Curate This, Josh McIlvain, Christopher Munden, photo by Said Johnson

I Hate This Art

Murals, Facades, & Other Lies

When Julius asked me to curate content for Curate This I knew I’d have to have an article about how terrible the murals in Philadelphia are, because 1) he works for Mural Arts, 2) the murals in Philadelphia are emotionally empty, poorly rendered, politically naive ugly shit, and 3) I’m an asshole. Fortunately, I have a friend, Josh McIlvain, who views mural “arts” the same way. I met Josh when we both wrote for an evil non-profit; we used company time reserved for boosting the profile of the chemical industry to set up a series of literary anthologies. Josh is artistic director of Automatic Arts, information manager for FringeArts, and an all-around good guy and fellow asshole. He’s my favorite playwright in Philadelphia, and his plays are pretty good too.

-Christopher Munden, curator

Characters:
MANNY A: male, 50s., glasses.
MANNY B: female, 30, glasses.

A and B are playing the same person, MANNY, side-by-side. While they share the same space and story, they should be played by very different types: different genders, different ages, different style of dress. They should not try to both act like the same character, but individually show the character as two different possibilities. They share a belief in the same essential truth, and they exist side-by-side in the same set of circumstances.

Setting:
A community hearing about the Murals Project, attended by community leaders, local government officials, and interested neighbors. The audience plays the role of those gathered at this meeting, and MANNY is speaking directly to the audience as if they were characters gathered for this purpose.

A long banquet table is set out, with a black cloth covering it. Two folding chairs are behind the table, facing the audience, for A and B to sit in. In the manner of government hearings, there is a bottle of water, a plastic cup and two bar napkins to place the cup upon, one set of these items for A and one set for B. At a larger venue, they should have microphones with table microphone stands.

MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS

Scene:
MANNY A and B walk out to the table and take their seats. They open their water bottles and fill their cups with water, screw the caps back on, take a drink, place cups back down, move napkins towards them, and place the cups on one of the napkins. These actions should be in unison, though the movements do not need to be perfectly synced up—they should appear natural. However, only at two other spots in the play do they take simultaneous action. They should not be imitative of each other otherwise.

MANNY

A: I painted murals because I wanted to make the world a happier place. My specialty were paintings, several stories tall, of proud, contented men and women, shoulders squared, looking up at the sunshine, a new dawn, some shit, a collage of types—the farmer to the social worker to the medical doctor, young and old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, mixed-race, every once in a while a Native American. I thought, we all thought, that positive, uplifting images, especially of those who persevered against great odds, people on the street would look up at these happy, positive images and maybe think happy positive thoughts? Where there had been an ugly gray spackled façade now you had a colorful picture of people working a garden, coming together as a community, celebrating their heritage. We were communicating in images—what message did a blank, gray wall make?

(B turns her head, looking at A.)

What did that say to people? Our pictures could make that little difference which maybe could make all the difference—a gleam of hope when you’re feeling down, an extra push as you face a challenge, a bright light of encouragement to help support your dreams, the fight against discouragement. Look, we changed this wall, you can change your life.

B: But the strange thing, I later came to think of, [turns back to audience] is why would all these people, these giant humanoids we painted on the sides of buildings, why would they be looking around at these decrepit, run-down, bleak and depressed pot-holed streets and crumbling sidewalks, with smiles? If they could see, their faces would be full of rage at what the hell did you drop me in this neighborhood for?

A: The murals ran the gamut of scenarios—they still do. Some are landscapes and farming scenes, some are manufacturing tableaus for neighborhoods that once had manufacturing and now have squat, nature scenes with animals and people—peaceable kingdom stuff—in neighborhoods that have no nature except for the spindly trees growing out of decay and the alley cats and stray dogs. Kids like the ones with animals. I once got a commission for an animal mural, but it didn’t work out. I painted a giant house cat playing with a ball of yarn. I thought it would be comforting, but it actually freaked people out to see this four-story house cat staring down at them. Made people feel like mice. Lasted two months before it was whitewashed, and another mural went up, this time of wondrous children observing a sundial, touching it, touching a sundial—what they hell does touching a sundial do? Truthfully, I thought the cat was a little scary too. If a house cat really were that size no doubt they would bat you around like a cat toy, get you caught on his claw and then fling into a wall, you know, on the third try, because it would take a few times to get you off his claw.

B: This shift in perspective, a cute thing made large—suddenly becoming a thing of terror—was the beginning of my dissatisfaction with the murals. Before then I had been a true believer. Save the world, one mural at a time. Paint over your blight with positive images and colorful hues and downtrodden folks can look at those murals and become uplifted and it’s a brand new day, by golly I will pull myself up by my bootstraps, and go out and change my life for the better. And suddenly, instead of the same old same old, it’s a neighborhood of opportunity zone—jobs are made, enterprise is created, the mercury-poisoned earth in the abandoned lots suddenly yields a golden crop and the people rise up singing, all because we transformed a gray wall into an image of hope and pride.

A: Like putting a new coat of paint on a prison. I bet in a prison there’s a lot of talk about a new paint job, I bet everyone has an opinion about it, because there’s nothing else to talk about.

(A and B remove their glasses. They clean them with a napkin from the table in silence. They put their glasses back on.}

People would come up to me, tell me what a nice job I was doing and that felt good. It’s nice to see someone finally starting to clean up the neighborhood. But at the end of the day, the sidewalks are still cracked and everyone still slumps by, going back to their shitty lives. Sure there are shitty lives everywhere, but in a shitty neighborhood, there are more shitty lives.

B: We had community help, making the community part of the process, teaching them, I don’t know . . . the way to paint over their troubles with images of hope and pride and perseverance. The funny thing is, if you see a mural like that, you just assume it’s a shit neighborhood, right? They don’t put uplifting murals in neighborhoods where people are already uplifted, right? In the neighborhoods where someone doesn’t have to commute on a stinky bus two hours for a minimum wage job at a drug store, you don’t have murals. In an uplifted neighborhood, they’d be like, hey, don’t put that shitty mural there.

A: But they learned to paint, sort of, learned team building. There’d always be a couple people who got laid because of it, so that was a plus. Everybody feeling good about themselves, good time to get in on that.

B: But what did they do really—the wall’s still a wall. You can’t do anything with a mural, can’t even walk on it. It’s still just a wall. There’s something brutal about a wall, especially a wall that tells you everything that you’re not.

A: There was one I worked on where one of the central figures was a blacksmith, hammering on his anvil, a proud figure. It was a mural about the pride of craftsmen, and the blacksmith also symbolized the forging of strong neighborhood bonds. You know, a metaphor, subtle as a hammer. Doesn’t matter that aside from a renaissance fair, the craft of blacksmithing is extinct. There’d been a foundry in the neighborhood at one time. But seriously it had been gone for thirty years. And it had been an incredibly dangerous place to work. This old guy was talking to me about it. One moment he’s saying, when the factory shut down, this neighborhood went to hell, that it was a damn shame, and the next moment he’s telling me what a terrible place it was to work. That every three months someone was either maimed or died on the job. And somehow it was always employee carelessness, and people got burned all the time, sometimes badly. But nobody was there hammering an anvil. Wasn’t a bunch a metalworkers with their individual workshops making horseshoes. Plus the whole neighborhood smelled like poison when the wind blew the wrong way. But people seemed to like that one. Workers pride. Now that’s work, real work, I like that. We got to have more of that. I began to question the people who I worked for, like what are we doing painting these images of things that people don’t have, I don’t think visualization is going to turn things around, I think the problems may be deeper than that.

B: We’re starting a discussion, is what Bronson would say. Bronson was the mural guru. We give people something to talk about, and maybe that can be a starting point for an idea. People need ideas, people need to be empowered by the power of their own ideas. And then what? It’s an entry point, it’s a beginning.

A: They’ve been painting these things for like 20 fucking years and it’s always a beginning.

B: The last one I did was a farm, harvest time, the fruits of labor spilling out of baskets in a neighborhood where everyone was living off of food stamps. Think about it, here’s a big basket of apples. Each apple is bigger than your head. You could feed an entire family with one of those apples. Don’t they look delicious? Sorry, not for you! Why not, instead of paintings a picture of a garden do you not build a garden? Maybe the soil is so full of toxins that anything you’d grow would be poisonous, if you were lucky enough to grow anything at all. I once knew a guy who talked about living on the beaches of Mexico and eating thistle. You can survive off of thistle, he’d say.

(A turns his head, looking at B.)

So instead of the farm, I painted an empty lot full of thistle, big thorny thistle plants, a three story building covered in thistle, made your skin crawl just looking at it. People would ask me, what the hell is that? And I’d say thistle! You can live off of thistle.

A: I got about three-quarters done before they took me off the project. [Turns to audience.] They said I needed a break, and gave me a month of paid leave. I mean, they’re very considerate, they were concerned with my feelings, and the stress. They were upset that someone who had been with them for so long could go off the deep end. Only I didn’t go off the deep end, I had woken up. Sure, there was stress, but I had woken up.

B: I couldn’t tell them, they still have a dream, and you can see it in their eyes, and the way looked at me, so caring and concerned. A casualty in the war. Your whole thing is bullshit, I wanted to say. But it would be like telling a creationist that no, the world is more than five thousand years old. Because people choose fantasy over reality. Because every objection is always met with, well, it’s true that there is still much work to be done. Still a long road to go down. We’re just one organization. But these murals, we’ve established a legacy, people think they’re great—I tell people what I do, and they think it’s so great. We’ve come so far, but we’ve got so much further to go . . . and I’m seeing this long, long path through shitty block to shitty block with these stupid murals like guide posts, guide posts to what? To each other. That’s all it is—it’s a path for itself. It’s the insanity of not facing a problem.

A: Took me a while to find a job, a year or so, wasn’t sure what to do. They put me on unemployment. So thoughtful. I spent a lot of time indoors, watching TV. Then I decided I needed to get out so I started taking long walks about town, but I’d always see the murals and seeing them didn’t make me happy. First they pissed me off, but then I just stopped caring, and then I started seeing them the way I think most people see them, something you don’t care about, another wall, that’s it. Another fucking wall in the city.

B: Thank you, no questions.

(A and B rise from table, give a slight nod of acknowledgment, and exit room. The end.)

MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS premiered November 1, 2013, as part of Nice and Fresh performing arts series at Moving Arts of Mount Airy in Philadelphia, PA. With Steve Lippe as A and Emily L. Gibson as B. Directed by Josh McIlvain.

MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS from Automatic Arts on Vimeo.

Photo by Said Johnson

Never Gonna Be a Barrymore Judge, Chris Munden, John Rosenberg

Artist to Artist

Yo Philly, No More Safe Bullshit

I was blown away the first time I saw a play by John Rosenberg. He writes plays as if he is a human and his characters are human, and if you’ve seen a lot of new plays or TV or movies, you know why that’s special. I write about theater and meet a lot of theater folk, but despite—or perhaps because of—this I haven’t become friends with many. But John became one of my closest friends and remains so despite moving back to California. We chat on google chat quite a bit, and our conversation often turns to theater. We have strong opinions about this. These are some excerpts from our chats.

– Christopher Munden, curator

Excerpted from gchat conversations between Christopher Munden and John Rosenberg:

Christopher Munden
I just read a play you’d like
John M. Rosenberg
who wrote it?
Christopher Munden
Jean Genet
John M. Rosenberg
who’s that?
Christopher Munden
google and then thank me
John M. Rosenberg
Thank you
this guy seems fantastic
I miss you, my friend
Christopher Munden
I miss you too mang
John M. Rosenberg
how was [REDACTED]’s show
Christopher Munden
It was good.
he’s improved it since the last iteration and there was a good crowd.
John M. Rosenberg
where is improvement?
Christopher Munden
pacing, pauses, visually.
how are things with you? Yael? etc?
John M. Rosenberg
things are good. Yael is doing good.
closed play last weekend, started new one.
what is new with you?
Christopher Munden
I’m moving to Kensington.
John M. Rosenberg
Hoooooooray!

***

Christopher Munden
I saw [REDACTED] and hated it and it’s getting all these good reviews and it hurts my soul and I feel like I need to say something
John M. Rosenberg
i think if it hurts your soul, write an op ed
Christopher Munden
Yeah?
i don’t know what that would do
but i thought about doing it after it closes
i mean, why else have Phindie really?
but it feels like it’d be pissing in the wind
John M. Rosenberg
what did [REDACTED] think of the show?
Christopher Munden
he hasn’t sent review yet
John M. Rosenberg
i mean, sure you can say it is pissing in the wind
but if you say it sucks and everyone is dickriding it then fuck it
have fun and say how you feel
you are never going to be a barrymore judge, take pride in it
this company is just safe bullshit masquerading as cutting edge
if that is independent theater in philly then heeeeeehaw this place can french kiss my dog pussy
Christopher Munden
i’m maybe more upset with the reviewers
do they really think the things they wrote?
it is like they didn’t see the same play
i think a lot of it is just not wanting to call a shit a shit
John M. Rosenberg
why shit on a company run by philly barrymore winners?
they are taking chances producing new work!
Christopher Munden
i am not as down on the company as you, but they deserve to be held to a standard
John M. Rosenberg
this new show got all these reviews
that should tell you something
Christopher Munden
what should it tell me?
John M. Rosenberg
that there is money behind it and people are gonna go to bat for them
Christopher Munden
i go to bat for them
but to me, supporting an artist includes telling them that their shit stinks
i want them to succeed
but by that i don’t mean sell tickets and get good reviews
John M. Rosenberg
yes
yes
yes
it isn’t the work, chris
it is the breeding ground to get bigger shit that isnt real shit
it is well thought out marketable stuff
hollow assed shit
Christopher Munden
[REDACTED] will tear apart a kids play about rainbows if it deserves it, why wouldn’t she criticize this one?
John M. Rosenberg
i have no idea
Christopher Munden
Josh would totally do all that marketing shit and more though, right?
if he thought it would work he would. But he’d do it so he could put up whatever the fuck he wanted.
And it wouldn’t just be workshopped theater 101 garbage.
John M. Rosenberg
the funny thing about joshua mcilvain is he wants to get the pew money and get produced by the theater companies
but he isn’t a hack
Christopher Munden
Josh could write better plays than that while changing diapers.
John M. Rosenberg
and i dont know if josh will ever be invited to center city to do his stuff
but i love he is just banging out his own shit
so i love talking about this because shit will continue to succeed
Christopher Munden
i hope [REDACTED] sends me something real or i am going to have to write something
because otherwise i may as well just close Phindie
i don’t want people to go see theater just to get out the house and to pay actors
John M. Rosenberg
who pays actors?

***

Christopher Munden

John M. Rosenberg
i liked that!
i have never heard it
Christopher Munden
i went to see Ween reunion show in Denver and I’ve been revisiting my love for them since.
John M. Rosenberg
“from a sojourn away from a major market in Montana”:

Thank you for getting back to me. I am always interested in quality work, and my training and background is in theater. New work is also exciting, and having some affiliation with a theater company in Los Angeles is one of my goals. I have been back here (from a sojourn away from a major market in Montana) for just a few months. I looked at your website and some of the press notices and it looks pretty cool. I am confused about the venue though…when you say in ‘an apartment’ you mean an apartment set on a stage in a theater or literally in an apartment? Honestly I am not so sure that even my love of the craft affords me the time to do work that is being performed in an apartment without a legit audience. Coming from regional theater I am well acquainted with the idea of doing theater for no pay, really my experience is that doing theater actually costs an actor money. Could you elaborate on how these performances actually work and to whom they are performed for? Thanks.

fucking actors
Christopher Munden
when you say in ‘an apartment’ you mean an apartment set on a stage in a theater or literally in an apartment?
John M. Rosenberg
what a cunt
they all think they are special out here
Christopher Munden
you should invite him to your “set”

Never Gonna Be a Barrymore Judge, Chris Munden, John Rosenberg

***

John M. Rosenberg
oh dear
Christopher Munden
yeah
John M. Rosenberg
how is you?
how is fringe?
Christopher Munden
Oh it’s alright
Nothing blew me away but a bunch of fairly good stuff
John M. Rosenberg
hooooooooooooray!
are we going to continue conversation about stuff with philly theater or eh?
Christopher Munden
Well, there seems to be a point to Phindie, for me, during the Fringe
In a way there isn’t always at other times
So I’m going to regroup after and see
John M. Rosenberg
right
I think there is a point
Christopher Munden
At fringe or in general?
John M. Rosenberg
in general
John M. Rosenberg
I like the idea of you raising the bar for plays and criticism in philly after fringe
Christopher Munden
My plan is to review a bunch myself
But what if people do lifeless though not terrible shit
John M. Rosenberg
I really think your job is to demand the type of work you like and foster that type of work
Christopher Munden
One word reviews: Lifeless
I can testify that this was a play that was performed
These were the actors:
These people worked on sound and stuff:
John M. Rosenberg
hahahahahahahahahahaha
Christopher Munden
At the end there was applause.
115 minutes with one intermission
Show runs through October 6
John M. Rosenberg
the end
Christopher Munden
Yep

***

John M. Rosenberg
what did you do last night?
Christopher Munden
i went to two dance things
John M. Rosenberg
how were they?
Christopher Munden
Both solos
One was really good
She was charismatically crazy and she collected trash though so I may have been swayed by that
The other was by a someone I know
John M. Rosenberg
it only helps
Christopher Munden
And it was fine
Short

***

John M. Rosenberg
what you doing?
Christopher Munden
i was putting together a theater calendar for October
I’ve decided to pretty much review everything for Phindie myself that month
John M. Rosenberg
HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORAY!
what is coming up that looks bearable?
Christopher Munden
Um. A Philip Ridley play
Radiant Vermin
John M. Rosenberg
i like the title
Christopher Munden
He wrote Mayfly or something like that
look him up, he’s an asshole
John M. Rosenberg
who is putting it on?
Christopher Munden
Inis Nua
He directed a creepy 1990 horror movie The Reflecting Skin
Also, Curio is doing a Conor McPherson adaptation of the Birds
There’s an Exile show that might be okay
Guards at the Taj
PTC is restaging Rizzo
John M. Rosenberg
i like you reviewing for the month
Christopher Munden
I can write a mediocre review as well as anyone else in this town
John M. Rosenberg
hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha
time to clean house
time to write a letter to philly theater being like i am worried it is garbage, let’s see what October brings us
Christopher Munden
I am going to publish an edited version of our chats sometime.
John M. Rosenberg
hahahahahahaha, why edited?
Christopher Munden
you’re too antisemitic
John M. Rosenberg
i was hoping you would say not antisemetic enough
Christopher Munden
i was writing with an eye for publication

i love philadelphia, John Rosenberg, Curate This

Crossing the Border

real straight up and down motherfucking talented artists

John Rosenberg came to Philadelphia from California, put on a bunch of great plays in a converted industrial building in Kensington, then left Philadelphia for California. We became friends, and I asked him to write about his thoughts on the city and its theater.

– Christopher Munden, curator

i love love love love love love love love love philadelphia. when i think of philly i think yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. My lady friend for eternity is from philadelphia so what is not to love? It is white wine and 24 packs of tall cans of becks for $20 and parliaments my wife bought and fuck i should really eat something i didnt eat dinner i should eat a cheesesteak from little petes before going to bed for work the next morning. it is quarters of xanax when i got to work, 30 minutes of work spread over eight hours while working on a play and then printing out a copy after my boss left and regional railing it home and hooray my wife wants martinis and then smoking all her cigarettes and watching tv and working on a play.

philly is where i figured out for the most part how i wanted to try to do whatever the fuck it is i do, which is write plays and find actors to be in them and then put on the play and hope the actors die before i have to pay them.

philly is where i hit the fucking lottery and got the chance to have my very own theater i could rent for $6000 a year in kensington.

philly is where i got not legally married to my wife.

philly is where a dude asked to rent the theater and then stole all the fucking lights but got caught by a neighbor.

philly is where my wife’s father threatened to kidnap a site reviewer from the pew foundation.

philly is where i was on a ladder in the papermill theater trying to turn on a ceiling fan for a fucking actor and the fucking ladder collapsed because i am an idiot and i fell 15 feet onto my elbow and there was a piece of my elbow floating but i didnt have health insurance so I just left it the fuck alone for three months

papermill, photo by @dopez, Curate This, John Rosenberg
The Papermill Theater, photo by @dopez

philly is where i learned to get an idea, not wait on it but find an actor who wanted to work and write the thing and put the motherfucker up.

philly is where a critic got stopped by the police after one of our shows because they thought she was a prostitute.

philly is where a cast got an outstanding fucking review and a fight broke out during a pick-up rehearsal.

hello! i hope you are working on a thing. maybe in your head or in whatever medium you do shit. but i hope you are working on a thing. i hope you are working on the thing and planning on putting it on somewhere in philly. i hope you pay to put it on and don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. unless your shit is super good or you got it like that.

i really think it is fantastic when people make stuff and then put it on. it is the fucking best.

it is hard to do and hard to earn respect but it is the best. it is YES YES YES.

there are people who are straight up and down real motherfucking talented artists and get their shit put on by the pew foundation or fringearts or the powerhouse theater companies in town and win barrymores and shit. People like Gaby Revlock and the young dude who does shit with the people that i cant remember his name but he is a nice dude and knows how to go about getting his shit done. Not Brad. Fuck. What is his name? I can do this without looking it up. He wrote the play shitheads that azuka is putting on.

i dont have the courage to send my shit out so i like to do it myself.

chris the brit asked me to write this thing on my time in philly. What is heehaw is i just did my taxes from my time in philly. i should have done them before, yes, but i dont have the courage to send my shit out.

My wife and I did seven full length shows and a bunch of shorter things from september 2010 to feb 2014 in a warehouse in kensington called the papermill. i think we spent about $30,000 and made about $1.00 in ticket sales.

there is a way to talk about this stuff without it reading like glory days shit and you had to be there bullshit. i am sure there is, but i am unsure how to do that. maybe by mentioning i think i made about $1500 in ticket sales and spent over $30,000 to play make believe. this does not include late penalties from the irs. i am also sure that my shit is never gonna be as great as it was there, so boo-hoo for me, hooray!

the papermill is still there as of this morning. You should rent it and put on a play. Why the fuck not?! Rent it and tell people to see the show! take the market frankford line and get off at somerset. ask anyone where the local theatre is, because you are there to see people play make believe as they trot lightly on the boards. they will point you in the right direction.

Queen of All Weapons press release, Curate This, John Rosenberg
Queen of All Weapons press release

i miss that shit hella but thank the fuck god i got out of there before someone got fucked up. THANK FUCKING GOD. i used to say that the papermill was the most dangerous theater in america and that shit was slightly true. you could get fucked up coming to see a hella fresh theater show in soooooo many various ways. you could get in a car accident, but whatever. you could get your ass beat getting off at somerset. highly unlikely, but i also did my shows during the day. you could decide that you wanted to take the edge off before a show and get pills or a bag of something and there was no better place to do that than at the somerset stop. you could be a season subscriber to hella fresh theater and die from the fucking mold or the asbestos. you could come see a show in the dead of winter that we heated the theater using open flamed propane tanks and this thing best described as a jet engine/banshee and one of the actors could have kicked it over and KABOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM. you could have died from boredom from the bad shows i put on or attempted to drink away the pain from the show you saw OH MY GOD I SHOULDNT HAVE SMOKED IN BED AFTER THAT TERRIBLE SHOW BUT I WAS SO DRUNK BUT NOW I AM IN HEAVEN AND CAN SEE ALL THE THEATER I WANT FOR FREE.

i consider myself a philly playwright, whatever that means, hooray. i would get sick before every show i put on. i would feel terrible until the actors for the show got to the theater. it is a terrible thing to say, but actors make me feel safe. i love them. i look forward to when i will be able to use cyborgs and not have to pay them.

my time in philly was shaped by my friendship with josh mcilvain. he interviewed me for the fringe back in 2010 because of the space in kensington. we saw each other’s work and saw enough in each other that we respected so we became friends. josh is a super real playwright and is a great fucking writer and knows what he is and what he isn’t. we read each other’s stuff, gave notes, took turns directing each other’s shows. the thing i miss most about philly is working with josh. he has his eye on getting put on by companies and shit because he isn’t a moron, but josh is devoted to making new shit and putting it on. his nice and fresh series is an awesome vehicle for artists looking to show their new polished work. if you are gonna do a nice and fresh, don’t be a useless talent, help set up and clean after the show.

Doing theater in los angeles is like in philly, except it isnt. there is a theater alliance here in los angeles and it seems as stupid and worthless as the philly shit with the barrymores and large companies acting like they care about the work and the idea of community in theater. there are people banging out great work, people putting on stuff just to get noticed and people using it as a step ladder, just like philly.

i have put on three shows in our apartment in los angeles. All of them are plays that take place in apartments. i dont think it was good because it was in an apartment. it was good when it was good and bad when it was not good. actors have a few great shows, a few not great shows. one actor kept sleeping in our backyard without our knowledge or consent. I am right now trying to figure out how to turn our living room into an russian airport for a play called let it snowden.

photo by john rosenberg, Curate This, I love Philadelphia
An apartment becomes a Russian airport. Photo by John Rosenberg.

but hooray! kiss my dog pussy with the negativity and just do some new work! everyone is a champion! If you are working no a thing and want someone to read it or want to run an idea by someone, email me at hellafreshtheater@gmail.com.

Header photo by Josh McIlvain.

Portrait of myself as my father by nora chipaumire. Julius Ferraro's Fringe Picks. Curate This.

I Have Always Liked Climbing on Top of Things

25 Shows in 34 Hours: Julius’ Fringe Schedule

You don’t know what shows you want to see in Fringe. That guide is freakin huge, the descriptions are tiny, and there are like 150 shows. And it’s coming up soon: Sept. 9-24.

For two years Curate This co-founder Julius Ferraro has leveraged his experience and knowledge of the Philadelphia theater scene to produce a series of Fringe Bike Tours, helping audiences to navigate the ocean of possibilities that is Fringe. This year there won’t be a bike tour, but you can take a look at his Fringe schedule, below.

-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder

Fringe always reminds me of firsts! One of my first outstanding Fringe shows was Nichole Canuso’s Wandering Alice, and now she’s back at Fringe in Pandæmonium with Geoff Sobelle, whom I first saw in Pig Iron’s Chekhov Lizardbrain, also at Fringe. I first saw Mary Tuomanen perform in Vainglorious many years ago (and have seen her many times since then), and now she’s back in another immersive Applied Mechanics show.

If there’s a theme among the shows I’m seeing in this year’s Fringe, it’s that so many fall under the label of “immersive” performance. Think critically about this descriptor, which is inarguably a hot one these days. What does it mean? Is it a new way of engaging “presence” in performance, or is it a gimmick? Is it vital to the changing meaning of theater in an increasingly digital world, or is simply a new way to stimulate oversaturated audiences?

And what counts as immersive? If actors are on all sides of me and sometimes touch me, is that immersive? If I am allowed to choose in what order I see scenes, is that immersive? Or do I have to be picking fruit with the artists, or making real in-the-moment choices with my body which affect the ways I relate with other individuals, for a show to be truly “immersive”?

Look out for my reviews of many of these at Phindie and thINKingDANCE as the festival goes by. Hopefully this list will help you to navigate the notoriously massive and ponderous list of shows. I’ve also tabulated running counts of how many shows I’m seeing and how many hours that means in actual time in the theater. Just for fun.

Animal Farm to Table by The Renegade Company. Photo by Daniel Kontz. Julius Ferraro's Fringe Picks. Curate This.
Animal Farm to Table. Photo by Daniel Kontz.

THURS, SEPT 8
8 pm. Animal Farm to Table by The Renegade Company. Immersive theater and food together. Immerse yourself in both, like an arty jello bath.
Total shows seen: 1. Time spent in theater: 1 hr 15 mins.

FRI, SEPT 9
8:30 pm. Feed by Applied Mechanics. What’s Feed about? I can’t tell from the description and I don’t really care. Applied Mechanics “makes plays you can walk through,” and they’re good at it. Mary Tuomanen was a wonderful Napoleon in their Vainglorious so many years ago. I’m excited to see her alongside Thomas Choinacky again.
11 pm. Crave by Sarah Kane, this production by Svaha Theatre. Kane’s first major production was Blasted, a play which blew up theatrical orthodoxy by having the seedy motel room from the first act bombed by an invading army. Graphic staged (and often sexual) violence was a hallmark of her first three plays; Crave is a departure from this, with the violence still present but abstracted into language and monologue.
Total shows seen: 3. Time spent in theater: 3 hrs 45 mins.

Cellophane by Mac Wellman, produced by Jenny Kessler and John Bezark, Julius Ferraro's Fringe Schedule, Curate This
Cellophane. Image by John Bezark.

SAT, SEPT 10
3 pm. Cellophane by Mac Wellman, this production by Jenny Kessler and John Bezark. I wrote a preview about this play for thINKingDANCE. Wellman is a master of modern wordplay, “James Joyce reborn as a rap artist.” If you think there’s something weird and wiggly going on underneath the grinning, whitecapped veneer of contemporary communication, take a peek under the sinister skirts of Cellophane.
7:30 pm. Two Stories. In a house, dance happening in different rooms, choose your own adventure. “Immersive.” Why not.
10 pm. Shadow House. Immersive opera directed by Brenna Geffers and with a libretto by Brenna Geffers. Another choose-your-own-adventure, follow the performers around the house and get a different story depending on where you go play. I saw Geffers’ La Ronde in the same building last year. My choices didn’t seem to matter because I was able to catch everything that happened, eventually . . . but Geffers is super talented and experienced so this is worth checking out.
Total shows seen: 6. Time spent in theater: 7 hrs 30 mins.

SUN, SEPT 11
2:30 pm. The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco, created by, of course, Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. Ionesco is the French absurdist who wrote The Bald Soprano, the anti-play which you’ve seen performed in 24-hour cycles with an increasingly exhausted and loopy cast.
7 pm. The Sincerity Project by Team Sunshine Performance Corporation. The hook: two years ago, seven performers signed on for a 24 year experiment. Every two years they’ll perform The Sincerity Project, perform the same rituals, answer some of the same questions, and re-weave their lives together.
Total shows seen: 8. Time spent in theater: 10 hrs 30 mins.

I Fucking Dare You by the Berserker Residents, Julius Ferraro's Fringe Picks, Curate This
I Fucking Dare You

MON, SEPT 12
8:30 pm. I Fucking Dare You by The Berserker Residents. I’m going to this completely by the virtue of the company making it. Wild and wicked; “daft, ephemeral and joyous.”
Total shows seen: 9. Time spent in theater: half a 24 hr day.

TUES, SEPT 13
8 pm. Gala by Jérôme Bel. Join thINKingDANCE after this performance for Write Back Atcha: a post-show “talk-back” combined with a mini-writing workshop, exploring the language you use to describe dance. See the show, pow wow with other audience members and some experienced writers, think and talk critically, write a few lines about what you saw, and then have some of your work compiled with other audience members’ work into a crowd-sourced review like this one.
Total shows seen: 10. Time spent in theater: 13 hrs 30 mins.

Pandaemonium by Nichole Canuso. Julius Ferraro's Fringe Picks. Curate This.
Pandæmonium

WEDS, SEPT 14
8 pm. Pandæmonium by Nichole Canuso Dance Company and Early Morning Opera. Nichole Canuso is a Philadelphia treasure – her Wandering Alice epitomized immersive work for me before I ever knew what that word meant, and then The Garden blew that out of the water a few years later. See her dance with Pig Iron founding member Geoff Sobelle.
Total shows seen: 11. Time spent in theater: 15 hrs.

THURS, SEPT 15
7 pm. 7-Chair Pyramid High Wire Act by Der Vorfuhreffekt Theatre. Puppetry. Elaborate costumes. Props and dynamic sets. Super theatrical performance. This show’s been all over the world and I want to catch it while it’s here.
Total shows seen: 12. Time spent in theater: 16 hrs.

FRI, SEPT 16
7 pm. With Flint and Steel by duende. Improvised music and dance. But, like, they seem to really know what they’re doing.
Total shows seen: 13. Time spent in theater: 16 hrs 45 mins.

Explicit Female by Zornitsa Stoyanova. Photo by Will Drinker. Julius Ferraro's Fringe Picks. Curate This
Explicit Female. Photo by Will Drinker.

SAT, SEPT 17
5 pm. Speculum Diaries by Irina Varina. Varina is an engaging, present, super-talented performer who is also capable of screaming a song at her own vagina on stage. One of my top picks for the festival.
9 pm. Explicit Female by Zornitsa Stoyanova. To quote Kat Sullivan, Zornitsa is a “neo-metal monster and a futuristic Renaissance queen.” Check out my interview with Zornitsa on thINKingDANCE for more info about why I’m psyched about this performance.
Total shows seen: 15. Time spent in theater: 18 hrs 45 mins.

SUN, SEPT 18
7:30 pm. Wise Norlina by Stacy Collado, Hillary Pearson, and Kat J. Sullivan. I don’t know much about this piece; I’m seeing it because I’m interested in Sullivan’s work.
10 pm. Exile 2588 by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre. First time I saw Almanac was at Nice and Fresh; they did a little wordless ditty about a SEPTA ticket taker chasing a fare-cheat up onto the roof of the train and then into such unlikely places as the cockpits of fighter jets. Laurel and Hardy joyfulness combined with astounding circus skill.
Total shows seen: 17. Time spent in theater: 21 hrs 45 mins.

One Way Red by Medium Theatre Company. Photo by Kate Raines. Julius Ferraro's Fringe Picks. Curate This.
One Way Red. Photo by Kate Raines.

WEDS, SEPT 21
7:30 pm. One Way Red by Medium Theatre Company. Dani Solomon first created this piece for 2015’s SoLow Fest. It’s a beautiful and moving exploration of the one-way trip to Mars proposed by popular science recently.
Total shows seen: 18. Time spent in theater: 23 hrs 15 mins.

THURS, SEPT 22
7 pm. Julius Caesar. Spared Parts by Romeo Castellucci / Socíetas Raffaello Sanzio. A nice pairing with Cellophane, this is a Caesar stripped of its words, featuring characters who wrestle desperately to communicate and fail.
Total shows seen: 19. Time spent in theater: 1 day and 45 mins.

Portrait of myself as my father by nora chipaumire. Julius Ferraro's Fringe Picks. Curate This.
Portrait of myself as my father

FRI, SEPT 23
7 pm. Portrait of myself as my father by nora chipaumire. A dancer who never knew her father “celebrates and critiques masculinity: its presence, presentation, and representation” by producing it in a boxing ring.
Total shows seen: 20. Time spent in theater: 1 day, 2 hrs and 15 mins.

SAT, SEPT 24
2 pm. Le Cargo by Faustin Linyekula. A Congolese dancer explores the elimination of memory and his country’s past.
6 pm. The Performers by Erica Janko. A total toss of the dice on this one. I know nothing about Erica Janko except that she describes herself as “a movement artist who researches social phenomena through performance,” a kind of personal statement which might mean everything or nothing.
10:30 pm. Martha Graham Cracker is Martha Graham Cracker.
Total shows seen: 23. Time spent in theater: 1 day, 6 hrs.

SUN, SEPT 25
2 pm. One Way Red by Medium Theatre Company. Full disclosure: I’m filming this for the artist, so I’m seeing it twice.
7 pm. Macbeth by Third World Bunfight. A bit of a cultural minefield: a South African director leads a cast of Congolese performers in an adaptation of Verdi’s opera Macbeth, translating its events to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the leading man into a warlord.
Total shows seen: 25. Time spent in theater: 1 day, 9 hrs.

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, performer, playwright, and administrator based in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This, has served as theater editor of Phindie, and writes for thINKingDANCE, Philly.com, The Smart Set, and the FringeArts blog. His recent performances include Micromania, The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster, and The Mysteries of Jean the Birdcatcher with {HTP}, On the Road for 17,527 Miles with 14th Street, and his Phindie Fringe Bike Tours. With the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s Restored Spaces Initiative he coordinates community-led environmental arts projects.
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.

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, performer, playwright, and administrator based in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This, has served as theater editor of Phindie, and writes for thINKingDANCE, Philly.com, The Smart Set, and the FringeArts blog. His recent performances include Micromania, The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster, and The Mysteries of Jean the Birdcatcher with {HTP}, On the Road for 17,527 Miles with 14th Street, and his Phindie Fringe Bike Tours. With the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s Restored Spaces Initiative he coordinates community-led environmental arts projects.
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.

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.

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

Dani Solomon in a hood

$$$

Embrace the Artist Identity

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

Red 40 Mike Jackson_small

Artist to Artist

If Mike Didn’t Draw It, It Doesn’t Matter

I met Mike Jackson back in 2011 when he started to hang out and draw at Indy Hall. We were the only artist/illustrators there at the time that were actively creating and drawing.

In April of 2013 I produced his solo show, Fast, for a Catcher, where he filled the entire gallery with artwork and stories surrounding his love of baseball. Since then, Mike and I have produced art shows, collaborated on pieces, painted giant murals ,and have encouraged each other to continue to live our lives as creators.

As my drawing mentor, he is constantly encouraging me to settle for nothing but my best. Mike wants everybody to be at their best so he can share the incredible things that people are capable of.

This is why I chose to interview my friend, teacher and collaborator to find out where this incredible execution of colors and lines came from and the stories he is telling with them.

-Sean Martorana, curator

Fast for a Catcher Mike Jackson

SM: Tell me the story of your earliest art and design influences.

MJ: My grandfather saw that I had an interest in drawing. He sat down with me one Saturday night and showed me how to draw a convertible in one point perspective. I remember him specifically saying “. . . and you can add a little fella in there, and then you can draw a sidewalk and he’s looking at a pretty girl at the stop light. You can just keep adding and adding to this.” This was the first time that I got permission to keep building.

I also remember drawing Batman in the frost on the bus in first grade. I did a different super hero every morning. I knew they were going to the next public school when they dropped us off. So I was leaving something behind to build a legend.

It didn’t work. I was not a legend. But my Batman got tighter.

Was there a moment when you really decided you wanted to focus on illustration full time?

I felt like everybody in grade school was the best at something. For some reason I thought I was the best of the best if I could draw really well. I wanted to be known as “the drawing guy.”

In the third grade there was a girl who took art lessons on Saturdays and I remember thinking, “I can’t afford art lessons.” I thought she was going to be better than me and I was going to lose “my thing.” She stopped taking lessons but I kept drawing because I really liked being the best.

Then I went to art school, at University of the Arts, because I figured this is what I’m good at and it’s worth pursuing. I didn’t know I had to know what I wanted to do with it. Art school was just the next logical step.

Line drawing from a live model by Mike Jackson, collection of Sean Martorana

You have a very strong style that you have crafted over time. It’s your hand, your signature. Was there a specific moment you started to find this approach?

College is when I got introduced to line. Up until then I was just trying to draw as realistically as possible. Then there was this girl in college and her renderings were beautiful. Untouchable. So I thought, ok, I’m going to have to figure out a signature. Otherwise I will just be reaching for something that I am good at, and she’s just better.

There was a class with teacher by name of Roger Roth. He encouraged that every week we draw differently. That is the first time I started thinking about bringing a voice to illustration.

He also introduced me to David Stone Martin and Al Hirschfeld, and from there I started drawing with line.

I find your lines to be very animated. They are very loose but sophisticated and intentional. Is there something in your style of line that helps tell the story of the people you draw?

Usually I try to tell as much story with as little line as possible. The more line I have, the closer I get to rendering, and I am trying to get as far away from that as possible but still pass some kind of recognition onto the viewer.

Jazz Mike Jackson

One thing I appreciate with your lines is that they are so tight. In contrast, your color is not as clean. Is there a reason your color is so much looser in its execution than your lines?

Recently I’ve tried not to paint but to apply color. Color adds depth beyond the line . . . which is fun. I want people to have a smile even if it’s just internal. I want them to feel better about something when looking at my work.

Some guys Mike Jackson

Since you like to capture moments and tell stories of incredible people, is there one particular story that stands out to you?

One would be the Kinetic Sculpture Derby piece. It was just a summarization of this day that I had. We went to the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival and were walking up to Frankford Avenue as these people showed up. It was absurd and wonderful I thought if this isn’t the best gateway for telling this day I don’t know what is.

Just two people covered in balloons.

Kinetic Sculpture Derby Mike Jackson

After watching a parade of a viking ship that had 18 people peddling, which is amazing, then these guys were just wearing balloons. It was this simple display of absurdity that I appreciated.

This was a lot of fun because it is simple. The color is exactly what I wanted to do. It’s just an application of color that ended up emphasizing the story.

Is there a subject you are currently interested in?

I have been drawing the theater around Philadelphia. It’s a thing, which doesn’t get much attention, that I can add my voice to. In my world it doesn’t have a prominent voice. When I get together with my friends we talk about the Phillies.

I feel like it’s completely wide open to do what I want. I really don’t know of many people drawing the theater right now. So it seems like the wild west.

I’ve only been doing it for about 5 months but it’s gotten me into some really great shows and it’s another thing to bounce my drawings off of. I go see what other people are capable of doing and how can I show that through what I am capable of doing.

It’s been really great seeing how much work goes into a production, and then can I do it justice.

It’s so much fun.

Ok, final question, because I could go on and on. Do you have any bucket list projects, mediums or things you would like to see your career?

To be a part of a community where I am a respected influence in the community. That will be cool.

The biggest thing, which is why I do all of it, all these little tiny things, add up to the fact that I want to have been a prolific illustrator who supported himself and his family through illustration.

I also want people to say “If Mike didn’t draw it, it didn’t matter.”

Good answer.

Wait. One more question. Can you capture this interview in one of your daily drawings?

Sean and Mike by Mike Jackson

All images by Mike Jackson. Figure drawing from a live model is from the personal collection of Sean Martorana.