NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
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.
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
I have had the excellent fortune to have worked with Dani Solomon on multiple projects over the last 18 months. Dani has a seemingly endless store of energy and creative force, working nonstop with a variety of collaborators while also furthering her own work. After only three years in Philadelphia she is variously accomplished: Dani is a graduate of Headlong Performance Institute, is a member of Medium Theatre Company and Thespionage Theatre Company, and has worked with Lightning Rod Special, Team Sunshine Performance Corporation, 14th Street, and the Institute for Pschyogeographic Adventure. Dani’s work as a theater maker, writer, and director has been produced at Colgate University, SoLow Festival, and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
-Julius Ferraro, co-founder
No matter what work you find yourself in, explaining it to someone outside your field will always be tough. When art is that work, describing it becomes a special kind of challenge.
Outside our dynamic, ever-expanding art-making bubble, art is readily conflated with entertainment—a highly consumable, available product with standardized criteria for what’s “good” and “bad.” Entertainment is fueled by cash in a way that art tries not to be. The value of a physical theater piece, sound installation, or movement experiment is inherent in the experience of it, not in the dollars that flow in and out, but this process- and experience-based value system is hard to sell to someone who is more familiar with the economy of the entertainment world.
On top of overcoming entertainment and art’s sibling rivalry, there is the ubiquitous question (of debatable value in itself)…
– What do you do?
– – I’m a performer and creator in the Philadelphia theater scene.
– So, what do you actually DO?
– – . . . Marketing . . . for a software company.
This is a hard question for me to answer. Are they asking what I like to do? How I make money? What makes me tick? In the same breath that I want to explain my artistic interests, I feel the need to also justify why I make art in the first place, as if it is the elephant in the room. Whereas the value of entertainment is justifiable in a capitalist framework, the pragmatic value of art is difficult to explain in that same frame.
So, what do you do? What do I do? What do we do what do we do what do we do?
As a young artist who cannot afford to rely solely on an artistic practice for financial security, I find myself grappling with a doubleness of identity in both being an artist and having a day job. (Of course, there is more to who I am than my artistic work and my rent-food-and-Netflix job.)
For one thing, I’m still building the confidence to consistently identify myself as an artist, something triply challenging in less artistic spaces. That inner voice constantly prods: Am I really an artist? Is my art financially successful enough to claim that I’m an artist? Do enough other artists know my work for me to be an artist? Do I make art often enough to say I’m an artist?
I try to tell that incessant voice: Yes, I make art, so I’m an artist. But this voice finds fertilizer in environments like these:
– So now that you’re done with that show, does everyone have a break from theater for a while?
– – Uhh, it’s not a universal break no, like, not every theater artist has a break right now, but yes, I have some time between projects.
– Oh, that’s nice. Once I’m finished with this wedding stuff, I should find a hobby, I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands.
I could just hide it—pretend this art-making ailment doesn’t exist. Try to pass as a hobbyist. Sometimes I do, because it’s easier. I don’t have to explain that part of myself. I just float. But floating throws away an opportunity.
As a whole, we young artists need to be better at claiming our artistic identity because it is our obligation to communicate the importance of our practice in a society that otherwise will not hear it.
So, when questions like What did you do this weekend? Will I see you on Broadway one day? What do you do? come up, let’s not take the easy way out. Move that uncertainty aside to preserve the integrity and health of our field. Don’t separate yourself from the path you have chosen when it’s convenient. Creativity is not an otherness. Humans survived through our creativity and our resourcefulness. In our own small, humble way, we help move humanity forward while preserving its sanity, vulnerability, and openness.
Let’s tell people about our artistic work. Prepare a short version and a long version, a version for someone who’s last brush with theater was skimming Romeo and Juliet in high school and one for a Walnut season subscriber. Do not be ashamed of your work in all its weirdness, rawness, and contradiction. Peel back the curtain of your art-making and let people in. Let them in, damn it! Do not judge it for others, and do not apologize for what it is or what it is not. But use your judgment: there are times when discussing the difference between boundary-pushing theater and theater built for mass consumption will go on deaf ears.
We need to be the ambassadors of our artistic community because no one else will. Though our interests may be niche, we shouldn’t assume that no one else wants in. That elitist attitude won’t grow our audiences. If you believe in the worthiness of your work and that of your peers, then won’t your co-workers deserve to experience that art, as well? Maybe they’re the ones who need your work the most.
– Lot of housework this weekend. Put up some crown molding, planted some grass in the backyard, hung some towel rods. What about you?
– – I had a rehearsal for this piece I’m making about Mars. We’re interested in questions about our place in the universe, loneliness, and our collective interest in space . . . I’m a theater artist.
– Oh, that’s cool. Would I have seen any of your work? Are you part of a theater company?
– – Yeah, I’m part of Medium Theatre Company?
– Oh, neat.
– – . . . Yeah.
– Well, let me know next time you’re doing a skit.
Photo credit: Camilla Dely