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Archive for Creating A/Broad

Learning to play well with others

I would like to play well with others.

I used to. Growing up, I had to; with seven kids in the family, you share your toys or someone is going to get an actual piece of leftover two-by-four in the face. Plus we were all sporty, so we could do a pickup game of soccer just on our own and to be honest, big sprawling board games like Risk and Monopoly were pretty epic.

But at school, I was a bit of an outcast—for my family’s poverty, for my incipient nerdiness, my weight—so I wasn’t in demand for a lot of teams. When there were artificial collectives for academic projects or student associations, I was rarely in a position of power, and yet in those same groups, I frequently ended up carrying the lion’s share of the work. I just wanted to make The Thing happen—hi, super keen nerd girl here!—and other people coasted on my labor.

Many of the projects I have taken on in my adult years have followed the same pattern: solo because I want to get shit done. And the groups that I worked with, for performance purposes, frequently wound up with conflicts, if not outright implosions, because I wanted to get shit done, sometimes at the expense of group process and consistent ethics and people’s feelings.

I stopped trying to do those things and decided to focus on my solo work. As my touring schedule got more intense, it was easy to pretend like wanting to work by myself was ENTIRELY my artistic choice, that it wasn’t some flaw or trauma of my own that I couldn’t work through.

What? I was touring! I was never in the same place for more than five months at a time, and usually I was passing through places for just a week or two at a time. How was I supposed to meet anyone to play with? How could I set regular writing dates with other performers? How could I go to networking events or other people’s shows when I wasn’t in any one town long enough to do it? I convinced myself of the futility of such endeavours, and accepted my lonely lot.

For a time. Except I kept seeing what other people were doing in collaboration with each other, great shows and writing, really interesting cross-disciplinary happenings and zines and videos. Here in Berlin the potential is real and exciting, so really feel it, this tiny, almost infinitesimal nudge…

You could do that, it says. You could get in there and play. You’re in Berlin for a while, go on, try it out, ask people, get involved. If not here, where else is it going to happen?

These are all very reasonable words that my subconscious tries to whisper in my ear. I shrink a little inside and shake my head, or puff up in self-importance at my loner status, I’m a rebel, I do things on my own, nobody else is going to do it the way I want things done, I play by my own rules.

But to be honest, I’m tired of worrying about everything on my own. Some art is better in collaboration. I want to play with others, which I think means I’m going to have to figure out some new rules soon.

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Always looking for interesting opportunities and new performing connections, but the core of my vision remains true: making space for those awkward conversations around authentic sex, sexuality, and relationships. If you also think those conversations are important to have, then consider becoming a patron of mine on Patreon. 

The shifting shape of home

I have written about the concept of “home” frequently and at length. As a touring artist, I am understandably a little obsessed, while at the same time trying to be chill about it. I’ve tried to be all, you know, I’m tough, I only need a couple of suitcases to get around. If I can make theatre out of a toaster oven and a cordless phone handset, surely I can make home out of my old Pike Place Market apron and a mini-screwdriver in my makeup bag.

This has worked. For the past seven years this has worked. Less well over time, I mean, I regularly have to fight off the undeniable appeal of knowing where one’s container of flour is, but mostly, I have been able to stay light on my feet, and have felt that to be an important part of my M.O., if not to say my actual identity.

Home was always the hardest thing to shake when I needed to travel: boxing the stuff, transferring the utilities, packing up the room, arranging the sublet, forwarding the mail, finding a foster home for my cat… it was all a source of additional gravity, holding me down, pulling me back. In many ways it was a relief to let those things go, bit by bit.

But all of this was predicated on being a solo agent, a person who, of necessity, had to move through the world and launch myself in various directions on my own. I talked like I wanted to, but the reality was, I had to, or so I thought. I had to hold my relationships lightly because I was never going to be there. What kind of lover would want to sign up for that? I had to learn how to be strong on my own, because no one would ever be there for me in the bad times. Yes, I found support among friends and a few lovers, both on- and offline, but for the deep-down core moments of both pain and joy, I did not think I could not expect anything more than that.

Sometimes I wondered if I was afraid to ask for anything more than that, if I was afraid that my new life was just too full of drama and complications for anyone else to really want to share it. I didn’t have much luggage, but I had a lot of baggage around my desire for home.

And now that all is changing again. I still have the baggage, but I’ve found someone to share it with. I still have the touring, but I am in a long-term, core-deep relationship with a man who thinks I’m a joy, not an inconvenient weirdo. I have met my match and my muse, who proofreads my posts and asks if I am drinking enough water and knows exactly when I am going on stage without having to ask more than once.

More of my stuff is in storage near him than is with me in Berlin. What if I need to get at that stuff, I asked when we moved it there. “I’ll figure out a way to get it to you,” he said, and I exhaled a sigh that felt like it had been held in for years.

What I call home of course includes logistics: it’s the boxes and the insurance source and whatever visa I posses that gives me access to being in a place. But “home” is so much more than stuff. It is where I want to come back to, at the end of a late-night, exhausting show, or a far-traveling tour. It is the cup of tea he will make for me. It is the joy in his eyes to hear my triumphs, and the strength in his hand holding mine when he listens to my frustrations and fears, and knowing that I can do the same for him. Home is, in short, everything that I already know how to do for myself, but I don’t have to do it by myself anymore.

The only shadow is we don’t have our physical home space yet. But the feeling is already here; that, at least, doesn’t take up any room in a suitcase at all.

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I want to sell out

“Sold out” is supposedly a neutral term, in a box-office sense: your performance venue has sold all the possible seating it has available that doesn’t violate fire code. Some festivals have different and more precise parameters for this; for example, I think in Edinburgh Fringe if you sell 95% capacity, the show qualifies as “sold out” for slapping the designation on your marketing materials. Either way, these are easy enough to define.

Hang out with any group of Fringe performers long enough, though, especially when they have had a few and they’re talking about their Fringe run, and you will quickly sense the second meaning of “selling out/sold out,“ which is quick to plant itself in the conversation. Selling out your venue is a good thing, but underneath that is the faint echo of “sold out”: made artistic or ethical compromises, greased the wheels with an unseemly amount of money or networking or something other than artistic input, committed to working with other folks who are not interested in the art but only making money or some other tradable commodity.

I don't think that this is an actual, inevitable part of selling lots of seats, and making lots of money. But I think many artists are afraid that it is. I know that I’ve been carrying that second meaning around as the primary meaning for a while. It’s certainly a less humiliating view on the problem of not making enough money on one’s art, if one posits that the art that does make money is less artful in some way.

But this year at Edinburgh Fringe has pulled me up short around this subject, when what I think is my best work to date, nerdfucker, has been a serious box office underperformer. I’ve been wrestling with this, and my urgent need to make money, for weeks, months, maybe a couple of years now, and it kinda came to a head last night after Smut Slam, when I was hanging out with a couple of artist friends and I half-jokingly said that next year at Edinburgh Fringe I wanted to sell out. I think I made a smile or a wink that indicated clearly I meant making money and probably doing something that was not a purely artistic effort.

One of those artists, who had been nose-deep in a pint of beer, sat up and set the glass down on the table with a snap. “I’m tired of that phrase, ‘selling out,’” she said. “It makes it sound like there is something wrong with making money, with creating works with an eye toward making money. Artists need to eat.”

You’re right, I said, of course you’re right. I guess I mean commercially viable.

“Okay,” she said, settling back down into the hotel lobby chair. “That’s fine.”

Theatre companies of a certain size have followed this pattern for a long time: produced guaranteed money makers—usually around Christmas, like A Christmas Carol—as well as more surefire productions (what I would consider conservative offerings), then occasionally something that is a little more groundbreaking or confrontational for their audience.

Solo performers and tiny companies maybe don’t do that so well. Not as a matter of course. And I'm going to change that for myself.

Previously I had written works that “felt like they needed to be written”; none of these works have yet gone on to more than moderate festival success, even including Phone Whore, which is the most visible and “popular” of my plays. So, next year I am going to turn my hand to a work that “needs to make money.”

I don’t know how this is going to go yet; I’ve never approached this issue from the start of a project before. It will be fine, eventually. I am just not quite sure, right now, how to do it. I’m already finding myself second-guessing working titles and content and outreach. But I’m hoping I can push beyond that quickly and get to the nitty-gritty of the work, which is writing what I want to write and what I feel the world needs to know, while giving it to people in a way that they can handle. When selling out, the second part of that equation has to take precedence.

I’ll be honest, gentle readers: I don’t know what to do otherwise. As my friend said, artists need to eat. That is to say, I want to feel comfortable in my life, be able to plan ahead, not always scramble and fight to keep the wolf away from the door. Just as importantly, I want to be able to give myself room to create the less financially viable stuff and not have to worry about whether those will survive.

Because nerdfucker and Phone Whore and Hearthcore (my next non-commercially viable serious play, don’t worry, you didn’t miss it) are good plays. In my mind, these plays do need to be done. But I don't have family money; I never had a great job. So until such time as I get the commissions and grants and government subsidies, I need to learn how to subsidize myself, with things like Smut Slam and Sidewalk Smut and next year’s sell-out commercially viable comedy show (announcement coming shortly).

I have to reassure you, and also myself: my sell-out work will still be my stuff. It’ll still be about opening up space to talk about sex and other awkward shit in a really authentic way. It just won’t have a title that has to be censored just about everywhere; it’ll be a little more accessible to more mainstream audiences.

Selling out can mean lots of people are seeing what I want to share, and paying money for that privilege. Lemme see if I can wrap my head around that for a while.

*****

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writing characters other than myself

My first fictional-character play, The Pretty One, hasn’t gotten many reviews because I haven’t shown it in many places, but the ones that it received were pretty fucking glowing AND audience response has been good. Both kinds of audiences mentioned that they found the characters to be authentic and relatable. They also frequently noted how restrained the characters were—one reviewer said, in our face-to-face chat after the show, that “they were almost British-like in their reserve”—and how they weren’t really expecting that from me.

This makes me laugh, right before I stop laughing and go huh, because to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting that kind of writing from me either.

Thanks to the previous successes or at least notoriety for my autobiographical shows, and maybe also Sidewalk Smut, and perhaps how I am in social media and just, you know, walking around on the street with cowboy boots and big tits and a big voice and unblushingly saying the rather rude names of my shows while promoting them to strangers… thanks to all of that, I have developed a reputation, for just being blunt and open and saying everything as it is.

I have to say, my education and work experience in human-interest and arts journalism brought me that far. Give me the facts: where, when, why. I had pursued a particular type of food writing, too, in which I rummaged through my life in food to write a column a week about, say, cookbook collecting or homemade jam or holiday foods. I was used to plumbing my own depths, such as they are, and excavating some pretty raw material for public display and consumption. Dig, write, polish, repeat. It was not a major leap from that to one-woman plays based on my sex life.

But when I turned my hand to writing fictional characters and their stories, instead of transcribing myself to the page and stage, I had to stop and re-think just about everything I knew about creating and performing solo theatre.

The thing is, right, I had never really learned how to find a back story. Journalism was facts, either someone else’s or my own. I just had to pull them out and write them down in a meaningful way. And as for performing the role of Me in my first three three shows, I had instant, instinctual access to all the shadow and motivation and emotion that I ever needed. People praise that as authentic and open and raw, and I guess, yes, in comparison to much of what is out there, but in my insecure performer’s heart, I was always a little, like, well, okay, but how much talent does it take just to tell it as it is?

I know, I know. Articulating our insides does take work, and wordsmithing is a talent, whatever the content, and being present with the audience, even through the tough stuff, is hard. But I wasn’t creating that inside-the-character from scratch.

And then, with The Pretty One, suddenly I was. Six separate times, creating a character from the ground up. I had to sit and sit with those people in my head, waiting for the stories to become clear, writing things down, reading them out loud and both the character and I saying, no, actually, not that, that is not actually true. That would never be true.

These people I made, they are not me with my loud mouth and stubborn nature and fuck-you attitude, all of which was born from my own history. They had their own histories and personalities, and like most people in the world, they maybe aren’t that open to people they don’t know; even to their dearest loved ones they might not tell everything. Most people hesitate when they are telling truths. They stumble and go down wrong paths, in their minds, with their words. And they probably don’t use exposition when a simple eye-roll or grimace or loud laugh can fill in where their words leave off. For sure, these characters of mine are more reserved than I am about sex stuff.

Even after writing nerdfucker, which is just one fictional character for the entire play, I still can’t believe how challenging it is to not just insert myself into everything this person says or does. But that is essentially what I’ve had to learn to do: hold my own self back and leave enough quiet, still space for the character to come in, find their own boundaries, and say what they need to say.

(Yes, I know this is all still me. Shhh. Don’t tell them that. I don’t want them to get scared away. The process is working pretty well so far.)

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Theatre is just one of the ways that I delve into the hard stuff: sex, love, relationships, self. If you like what I do and want to help make it possible to keep doing it, considering becoming a patron of mine on Patreon!

relearning to play the monogamy game

Two years ago I was still writing, at length and in various places, how polyamory felt like the right path for me. I was busily engaged in setting up some kind of love network—the “sailor in every port” model, I called it—and was having a few fun and interesting encounters as I traveled, and came back to a couple of more “steady” lovers during the winter months, and it felt fine.

Included among my sailors was a special man here in the UK, who I fell entirely in love with. Originally I had intended to simply make space for him in my “inner circle,” but after some time building a relationship with him I realized that there was no one else in that inner circle anymore. Not only that, but about a year ago I realized that I wasn’t even remotely romantically interested in anyone else, in any circle, at any level. I met up with past lovers during that strange emotional fugue period, and just could not find the sparks again. My mind said, wait, but polyamory, but my body and heart had flown to him and I could not coax them back.

But this sudden swing, this flip of the switch, felt just … impossible. I was almost angry with myself, and spent a fair amount of time poking away at my psyche. I was disturbed that somehow, after sacrificing so much and working so hard at building a life around ethical non-monogamy, my curiously meandering path had led me to an intense and important relationship that was the only place I wanted to put my heart and sex and everything.

How fucking retrograde, I thought as I beat myself up some more.

I still tried to fight it for a little while. I corresponded with a few people on OKC, met up with a couple of 'em, even. But making myself go on dates that I didn’t want, purely out of political convictions, didn’t feel fair to me or to the other person. And when I tried holding hands with soon-to-be-former lovers, it felt… friendly, but not sexual in the slightest.

Fortunately, at some point in my angst-ridden veer into romantic mono-vision, I started connecting the dots between this most recent sea change and my similarly unsettling shift at the age of 28, when my sexual focus widened dramatically to include cisgender dudes again. After 8 years with a woman, I had been crushed; I felt betrayed by my desires, and felt as though I was betraying everyone else. Follow your bliss, is what I said to myself. I said it like a prayer, held onto it like a lifeline. There was no going back on what I knew, no denying what my heart and body said.

Follow your bliss. It helped me come to terms with wanting dudes with dicks again, and the same affirmation kicked in for this new development as well. I was able to relax into this new facet of myself, but only after exoticizing the fuck out of it. Seems I still can’t stand the default, really, so he and I had to make my monogamy kinky, a cross between chastity games, tease & denial, and playing house.

The fact that I chose this way of being with my partner, in spite of the long separations that still remain, helps me to feel more comfortable in this new desire. Making radical monogamy part of our play, rather than absorbing it whole-cloth into my identity, means that when things shift again—as they surely will—I hopefully will have more stable ground to stand on. The change will feel less like a tsunami, and more like a swing. Yes, it can hurt if I fall off, but it’s not the end of my self.

Besides which, this new “monogamy” game super-charges the time in between, and fits extraordinarily well in our 24/7 dynamic. When my partner and I do get together, and I present him my carefully banked desire like a gift, the way that he accepts it and gives his own to me feels like divine confirmation that my choice this time, for now, is good.

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There is nothing new under the sun; I'm just trying to get at a different angle. If you appreciate the work that I'm doing, in writing, performing, and just "putting it out there" in the world, please consider becoming a patron of mine on Patreon.

Fringe essays and origin stories

Fringe season has started, and with Fringe come the requests from publications who want to look like they’re being oh-so-active in covering Fringe productions, but all they’re basically doing is sending us lists of awkward/precious questions to answer and email back to them.

It’s Fringe essay season, in other words. I’m never in the mood for it, because who has time to introspect about process at the point when we're done creating and have actual performing to get through? But the truth is, these “interviews” offer us artists the best chance of getting our own actual words into the piece, and I have to really think about what it is that I do. It’s remarkably clarifying!

For example, this fellow in Edinburgh runs something he calls the Dramaturgy Database. One question there is: How did you become interested in making performance? It's good for me, right now, when I'm struggling to establish myself in a new location... It's good for me to remember my roots.

I first started creating works for plus-sized dancers 16 years ago, because I had started dancing myself and was tired of feeling completely left out of the creative and performance part of the dance world. After the very first dance recital I was in, at the age of 28, I was told that I had a very compelling stage presence. I had had so much fun creating a couple of partner moves with one of the other dancers, and that experience of creation, combined with the positive reinforcement of that praise and the adrenaline rush of the performance itself, led me to want more.

Over the course of the next years, my works for the company went into more narrative-driven pieces—dance musicals with a plot—and at the same time I began working as a phone-sex operator. I found myself wanting to write a solo play about that, because my experience as an actual sex worker was not really represented well out there in the performance world. (Again, representation matters.) When I toured Phone Whore and found that people wanted to hear what I had to say, and that I was good at it, a whole new world opened up.

Now, sever years after that first terrifying tour of Phone Whore, it's very clear that I love performing. I've also realized that part of my internal pressure to create my own works is that if I didn’t, there would be nothing for me to perform in, as a fat person. The roles allowed to us are limited and boring. I create the works and the characters that represent me, in some way, and what I want to see out in the world.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” That’s part of how I became interested in performance: I want to make a world where I have room to create, as a fat middle-aged woman. The other part of it is just something I picked up from two years at Burning Man. They don't have many rules there, but this is on: “No spectators.” In other words, don’t show up to Black Rock City expecting other people to entertain you. Become part of the pageant, as a performer or a caretaker or a technician or as an active, generous audience member. I’ve heard that Burning Man ain’t what it used to be, but I will always be grateful to it for that one concept. In terms of my creative work, I don’t wait any longer for other people to start the party; I bring the party myself.

I want to bring the thing that makes people move inside, that demands thinking and maybe some uncomfortable reflection on one’s own actions. My work ends up being both activism and art. I want that mix, I’m good at both, and in performance is where that finds a home.

*****

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Trying to become more “sex aware”

I’ve been on the sex-positive train for a long time, as a writer, performer, and sometimes-educator. People out in the world seemed quite happy and ready to pin that tag on me when describing a Smut Slam, for example, and when I looked over my own past, specifically the stuff that had made it into my autobiographical plays, “sex-positive” seemed about right, in an almost literal way. I had emerged from a religiously repressive upbringing, done a lot of exploring, and found that good sex was important and made me happy. Sex? Positive.

That all started to change when I was driving back from a Smut Slam with my lover last spring. It was the first time he had seen a slam—he had cheerfully agreed to be timekeeper for the evening, so he was right at the front, right in the thick of it—and I was eager to hear what he thought of this, one of my cherished artistic babies.

“It was wonderful,” he said, “but I felt left out. Everyone was talking about how good they were, or how many people were at the orgy. I didn’t feel like there was room for less experience, or unhappy endings.”

I wanted to protest, to argue the point, to defend the Smut Slam culture that I had unconsciously been cultivating. In this sex-negative world, those who flock to Smut Slams are drawn to spaces where we can luxuriate in our triumphs and abundance and sexual joy. But I sat with what he had said, and realized the truth pretty quickly: there is more to sex than that. The stories and truths that sex digs up can be infinitely more complicated, more diverse, more broad-ranging than simply a joyful romp. Hell, even a joyful romp will have some crumbs in it.

I needed to make room in my work for all of it.

Somewhere around that time, I arrived at the phrase “sex-aware” as a way to describe the way I wanted my work to be. I don’t know if I read the phrase somewhere, or if I just coined it, but as soon as I began writing it, I could feel the space, not just for the atmosphere that I was trying to create at the Smut Slams, but also for my own dramatic works as well.

My fourth and fifth plays—The Pretty One and nerdfucker—are not autobiographical, and they don’t deal much with the happy sexy fun-times. Some of it is harsh; in nerdfucker, for example, sex mostly just hovers in the background as a unspoken motivator in my character’s often bad decision-making. The sex in these plays represents a whole range of experiences.

The only thing I can say is, the sex is there. I don’t want my audience to look away from it, however it manifests. Nor do I want them to imagine that the work is only about sex. It’s just there, as another experience that can change things or not. It’s not on a pedestal, nor dragged through the gutter. Rather, it could be, in a specific instance or story or memory or action. But generally, sex just is. It is there for many people, and I want my audience to be at least somewhat alert to its influence on relationships, on self, and in society as a whole.

Hence “sex-aware” as the descriptor I want to claim for all the work that I do. It leaves room for a richer exploration of different types and amounts of sexual experience, and it also leaves room for my work to not always explicitly center sex in the action.

Audiences and reviewers still call my stuff “sex-positive,” and I’ll take it, because I think I know what they mean and it's fine. But I'm finding more to strive for as an artist doing sex-aware work.

When I make room for all the kinds of sex, and/or when I don't make it the subject of some kind of Odyssean quest, there's so much more room for life.

*****

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