Archive for Creating A/Broad
Compersion, in poly terms, is the happiness one experiences watching their partner being happy in love/sex with another person(s). I feel like there must be a parallel concept/word in the performing arts, for when one is genuinely happy watching other artists succeed. What we call it doesn’t really matter, I guess, because I usually experience the opposite: I wrestle with professional envy, all the time.
Don’t get me wrong! I am also happy for my successful friends, I am! People are fucking talented and giving, and I am fortunate to have these folks in my life. I also intellectually know that success is not a finite thing. Success is actually an infinitely replenishing pie, and in theory it is possible for everyone to have a slice. But lurking right there in the background of my happiness and my intellectual understanding, there it is: envy.
I get it looking at people’s line-ups at Fringes, or media coverage, or Facebook photos of audiences, even though I know full well that what goes on Facebook is slanted heavily to sunshine and rainbows. For me, envy is like depression, in some ways. It’s a jerk, and it makes me think jerky thoughts, and it’s just there.
I used to feel really bad about it, like, not only was I a shitty colleague, but I was also a shitty friend. When my envy crept in, an oily dark stain on my soul, I could feel myself retreating further and further into a shadowy corner. I peeked around at all of the happy faces—some happy because they were having big successes and others I guess happy because they did possess that ability that I lacked—and I felt even shittier. I forced my face into an expression more friendly and welcoming and happy, because otherwise I was in danger of turning into a malevolent troll. Or I just went home and got my grump on in private.
This is not ever a good space for me to be in, but given how financially rough this past summer’s tour was, I was in it all the time and it was eating my heart out from the inside. Fortunately, I recently found a mantra that will hopefully—over time, as I get better at it—lead me out.
“My world has many paths.”
It’s a short sentence, but I really thought it through. It involves three concepts or beliefs that feel important to me:
- I own this world that I move through. I don’t mean literally, just… it’s mine, the way that I perceive it is uniquely mine, and I have some power—often more than I think— to change it.
- There are many ways through that world. Sometimes I just have to clear away some of the underbrush, and sometimes the paths don’t even exist until I lay down the cobble stones, and sometimes I’m trotting along on someone else’s path for a while, but I get to choose the ways that I go. There’s no judgment attached to any of these paths, either; they are all just ways and means to get to where I want to be.
- Success means many different things, and I get to decide the metrics.
I say this mantra now, when I’m feeling fragile and envious, to remind myself that I am actively creating my life, and it will be different from other people’s lives. The way that they are working is not going to be the way that I work.
Our successes will look different, because surely our visions are different too. I am aiming for different goals, some of which may not come to fruition for a while, slow-burn projects. I am diversifying my income streams, a literal application of the “many paths” philosophy.
I don’t think this is me making the best out of sour grapes. (I mean, maybe it is, but if that’s what I’ve got, I’d rather make some nice balsamic vinegar, you know?) I choose to think of it rather as reframing my place in the spaces where I thought I had to live. If I do not succeed in that particular way, it is not the end of the world. I have other ways of surviving and thriving.
It also helps me remember that the work I bring to the world is unique and needed. I will probably not ever have a blockbuster hit in indie theatre, or be running an intense route of workshops and sex-ed conferences, or whatever. But that’s okay. I know how to write the work that sings for me, and teach the workshops that feel important. I write blog posts that resonate for some, and create erotica that makes people jump for joy, and host Smut Slams that are rowdy and replenishing at the same time, and I do many other things that no one else can do.
My world has many paths.
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While touring nerdfucker this summer, I noticed how much people expected autobiography from me. People kept asking, “Does that actually exist?” that is, are there people who play chess on other people’s backs? Or, “Did that really happen?” e.g. have I really, somewhere in my colorful past, allowed someone to play a game of chess on my back?
My answers to the first question varied along the spectrum between I have no idea, but it’s possible to some people have more money than sense. The second question is a little more interesting, because while I have never gotten painted up for the purpose of using my back as a playing surface for any game, I have certainly been in situations with nerd and geek men where I gave freely of my gifts and my love and support, and got utterly used in return.
I’m not going to go into the specifics, because it’s not useful and it’s still too close to home, way too close, if home is the place where my heart lives with reasonable expectations of just being able to feel feelings without having to write an award-winning play about them just yet. I’m allowed to have that space.
No one will give that space to me, of course, not when I’ve built my performance career up to this point using see-through walls and almost total lack of boundaries. I mine my life for the stories I tell. That’s what people have come to know and love and expect, if not actually demand, from me.
This is fine. These are important stories to tell, exploring significant areas in internal and interpersonal psychology, things that don’t get discussed, and I have been happy to use my own experiences as an entry point for larger discussion. But it’s probably no coincidence that my interest in exploring fictional situations and characters has increased at the same time that my own life has gotten increasingly more complex, and different from what it has been. My excavations are more challenging, and I am not operating on my own anymore.
For example, I am in an astonishing, deepening relationship with someone whose parameters around privacy preclude using many of our sex stories for Smut Slams. I could easily say, well, but those are my stories, too, as I have in the past, for smut slam stories and my plays as well.
But these are not parallel situations. My past stories are past, involving people whom no one would any longer connect with me. Those stories are over; they shaped me and they’re done. This lover now, we are still going, we are still shaping each other. I hope that we always will, and I don’t want to fuck up that process by telling about it.
This is part of the dilemma with which I have been wrestling from the beginning of my career as a playwright/performer: when is it okay to write these stories, and how, and when do I hang on to them, for a later release or never?
For Smut Slam stories, well, since I have decided to go “mono” (monogamous) on all y’all’s asses—this has been true for over a year now, BTW—this means that my new stories at slams are no longer from the here and now, but mined from the time before. I've already decided that I will need to dig back through my sexual history, even more than I did while writing slut (r)evolution, sifting for useable stories with distinct narratives that rely on something other than immediacy for their impact. (Dammit, I wish I hadn’t black-out-drunk so much in college. My slam bank would be spilling over.) The current sex, the filth of the moment, I will continue to explore full-out, but only with my lover. These are our stories to learn from and laugh at; these are our private smut slams.
And for plays… well. These too require more thought lately. Sometimes I will hold off because the story is not done yet; as I noted before, observing a situation or a dynamic can be enough to change it, in unexpected and occasionally problematic ways. Sometimes I need distance and perspective to be able to write and convey what really happened. And sometimes I will hold off, or write a fictional piece, because I can if I want to. I don’t have to give it all, if I’m afraid or confused, or if I want to go deeper with it than I feel safe doing with the real situation and the real name of the real actual person. The stories from nerdfucker, for example, the main story, that is how I chose to tell it, because it really was too damn close to my own stuff.
So instead, I chose to explore that story in metaphor, in expanded or exaggerated form, limning the outlines of feeling-truth as best as I could with something other than the complete and actual, factual truth. There are actually different kinds of truth and feelings, and I am bringing them home.
In this home space, I get to keep deciding how to tell the stories I want to tell. Just because I used to tell everyone everything before, doesn’t mean I’m going to keep doing it, not in the way that my fans might always recognize. I think you’ll like it; those of you who have seen my new works already do. But I don’t want to get caught up in that too much. More important than how you like these new directions and dynamics is how I like them, how they feel on me, in me, around me.
I’m resetting, recalibrating, renovating. This is my new home.
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Where are you from?
My shoulders creep up to my ears every time I hear that question, a common conversational gambit. It’s an opening salvo in most small-talk skirmishes, one that is mostly about figuring out one another’s places, one’s clan, and setting up parameters and expectations for subsequent cultural references. As casual as the question sounds, it is PACKED with significance, both for the person asking and the person being asked, so I rarely know how to answer, because I don’t know what the question really is.
Where is your accent from?
I don't really know. All over, I guess. They sure don’t talk like this where I was born and raised. They don’t talk like anything there. I’ve been told that the native Pacific Northwest accent is one of the least inflected accents in the US. Frankly, after traveling around North America and the UK, I find myself liking inflections. I want some for myself, which is good, because I tend to absorb surrounding speech patterns quickly.
I’ve lived on and left both coasts, but still carry traces of each. I speak too quickly for the West coast; they look at me funny. I absorbed a slight Bostonian drawl, can put on a hard, fast New York shtick that is convincing enough for everyone except New Yorkers, those suspicious fucks, they can tell I’m not from there. And then there are the pesky Canadianisms that have crept in, the question tone at the end of sentences, the “eh” (it’s a real thing).
Where is your home base?
Sometimes people ask me this question outright, and then it’s easy to answer: “my car.” Hopefully they’ll laugh and I’ll laugh and we’ll just forget this tangled branch of the conversation. Any other answer, the real answer, leaves me stumbling along through a geopolitical swamp.
I get my mail in Massachusetts; I have clothes and cookware still in Montreal, which is where I’ll be returning to at the beginning of December. I’m relocating my base of operations to Manchester at the end of the year. All of those places have legal ramifications and sometimes hardcore paperwork challenges for me to keep my connections there. You don’t want to hear the boring, stressful details, and I don’t want to relive them every time I hear the question.
Where is your fan base?
Where is your community?
Whether that’s a performance community, a kink scene, or a city where I know the best place to buy produce, as long as I travel, I will never have this. I get over it; I have to. I join the groups on fetlife, stay in touch with locals as best as I can, but I will always be the carpetbagger. The one community I most consistently have had is itself composed of transient parts—Fringe artists touring Canada—and it disbands at the end of the summer, and I’m older and not up to or interested in all the late-night shenanigans, and I missed three summers before coming back this year and BOY can I feel that the divide has grown. Besides which, did I mention I’m moving to England?
You see why I don’t like to think about this question, and all the variants of it: The answers are there, but they are dissatisfactory in one way or another. They take too long to explain. They are something that I’m trying to change. They’re highly personal, inappropriately so for most conversational environments, in the same way that most people don’t really want to hear how you’re doing when they ask how you’re doing.
Where am I from? It’s just too messy and weird to get into sometimes. Besides, right now I’d much rather focus on where I’m going.
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Usually the idea of creating new material while touring feels a bit … high-pressure? Over-achieving? Hell, I’m banging this out over the shitty wi-fi on the last possible ferry to get from Victoria to Vancouver in time for my tech rehearsal this morning, with no breakfast and half a cup of Charbuck’s finest, and that feels like enough of a stretch. The thought of trying to work on a new script or memorize lines or have a skype call with a director, it feels like Too Fucking Much Already. (Although I have seen plenty of artists do this, and mad props to them, WTF people, you art-making MACHINES.)
On the other hand, there is something about being out on the road that both blows things open and focuses my creative vision into something like a laser. There are more aspects to creating than just writing a script.
For starters, being out and surrounded by so many other creators helps me see myself and my work in the context of what other people are doing. I wind up being able to define the art that I want to do more clearly by watching others and dividing their shows up into two categories: stuff that I know I would not be any good at or show to my advantage, and shows that teach me something applicable. I can also see, huh, not many people write solo shows like mine, which is a double-edged sword sometimes, but mostly I manage to use that edge to my advantage.
Out here I see what topics and trends and techniques are popular, and decide for myself whether I want to jump on board or not, wholeheartedly or picking and choosing.
I am constantly inspired by seeing how other solo performers make scene or character shifts, for example, or how they choose to portray internal states or dialogues. Even something as simple as pre-show handouts—doodle pads for a kids’ program or question slips for a mentalist session—invite me to reconsider my own physical materials for the audience Some stuff I don’t have the training for, like puppetry or acrobatics or what-not, but there are plenty of other genres—storytelling, poetry, multimedia, even song or dance or a fucking cooking show—that I can access and store up for my own works.
(Specific example: at the Edmonton Fringe this year, I was so jazzed watching my fringe friend Sharon Mahoney use both outdoor and indoor performances to reinforce attendance at both, that I came up with an idea for a new character for possible street performance purposes and also emceeing. I had the name of this character three years ago, but it didn’t get any traction in my imagination until I saw what Sharon did, and then got a chance to sit down with her and brainstorm.)
There are even opportunities to experiment out here, at various late-night cabarets or special events. My new character got two chances to play around in Victoria; I also developed a feminist phone sex sketch with another PSO/fringe artist that almost certainly has legs for other performance environments. With these showcases, there is the constant pressure to use them as sales vehicles for one’s productions, and experimenting can be messy. But fringe is also an okay place to take those kind of risks.
Beyond seeing other performers at work and testing new stuff in bits and pieces, being out on tour gives me the “water-cooler” experience that is otherwise severely lacking in my life. Artists who mostly stay in one place, they develop creative community there. For me, my creative community is online, and tour time is when we finally get face time. It’s not much, little bits and pieces grabbed here and there between shows and flyering and special events and all the rest of the festival frenzy.
But occasionally it’s there, a precious half-hour where I get to hear what people are working on next, and I get to hit them with my titles and ideas and half-formed glimpses of posters for the show that’s coming out in 2018 at the earliest. We don’t have to do anything with those ideas. We all understand the pressure out here. These are simply the moments when I can let down my guard with a chosen few, share my vision, get some broad-stroke feedback, dig into the larger issues—beyond back story and narrative arc into “really, though, THIS is what it’s about” territory—and then, well, jot those notes into a notebook and wash it down with a pint.
You were there for the birth of it, I joke at those moments, but that’s not quite right. I don’t know when my projects will be born, their world premieres or whatever. They were there for the conception.
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Last night in Edmonton, my Fringe friend was admiring the constellation of buttons that spreads like a neon-colored Milky Way across the ceiling of the Deerinator. She was able to identify a few of them, and I pointed out others that were more obscure. I don’t often spend time enjoying the collection—it’s there with me whenever I drive—which I guess is why I remembered the back corners. “Back there I put… shrines, I guess you’d call them?”
She craned her head back to look while I described Heather, the woman who had first given me space to perform (and whose boots I inherited and have been wearing pretty much non-stop since 2009). And in the other corner, I said, was the shrine to Vee Anne, my Fringe friend and regular New Orleans billet who passed away in 2014.
These were the two women I knew as my peers, I said. Women of a certain age who were pushing ahead and directing their own shit. When they passed away, it just felt lonelier out here. These were my colleagues, I said, and I miss them.
As I told my fringe friend during the drive last night, these women remain the two performing women that I’ve spent the most time with, and we spent a lot of time talking about making our own way as non-traditional female artists (women of a certain age, doing performance work of a definitely if not explicitly feminist kind). I had talked with Heather about budget planning long before I went to school about it. I talked with Vee Anne about intellectual property and gratuitous shock value in theatre. It was something, to be able to have those conversations.
Naturally my fringe friend and I began sharing our own experiences out on the Fringe as women, especially as women of a certain age (in Fringe theatre, as in film and other performance spheres, women reach that "certain age" far earlier than men do, whatever the actual number of years). And I felt a visceral sense of relief to be talking about it again, as if my rib cage could loosen a little. I could be open about this.
Because, see, none of this gets discussed very much out in public. No one wants to be the one bringing sour grapes to the Fringe banquet. But naturally I have opinions about sexism on the Fringe; I am developing other opinions about ageism on the Fringe, and where those two intersect. The precarity of Fringe performing, combined with the fact that women tend to be pigeonholed and overlooked out in the rough-and-tumble marketplace of the fringe, makes this an important subject of discussion for any two or more female performers to have. Such conversations will not happen by themselves.
Frankly, any conversations about how we survive, how we struggle, are never going to be carried by the Fringe platform. The festivals do not have anything to gain by disseminating information about how inherently challenging, not to say problematic, they themselves are. They don’t benefit by talking too overtly about structural inequities both inside the system and outside as well. They need us artists to keep thinking that we have a chance, the same chance as anyone. I’m not saying that the fringe festivals are actively holding us down or oppressing us; I’m just saying the system thrives on the myth of the noble bootstrapping artist, and talking about individual experiences as manifestations of systemic inequities would detract from the mythos.
I still don’t know how that’s going to change, but these are the things that Heather and Vee Anne and I talked about with each other. The first step toward solving the problem is the same as it always has been: admitting that there is one. Then you find other people who are seeing the same thing, or at least are willing to believe that what you’re seeing and saying is true. I need this shared experience, now more than ever, and I’m so grateful when I find it. Rare though it is, it’s such a simple thing:
No, you’re not making this up. Yes, this is harder than it should be. No, it’s not fair. Yes, tell me.
NOTE: the #fringefemme hash-tag was created in 2009, I believe at the Edmonton Fringe, to lift up solo female playwright/performers. Time to revive that shit.
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