Zornitsa Stoyanova, Lick My Gun, Curate This

I Have Always Liked Climbing on Top of Things

Six Performances Not to Miss This Month

You’re too busy to follow performance in Philly. That’s okay—We’ve been watching the best contemporary theater and dance for the last six years and we’ll tell you what to see. We’ve got a list of the best performers, theater makers, dancers, and Philly-famous stars that you can check out in April.

1. The Fever
By Wallace Shawn, restaged by Scott Rodrigue
April 12-22
PLAYS AND PLAYERS, 1714 DELANCEY PLACE
playsandplayers.org/the-fever/

The Fever, Curate This

This political restaging of Shawn’s play about accountability and entitlement will feel super relevant. Rodrigue is a Grotowski-based performance researcher with extensive training, and this is his first major show in Philadelphia. The production follows socialist models, being communally directed by a variety of collaborators and offering subsidized early bird tickets. This Thursday night is socialist night.

2. Lick my Gun
By Zornitsa Stoyanova
Saturday, April 15
MASCHER SPACE, 155 CECIL B MOORE
RSVP on Facebook

Zornitsa Stoyanova, Lick My Gun, Curate This
Artwork by Zornitsa Stoyanova

Zornitsa is one of the most innovative dancemakers in Philly, and a favorite of Curate This. “For almost 3 months I have been rehearsing with a group of dancers asking the above questions and exploring ideas around female sexuality tied to gun violence. Statistics like, its almost 3 times more likely for you to be killed by your own child or any other toddler than any terrorist, strike home.”

3. Anna
By Brenna Geffers and the Ensemble
March 29-April 16
LATVIAN SOCIETY, 531 N. 7TH ST.
egopo.org/anna

Anna, EgoPo, Curate This
Photo by Dave Sarrafian

Brenna Geffers is one of the best directors working in Philly, and she’s also the author of this adaptation of Anna Karenina (which is, in our humble opinion, one of the most searing and intelligent novels ever written). The incredible cast, including the super charming and versatile Andrew Carroll, is just a bonus.

4. Gumshoe
By New Paradise Labs
April 8 – May 7
FREE LIBRARY OF PHILADELPHIA, 1901 VINE STREET
Reserve a session here

Gumshoe, New Paradise Labs, Curate This

New Paradise Labs has been making exciting physical theater work in Philly for decades, and this immersive performance investigates the never-ending struggle between fact, fiction, and falsehood. “Library agents will lead you through secret doors and down escape hatches into the underbelly of the building. Codes, puzzles, disguises, and subterfuge – a bobsled ride into the world of lost books.”

5. Get Pegged with Ivo Dimchev
Friday, April 14
FRINGEARTS, 140 N. COLUMBUS BLVD.
fringearts.com/event/get-pegged-cabaret-10/

ivodimchev400-263x300

Okay, so after all that serious shit just chill out with some cabaret and sexy puns. Get Pegged is always some wacky fun but this session features Ivo Dimchev, an incredibly daring and talented theater artist.

And we can’t seriously do this without upping  . . .

6. Parrot Talk
By Julius Ferraro (that’s me)
April 28-30
DA VINCI ART ALLIANCE, 704 CATHARINE STREET
parrottalk.bpt.me

Curate This, Julius Ferraro, Parrot Talk
Photo by Louise ORourke Photography

Parrot Talk is a metaphysical thriller about dying on the way to the grocery store. It features some of the most talented performers in Philly, outrageous abstracted language, and fundamentals of chaos. You’ll want to be there.

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch

Artist to Artist

Podding from Ramallah

I first met Rebecca Katherine Hirsch four years ago at a Permanent Wave Philly meeting where we spent many hours compiling entries into the collective’s zine. I remember feeling really loopy from concentrating on the layout, but Rebecca was right there with me as I got all of my giggles out. I recall a few extra cat doodles making it into that edition somehow. I’ve always had respect for the way Rebecca takes on serious topics in her work with a signature feisty sense of humor. While I don’t necessarily share all of her opinions, I am immensely appreciative of how strongly she pursues her ideals through activist art. Rebecca makes art as Humble Mumbles, a podcast about feminism, queerness, Palestine & other stines. Other art projects of hers include the collaborative multimedia bit BARBARISM, the unknown entity Slappy Pancake Private Eye as well as Intensely Staring, a 90s alternative guitarist who has no guitar. She inspires me to “go for it” when I truly believe in something. At the time of this interview Rebecca was traveling in Palestine and Israel researching her work so we corresponded via email.

-Mira Treatman, curator

These are a few things I saw in Palestine/Israel/48, which are different political terms for similar and different "disputed" (usually meaning international law and Orwellian self-absolving Israeli law contradict each other) and overlapping geographical places. All of historic Palestine encompasses the modern-day state of Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank--including East Jerusalem ("disputed")--and Gaza. What do these photos mean to me? West Bank Palestine and Israel/48/historic Palestine have a lot of different effects on a lot of different people? These photos are pretty or depressing, with friends or without, with ideological frames that make me go hmmm.
This is Qalandia Checkpoint (how you get from Ramallah to Jerusalem). Throughout this interview are photographs Hirsch has taken in Palestine/Israel/48.

Mira Treatman: What media are you working in today? What attracted you to them?

Rebecca Katherine Hirsch: Media. What is media? . . . I think, ostensibly, I am working in pod (that is: making a podcast—so I guess that’s the media of audio—as well as writing). The process, I guess, is that first I have the interest, then I collect the audio, then I write the script/story to frame the collected audio, add music, and then hopefully the result is a podcast episode. I first started my weird podcast in (let me check my website) October 2014. A good time, October 2014. I don’t know if anything actually attracted me to doing a podcast outside of Dan from Never Forget Radio doing one. I LOVE NEVER FORGET RADIO, I love how layered and lyrical the political-psycho-sociological thinking is and how much fun it is to listen to, and Dan said, why don’t you make a podcast too, so I did. Also, I’m a writer and a person interested in feminism/Palestine so a pod was a cool new way to write about it . . . using . . . audio.

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Hebron Old City protest art plus counter-art

MT: Where are you currently on your journey as a live performer?

RKH: I read this question fast and thought you asked me how my past experience with Birthright Israel influenced where I am today to which the answer is: WHOA SO MUCH in terms of increasing interest in uses of narrative and manipulation. OK, but to answer your real question, I think I am in a constant liminal threshold purgatory and it is terrible and potentially liberating and SO IS LIFE. Thanks for asking. I am very subjective and unreliable in my answers, by the way, but I guess that’s what interviews are, OK, let me try to think about this. I think . . . I am on the road. That’s where I am on my journey. Not at the starting line, never gonna win the race, just sort of slowly jogging but very tired and reactively overexcited, sometimes. Past live performance experiences with BARBARISM and Slappy Pancake Private Eye have emboldened me and enlivened me, puffed me up with unmerited overconfidence and acted as excuses for subsequent performances where I didn’t know what I was doing but assumed I could just float on the wings of past experiences and I was wrong, so wrong. But bad performances can also be helpful humility-inspirers and instigators to change/actually prepare so that’s cool. Sometimes, especially at NIGHT KITCHEN and at The A-Space things have gone very well.

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Demoralizing Jewish stars on Israeli army tanks in Hebron
Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Ramadan in Hebron

MT: What can we expect from Humble Mumbles’ upcoming live show, How to Get from Hebron to Ramallah?

RKH: Um, so when that show happens—which it WILL happen unless I stay in Palestine until the very end of my visa here in which case this show will 100% happen but a little bit later than originally expected—I hope it will consist of a lo-fi live-action recreation of West Bank travel between cities, complete with burdensome, Orwellian (strategically needlessly bureaucratic) checkpoints (an excitingly depressing mixture of intimidating bigness + claustrophobia, for the visitor equipped with a trusty American passport and Jewish surname). We’ll also recreate interactions with bored to vitriolic, well-intentioned to power-crazed teenaged Israeli soldiers and a few scary, god-promised-me-this-land West Bank settlers. Why is travel so hard for Palestinians in the West Bank? What mechanisms keep people under control, and what is their function?

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Hebron Old City, nighttime edition

MT: Where have you traveled recently? Where are you right now? What brought you there?

RKH: Oh god. I don’t even know anymore. Right now I’m in the sweet town of Beit Sahour, a 10 minute walk from Bethlehem. Beit Sahour is a town with a rich history of resistance (see this half live action, half cartoon movie about cows-as-threat-to-Israeli-security during the first intifada for more!) and also, interestingly, one of the very few Christian majority towns in the West Bank (Christians make up 2% of the Palestinian population of the West Bank; most have emigrated—in large part to South and North America). I was recently in Ramallah, East and West Jerusalem, and another Bethlehem-area town of Beit Jala. And before that, fellow Philadelphian Megan Bailey (!) and I traveled to Haifa and Akka and Nazareth up in the north of historic Palestine (or current ‘48,’ as many pro-Palestine people will sometimes call Israel in reference to the 1948 War of Independence to Israelis, the Nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’) to Palestinians). I plan to return to Hebron in a few days. Hebron! Oh, so many things to say about Hebron. I’m fascinated by this city of incredible everyday Israeli brutality and humiliation (at least in the H2 Israeli state-controlled area… as opposed to H1, the nominally Palestinian Authority-controlled area… which is still UNDERNEATH Israeli military occupation. So dystopian), as well as incredible kindness and resilience in the Palestinians who live there. I’ve also had some really heartwarming, weirdly unexpected talks with the odd Israeli soldier. Hebron like many (if not most?) Palestinian places has a history of perfectly neighborly relations between peoples of many faiths until it was overwhelmed by one ethnonationalist state (ugh, let’s all just take another moment to be so annoyed with Israel. WHAT THE HELL). I’ve met some of the nicest people in Hebron and I try to interview them about their experiences with the city, with travel, culture(s), etc. I try to be as obsessed as I am without letting it get in the way. Which is hard. I’m bad at humility so I gave my podcast an aspirational/joke of a name.

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
The apartheid wall as seen from Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem
Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Beit Sahour

MT: I often perceive really entertaining idiosyncrasies like surprising non-sequiturs in your humor. Where does this come from?

RKH: Sadness. (America/Ashkenazi mid-century Philip Roth-yaw-shucks Jewish patriarchy stuff led me to believe humor was a magically-native-to-the-Jews trait but no, it’s just a general coping/defense mechanism used by many peoples given many contexts. Better late to de-essentialize my thinking than never!)

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Ramallah
Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
JERUSALEM // hyperbolic favorite place on earth

MT: What are you most looking forward to when you get back to Philly this summer? What’s the best part of living in Philadelphia? What is the worst?

RKH: Hmm . . . I’m looking forward to editing and making episodes out of much of the audio I’ve collected over the past months (including rollicking Arabic pop music in shared taxis! Sober-minded interviews with smokey-voiced Old City Jerusalem hotel proprietors! Rare snippets with Israeli leftists, Palestinian kids I met on streets, Palestinian rappers in 48/Israel, my mom as we walked on a highway to the settlement of Har Gilo from the city of Beit Jala, etc.) Philly is more affordable than some cities and has thriving arts. It is not New York. That’s cool. I probably like Philly a lot but I like Palestine more, I just can’t stay here. Look what happened the last time Jews got too comfortable in Palestine.

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Ramallah

All photos by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch.

Mira Treatman, Curate This, In Search of Resting Bitch Body

Lecture Hall

In Search of Resting Bitch Body

I met director and dancer Mira Treatman at a workshop series on Grotowski technique run by Scott Rodrigue. At first I thought, who is this quiet, intensely internal person? And then I thought, wow, who IS this quiet, intensely internal person? Though we only worked together in five workshops, I was struck by her unusual seriousness and determination, and was extremely pleased when she agreed to collaborate with Curate This. Mira has performed in works by Sylvain Emard, Renee Archibald, Gina T’ai, Chris Johnson, and Cie Carabosse/Teatro Linea de Sombra. Other long-term collaborations include three full-length narrative dances with Corinne “Marilu” Wiesner (Mod Nut, Cinder Ella, and Protestant Reggae Ballet) and Rejected Thoughts with filmmaker and actor Irina Varina.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

In making a performance my prerogative is to have supreme control over how people view the performer. This stems not from narcissism, but from an authentic desire to communicate my ideas clearly. Keeping folks’ attention is the only surefire way to get my points across and if no one gets those points, then I find the whole process of mounting work to be meaningless.

To create a performance I seek credibility. To appear this way, especially when portraying a version of myself, I forge a powerful and control-demanding physicality. I do not think this is necessary for all performers to gain credibility, but with my social status as female and youthful and 5 feet tall, it is perhaps a necessary evil (although I do derive much pleasure from feeling powerful and strong). To appear powerful in front of a public, I seek a neutral stance when I am not engaging directly in an action, one I lovingly dub “resting bitch body.”

Much like a “resting bitch face,” this neutral way of holding the body communicates disinterest in others while commanding others’ attention toward itself (see this summary in the New York Times). The stance frightens but no one can look away. This tension of “I want to look but it scares me” or “I want to look but I don’t know what I’m seeing” or “I’m looking and I like it but I don’t want to like it” is my goal. I desire the bitchy resting body because it serves as a poker face and is open for interpretation. At times this body’s manifestation is an authoritative public speaker; for example a lecturer may easily command attention because she’s moving intuitively like some kind of bird of prey. The tension of tracking her next move makes it hard for an audience member to look away. Other times this body is Mona Lisa-subtle. An audience member could stare at a bitchy resting body performer for the entire duration of her performance and have no sense of her emotional state. I am attracted to the fear-inciting ambiguity.

Codified performance forms come with their own neutral or default body positions and dance is probably the finest example of this. For concert dance-forms there is a default way that a trained performer carries herself when not executing a major step or theatrical action. Concert dance audiences come to the theater with a set of expectations, regardless of their familiarity with the choreography, of how to interpret or even read the performance through the neutral body stance of the performers. On the balletic end of the spectrum dancers are supported from their core with an erect spine conjuring a regal image while perhaps on the contemporary side dancers may have more fluidity and asymmetry in their spine. Regardless of these differences these neutral stances serve the same purpose in concert dance, which is to communicate the status of the performer. Through reading the bodies in neutral, the audience is primed to know who’s a hero or villain in a narrative and non-narrative work alike within the context of the dance-form. This is exactly the kind of tool kit I am pursuing in dance-theater making: to create a bitchy resting lens from which an audience clearly views my creation.

In addition to priming audience members, having a default neutral body serves as the barometer of normal. This might be one of my favorite parts about making new work, which is that I can sculpt the status quo to be whatever I desire. I create and set the barometer of normal. If a performer is portraying an ingenue, I can hypothetically have her assume the physicality of a wild turkey vulture and she can still be an ingenue in the world I’ve created. In actuality, I can also have this ingenue hold herself in a bitchy resting body stance where she’s still holding the role of the ingenue thematically, but her body is powerful, tough and authoritative. Using my own barometer of normal, this bitchy ingenue anomaly makes total sense.

Then there’s what in all of this keeps me up at night: my concern over whether or not having a resting bitch body as my neutral stance in fact reinforces stereotypes and the structures that cause cycles of violence and injustice propagated by the hierarchy resting bitch is trying to get away from. I know that I am perceived as a weak, lower status body in the Western performance canon, therefore I should present myself as tough and powerful to counteract the binary, right? But what if I just eschew the Western performance canon altogether and just have fun and portray my body ignoring all of that uber liberal crap drilled into my head since age 5. I seriously do not know! That’s why this keeps me up at night. Intentionally performing a resting bitch stance is reactionary and defensive towards the powers-that-be and it could be more powerful to ignore those powers altogether.

My favorite physical theater teacher of all time once made a comment to me that has stuck forever. I was trying to negotiate something with him, probably something like a deadline for an assignment or something of little consequence. He happened to be about a foot taller than me and so it was next to impossible to make eye contact with him without jutting my face up unless he was sitting. I found myself addressing him in this way frequently and began to develop a habit of sticking my chin out and widening my eyes for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time. In my memory it was an instinctive way of communicating with a superior. That one day when I was making the negotiation, he called me out that sticking out my chin and widening my eyes did not make me appear more powerful whatsoever in the bargaining process. Ever since I’ve tried to figure out how to make things go my way through my physicality knowing that every little movement, whether consciously or subconsciously, becomes a data point for those viewing me to interpret. This favorite teacher even identified as a lefty feminist non-hierarchical experimental theater PhD and still I found myself viewing him as a superior. Ultimately, my drive to cultivate a powerful physicality comes down to something of a Napoleon complex. I’m okay with it.

Transcending Medium Emily Bate. Photo by Kristin Goehring

Transcending Medium

The Practice of Failure

Right now the world is in dire need of a lot of different things, but in my opinion one of them is for more women’s voices to be heard in the public. When I heard that musician Emily Bate has a theatrical choral project with a women’s chorus I got so excited! She’s a killer singer-songwriter, composer and “harmony fanatic” whose ethos I really connect with. If that weren’t enough, Emily’s choral arrangements really remind me of some of my all-time favorite vocal groups like Kate and Anna McGarrigle and The Roches. Both of these bands are comprised of sisters whose voices just blend together naturally. One of Emily’s current projects includes Going Down Mount Moriah, a theater piece based around a 9-voice women’s choir. As far as I know Emily doesn’t have any sisters in this choir, but combined the women’s voices come out sounding like they’re siblings who’ve been making noise together for many years. I’m delighted that Emily has opened up about her experience going from singing and songwriting to leading a hybrid theatre project.

-Mira Treatman, curator

So I want to say a few things about working between, amongst, around, and in the thick of different disciplines, and to talk about my little explorations in that regard.

My background is music—specifically, the DIY singer-songwriter scene. I put out my first album on home-duplicated cassette tape at age 15, and for years after that I made records in my bedroom, played house shows, and went on tour. By my late 20s, I’d run through that cycle so many times that boredom had set in hard. I was rewriting the same songs and singing them with less and less conviction.

I found my work so stale I’d slink off to play shows in secret, not even bothering to tell my friends. Then I’d play very boring sets to a bunch of nice people who deserved to see art that at least one person in the room gave a fuck about, and hurry home as fast I as I could to groan on my couch.

All sorts of things drive an artist to make work. In the deep throes of musical ennui, surprising myself became the only measure of success I cared about. I started writing little short stories, micro-short, just trying to make myself laugh or dazzle myself by revealing something true I hadn’t considered before. If a sentence made me shake my head and say “Emily, you are a complete freak,” I kept working on it. I didn’t consider myself a “writer”; I was just tinkering around, playing with little sentences with casual absorption, like a kid would play with toy trains.

I put some of these shorty short stories into a zine, my favorite amateur-driven form. Actually it was a zingle (a zine + a music single). You download the music, and then read the writing that goes with. The word “zingle,” which I invented, was so delightful I immediately wanted to make another one. And performing the zingle live, by interspersing the songs and the stories, was my first big, exciting, interdisciplinary “aha!” It was nerve-wracking to read stories out loud, but then I’d retreat to the safer territory of songs. The experiment had an exciting result: the quality of the audience’s attention was palpably different when I mixed writing and music. The quality of my attention was different, too. The ideas in both elements leapt out into the room, buzzing with possible connections, like a performance collage.

At that point, the floodgates kinda flew open. In a year, that zingle transformed into a 9-person choral theater piece.

Here’s the bridge between a little xeroxed pamphlet and a big staged show with choral arrangements. I got from A to Z, basically, by witnessing and participating in art of other disciplines and learning little bits about how different people make work. I went to see dance, theater, visual art, and performance art, instead of just folk shows. And I became a collaborator on other people’s projects. When I started creating music for theater, for instance, I got to shed the idea (very prevalent and annoying in the singer-songwriter world) that a song is primarily a personal statement of feeling. The songs I wrote for the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz were freer and wilder than the things I’d been writing before, since I was concerned only with being a frightening green villainess.

I gained so much by experiencing artistic process in other disciplines. It wasn’t always easy – in theater it’s completely normal to perform a work-in-progress that’s so egregiously unfinished you might stop mid-sentence and say “Now skipping ahead two scenes . . .” I co-wrote a musical, and every time we had a work-in-progress showing, I felt like I had peed my pants onstage and was pointing to the stain the entire time. Eventually it sunk in that these showings are a convention in theater, and everybody in the audience knows that. But nobody ever did that in the music world. Surviving that process, and seeing the positive effect it had on what we were making, was a big mental shift for me.

I think we’re all familiar with anxiety around being bad at something. But circling back to the writing I did for my “zingles,” creating something outside your discipline is an exciting chance to play in that anxiety and push through. Since I’m not an actor, I’m not devastated if I don’t act well. If somebody asks me to act, I say “fuck it” and see what happens, without feeling overly exposed. It is an opportunity to safely practice failure, since I will certainly fail many times in my primary discipline.

The failure practice allowed me to be creatively ambitious again. I wanted to create a theater piece with music and movement, and I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t a painless process—the giant roiling knot of out-of-my-league anxiety was a big thing—but the fresh air I’d gulped in as a collaborator had helped me cultivate bravery. I plunged forward in some combination of curiosity-plus-anxiety, and it produced lots of work. I think my ideal creative state is a tightrope walk between the two. If, inside of a challenging and high-stakes moment, you can become really present and interested in the outcome, whatever it might be, you’re onto something.

Plus, here’s the great part: nothing’s wasted! Whatever didn’t work out as planned is information to use next time.

Which brings me to how I’ve started to evaluate the creating process, once I’ve finished something. After I make something new, I’m really interested in 1) how the piece worked out in the world and 2) how it felt to make it. When combatting self-doubt, encouraging yourself out of a creative slump, or battling other creative demons, how it feels is a really important consideration. For instance: I created a really rich piece of theater that connected with the collaborators and the audience. It entailed emptying my bank account, not sleeping for 3 weeks, and walking around with the sensation that my head was clamped in a vice. After my show ended, I spent some analyzing how those sacrifices felt as I was making them. It was important not to trick myself into giving a particular answer, or judge myself for what I actually want. It’s all information I can use to change or commit to my process, and keep myself working for the long haul.

I know that a major criteria for my sense of success will always be chasing the spark of surprise. I can’t think of any reason to create something otherwise. The surest way I know to find that surprise is by stretching myself sideways, into other artistic worlds, and playing in the spaces in-between.

Catch Emily Bate and collaborator Erin Markey at L’Etage on August 24th, in a buddy comedy performance project masquerading as a night of duets. The show, called “Hey Girl! That’s My Girl!” features a full band. For tickets & info visit emilybate.com.

Barry Kerollis, photo by Bill Hebert

Crossing the Border

Disorganization, Nepotism, and Lack of Community

I first became aware of Barry Kerollis several years ago when I saw him dance with BalletX. His strong stage presence and sensitivity as a performer made him a stand out in this contemporary ballet company. Years later I discovered that not only was he an accomplished dancer, but he also possessed a unique voice as a storyteller. What I appreciate most is how candid he is on a variety of topics from his own point of view, influenced by years as a professional dancer, choreographer and teacher. Dance Magazine sums up Barry’s work perfectly as an “innovator using unique new media to break the fourth wall with audiences.” His current forays into media, which include the blog Life of a Freelance Dancer and podcast Pas de Chát: Talking Dance, are just the beginning of ways Barry will continue to transform the public’s perception of dance.

-Mira Treatman, curator

Here I am again. Writing in the dark, sitting on a Greyhound bus on my way home from New York City. This trip has become a regular commute of mine since I decided to transition my career goals from the birthplace of our nation to the capital of the dance world. I’ve considered this move for nearly four years since working in the city where I was born didn’t work out as I had envisioned. I’m tired from these bi-weekly (or more often) commutes that eat away at my bedtime hours. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it, even if I am only in the early stages of renewing my hope for opportunity.

When I think about Philadelphia, one thing that defines this city is opportunity. In the past, it was historic opportunity for a new union. Today, it’s entrepreneurial opportunity in an affordable city, and, more importantly for me, artistic opportunity in one of the artsiest cities I’ve explored (and I’ve been to many a US city). But when I moved to Philly five years ago, I moved here for the opportunity to expand my experience in an area that holds my greatest passion: the dance scene.

Let’s get to the point. I left Pacific Northwest Ballet, one of the nation’s top five ballet companies, in 2011 to live for my art and try my hand at something new. I left a 40-week contract for half of that and left a $60,000 a year salary for one-third. But I came to Philly to join a company outside of my comfort zone in order to stretch my range as an artist, so it didn’t feel like that great of a sacrifice. That daring risk I took didn’t pan out as I had hoped. I quickly found myself without the job that brought me here after suffering a career-threatening injury that the company chose not to support.

I remember thinking to myself that day, “It’s going to be okay. I’ll post that I’m looking for a teaching job on Facebook and email all of the schools in the area. It shouldn’t take that long to find something. And, I’ve got credentials, experience, and something different to offer the scene (having danced at PNB) to boot.” Very quickly, reality set in.

I was grateful for the support of Koresh Dance Company’s school and local modern dance guru Gwendolyn Bye, but what I found in my new community was a combination of disorganization, nepotism, lack of community, and across-the-board organizational struggle. Here I was, green in our scene and eager to share my experience dancing with PNB and Houston Ballet. But a lack of work opportunity and, even more difficult, a lack of fair wage forced me to embark on an extended national tour that would change my life.

All I wanted to do was live in my new home city. But with little local opportunity, I turned to the national dance scene, which embraced me almost immediately. From this point, I began to tour our great nation as a freelance guest artist. While performing, teaching, and choreographing everywhere from New York to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Alaska, I kept trying to make Philly work for me, even when I was only in town for a week at a time. During one of these occasions, I performed in a questionable dance film where the director considered firing me because I asked to be paid a dishonorable $75 for 12 hours of committment. This stressful situation transpired over a mere $25 raise from the $50 he offered. Either salary was still well below minimum wage. A 6-week open class series I ran at a West Philly studio couldn’t hold one class because attendance was often one or none. I finally stopped looking for local gigs after a school director complained that my rate wasn’t worth my experience. I easily charge $25 more per hour in any other city. I tried to sacrifice as much as I could. But while some met me with understanding, more did not.

After suffering severe burnout from years of non-stop travel, I was ready to give the Philadelphia dance scene one last-ditch effort to make it my artistic home. After four years on the road, four months on the job as Interim Artistic Director of Alaska Dance Theatre, being selected as one of four choreographers out of a pool of 60 international applicants to create a work at the prestigious National Choreographers Initiative, and more, and I was finally committed to find a place at home where I felt my value was needed and respected. Over the longest period I stayed in Philadelphia since 2011 (five months at the beginning of 2015), every pre-professional school, university program, and professional organization aside from the one that brought me back east received an email humbly asking to take me into consideration for work. The only response I received was from Temple University’s dance program (who kindly told me they couldn’t offer any work). Otherwise, no respectful notice of receipt, no “No, Thank You,” no response at all. Aside from my contributions as a substitute at Koresh, I felt at a loss and like I didn’t belong to our community.

In my disappointment, I found myself seeking local collaboration outside the dance scene. Applying for a collaborative arts grant sealed the deal. I was told my application was declined because “I seemed more interested in meeting other artists than collaborating with them.” Instead of becoming a part of the community, I ended up collaborating with myself, again, on a national scale. Here, I created a web series interviewing highly-respected professional dancers, which garnered national attention from multiple dance periodicals. While Dance Magazine recognized my work as a Philly-based artist, I still felt like I hadn’t been accepted as a part of my community.

For all of my hard work and all of my effort throughout 13 years as a working professional, I have found that in Philly I would have to settle for a burnout level of work in recreational dance to afford only just covering my bills (none to put away into savings or to pay off debts). Since transitioning my focus to the New York City dance scene in January, a few Philadelphia organizations have reached out to me for work. The difference this time seems to be that my profile on the national dance scene has risen. I feel a sense of respect for my work. Still, I achingly choose to attempt to transition my career two hours north, potentially transitioning away from the city I love and the city in which my partner has grown a thriving organizational business.

Philadelphia doesn’t feel like a tragic loss for me, as I have gained way more in my life and art from five years calling Philly my home base than in seven years living in Seattle. Though, I still feel a sense of melancholy in saying that Philly has yet to work for me as the place I call my artistic home. Like the residents of Philadelphia as they see the renaissance of this glorious city, I have yet to give up hope on this place that I love. But, at the same time, I can’t sit around and hope that the brick and mortar of our dance scene will change its fabric and accept the architecture that I have to offer.

Editors Note: At the time of publication, Barry was contracted as Guest Faculty at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center

Photo by Bill Hebert.

Mira Treatman and the finger wag, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

In the Studio

All-Consuming Zealotry

I met director and dancer Mira Treatman at a workshop series on Grotowski technique run by Scott Rodrigue. At first I thought, who is this quiet, intensely internal person? And then I thought, wow, who IS this quiet, intensely internal person? Though we only worked together in five workshops, I was struck by her unusual seriousness and determination, and was extremely pleased when she agreed to collaborate with Curate This. Mira has performed in works by Sylvain Emard, Renee Archibald, Gina T’ai, Chris Johnson, and Cie Carabosse/Teatro Linea de Sombra. Other long-term collaborations include three full-length narrative dances with Corinne “Marilu” Wiesner (Mod Nut, Cinder Ella, and Protestant Reggae Ballet) and Rejected Thoughts with filmmaker and actor Irina Varina.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

For the last six months I’ve had the privilege of working with Irina Varina on Rejected Thoughts, the first full-length piece we have made together. We only met nine months ago and thus this process has been nothing short of a whirlwind, a tornado, and an all-consuming zealotry for making live performance. I welcome you into the studio with reflections on this time exclusively from my perspective. My views do not necessarily reflect Irina’s; however, I have her permission to share my thoughts on our collaborative process.

Mira Treatman tumbles for Irina Varina, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Mira Treatman stands over meditative Irina Varina, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Rejected Thoughts ended up being a collection of dance-theater experiments we performed in a home as part of SoLow Fest in June 2016. We started noticing when we would reject our own ideas in their infancy, before they even had a fighting chance to become something. This focus on the discarded eventually became the uniting force in our process. At times this was where the unity ended. Despite having a shared goal and passion for working, we came to the studio with different tools and preferences.

To give you some background: my training is in dance, but I also hold a degree in theater directing. I’m a nerd. I read statistics for fun. I founded a Latin language club in high school. I enjoy symmetry, organization, athletic challenges, and control. I don’t do well with ruminating. Irina comes from an acting and filmmaking background. She’s come to live performance after working as a director and an actor on screen. She hasn’t been on a stage her entire life the way some of my peers have, which I find refreshing. Aesthetically, though, we really differ. She loves seeing vulnerability and authenticity before anything else in performance. I love stage magic and starting from the codified rules I have studied. On my own, I prioritize magic over authenticity. I don’t believe either way is better or more correct, but it can be challenging to communicate when your past experiences have less overlap. When it comes to the meat of the work, Irina is able to lock herself up in her own mind. I find it challenging to be in my own brain without physical embodiment. I admire her ability to concentrate on thinking, but it is the opposite of my default way of working. This hit home for me when I realized that even our tea preferences reflected this: she would go for ginger and lemon to warm up and I chose peppermint to cool down.

A touch of alchemy happens when Irina and I work together because we want to make performances so badly. Despite our differences, we desire to make performances about what we care about, which I deeply cherish even though we would sometimes spend hours on a single detail. Working on my own I would never stick with one little detail for more than a few minutes. Both openly arguing and sharing disagreements were radical changes to the way I work. Our rehearsals were not geared toward productivity as at times it felt like taking a slow train towards mindfulness or something. After all, we were making art about thinking!

Irina Varina and Mira Treatman laughing about babushkas, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens
Mira Treatman and Irina Varina in babushkas and thought, Curate This, Lauren Karstens Mira and Irina working, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Completely unintentionally, Irina and I both had our ancestry on our minds during our process. We chose to hone in one area of our backgrounds, our individual relationships with wearing a babushka. Once we started playing with this part of our costume I began to feel so at ease, entertained, and on the cusp of making a breakthrough surrounding my identity. Physically embodying one part of my culture was the key here. No matter what I did or said while wearing the babushka, I knew Irina would be open to it, so I really really went for it and was able to say a lot of things that I had pent up for years. She gave me the full respect of truly listening. I enjoyed having space to explore our individuality in relation to the babushkas, but I still felt unity in our choice to wear them together. Just like our separate tea preferences and methods of working, our respective ancestries are another joyous celebration of difference.

Mira Treatman and Irina Varina notes, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Long shot of Irina Varina and Mira Treatman, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

There were times over the last six months when I felt frustrated with the way Irina and I openly disagreed with each other. Hypothetically, if there were only one director leading the project and the other collaborator following along, I know that we would have used our time very differently and knowing this made patience hard to maintain. If we had little to no dissension we would have made the piece faster, but perhaps, if we had made the show with none of the that tension, it would have come out too vanilla or lacking intensity.

I committed myself to this project despite my frustrations because the tone of the rehearsal room was always respectful and constructive and with little whining or defeatism. When I look at Lauren Karstens’ photographs, I see two polar-opposite people who choose to build on common ground and to seek that common ground before difference. To be the artist I desire to be, which is one who stands strongly on her personal philosophy, I desire equally strong-willed people to keep me grounded in my own voice. Working just with people similar to me only provides a skewed version of the world.

Mira Treatman and Irina Varina, the art of the finger wag, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

All photos by Lauren Karstens.

Yours as Much as Mine, Maria Dumlao

Homework

Picking Up a Pencil and Other Directions

Maria Dumlao works with photography, artists’ books, installation, performance, sound, and video. Her fantastic exhibition at Vox Populi last September, Next to Nothing, consisted of three works: one single-channel video, a multi-channel video, and a portable record player with a 7-inch painted vinyl record, spinning. The video, Yours As Much As Mine, isolates everyday house-hold objects in a suspended animation which takes these objects out of context and takes the viewer out of this world.

For her contribution to Curate This, I asked Maria to give me a set of items that everybody should read, view, watch, etc.

-Julianna Foster, curator

Some homework for Curate This‘ readers, in no particular order:

  • Read “Some Sound Observations” written by Pauline Oliveros. This essay appears in the anthology Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. Here’s a pdf I found online.
  • Read this sentence and tell me you can’t hear the lamp in your room, the electricity behind the walls, the creaking beams in your house, the construction outside, and the motorbikes in Philly. See if you succeed in unhearing them.
  • John Whitney, “Catalogue” 1961, 16mm film (color and sound) 9 minutes. A digital video from the film is currently exhibited at the MoMA, but here it is in YouTube. Feast on abstraction in motion.

John Whitney, “Catalogue” 1961

  • Oblique Strategies, written instructions by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. When you’re in the studio and you just need to take a break, get ready to pick a card from a deck and “play.” Be open to diversions. If you want to play with me, I’ll post one a day on Instagram.

Oblique Strategies, written instructions by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt

  • Visit the non-western wing of PMA, the Met, or any big museum. Whether it’s called primitive, pre-Columbian, African, pre-historic, Oceanic, whatever it is, it’s a reminder that art (and the art world) as we know it is one of many narratives. An example I like to ponder is the ubiquitous crucifix and how its symbolism was used by some cultures as a representation of the cyclical birth/life/death/underworld before the Christian conquistadors colonized.
  • Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge (A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution), written by Terence McKenna in 1992, is relevant due to our search into altered states of consciousness and as an elucidation of many of our sorrows, be it addiction, materialism, and the fear of self-awareness. Solutions have been in front of us all along.

Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna

  • Sharpen a #2 pencil or take hold of a Sharpie. With these power tools, draw/write what you would otherwise post in social media. Try it for a day and don’t stop if you can help it.

Maria Dumlao pencils

  • Living Photograph: Chris with Teacup on YouTube. I discovered this one-minute video in 2007 (YouTube was established in 2005) and I don’t know who the maker is or what it is about. I can’t believe it’s still up after 9 years. I revisit it to be reminded of the possibilities of YouTube and how it has now become our everyday landscape. It’s not as strange as anything we see now, but it’s a prominent early memory.
Mother’s Day, 2008, Sharon Koelblinger

Artist to Artist

Inside a Domestic Setting-Turned-Gallery Space

Sharon Koelblinger uses painting, drawing, photography, photo as object, and sculptural forms to explore parallel worlds and spacial relationships. I’m particularly interested in the way she deconstructs the photograph, a medium inherit with authenticity, to reveal a new way of understanding it as object. Sharon asserts in her artist statement: “When seen together, photographs resist representation and sculptures embrace trompe l’oeil affects to emphasize the disconnection between seeing and comprehending while negotiating the boundary between illusion and authenticity.”

I visited Sharon’s exhibit, Auspicious Arguments, at Black Oak House, Catherine Pancake and Miriam Stewart’s contemporary fine art gallery in West Philly, and developed a series of questions based on the work.

-Julianna Foster, curator

Julianna Foster: The Black Oak House is a gallery space in a domestic setting. How did you approach this space differently then you would have a more traditional gallery? In particular, can you speak about the piece Figure-8’s on Your Body and how it was installed?

Sharon Koelblinger: Showing my artwork in a house gallery initially presented a few challenges for me in thinking about how the content of my work relates to the space. Ultimately, I decided to embrace the domestic setting and draw upon my own familial history and consider the objects that my grandparents collected over the 60 years that they lived in their home. These works constitute the bulk of the exhibition.

In the past, the Figure-8’s piece was installed in the corner of a white-wall gallery space. I really liked that I was able to re-present that work for Black Oak House in a domestic setting. The piece references a paper chain that children often make and it seems more natural to be installed within the context of a home rather than a gallery. It greets viewers when they enter through the door as if they are arriving at a celebration, like a welcome to the exhibition.

There's Comfort in Your Lack of Intimacy, Sharon Koelblinger
There’s Comfort in Your Lack of Intimacy

JF: There’s Comfort in Your Lack of Intimacy, installed in the dining room of the gallery, is isolated on the wall. I actually feel it commands the space, it’s quite a powerful image. Tell me about the choice of placement. Was this work made for this exhibit?

SK: Yes, it’s so interesting that you mention that piece, because it was in fact the artwork that was the impetus for the whole show. I had taken the blanket, seen in the photograph, from my grandfather’s house when he passed away. It was a wool blanket that I had never seen while he was alive and I had no personal connection to its history. I struggled with my lack of emotional connection to the blanket and other objects taken from his house. The mark-making on top of the photograph is a way of claiming the blanket as my own and ultimately turning it into something appreciated for its aesthetic value rather than for its utilitarian function.

Feathers From Your Wedding Hat, Sharon Koelblinger
Feathers From Your Wedding Hat

JF: I’m curious about the intersection between your use of photography, mark making, and sculptural forms. Can you speak about your focus on materiality? For instance, in the two works Feathers From Your Wedding Hat and Torn Pages, there is a delicateness to the feathers—pigment-printed on tracing paper—as opposed to the graphite-covered aluminum of Torn pages.

SK: Materials play a huge role in describing metaphor in my work. I was initially trained in sculpture before I worked in photography, so I often think about the form alongside the image. In my photographs, I create unexpected relationships to materials in an effort to ask the viewer to consider the images as objects that exist in the present rather than depicting moments of the past.

Torn Pages, Sharon Koelblinger
Torn Pages

In the works you mentioned, the forms reinforce the image: tracing paper serves as a substrate for delicate feathers and aluminum adds weight to a carved wooden journal. By placing these pieces next to one another, they engage in a dialog about duality: lightness and heaviness, revealing and witholding, ephemerality and permanence.

JF: Your titles, such as Mother’s Day, 2008, Your Coat Collar on Christmas, and There’s Comfort in Your Lack of Intimacy, seem to refer to someone or a specific event or narrative. Does this body of work relate to your personal history?

SK: Yes, I do rely on titles to add a hint of personal narrative to my work. The artwork doesn’t necessarily reveal itself as intensely personal on its own, therefore I utilize titles as a way of creating a more intimate conversation between the works. All of the titles in this show address specific people that I have been in an close relationship with in some way, some who have passed away and some who are still living.

JF: What is your studio practice like?

SK: My process of working is heavily studio-based. I view my studio as a place of refuge where I can seek solice and quietly work on my projects. I typically work very slowly and many of my artworks are made through repeated gestures, therefore my studio practice often assumes a meditative tone.

Mother’s Day, 2008, Sharon Koelblinger
Mother’s Day, 2008

JF: What are some things you are currently reading, listening, to or viewing that are relevant to your work?

SK: Serendipitously, I began reading The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit at the time that I was preparing work for this show. The book touches on a few transitional moments in Solnit’s life, including her mothers declining health due to Alzheimer’s, and considers how she and others narrate their own story. In Auspicious Arguments, I was thinking a lot about the objects that connect me to other people’s histories and how my own present is intertwined with their past.

JF: What are your plans for the summer—what are you working on now?

SK: This summer, I plan on experimenting with video in my practice. I foresee that the inherently ephemeral nature of video will similarly share the tension between the temporal and the enduring that already exists in my work. Using video, I intend to explore the process of human perception through capturing subjects that are transformed throughout the duration of the piece by shifts in subtle nuances. What the viewer anticipates at the beginning may not be what they see at the end.

Sharon Koelblinger

Swell series, Iceberg #2. Photo by Julianna Foster_small

Going Low

Telling a Story Outside the Frame


Julianna Foster is currently (2015-2016) a visiting assistant professor in the photography program at the University of the Arts. Foster has been a guest lecturer at Rowan University and Temple University and has sat on Fulbright and Graduate Thesis Committees at UArts. She received a BFA in Design from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (2001) and an MFA in book arts and printmaking from the University of the Arts (2006). Foster was an artist member of Vox Populi Gallery in Philadelphia from 2006 to 2013. Solo exhibitions in Philadelphia include Philadelphia Art Alliance, Painted Bride Art Center, Fleisher Art Memorial (2013 Wind Challenge recipient), and Gravy Studio and Gallery. View Julianna’s full bio here.

-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder

For years I have kept a snapshot of my mother, my older sister, and me in a square yellow frame. It was taken in the early 80’s on a mountain in North Carolina. I don’t recall that day at all, but my mother told me that it was a very windy day. We picnicked on a bench near where the photograph was taken. Whenever I look at this image, I envision what it was like on the mountain that day. I have (re)created a memory that can only exist in the periphery of the image, outside the margins of the photograph.

Maybe it’s longing. Maybe it’s compensating for loss. But for me the photograph is never only about the thing photographed. I imagine what is unseen, not necessarily what the photograph itself describes, and I want to tell that story. There is life in the peripheral, there is history in the margins.

Mary Todd Lincoln and her famous husband

It is well documented that for more than a century after its birth, photography, with a few exceptions like spirit photography (a sensational example of which is the portrait of Mary Todd with Lincoln’s ghost), was assumed to be authentic: because of the immediacy of the photographic process, it was believed to be a veracious account of whatever the camera lens was pointed toward. Photography, more so than any other medium, has been used to document—in the strictest definition of that word—cultural history. The power that a photograph can possess is immeasurable, and is crucial to understanding the world around us.

My interest in photography was piqued when I discovered artists challenging these traditions. While researching cinema and its influences on photography (Jean Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Chantal Akerman), I was introduced to artists using the medium in a more directorial manner: “making as opposed to taking,” creating instead of capturing what already exists which became prevalent in the 1970’s and work by artists such as Theresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, Uta Barth, Sophie Calle and James Casebere, to name a few, were highly influential. This cinematic mode appealed to my desire to create invented narratives, opened doors for me to explore the medium in a new way, and ultimately led to a sequential way of thinking that resulted in me making books, videos, and photographic series.

once, you were an island, 2 photo by Julianna Foster
once, you were an island, 2

Over the last few years my work has veered towards objects that I have hand built on a tabletop scale in my home studio and then digitally combine with subjects I photograph that can be found in the world, particularly landscapes and seascapes. Although the impetus for the imagery derives from an existing narrative, the use of characters and plot are less relevant than they have been in the past and ideas relate as a series instead of a sequence of events.

once, you were an island, 3 photo by Julianna Foster
once, you were an island, 3

The studio environment has allowed me to consider subject matter and narrative structure in more of an illusionist, metaphorical space. While the photograph continues to be a representation of the thing photographed, the thing photographed is now a fabricated reproduction of what could be out in the world. An example of this in some of my recent work is a smoke machine simulating clouds, white styrofoam carved to resemble an iceberg, a dilapidated dollhouse damaged by floods and overgrown vegetation. All of these I build by hand, photograph, and then combine digitally with my own archived images.

Swell series, Iceberg #2. Photo by Julianna Foster
Swell series, Iceberg #2

One of the reasons for this change may be that I now have two small children. Photographing in my home studio became more of a necessity, opposed to scheduling models, scouting locations, and organizing shoots. While the work has increasingly moved away from sequential imagery based on a directorial, cinematic linear narrative the photograph remains constructed in terms of its fabricated stories, whereas each image can be read/viewed as a singular experience.

once, you were an island, 1 photo by Julianna Foster
once, you were an island, 1

The series Swell started with a story I read in a newspaper years ago of an eye witness account of the aftermath of a nor’easter in a small town on the Atlantic coast. This evolved into a retelling of events, based on what I imagined the witness experienced in the aftermath of the storm. Similarly, the series once, you were an island originated from a story told by a friend about the the demise of a woman who comes to the midwest to reunite with her married lover. The media picks up her story and embellishes or misconstrues it to the point where legend and truth are intermingled. Through my process of creating images in response to these narratives, the intention is not to illustrate, faithfully reconstruct or document the story, but to interpret and embellish, taking liberties with their account of events, allowing fact and fiction to intertwine. Maybe in the same way I do with the snapshot of my family in that square yellow frame, insert what I imagine exists on the periphery or margins of these stories. The camera captures a moment in time, yet the story of that day isn’t explained in what is visible, but in what is imagined, the life outside of the frame. The existence of the photograph proves this moment did occur, there is evidence the three of us stood on the mountain that day together, arm in arm. What happened next is up to you to decide. The power of a photograph is immeasurable.

All images courtesy of Julianna Foster.

 

The dramaturg is present, Erin Washburn

$$$

Following the Money

Erin Washburn is someone I’m always excited and relieved to work with during a creative process. While she is often one of the smartest people in the room, she has a knack for making others feel that way, too. Her cool-headedness and gusto for digging into the depths of new works keep her in high demand in the Philadelphia theater scene. Erin is a freelance dramaturg and producer and currently serves as Company Dramaturg for The Renegade Company, Producing Associate for Orbiter 3, and Literary, Marketing & Development Assistant for InterAct Theatre Company. Erin has also worked with Shakespeare in Clark Park, Tiny Dynamite, Theatre Exile, PlayPenn, the Wilma Theater, and Studio Theatre in Washington, DC. She is an alumna of InterAct’s apprenticeship program and a graduate of Bryn Mawr College.

-Dani Solomon, curator

I’ve never met an artist who did just one thing.

I remember discovering dramaturgy in college and thinking, “This is it. This is what I’m going to do the rest of my life.” I think back on senior year as this golden period of self-assured artistry. I was working on a play I really liked, rich with dramaturgical possibilities. I came to rehearsal armed with research that enriched the play without locking the actors into set of prescriptive period-accurate choices. The director and actors listened to my notes. I remember feeling this enormous sense of control and agency—I was making something the way I wanted to. In all the theatrical dabbling I had done, nothing else had felt like this. As an actor, I felt like an inflatable doll being pushed around the stage. As a technician, I was constantly anxious about not being capable enough (with good reason—I once dropped a light from our catwalk and left a dent in our stage). I felt like I had figured out my role in the American theater.

Here’s the thing about dramaturgy: it’s a difficult practice to boil down and describe. Even reading what I just wrote, I’m thinking, “No, that’s not quite right, that sounds like all I do is Google things and watch rehearsal.” Dramaturgy is a nebulous field: it can take form in everything from research packets to new play workshops to lobby displays to Howlround essays; its composite responsibilities shift with each project. But newly armed with my degree and bursting with pride, I decided I didn’t care if no one knew what dramaturgy was. I knew what it was; I knew who I was; and I would demand my work be respected and valued.

As I began to move around in Philly’s theater community and stumbled into other working artists, I noticed that their personal descriptors weren’t as firm as mine. Instead, they would have a list of two to three roles they could fulfill at any given time. Actor and teacher. Playwright and actor and technician. Director and producer and stage manager. And as the months slipped by and I settled into the grind of searching for projects, I noticed myself falling into this phenomenon as well.

I’ve been really lucky, running into various gigs as a dramaturg, many of which I’m really proud of. But I’ve had gut-wrenching disappointments as well, when I felt like my work was being taken advantage of, or that what I had to offer couldn’t do the production much good. What use are my insights when the director chastises me for giving them, claiming I’ve offered notes outside “my” domain and essentially treating me like a human search engine? What good are my research skills when the show I’m working on is barely funded?

As I became less secure in the value I could offer as a dramaturg, I started testing the waters to see where I could be more of use. That’s how I started describing it—I’m more “useful” when I do things people “need.” People always need help raising money, so I’ll help with grants. People always need someone to organize how their show gets made, so I’ll be a producer. People always need someone to handle crotchety patrons, so I’ll work in box office. People always need caffeine; I’ll run and get coffee. Little by little I spread myself out, my crystalized identity softening to encompass as many roles as I think I can handle (a load I’m still calibrating and will probably continue to calibrate until I die or stop making theatre).

You have to be flexible to succeed as an artist. In order to find work, you need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and get stuff done, put your finger in every pie, throw your hat into every ring. And I wonder, is it because we love what we do so much we want to always be doing it? Is it that knowing how to do multiple things makes us better artists? Or is our scramble to overexert ourselves a symptom of how our work—how our field—is valued? Is it an impulse or a necessity?

My mom is an accountant. She majored in accounting in college; she studies to maintain her CPA status every year; she’s been working in accounting for commercial ventures and non-profits for a few decades. Her responsibilities have changed—I couldn’t begin to describe the high-level work she does restructuring her company’s financial accountability system here and abroad—but the department she works in has stayed the same. She’s moved up, not spread out. Her work is always needed at a higher level. She has skills that are considered necessary. She is valued.

Articulating these feelings makes me extremely anxious. I feel like one of those brats people on the internet want to “destroy.” I’m afraid of sounding ungrateful (why is that the word that comes to mind?). I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do so much (but why do I feel like I have to do so much?). A lot of this is self-inflicted; I have to take responsibility for how I manage my time (why do I feel like I have to apologize?). And the truth is, underneath the stress and the insecurity and guilt, I love a lot of what I do. I believe everyone does. I don’t think you can work in theatre without loving it. It’s not worth the heartache otherwise. So I say “yes” to something and smash it into my schedule, eschewing the daily time commitments of my life. It’s a compulsion born out of love and fear. If I say no to one opportunity, I may never have another.

There are times when Philly’s theater community feels so small, but in fact, it’s huge. There are so many of us and more are always pouring in. And we all love what we do and we all want to work, but there are only so many jobs to go around. And we’re all trying for those jobs and we’re all wishing there were more out there, but there’s only so much money for them. There’s only so much money doled out to so many people, and that money tends to favor certain opportunities, which only certain people can offer. So really this compulsive multitasking is a fiscal strategy. Expand your horizons to encompass everything so that you’re eligible for anything.

It’s proof positive of my privilege that it took so long for me to realize my surety in school was because my needs were taken care of already. There would always be an opportunity for me to work in my chosen path because there had to be, it’s part of the mechanism of the environment. And because I was fortunate enough to be supported through school, I was able to focus solely on this one occupation.

Specialization is a symptom of stability. And anyone can tell you, even if they don’t work in this field—this magnificent field that fills my heart but is wracked with scarcity—that it is anything but stable. There are too many people and not enough opportunities. There are too many projects and not enough grant funding. There are too many Indiegogo campaigns. You have to keep moving, keep following the money. I don’t know what the solution is, or if there needs to be one. The system works for a lot of people, if they can figure out how much they can take. If they can spread themselves out without spreading themselves thin.

Photo courtesy of Erin Washburn.

Medium Theater Company - Mason in a cage

Artist to Artist

Podcast: The Mediums Make Theater

Morgan Fitzpatrick Andrews and Mason Rosenthal have been working together since 2012 under the auspices of Medium Theatre Company. Their site-specific productions in Rutherford Hall—about a two hour drive out of Philly into New Jersey—feature large casts activating multiple rooms in the suburban mansion with interactive, multi-sensual performance.

In Curate This‘ first podcast, Dani Solomon, who began working with the Mediums two years ago and is now a company member, talks with Morgan and Mason about their differences—in production style, social sensibilities, artistic strengths, finances—and the particulars of navigating differences as artistic collaborators.

The first time they worked together intimately was Mason’s one-man show Nobody’s Home. For their initial rehearsals, Morgan set up a system where Mason would create a one minute performance with only two minutes of prep in a tiny, cell-like bedroom. Morgan, stopwatch in hand, would enter the room after the two allotted minutes, and leave after one minute of performance. Then the process began again immediately.

“Morgan tortured me, basically,” Mason laughs. “It was amazing, but it felt like torture for a while.”

“It’s a bit of that exquisite corpse,” says Morgan, “of being able to take different images and then sequence them in a way that makes sense. But then also taking those starting images and branching them out and growing them into something that’s a bit more crystallized into an actual scene.”

Mason adds, “Susan Rethorst has this phrase that making is thinking. So the act of making things over and over again is a kind of thinking and a kind of very sophisticated thinking that’s different from talking about what the show might be or writing it out. And we did a lot of making as thinking.” Within these limitations, says Mason, “We were building a vocabulary together.”

Morgan will more often concede control than take it. “You have a specific way that you like to run rehearsals,” Mason describes, “as a collective, that comes from your history of organizing groups and political activism. You play this funny role as the leader but also you want people to step up in certain moments and for you to be able to step back.

“I learned very early on,” he continues, “that if I want this to go the way I want it to go I have to step up and decide that I’m the director now in this moment. And I enjoyed that. It was stressful to have to do that at the last moment, but I enjoyed it.”

“Not everyone will step up in a situation like that,” Dani points out. “It’s one thing to acknowledge an opportunity for someone to step up but not everyone feels empowered to do that, and sometimes that does leave things not getting accomplished.”

”I’m not telling anyone what to do,” Morgan responds. “I’m giving everyone a frame through which to do things.”

In workshops Morgan facilitates through Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed, he says, “people start by playing these games, and then the games develop into techniques. It’s not like I give a bunch of kids four crayons and [tell them what to draw]. It’s like, okay, here’s sixty crayons and a piece of paper. How was your day? That’s more the way I want a process to look.

“What ends up happening is people are able to insert their own stories into that framework. I’m basically providing the frame but they’re the artist who then provides the picture.”

Listen to the full conversation:

All photos by Amy Hufnagel

Music in podcast by Kulululu