motivations for calling myself pagan ever had anything to do with faith in anything, but because I enjoyed finding something sacred in the natural rhythms of life and the world around me. Eventually it felt hypocritical to continue to observe the sabbats when I knew I didn't "believe" in anything greater or more magical. I could continue to observe them silently, in my heart and mind, without the need for rituals that I didn't believe had any real effect. And then with time of course that observation fell away too.

A couple of the sabbats have stayed with me though, winter solstice/yule being one. I love Christmas, even as a non-Christian. I love everything about decorating my house, getting a tree, planning the gifts for friends and family, sending a ton of Christmas (holiday) cards, baking cookies, playing Christmas music, having a break from work, and on the rare occasion I get to see my family back in New Hampshire, even that. We don't have kids so Christmas is a quiet time and the solstice for me has been a time of reflection on the year that has passed, and a time to gather energy for the year ahead. The light is starting to return (which in Minnesota is no small feat). Whatever happened, happened. It's time for the new.

This past year has been hard and it's ending in a rough patch. In spite of that I've had some really amazing experiences (Mary Poppins, Scotland, The Lust Experience) but I'm definitely looking forward to what the light will bring. Yesterday brought good heart-related news. I'm teaching my favorite class this spring. More travel is on its way, including what looks like two trips to Ireland in the first half of 2018. And even though we're headed into the dreaded four months of grey, cold, slush and snow, the light is returning and it will eventually be summer again.

Found this poem this morning which resonated:

Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

—Jan Richardson

Friday, December 15, 2017

In Response to the OnStage Blog Piece.

Dear Mr. Peterson,

In response to your piece "If You Want to Major in Theatre, Avoid These Colleges: 2017-18 Edition" published in OnStage Blog earlier this week I feel I need to respond to your criticisms of the program at the University of Texas at Austin. Not just because I drank the Longhorn Kool-Aid myself but because I'm a product of the program, know many others who are as well, and lived in Austin for over 1/4 of my life. I am still in touch with faculty and was a part of the UT Austin culture my entire time in Texas, either as a graduate student or as a staff member. I worked professionally in the local theatre scene. I'm now a college professor myself and know a bit more about the struggles a program faces in the larger context of a college. And, well, I don't really sleep. I started writing this at 4am.

UT's theatre program is, like the rest of the school, big, and serves a large number of students. It's also one of the top programs in the country and the resources available to those students aren't available at most colleges - this includes the facilities, the faculty, the staff, Texas Performing Arts, the Ransom Center, and the technology available for the productions. Students who attend UT for theatre are getting an education that can't be found in many other places across the country - not all, but many. The state school I attended as an undergraduate doesn't have a fraction of the resources that UT has, despite having incredibly talented, professional, and passionate faculty, and the same is true for where I teach now. What access to these resources means for the students is that their education can be whatever they want it to be. Working with faculty and also with grad students who are on the cutting edge of the industry allows a student to pursue their own passion as far as they want, and as specifically as they want, and in my experience there UT found ways to support its students in what they wanted to do.

The New Works Festival at UT, held every other year, is, in my opinion, the best thing about the program and THE reason to attend. This festival is a major event in which students from all over campus create their own original work. Classes are suspended in the theatre department during it and the department puts all of its resources into student productions, performances, installations, exhibitions, music, or whatever else it is that they've dreamed up. These aren't your typical stagings of dead white men plays - these are original pieces of art conceived of by the students, with mentorship from faculty, support from a world-class scenic arts staff and facility, and attended by not just the campus but artists who are brought in to give workshops and talks during the event. Their work is seen. The New Works Festival broke me my first year at UT. It's where I discovered that I enjoyed creating video art, enjoyed being a generative artist, enjoyed stepping outside of my comfort zone and making something original rather than just being a designer all the time. The New Works Festival is, in part, responsible for where I am sitting at this very moment in time.

RE/CONNECT, New Works Festival 2015, photo by Lawrence Peart

UT also doesn't just have the New Works Festival but a whole host of other performance opportunities. Their season covers drama and dance, they have a playwriting program that allows for new plays to be staged as part of their mainstage productions, the Butler Opera Center provides opportunities for involvement in opera, there are collaborations with the music department, the Rude Mechanicals are the resident theatre company (and really, what more could you ask for?) and access to the Radio, Television, and Film department means that there are opportunities for learning about film and TV as well. Austin's theatre scene is small, experimental, and worth your time.

To say that any college facing cuts (or making cuts, for any reason) doesn't care about its students is ridiculous. I don't know if you are aware of the current environment in which higher education finds itself, but it's not exactly one that is supportive, well-funded, or even trusted. We are disparaged daily - by you, yourself, actually, in your own piece "How Educational Elitism is Hurting Theatre" - and trust in higher education is eroding. And any career path right now that's not in STEM is not one that many students are pursuing. EVERY school is feeling this. Every theatre program is feeling this. It doesn't matter how much a school or program cares for its students if it has to fight for resources with the math and science departments. And I'm not trying to say those departments shouldn't be getting resources either. That's another post entirely but I have argued vehemently that in this current moment in history, throwing resources at science is one of the few hopes we have as a species if we want to survive.

"In the Ether," photo by Lawrence Peart

Furthermore budget cuts are frequently not the only reason for the changes taking place. They may be the only one that makes it into a short, neat article like the one you linked to, but many other factors exist, INCLUDING caring about students. In eliminating the MFA in acting program, the department chose to focus instead on its undergraduate actors, who make up a MUCH larger percentage of the department than the grad students. The MFA program took in about a dozen students every three years (it did not accept students annually) but there are hundreds of undergraduate acting students. Now, the shows that used to focus solely on the MFA actors are open to them. The faculty that put their time and energy into the MFA students are focused on the undergrads. Does that sound like a decision that was made because a program didn't care about its students? And while I don't know all of the reasons behind the musical theatre cuts, I can imagine that there were many factors at play. The department has to cut something, and no matter what they decide it's going to make someone unhappy. In all likelihood they made the choice that benefitted their students the most. I know those people, and it's not a department made of uncaring individuals. They are the ones that taught me that the individual student comes first.

The opportunities for undergraduate students at UT are top notch and it would be heartbreaking to hear that a student read your under-researched blog post and chose another school instead of one where they would be able to make their own original work and have it be fully supported by the department, work side-by-side with cutting-edge professionals, and a chance to work in a variety of different kinds of performances (dance, opera, new work).

Furthermore, since I read your piece on elitism that I referenced above, I feel the need to address it as well. I don't know that anyone would argue that a lesser-known college means a lesser-known theatre education. However, to say that a well-known school with a highly-reputable program doesn't mean anything would be naive. As I am sure you are aware, this is a hard business, and ANY advantage a person can have going into it is welcome. Yes, my education at UT was great - but the name of the school itself has also opened doors for me. That's a simple fact. And while I'm sure that I could have had many doors open for me at another school, I can't deny the effect that an education at UT Austin has had on my life. Additionally you talk about talent, but what you don't say is that talent is incredibly cheap. What isn't cheap is hard work, which is far more valuable in professional theatre than talent. You mention Yale, NYU, and Carnegie Mellon - all highly competitive schools. Graduating from one of these school speaks volumes to an employer about your work ethic, not just your talent, because of the rigor that is known about the program. A smaller institution may be just as rigorous, but many aren't, and they aren't known for it. It's the known part that's important. In theatre, knowing people, knowing names, that gets your foot in the door. It's absolutely up to you to stay in the room, but don't kid yourself into thinking that it doesn't matter where that degree comes from.

Megan Reilly
MFA, Theatrical Design, 2007, UT Austin
Assistant Professor of Performance Design & Digital Media, Macalester College

Monday, December 11, 2017

Rambling II: The good life.

Recently I asked my first year students the following question:

At this time, what constitutes the "good life" for you? What person, activity, or thing will need to be an integral part of your life for you to consider it fulfilling and meaningful? There is no correct answer to this question, and your response might come from a wide range of possible choices (e.g. family, living in a certain geographic location, a particular lifestyle, a hobby or activity, a special person, career, etc.).

I just read their responses, some of which were inspiring, some of which were worrisome.. those ones sounded a lot like me. Given some things that are going on right now I thought I'd ask myself this question.

My good life is one in which I'm teaching design full-time at a college that also supports my research work into mixed reality performance and publishing about it; it includes students in whom I am incredibly invested. I love helping them figure out what their paths might look like, whether that's in theatre, art, or life in general. It has a home with Travis, we are both healthy, my body is cooperative and pain-free and I'm in shape enough to do Tough Mudder and my knees don't suck and migraines aren't a thing because sleep isn't a problem. Our house, which we own, is beautiful and has a back deck where we have parties with friends. We have both cats AND houseplants that coexist peacefully. I travel for work all the time, I design for all kinds of theatre and create original work - immersive/participatory/mixed reality theatre, installation art, video art. We live in a community we love, preferably someplace warm, but that isn't a dealbreaker. I hike a lot. I write a lot. And we are debt free.

Yeah. That feels like my "good life" needs at least 17 more hours every day, and explains a lot.

Since I've also come to the end of my first year of advising, and have been thinking about a philosophy of advising, I remembered Chris Hadfield's "An Astronaut's Advice," which I adore:

Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you and start moving your life in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow and the day after that. Look at who you want to be and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession that you believe in. Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.

Plus he sang David Bowie in space.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Rambling I: Here and Nowhere.

This post is stream of consciousness brain/word vomit. You have been warned.

Sometimes I assign "weird" things to my first years to read. Today we discussed Foucault's "Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias," which has been on the syllabus since August, along with a discussion of immersive theatre and the connections (?) between the two.  Some of these "weird" readings were intended as palette cleansers between the main plays we read and saw in the class (Romeo and Juliet, Wedding Band, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but as we've been getting close to the end of the semester and their focus has been on their final papers, I've been able to devote a couple of classes to different kinds of performance, and that's where this came in. Plus - I want to expose them to a variety of challenging readings and relating those possibly back to theatre.

So - a discussion on what the hell is a heterotopia anyway? ensued. I haven't stopped thinking about that discussion all day.

Karolina Sobel; Color 2013 Photography "Heterotopia"

Hetero: the other, otherness. Topos: the place. Here and nowhere, a place with an ambiguous relationship to reality. Places in which to contain that which is outside the norm. A physical representation of a utopia or parallel space; a space with more layers of meaning than meets the eye......

Liminal spaces. Occupying a space at a transitional phase. Liminality is my favorite word.

The way Foucault describes a heterotopia feels very much like a space that is separate from other spaces, existing outside of reality or time. And I'm feeling in a lot of ways as if much of my life fits into that right now. Parts that I thought were headed towards permanency are feeling more transient than I originally believed. When we landed here I believed this was it, we would settle here, buy a house here. I had never wanted to buy a house before, but it suddenly seemed like a possibility. Of course, the house I wanted was at 9005 Palace Pkwy in Austin Texas, but with a new kitchen and fewer foundation problems and an actual living tree growing out of the deck but other that that yeah, a house in Saint Paul. Totally. A house was a completely achievable goal once tenure happened.

Vadim Zakharov, Black Birds, 2007 installation

Then came the heart attack, and that changed. And now, another possible and likely setback. Things change all the time. Life is change, that was one of the things spray painted on the bridge over Town Lake once. Everything that was ever spray painted on that bridge was brilliant.

The stage itself is a heterotopia. We never use it as a stage, its purpose is always to create other worlds, parallel spaces, layered spaces, other realities. Especially once we step outside realism and start placing those worlds next to one another, in ways they don't logically relate, where symbolism and semiotics carry more weight than physics and math. We ask audiences to follow us into these worlds from their seats in the house and they accept the impossibility of it in the same way that they accept the rules of other heterotopias - libraries and hospitals and universities and churches, spaces that are separated from the norms of "reality" and have their own rules and cultures within that need to be followed. Theatre is just one that stretches that lack of reality a little further. There was a review once a long time ago (omg it will soon be ten years ago Dustin Lisa Kim Kim Emily Chase Gabe we should have a reunion) that referred to our design of Ophelia as a "haunting nowhere."

Immersive theatre goes even further than that, because now the heterotopia the audience is experiencing is a physical place they can walk through, not just one they are looking at. And, in the case of something like Sleep No More or The Drowned Man, different locations placed next to each other (Macbeth's bedroom next to the cemetery next to...) don't necessarily make sense but contain meaning. Why are we telling the stories of Macbeth AND Rebecca simultaneously?

(I just realized that I sound like I honestly SHOULD like The Unconsoled and I really, really hate it. On an insanely visceral level. Sorry Mark. I can't ever forgive Ishiguro for that book.)

Vincent J. Stoker, photographer

Next week, I am going to LA. Again. Third time this year? Fourth, if you count LA-Taipei-LA as two trips. I'm going to an event for The Lust Experience (Anointment) - another heterotopia. According to Foucault, "...a heterotopia is not freely acceptable like a public place...to get in, one must have a certain permission and make certain gestures..." In the last several days I've received emails regarding my attendance at this event and its rules - signing waivers, following orders, don't touch, etc. but also that I must dress formally and wear a mask. The entire immersive experience that is Lust is a great big blurring of heterotopia and reality - can that even be possible? A bit like a visible parallel universe transposed on top of this one...Lust sits on top of reality and isn't really separable from it but also isn't part of it. Though maybe in a way it is. The Cloudmakers argued, back in 2001, that The Beast WAS actual reality for many people, and we only lived that for four months. And that in no way resembled this level of intricacy and emotional depth. There were really no actors/interactions at all.

Here and nowhere pretty much describes my life right now. Liminal.

I have found a few relationships in the last 2 1/2 years that I believe might be permanent. Until recently I considered that number higher, but now, I think it might be fewer than five. The problem, I think, is subcultures. No matter where they are, what kind they are, what purpose they serve, there seems to be a pattern of toxicity to them - a group of people drawn together around one single thing, an idea, a purpose that bonds them together and makes it nearly impossible to actually relate to them in its absence. I don't think of theatre in general or specific shows as being subcultures because they are so temporary. We come together and form a community to put up a piece of art, and then disperse. It's the ongoing, never ending (or without a known ending) relationships centered around ONE thing. When we can't leave that one thing behind and do a different thing - go out for a drink, have a conversation, support each other through a thing, it starts to feel more like a construct, a false sense of a relationship. 

Or, perhaps, it's me that's the problem in thinking that "friends" was ever a term that should apply. "Friends," for me, now that I really think about it, are the people who are not part of any thing in my life. They are outside of all things. I have one close friend from grad school, and that's probably the only example of that. One from my undergrad theatre department, though that's not where we met. Two who were friends of mine growing up. One who was a roommate from my 20s. I have a group of college friends that are good friends - that could be considered the closest thing to one of these groups, but I've always been on the outside of that, and that group has become so porous over the years that it hasn't developed any kind of toxicity. I don't know if it was like that back in college. I have all the Austin friends, but they probably fall under the same category, and in either case, those "groups" aren't spending all day, every day together as a whole, doing one thing. My close friends exist in permanent spaces, in realities - their own homes and families or apartments in New York or Austin or Los Angeles. We occasionally talk or see each other once or a few times per year or maybe more. I rarely, if ever, have to worry about what they think about me. I never really feel unwanted.

Becoming a part of a group that I don't know well, in any context, and being with that group long term, as in a subculture - that's a different story. I worry, constantly. Especially if my membership in that group is uncertain. Especially if my future depends on it. Especially if my self-worth is riding on it, which it all too often does. Everyone is fixated on the one thing that brought them together and sometimes, I'm not. Sometimes I am the one blurring the line between the reality of my life and the heterotopia of that relationship. I'm treating these subcultures and groups of people that should be compartmentalized as transparencies that I'm layering over reality.

As usual it's me that's the problem, not them. I relate to people differently. That's how it was described to me over breakfast recently. (By the way, Minnesota, get your damn migas straight. Those were NOT migas.) I connect with so few people that when I do, it holds meaning for me - but not always to the other person.

This is getting seriously close to Sputnik Sweetheart-levels of contemplation of liminality and crossing over and I may now need to watch Picnic at Hanging Rock and call Torry and really convince her of the urgent need to adapt Murakami's book into a multimedia/puppet show NOW. (Mark, do NOT call Murakami a "lightweight" just because I never ran screaming out of a Forced Entertainment production for making me feel like I was stuck in The Unconsoled.) There is always a part of me willing to cut ties in order to cross over into something else. Another layer of reality. Another space. Another...

Maybe the heterotopia needs to be sacrificed to see if there is actually a friendship worth cultivating.

Once you know for certain exactly what people think of you, is it easier to stay? When you're no longer wasting energy on paranoia and worry? I know that many would ask me why I'd want to but there are very simple answers to that question. I'm not going to put them out here, but they do exist.

So. I have learned things. A lot of things.
Next time, I'll be much better at this.
More cautious. More reserved. Less trusting. More filtering.
More likely to remember who the top 9 "favorites" in my contacts are. More likely to call them. They are what is real. What is constant.

Yeah, I'm being vague on purpose. And this post will not likely still exist in the spring.

Driving away from the wreck of the day and it's finally quiet in my head...

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 ...