On January 10, 2019 I returned to Seattle from 4 months abroad. The previous July, I had bought a one-way ticket with no clear plan other than vagabonding my way to spectacular places, housesitting and petsitting to pay my way. On a lark, I asked a Croatian Facebook group for youth theater recommendations, and found my way to Try Theatre, www.trytheater.org. I ended up spending a month in residency there, working with students ages 12-22 on a variety of theater projects.
Below is an essay I wrote to my Penguin Productions family, trying to explain why I went away, and came back.
Let me speak of the theatricality of the world. Of shining lakes, and brilliant mountains, and reflective lakes, and sparkling seas, of craggy cliffs and otherworldy waterfalls. I find myself encountering landscapes like I would a rehearsal and travel the way I do season planning. I am delighted by the way the contours of the earth inform language, intrigued by the way civilization and its discontents create and destruct. The basics of travel – Oh brave new world, that has such people in it/'Tis new to thee – play out continually in my travel diaries and dialogues. The stories and perspectives I encounter stretch me, sometimes harshly, sometimes gently, but always expanding my capacity for wonder and imagination.
I'm on a sabbatical of sorts. Gathering information about my profession, myself, the world.
When I say “my profession”, I'm speaking of the work we engage in to move creativity through the world, to connect with others, and to expand our capacity for empathy, wonder, excitement, curiosity. I worked with a youth theater in Croatia and met with art makers in Malta. I walked through vibrant spaces and holy spaces, overtrafficked spaces and forgotten spaces. I deciphered messages in foreign languages and rediscovered ways of encountering familiar languages. I gained perspective on choices I've made and make, and insight into the choices of others.
My work is the expansion of spirit and possibilities, while honing in on the projects that most fully support the goals and values that define me and my community.
We can do whatever we want with our organizations, our resources of time and energy. We who run small ships are nimble, resilient, and have little to lose. We are bounded by great responsibility to those we serve and support. And yet, we have everything to lose, for what we have more valuable than funding is each other's trust. What, then, do we choose to do with these precious freedoms? How do we choose to meet our responsibilities?
As I travel, I'm continually faced with the paradox of possibility and limitation. Money is a most precious commodity, it's true – but by far our most precious commodity is time. Given the gift of time, I am rich beyond measure. I can spend two days here or two days there – how do I choose? Practicing the art of choosing in the midst of such dizzying freedom reminds me why the making of community theater is such a vital, informative, powerful enterprise. To establish for ourselves limits and boundaries, to choose to whom we will be responsible and which stories we will tell – this requires an articulation of values. All these things we can do in this world – what is it we will do?
I used to think travel was inaccessible to someone like me – an elitist sort of activity that required knowledge I didn't possess, resources I didn't have. I imagine that's how many people think of theater, or literature, or poetry. Discovering how I can access the joys and terrors of travel helps me clarify what “accessibility” means, not just as a word thrown out on grants and in end-of-year appeals, but as an emotional, personal journey.
In Malta, a 22 year-old arts producer reported that she and her peers think of theater, film, and art like they think of going to the bar or the beach. [Sounds dreamy doesn't it Seattle?!] When she talks of accessibility, it's about bringing cultural opportunities to villages, to older generations for whom “opera” is the local band group's holiday pageant. How much of “accessibility” is about access to resources, and how much of it is actually about access to a new perspective, a widening of cultural horizons, an exploration beyond daily routine?
This last year Penguin did a lot of projects. I'm proud of each and every one of them. But which ones cohere into a mission? Which tell the strongest story, and have the greatest resonance for the future? In Rome, I read a book in a library for librarians about the craft of choosing books for libraries, and I was electrified by the similarities of curating a season. I am an artist, director, and writer – but the work I feel most called to is that which demands these crafts be connected to the articulation and advancement of a community's needs.
When I travel, I am disconnected from any one particular community – or rather, I wear my connections more lightly. I overload on places, sights, hikes, and societal trappings so that I can become a more informed and intelligent curator of both my experience and our collective story. In sharing the work we find that coherence that bring us together, create a story that has impact for the future.
Penguin Productions has been traveling as well. We are piloting projects, prototyping systems, building a repertoire of projects that work for us. We are finding spaces that support our work, and attracting people who are inspired and energized by what we can offer. Penguin seeks to integrate creative projects in people's everyday lives. We don't want people to choose between soccer and theater, science and art, work and play. We want to help people juggle school, work, family, and their chosen collaborative community. For me this means working with new tools and forms, integrating my movement, thought, and action so that I can be present for community-building in Seattle whilst being present in the world at large.
Traveling, I am seldom asked what I do for a living. Mostly, people ask where I am from, and where I am going. I find this incredibly disconcerting and remarkably freeing. When given the opportunity, I can introduce myself as a writer, or a teacher, or an artist. But if I introduce myself as a traveler, I get the most understanding. I wonder if we try so hard to identify ourselves in this world that we sometimes miss our own identity. Hiking on the edges of the Mediterranean or Adriatic seas, I don't recognize my life – but I recognize myself more powerfully than I have in years.
When I was directing Lear, I was constantly thinking about how I couldn't wait to direct it again – the play is so huge and its discoveries so limitless that diving in that first time was completely exhilarating and delightfully overwhelming. We know we were only scratching the surface, turning the handles of doors that it would take years to open, much less walk through. Traveling to all these places makes me hungry for more. Tis new to me, and I love being able to share my sense of wonder and awe with you.
For years I sent off students onto travels with the exhortation to take what they found of value in our theater community and build more of it out there in the big wide world – whether it be more art, more “3rd Place” space for youth, more educational opportunities, more fun with friends. All of a sudden, I find myself needing to listen to myself. And also, needing the advice of my former students, many of whom are vastly more traveled than I!
The gift of distance helps me curate the stories I enjoy telling, need to tell, and those I need to hear. Describing our work to those who don't speak our languages (English, or theater), I can see more clearly what our work is. There is global recognition of the process and power of making art and telling stories, of strengthening youth and families. The gift of distance strengthens my ability and desire to listen more keenly for the resonance and dissonance in the stories of colleagues, fellow travelers, strangers in familiar places and kindred spirits in unfamiliar places.
And what is it I've done? Well, on September 30, I left Seattle on a one-way ticket.
I've since slept in/on/ near: Geneva, Venice, Nova Gorica, Rijeka, Ljubljana, Lake Bohinj, Plitvice Lakes, Sibenik, Split, Dubrovnik, Bratislava, Malta, Gozo, Taormina, Florence, Rome, Malaga, and Alhama de Granada.
I taught theater for a month in industrial, gritty Rijeka with 12-22 year olds (The 13 Clocks, Anon(ymous), Macbeth, Shakespeare in Hollywood, Love&Information) and a week with 14 year olds in the preserved medieval town of Kastav (Hamlet).
I made contacts with theater folk in Malta and have dreams of creating an international project bringing youth together in old and beautiful spaces to perform for local communities.
Without anyone to converse with in English, I found myself analyzing the language I was using to describe waterfalls and cliffs, ancient ruins and modern art, and hungering for better words even (perhaps especially) in the absence of an audience.
I delight in discovering the way landscape influences language, the way culture influences story, the way history influences the need for art. My students in Croatia, coming from seriously rigid schooling environments where textbooks dated back to Soviet times, were fantastically gifted in decoding language, dancing around grammar, finding new ways of understanding words, talking around vocabulary in delicious and exciting ways that expanded character and story. As you know, I seek out heightened language (Shakespeare, for example) – for these students, English itself was heightened, and the movement between English and Croatian as they worked on scenes was exhilarating.
In Croatia, English is a ticket out, a way up, and young people crave it. In Malta, English is an official language, but can be looked down on as being elitist (not oxymoronic at all when you consider human societies). I would be so intrigued to work with Maltese artists actors and community members and to learn more about how the tensions between Maltese and English manifest in the way people approach storytelling and use words, movement, and narrative.
In Rijeka, we discussed the nature of evil and the meaning of home. I was asked to define words like awe, peril, swarthy, oxen. Oxen was a hilarious moment in which my brain froze, but my body responded without thinking, acting like a sort of cow hunchback creature pulling a sleigh. It was a perfect demonstration of how sometimes it is only from inside movement that we find some words (my words, finally: “Umm, they're the cows? That pull the plows?”)
Another memorable discussion started by my asking teenagers, What is a chorus? A musician said it's in a guitar - the way the notes stack up. Yes, one added another. The way the notes stack up. The way the song comes together. It's the voices in our head, offered another. All the people that we know telling us what to do. Or giving us support. Another kid, a girl whose English is routinely mocked by the rest of the group as not the greatest, offered up “the chorus is it the - I don't know how you say - the middle?” She rubbed her belly. The core! I exclaimed with delight, rubbing mine in return.
They aren't from the same root, but we can make the connection. Chorus, core. Together, we stack up notes and create music. We are the voices in each others heads. The music is the core, the strength and stability of the body.