New and Familiar

The PVD-contingent is digging into a new project with the Lippitt House Museum in Providence, RI. Funded by the RI Council on the Humanities, we are collaborating with this historic home on how to offer an experiential tour that is guided without an expert offering answers or reenactors pretending that the past is present.

There's so much about this project that is asking us to rethink our process -- in part because there are no actors and in part because we are collaborating with a new organization -- but there is still that incredibly familiar feeling of following interest in order to create the work; of deep consideration of our audience's experience; of research into the past resonating with the lives we hope to influence in the future; of leaping into the unknown and realizing that we can do anything because we are the one's making it.

A few mornings ago after a deep visioning session, Jed said, "I always have to remember that the best part of making my own work is that I get to decide what I'm interested in. I can make it about exactly what is obsessing me, no matter what the prompt is." Truer words were never spoken. See you at Lippitt House in the spring of 2018.

The Sea Pageant Happened

More videos and photos will follow, but before the day fades too far from our minds, we wanted to send you an update.

Photo by Stray Creatives

100 performers came from all over the state, and met for the first time in the ballroom at Easton's Beach at 11am. We had only one large group rehearsal, but because of their collective commitment it was as if they'd been practicing together for months.

Photo by Shea'la Finch

Photo by Jeannine Chartier

Our visual artist team executed an incredible sand design while the tides went out, people assembled on the beach to bear witness to the spectacle, the Eastern Medicine Singers kicked off the day, and we began the only public sharing of this vision as the moon eclipsed the sun. The weather was perfect, the sky was clear, and everyone offered the ocean all that we had worked for months to achieve.

After it was over, everyone shared eclipse glasses, jumped in the water, and enjoyed the planetary delights.

And now, we are resting, planning, and taking stock. There are a few ways you can still participate in and/or help The Sea Pageant:

  1. Our documentation team is crowd-sourcing photos and video from the day. We are putting together a book for The Providence Athenaeum, as well as trying to see the day from as many vantages as possible. If you'd like to share anything, please email 
  2. Our crowd-funding campaign hit its goal, but we can keep receiving donations for another month, which will go to cover all those costs that we incurred along the way that we couldn't budget for, like gas mileage, performer snacks, and photo copies. If you would still like to offer this project some funds,  donate here.

  3. Thanks to WRNI for the great preview of The Sea Pageant. We are so glad for our story to be shared with your listeners, and we encourage you to listen here. 

Photo by John Bender

Enjoy the rest of your summer. Be generous. Love and support each other. Never doubt your ability to make our collective experience on this planet one of joy, creativity, fascination, truth, and possibility. 

On Flocking

A major experiment in The Sea Pageant is flocking.

We start every rehearsal with a flocking warm-up. On the day of the show all 100 performers will flock together. Rarely do we talk about what flocking is.

I learned the term flocking in grad school, but was exposed to it in various rehearsal processes before that. It's always been something we speak little about in terms of its technique, but feel a lot about it in terms of its internal centering power. Most people I've worked with recognize flocking as an important way to drop in, connect with your partners, and warm up your body, letting your mind slip away from the driver's seat.

Bringing flocking to The Sea Pageant performers has caused us to challenge our thoughts on how to teach flocking, especially as something to perform. When flocking is a warm-up that you discover, it has a magic edge as you gradually feel what it means rather than understand it. When you turn a warm-up into a performance, you have to ask for something specific, which is the opposite of gradually feeling.

It's hard to describe what we are looking for to the people who are inside of it without destroying it, and so I find myself repeating: listen to each other, take the lead when it's given to you, follow with simplicity, make your partner successful, and seek forward momentum.

If you happen to come to The Sea Pageant, when we get to flocking section, keep in mind that the performers are all improvising. They don't have a plan for which corner to go to or who is leading. You may wonder, how are they doing that? How do they know when to turn? Remember they are listening to each other, making each other successful, moving forward, turning their minds off, and following instinct. I have no idea how it will look, but from the inside I hope they enjoy the ride.

Rehearsing The Sea Pageant

We are deep in rehearsals for The Sea Pageant, and normally at this point in a process we would be spending ~30-40 hours/week in the same room with the same people slowly moving forward, understanding new things about the work. The Sea Pageant is not normal, however, and instead we're going to different places all over the state every day -- most of the time outside -- teaching basically the same thing to a new group of people. In some ways it is very very simple, and in other ways. . . Well, totally not.

In April we held drop-in workshops, which is how we created all of the sequences that are now part of The Sea Pageant. This amounts to: The Slow Sequence, Dry Then Wet (a chant song we don't have recordings of), The Wild Ocean Dance (Group Leaders only), and Crowded in a Dinghy (song and dance). There are also two sections that have to be invented by the performers: Individual Expression, responding to the prompt "Of the shifting of the planet" AND the Group Expression (which is created with no prompts by the group, with the suggestion that it be 1-min long)

In June we enlisted 10 group leaderswho were each tasked with getting 9 other people to join their group, so that eventually we would find 100 people. We asked them to schedule 4-6 rehearsals in total and to decide when and where they would be. There are three lead artists who know the whole piece really well, and are assigned in some combination to each group's rehearsal. As Group Leaders made their schedules, we mapped out our summers, so that at every rehearsal, there's a lead artist with the Group Leader. Together we teach the piece, answer questions, address group-specific needs and creation, and offer a consistent experience. We have a really crazy google doc to keep track of it all. It looks like this:

On August 21, 2017 at 11am all 100 performers will arrive at the ballroom at Easton's Beach. For the first time they will all meet each other and we will have two hours to rehearse together. At 1:30pm everyone will go outside and perform The Sea Pageant on the beach as the solar eclipse starts. There won't be any amplification or music that tells the performers if they're together or not; there aren't any counts to rely on or backstage areas to hide behind if you mess up. If the performance all falls apart, so be it. We keep reminding ourselves that no matter what, The Sea Pageant is actually happening now. It's already a success. August 21 is just the excuse. 

And figuring out what we do August 22, 2017 is the real question. . . 

Your Eclipse Questions Answered

The Sea Pageant is in less than a month. Our one-time-only, one-hundred-person, all-ages, all-abilities unison performance on First Beach in Newport on Aug 21, 2017 during and because of a solar eclipse is nipping at our heels.  Rhode Islanders from many walks of life, are busy rehearsing all over the state, prepping for the big event. . . 


A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes in front of the Sun causing a shadow to fall on certain portions of the Earth. 

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes in front of the Sun causing a shadow to fall on certain portions of the Earth. 

The last time North America saw a total solar eclipse that stretched from one side of the continent to another was June 8, 1918, crossing from Washington State to Florida. This path is roughly similar to the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse, which is why some people are calling this the 99 Year Eclipse.

And if you're thinking, wait a minute! I know I've seen an eclipse before, you are correct. You probably have. There have been many solar and lunar eclipses around the world since 1919, but this is the first one to stretch across the North American continent in 99 yearsThe Washington Post has a really good article about all of that -- and when the next eclipses are going to happen.

What it's going to look like all over the contiguous US. Newport, RI will be around 60% totality.

What it's going to look like all over the contiguous US. Newport, RI will be around 60% totality.

Will my eyes be okay if I look directly at the eclipse?

No. You definitely definitely definitely should not do that. It's apparently very bad for you, even though it seems harmless. We have a few suggestions on what to do instead of looking directly at the eclipse:

1.Don't Look.
This might seem difficult, but we are making The Sea Pageant for the ocean, and we are not involving plastic or human-created goods because the ocean doesn't need anymore of that. This has led some of us to wonder what if we human beings just aren't supposed to be looking at eclipses? Maybe that's our biggest issue as people: we think everything is for our consumption. What would happen if we honored something the only way our bodies are able to?

2. Wear Special Glasses.
Okay, so you want to look. You can't help it. Understood. I would guess most of you feel that way. In that case, you want to use a tool. A lot of companies make special eclipse glasses you can purchase on-line. We encourage people to team up on purchasing a bulk batch because the more you buy, the cheaper they get. Try or check out the NASA eclipse site, which has lots of useful official information.

3. Use Your Hands and/or Paper.

No matter what you do or where you are, we hope you take a few minutes to look outside and remember that we live in outer space, and even on a Monday afternoon, that's pretty amazing. At a rehearsal this weekend, Group Leader Suzu said she's excited to be marking the event with such a big action that she's going to remember for the rest of her life. We are too.

How to Make a Sea Pageant

Photo: Rebecca Noon

Step One: Dream about it for three years. Look at the ocean. Really look. Imagine what it wants from you, if anything. Ask it what it needs. Really ask. Listen. 

Step Two: Look at a calendar. Discover a solar eclipse is coming and will pass over this continent. Realize it will not be full totality by the piece of ocean nearest to you. Decide that it's okay. Your ocean still wants what it wants.

Step Three: Start talking about it. Get people excited about something happening a long time from now. Realize that people love anticipation. They will need to think about this one-time-only performance for the ocean and ask a lot of questions. Their questions are the key.

Courtesy of the Providence Athenaeum

Step Four: Accept the Providence Athenaeum's invitation to be an Artist-in-Residence. Research the ocean and Rhode Island's relationship to and history with the ocean in a historic library. Build relationships with librarians (especially Kate). Don't be afraid when people who come to your salon are angry or confused about the history you present. Listen to their questions and try to understand why they are angry at your reporting. It's hard for us to remember how much the ocean has gone through. 

Step Five: Talk to the people who manage the beach. They will want to know what this is all about. It might be tempting to do it without permission, but resist this lazy temptation! Don't assume you know who cares. Invite everyone to bring their questions, especially those who are in charge of this section of ocean. They will be excited about your common interests.

Step Six: Hold drop-in rehearsals. Invite everyone you know. Tell them they can invite anyone they know. When they come, start by asking questions. Sample questions are:

  1. What is The Sea Pageant?
  2. Why are you making a Sea Pageant?
  3. Tell us a true story about the ocean.

Step Seven: After you've listened to each other's stories free-write on a shared piece of paper. Then warm-up together. Feel silly, get out of breath, make joyful noises, make contact with each other's playful bodies. Once you are warm, look at the words on the paper and each person choose one. Make a repeatable movement phrase. Teach it to one person and learn someone else's. Combine movements. Combine groups. Keep doing this until everyone knows everyone else's movements and all of the phrases are in a sequence. Some names of sections in our sequence are: Clara Mermaid Hair, Casey Sandcastle, Starfish City.

Step Eight: Rehearse on the beach. This might feel scary, but in the end it will be the best way to understand what you're doing. Make eye contact with the ocean while you practice. Don't worry about the weather. Remember that the ocean doesn't care if it's rainy or too hot or windy. Deciding to be outside no matter what for the whole rehearsal will change your relationship to the ocean and the earth. When people approach you with questions, make sure you have something to offer. We always have small flyers and buttons. 

Step Nine: After awhile you'll be able to ask the people who've been coming for awhile if they'd like to be a Group Leader. You might think everyone will say no, but you'd be surprised. A lot of people will say yes. (A lesson you will keep learning is that a lot of people like to say yes)

Step Ten: Write a song with friends. Make a dance with other friends. These will be things you can put on the internet and people who can't get more involved can learn them and then participate on the day-of. This is also a good way to get friends involved with skills like songwriting and dancing. Bring your friends brunch and make it fun. Making art for the ocean can be really fun.

Our flyer

Step Ten: Support your Group Leaders. Help them make Groups and find rehearsal space. Go to their rehearsals and teach the movements. Let them invent new ones and also modify the ones you invented so that they can all do it safely and comfortably. Remember that the ocean doesn't want perfection. It is wild.

Step Eleven: TBD, this is where we are so far. I could pretend to know more, but I don't want to pretend about this kind of thing. Ask me next month.

The Audience Laughs at the Clown - The Bouffon Laughs at the Audience

Hey folks. Glad to be home in Juneau as the First Folio is on display at the new State Museum and Theatre in the Rough is in the midst of making Juneau, AK the only city to read the entire First Folio aloud while it's in town! Hazzah. I am returning from two incredible workshops at my new favorite retreat, the Celebration Barn, in Maine. I was fortunate enough to attend thanks to the Juneau Arts and Humanities Individual Artist Grant program.

The Bouffon and the Ecstasy of Mocking with Giovanni Fusetti was a powerful journey into the ancient human energy of parody. An extraordinary pedagogue, Giovanni took us into a deep remembering (to put memories into the body once again) of the joyful passion of mocking our fragile lives. The fantastic creative energy that can be generated by a cohort of artists opening to the heated flow of improvisation was restorative.

Spymonkey's Creating Clown Material with Aitor Basauri was equally challenging and rewarding. Another deep examination of the performer's power to create visions for an audience to dream. Though this work opened more questions for me as to where I go next, paired with the bouffon workshop I have been renewed and coagulated - inspired for the next level of creative work and the next projects!

Celebration Barn
Celebration Barn

Collaborating with Manton Ave


When Jed and I first entered the Providence theater scene we were enthusiastically advised to volunteer with The Manton Avenue Project. We jumped into our first MAP production in 2010. Jed played a rich man who went to Wal-Mart to buy a computer and I played a dog who who was also a lumberjack. Over the years we continued to volunteer when we could, and our mutual affection grew. Eventually Strange Attractor even purchased a button maker with MAP, which cemented our bond in commerce.  At some point committing to the MAP schedule became difficult. Show after show came and went without us, while we made our own shows happen, knowing we couldn’t be everywhere at once and that both of our organizations were contributing to the health of Providence. Anytime I’d apologize for not being able to volunteer MAP's generous director Meg Sullivan would say, “Don’t ever apologize” and give me a big hug.

When Marc Boucai at AS220 created the Community Live Arts residency, Jed and I knew that Before We Begin would be an interesting project to propose. A personal artistic experiment requiring large-scale space demands, it was the kind of non-play play that would be fun to create in the unjuried uncensored environs of AS220. That the residency required 30 volunteer hours with a non-profit was a bonus. We decided to ask Meg at Manton Ave to collaborate.


The young playwrights at Manton Ave took to our physical playwriting techniques with more enthusiasm and joy than many adults. We asked them to find empathy with the physical world around them -- to become sugar cubes melting, fire growing and being extinguished, balloons being blown up and let go. For young playwrights who routinely create characters from animals and inanimate objects, these leaps of empathy were pure joy. After one class we reflected with Meg about her incredible kids, and she said people will sometimes say that MAP teaches young people empathy, but after the past several years, she’s come to realize that the kids don’t need to learn empathy -- they teach it to us.

Now we’re in the theater, on the verge of this new batch of plays, created using physical theater techniques with audience interaction, written in the woods of New Hampshire, in the MAP Clubhouse in Providence and with the input and care of adults who are more than willing to let these young playwrights lead the way and will assist in telling their stories with generosity and love.


Jed and I keep remembering that we ended up here because we decided to make a play, and that play was accepted into a residency program that asked us to go farther than our show. Making Before We Begin was incredible, but by volunteering with MAP this summer, we’ve extended that creative impulse well beyond the walls of our own performance. While we wrap up our own Community Live Arts Residency this weekend, we can’t help but imagine all of the other projects upon projects that will happen in Providence because of this multi-layered opportunity, and we hope all of them have the multi-layered heart-opening process of creation that we have.

Before We Begin: Flat History

The Before We Beginroom is coming up like these things do: one wall at a time. As theatre-folk, when we say "walls," what we mean are "flats," ie, fake walls that create space. These are common base-objects in lots of plays -- particularly when you're using black boxes that need help defining the performance space and creating architecture. We're pretty lucky that we have some storage at our house so that when we finish a show we can actually store the flats and use them again. Each show, however, wants a different scenic feel, which means that unearthing flats is like a trip through your past shows. By the time audiences see Before We Begin, of course all of this will be covered up, but right now in the Black Box I can personally see the ghosts of three past shows on these flats.

This flat still has the painted scene from last summer's Idle:


You can see it in action here with actor Clara Weishahn in the show:


These flats still hold the colors from 2012's A Terrific Fire. The colors had fantastic names like "creme brûlée" and "hot watermelon. We were obsessed with them while making the show, but I can't remember them now. Anyway, here they are the flats today:


And here's some in their original incarnation.

This is the green (like, "majestic forest" or something?):


And here's that "hot raspberry" or whatever:


This wallpaper looked super familiar and I couldn't place it. . . .


Then I remembered we loaned the flats to our pals at Elemental Theatre Collective in 2012 for their show Vacancy, and they had wallpapered it to look like a cheap motel room. I wish I could find a picture of that online, but sadly. . . we'll all just have to use our imaginations. Unless someone from Elemental can hook me up with a picture. . .

(UPDATE) D'Arcy Dersham read this post and then sent me the perfect picture. Check out the then-in-tact plaid wallpaper with actor Jeff Hodge:


And soon all these concrete reminders of these past shows will be covered up by Before We Begin. Good thing we take pictures.

Before We Begin: In the Space!


Today is the big day. We've officially started moving into the AS220 Black Box and building our room within the room for Before We Begin. Jed found a rock on the beach last week that is our guiding force for the visual aspects of the room:

There are a lot of reasons why this rock is a powerful symbol for what we're building. It's simple and grey. It's round and ovally. But it also is deceptive. There is a strange tork to it -- a kind of divet if you look close. It has these vague lines and circles. It has a great weight. It kind of makes you feel calm and also in love with how nature makes such perfect objects.

We had a mid-day trip to an unnamed hardware store where we bought all the wood that could possibly be available to two people not building a home, and then brought it back to the space. Here's Jed in shopping mode:


While there we got to ask ourselves, "What kind of wood paneling should we get?" Thank goodness for that rock. It might sound nuts but it guided us toward the exact right wood siding.

And more and more more!

Before We Begin: Songs and Movies

We are making a new play that isn't really a play. As a part of the work we're doing on this non-play is collaborating with Xander Marro on a video that goes in the piece and Kirsten Volness and Jacob Richman on writing a song that we will teach the audience to sing. Both avenues of creation are new to us and all are artists we've admired for a long time, but never worked with. In other words, we're having a good time. We can't show you the video or sing you the song (yet!), but we thought it might be fun to share a couple little teasers.

So! Here is a still from a video test shoot Xander did with us to get the green screen down:


And here are the lyrics of the amazing song we wrote with Kirsten and Jacob:

We live in a dead man's house. We live in someone else's dream. I live in a time of creation. My bones grow while I sleep.

Show up when you're ready. Tell me how you feel. Dirty snow is dirty Because we get behind the wheel.

Past hopes. Future wishes. Time washes the grooves of our struggle From the shores of our remembering.

Who will sing your song when I am dead?

Then there's also this little chant:

If it's useful, celebrate it! If it's crashing, elevate it!

See you June 1-12 at AS220 in Providence.

Building the Future


Making a new play can happen in more ways than you can imagine. Because of our ensemble, our time, our interests, and the time frame we're working in to make Sans Everything, our unbeatable costume and sets designer got us a full day at the John St Studio on Brown University campus with a bunch of materials and helpers and machines. Check out the process here, but come to the show to see the glorious results.

Watch a video of Clara talking about her piece here.


On my way

Hey, everyone! Thanks for all the support and assists and conversations. I'm excited to be heading back to Rhode Island for to finish this Sans Everything...that is the title of the show. If any Alaskans will be back East in March, we will be in lovely Providence March 3-6 at AS220 and in Boston at the Charlestown Working Theatre March 10-12. Even though my gps is saying this photo was taken in 'Inner Mongolia', I'm pretty sure it is just the international cloudspace outside the Alaska Airlines window on the way to Seattle.

And thanks to the great State of Alaska for helping pay to get me on this flight and create new performances. I get my own tag line in the program, too: "Roblin Gray Davis is supported, in part, by a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts."

Be well.

Where We Are: Sans Everything

We've spent a good deal of time revisiting material and inventing new stuff. Even though we know a lot about what happens in this play, we really haven't figured out how it happens. The "how" of theatre is actually the part that makes it a play and not a novel or a synopsis. A few days ago we decided to write down all the things we know about the space ship before and after it encounters As You Like It. Here's what that looks like:


Here's just what we know about the ship before:


Here's what we think happens after:


Today we move into the ever-exciting notecard (Strange Attractor language) or paper plate (Lightning Rod Special language) stage. This means we'll start turning our bits into sequences, thus specifying all these ideas into something a little more cohesive.

Someone once called devising "ruthlessly inefficient." Certainly one writer might be able to sort all this out in a more efficient way than a room of actor-creators, but is that really the point? Is art at its best efficient?

Meet Mason

Our series of interviews between Jed and the Sans Everything co-creators of Lightning Rod Special concludes with this last-but-not-least interview. Please please please. . .  Meet Mason.

Jed: Here we go. We're at Nam Son. No. Wait. Are we at Tram Son?

Mason: I think this place has a different name. There's a really nice one [Vietnamese restaurant] in the same complex with Nam Phuong and they have live frogs and lobsters and all sorts of fish -- eels in a styrofoam box with a metal grate on top.

Jed: Have you ever bought any live things to eat?

Mason: Oh yeah. Here's a good story. Have you heard this one before? For Go Long Big Softie we created all these trials and one was a trial of courage and we were like, what should happen in this one. And -- do you remember the part when Scott drank the blood of his ancestors? It was just a silly moment. But I think there was something where maybe at first Scott thought we should kill a live chicken on stage during that part. We have a friend named Matt Lowe who has a farm and he kills chickens all the time and has killing cones --

Jed: Killing cones! Yeah. One time I killed a turkey.

Mason: Yeah, they take the chicken and put them upside down in these cones and they're constricted and upside down and you cut their necks. If you do it correctly they die very quickly because they bleed out because they're upside down. What we were told is that they still thrash around and freak out and then projectile poop. It's not a pretty thing. We went so far as to talk with Matt about it and actually meet with someone in the Italian market near to where we were rehearsing where they sell live chickens and rabbit and duck. Charlotte Ford [the show's director] was really excited about the idea and I was like, "we can't do this." Not because I'm morally opposed to killing an animal or even killing an animal in live performance. I was just like, then the whole show will be about that and our show wasn't really unpacking what that meant. You can't just, as an extra thing, kill an animal.


Jed: Like a special effect. All anyone would want to talk about is that chicken moment when the piece is about way more than that, and you would be like, "All anyone wants to talk about is the chicken."

Mason: Right. We were like, Oh we'll kill the chicken and then send it to this other farmer friend who will pluck it and we'll eat it and I was like, "Fine. I don't feel bad about that, but I do feel bad about putting that in a performance piece and then not thinking about it."

Jed: Are you from New York?

Mason: I'm originally from Chicago. From Skokie, Illinois actually. I was born in Chicago, but when I was very young my parents moved to the suburbs to Skokie, which is North of the city. And then I moved to New York for college. For NYU.

Jed: Did you do plays as a child?

Mason: I did. My mom had a friend, Sue Pector. And Becky Pector was in these community theatre play things and my mom would bring me to see Becky Pector when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade to see these plays. I saw Alice in Wonderland, I remember seeing that. I really liked it and apparently -- I recently asked my parents about this. I was like, "Did you sign me up for drama stuff?" And they insisted that I asked to be in these drama production things after I saw Becky in them. We didn't do faithful productions. Even then they were weird adaptations. I remember being a weird kind of Wizard in The Wizard of Oz. I remember being a Heffalump in a production of Winnie the Pooh, but I was a hip hop Heffalump. So I started doing theatre early, and my mom started taking me to commercial auditions.

Jed: Was that your decision?

Mason: I think it was my mom's. She had a photographer friend who took pictures of me. I think it was very exciting for my mom. But I enjoyed it too. I was a funny-looking kid. I had glasses and was adorably nerdy. I remember auditioning multiple times to play Rick Moranis' son. I was almost the lead character in Freaks and Geeks. I've never watched that show.

Jed: Really?

Mason: Yeah, I met with the producers and the directors and stuff like that. I think I was among, like five people who were in consideration. They did a lot of casting and producing in Chicago.

Jed: Did you book any commercial stuff?

Mason: I did some print things. And I was the understudy for all the kids' roles in a production at the Goodman Theatre called Randy Newman's Faust. The music was by Randy Newman and the book was by David Mamet. And later I went on to study with Mamet. They hired me knowing I'd have to go on a bunch of times and it was really intense because I had to go on for all the kids' roles. In that play they show Lucifer and God as children so there was a kid Lucifer and a kid God role and I understudied both of those. I don't remember exactly how old I was. Maybe 5th grade. Later I went to a public high school that had a really great arts program, but when I was younger I went to a private Jewish day school that was half in Hebrew and half in English.

Jed: Can you speak Hebrew now?

Mason: I can. [speaks Hebrew] I speak Hebrew, but it's not so great because I don't speak it actively. I did a Birthright trip and I was like, "This is so great. It's all coming back to me." I feel like if I spent a good year living in Israel it would all come back to me because I have an innate sense of the grammar from studying it as a real young kid, but in high school I studied Spanish. So, I went from a Jewish day school to a public high school with an amazing arts program. We put on tons of productions and had a directing class and advanced scene study class. I did Kabuki with a living national treasure of Japan who was my theatre director's teacher. It was a really big deal. He did Kabuki MacBeth and Kabuki Medea, along with Fiddler on the Roof. But we also did, like, Zoo Story.

Jed: Earlier, full disclosure, we went to a boxing gym, and I took a class with Mason.

Mason: What was that like?

Jed: It was fun. I feel like the initial learning experience with any kind of physical discipline for me is always tied up with my difficulty in processing names or numbers or sequences and my dyslexia and frustration with those things. But then my enjoyment with any movement things get me excited just to move in the end. There was just enough repetition that I was able to have some fun. But I was curious now, you'd said you'd done all kinds of martial arts. Did you ever try Krav Maga?

Mason: I've never tried Krav Maga. I know a little bit about it, but I never took intense self-defense martial arts classes. As a very little kid I took Taekwondo at the Skokie Park District. I took judo with my dad and brother for a while for a couple years. Not very long, but my dad wanted a practice -- something to do with me. A lot of it was that my vision is so bad and it wasn't so bad as a kid. But like, I thought I was really bad at sports because the sports you play as a kid are like, baseball or like, soccer or tennis or all these things that require hand-eye coordination. All these things to track these balls and I'm like, "clearly I'm a nerd and inept with my body." But then I started doing theatre and gymnastics as a kid, and martial arts and I realized, no I like moving. I even like competitive sports. I just can't do these more common sports because I have really bad vision. That's part of why I got into martial arts. My dad had always been into it as well. I was also obsessed with Star Wars as a kid. My brother and I were written up in the local paper for our Star Wars toy collection. My mom pulled me from school the day the Star Wars movies were rereleased in the theatre. I became obsessed with being a Jedi. My dad was a philosophy major and he'd read all these Eastern spiritual and philosophy texts on Zen Buddhism and all that. So at a young age I read like, Zen and the Art of Archery and all these spiritual texts and was obsessed with being a Jedi. Meanwhile I was going to Jewish day school and I was like, not into that.


Jed: Where does theatre fit in with martial arts?

Mason: I think it fits in in a big way. I became interested in it as a spiritual practice. We had this directing class in high school and on our first day of class we had this assignment to write the definition of art. And everyone writes these smart, interesting things and I was like, "I think everything is art. Art is a verb or an action. It's a thing you do. It's a lens." Would it be good to consider certain things art? Probably not, but you could. I was being influenced at that point in time by all my very Zen readings. Things are so shaped by how you look at them and your experience of the world is constructed and an illusion. Even in high school. And the teacher wanted us to come to a group agreement because we were supposed to be making these plays together in this group directing class and I would not concede. I was like, "Respectfully, I don't think I agree with any of these definitions." This assignment that was supposed to be a day went into the whole week until eventually we decided to just move on. People were a little bit frustrated with me. They were like, "It needs an audience." and I was like, "I don't think it does." So that was intense. I was already thinking about art and theatre as a way of exploring these mysteries.

Jed: How does the high school Mason Jedi decide to do NYU Atlantic theatre school?

Mason: I was pretty sure I was going to go to my state school, University of Illinois, which has a great theatre program and would have been ridiculously cheap in comparison. A high school friend at the time was really excited about NYU and I went to this college thing at the Hilton Hotel where all the colleges show up and you audition for all of them. On a whim, I made the appointment because they were there. I did my NYU audition for Rosemary Quinn, who at the time was the head of ETW, the Experimental Theatre Wing, and she had asked me what studio did I want to be in. And I was like, I want to be in the Experimental Theatre Wing because I already knew I was interested in working with theatre in these different ways and I wasn't interested in commercial theatre. I wanted to make my own stuff. I had this great interview with her and she said I'd be a great fit.  And so I was surprised when I got my letter of acceptance -- I didn't think I'd get accepted at all, but when I got accepted and was put in Atlantic I was a little bit puzzled. My parents said, "This is great. We're really proud of you. You can't go. There's no way we can afford this." We had a family meeting and they were like, "We looked at our money situation and we can't afford it, but let's have another meeting next month." And then we'd have another meeting. I think we had three or four meetings where they were like, "I'm sorry. We tried to figure it out, but it's just not possible." And after four of those meetings they were like, "Okay. Student loan rates are really low. You can take out all these loans in your name and we'll take out a couple." They said I could go. But I was already pretty much not pushing for it. I was pretty set on U of I. They really surprised me, but my parents have always been very supportive. Anyway, I ended up at Atlantic and I just loved Atlantic so much. They had very strict script analysis and heavy intellectual scene study -- which I also really love, thinking of theatre as a craft. But the voice and movement teachers were very strong and really experimental in their approach. I met Rosemary Quinn when I was there and she remembered me by name -- which is an amazing thing about this woman -- and I asked her why I ended up in Atlantic and she was like, "I don't know. I thought I put you in ETW."  But I stayed because I liked it a lot. And then I taught there, which is where I met Katie Bull, my voice teacher, who was the daughter of Richard Bull who was big in the Judson Church dance movement. He had coined this term Structured Dance Improvisation. He was a jazz pianist and he would play in jazz classes and thought, what if dancers could improvise around a tune the same way jazz musicians could? He started working with dancers and through Katie I met George Russell who was a movement teacher at the Atlantic who I hadn't studied with, but met when I just started teaching there. He sort of took me on as a mentor, which I am very grateful for. I don't think many people have mentors, especially men. Having another man as a mentor, that's not a thing that happens. That changed my life. George is an amazing teacher and very close friend. They threw me into teaching, and thought that having watched some of these master teachers I would know how to teach, and I had no idea how to teach. George taught me how to teach. Even though they invited me to teach acting technique and script analysis, I was really learning more how to teach movement and voice through Katie and George. I became more interested in that and less interested in script-based actor-training. George eventually introduced me to David Brick who was a student of his and ran Headlong along with Amy Smith and Andrew Simonet. David offered me this position as a teaching fellow at Headlong where I would teach and also study. And that's what caused me to move to Philly. George does dance improvisation, but for him it's a very personal and spiritual practice. George does improvisational dance as a way to investigate who you are as a person.

Jed: What are you looking for now? What's your quest at the moment?

Mason: I read this text called The Genuine Heart of Sadness when I was in college by this monk, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He's not really a monk. He's a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who founded Naropa.

Jed: I read a book by his wife.

Mason: Right. He was also a drunk and having sex with all these women.

Jed: And taking acid. He's a fascinating dude.

Mason: I read a chapter in his book in college with this Buddhist teacher and performer and I was like, "This describes something I've felt my entire life and never had language for." It's interesting to think about in the context of Sans Everything and melancholy and Jacques [from As You Like It] and everything. It's about how the practice of being human is actually a revealing of your heart. It's allowing your heart to be exposed and for everything to touch you. The genuine heart of sadness is so sad, not because it's been mistreated but because it's so tender. It's so open to the world and that state is a state of sadness. The kind that comes with being receptive to the world. I thought that was amazing because I was always a sad child. Not unhappy, but like, sad. Like a tender little thing.

Jed: Do you think that's where Jacques is at? Or do you think he's pushing it?

Mason: I think he's pushing it, and they all poke fun at him. But I think there's something there -- that state of being melancholy. The shambala text talks about how a real warrior is tender. A real warrior isn't like, "You hit me I'll hit you back." It's about being open to receiving to what the world is giving you and still being there for it. Fearless is not not having fear. It's going beyond fear. He talks about these two metaphors: that it's like a deer's antlers. When they first appear they're these soft bloody sacks and they must first feel so useless. But over time they become these 30-pointed, hard weapons. I think that has a lot to do with my martial arts practice and is also my quest. Now I'm getting even deeper with it. I'm thinking a lot about forgiveness, especially in the context of things like the church shootings in South Carolina. When that happened the families of the victims came out and forgave the shooter publicly like, immediately in this very Christian way. I thought it was really interesting and also felt the social media response being, "I could never forgive this person. We should never forgive this person." And so I'm thinking a lot about forgiveness and acceptance in the context of privilege and progressive values. What does it mean to forgive and allow? Is there a time that not forgiving is a way of avoiding social change or action?

Jed: Do you like hypothetical questions?

Mason: Oh yeah. I love hypothetical questions.

Jed: If you could give your life to make the world non-violent, would you do it?

Mason: I don't know that I would. Non-violent is a tough one. What does that mean? It seems like it could be bad in a cosmic perspective. Violence is a force. A vital force. Certainly the world is too violent in many ways. . .

Jed: Let me change it. If you could give your life to ease suffering and regret in the world, would you do that?

Mason: Maybe. It sounds like Jesus. I don't know. I'm such a subjective person. I'm often thinking about morality as entirely subjective so it's hard for me to make a big moral decision like that. There's an essay I love that is before the John Patrick Shanley play, Doubt. He says, "Doubt is a more powerful place to be, as opposed to knowing or conviction. From the place of doubt everything creative comes." It's hard for me -- even though I said I like hypothetical questions. I don't know, but I think I probably would sacrifice my life. That sounds like a good thing to do, right?


Meet Katie

Our series of interviews between Jed and the Sans Everything co-creators of Lightning Rod Special, keeps coming. With this post, we hope you enjoy getting to. . . 

Meet Katie.

Jed: Katie Gould. Where are you from?

Katie: I'm from a town just outside Philadelphia. It's part of the Lower Merion Township.

Jed: Were you a "play" kid?

Katie: I was. I definitely did all the plays in elementary and middle school and actually it was when I was in middle school that I started professionally acting. I started auditioning for things at the Walnut and the Arden. I had a manager sending me off for commercial work. I got cast as one of two young women in a professional children's theatre company that performed at, you know, the owner of the Eagle's house or the steps of the Art Museum for a big gala. We would do these mash-up musical theatre numbers. We did a show called Ballad for Americans and it was a historical show for kids to come see. But I was into it. I went to theatre camp and did that whole thing.

Jed: Have you had moments since when you've thought, "I don't want to do theatre right now."

Katie: Not intentionally. I've either stopped because I couldn't afford to perform or because I was committed to a relationship that didn't have space for theatre. I didn't consciously make the decision, but theatre would be the thing that would sometimes fall off. Never for a full year or anything. I moved to NYC to do theatre in 2010. After college after being in Louisville for a year working at Actor's Theatre as an apprentice, and a really successful year of theatre work in Philadelphia, I had this feeling like, maybe I should try it. I should move to NYC. And it was disastrous. I got two fitness jobs and no theatre work. I took a great class with Austin Pendleton and learned so much, but didn't get any work at all. That's when I applied to APT. I was getting filmed, taking meetings, all that stuff, but it was not for me.


Jed: Had you made stuff before APT, or was it all straight theatre and musicals?

Katie: In college I got one of two spots to do SITI Company training and started doing Suzuki with them and Anne Bogart. In the summer and in the school year I was training intensively with them and making pieces with my best friend Adam. In my senior year of college I made my first full piece. I wrote, performed and produced a one-woman show about the disappearances in Argentina, using my Suzuki SITI experience and also my Latin American studies history knowledge, as a theatre and Latin American studies major. Then I made a piece with a bunch of my colleagues about various female artists. It was very avant-garde and very physical theatre-y and just a mash-up of different images. After college I did the apprenticeship in Louisville. They don't really make original work, but I was cast in a show with The Civilians, and, you know, they're creators but it's definitely more script-based. They are into a lot of community-driven work, so I started getting interested in that. I started a theatre company with my friend Jenny Jacobs called Iris and we created a very sweet piece for the Prague International Festival. We built it over eight days in an apartment in Prague before we performed it. All of that was before I went to NYC. Everything was great in Philly! I was doing regional theatre, I started a company, I made a one-woman show called The Girl in the Yellow Dress that was a big hit in the Fringe Festival. I was writing and creating so much stuff and then it all just stopped because of a bad relationship. I spent the next ten months being like, "Why don't I have work? Why is the work I have so lame? Where did everybody go?" The Prague show ended, we all came home, and all the momentum died. That's when I made the decision to go to NYC.

Jed: How did you decide to go to APT?

Katie: I saw my first Pig Iron show when I was 17 -- Gentlemen Volunteers -- and I wanted to work for them ever since. I loved everything about them and everything they did. I'd heard some whispers about them opening a school and I'd been applying to MFA programs for a couple years. I was waiting for the right program and everything about it seemed right. I was also looking for a reason to come home. It was my guiding light getting me out of NYC.

Jed: Were there certain bad experiences in NYC?

Katie: You know, I just didn't know shit about shit. I would go to a meeting in the totally wrong outfit. I would leave Philadelphia after a terrible date with my boyfriend to go to some open call where I'd sit for eight hours and never be seen. I would go to an audition I should have nailed and instead sounded nervous and just knew as soon as I walked out that it wasn't going to happen. It was brutal. It was like getting smacked in the face. It wasn't any one thing. It was the combination of a horrible break-up and also thinking something was going to be so successful and righteous then it just wasn't. But also it was amazing. I made great friends. I biked everywhere. I became a triathlete. I did the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, which was my first. I went from Alcatraz to San Francisco!

Jed: Was that when you started doing training stuff?

Katie: No, I'd started before then, but that was when I started endurance training myself. I started working as a personal trainer in 2008. I'd come back from Louisville and needed a side job, but I didn't want to be a server. I'd always been an athlete -- I always played every sport. I had a trainer when I was in high school and learned a lot from him. I thought it was something I was intuitively good at. I'm able to look at bodies and see what their strengths and deficiencies are. I was super interested in anatomy and physiology.


Jed: Are there interesting intersections you've found between theatre and training?

Katie:  Absolutely. Every time I learn something new -- how I'm tight or open or weak or strong in my own body, it's obviously affecting my tone and my vulnerability or my lack of. I always talk about clown in yoga. I'm like, "Look. I don't think it's your fault that you can't get your arms straight or that you're bad at yoga. It's part of the mask you wear; the armor that you've built. You should embrace it. You've lived a life of protracted and rounded shoulders." It might mean one thing to me in an aesthetic body way, but it can also mean so much more. I'm here to help you understand it and also give you tools to try on a different costume for a while. And maybe it feels good or maybe it feels terrible, but if it feels terrible it might be because you need to go there. It might be a place you've been avoiding and your body and mind have needed to go there for a very very long time. It's really important to understand the body in order to understand people. Looking at people's bodies will tell you a lot about who they are. Having both kinds of training makes me sensitive to that. It also makes me aggressive. It makes me feel like, "Ooo. We can do something with this. This needs to be dealt with. You just need awareness."

Jed: We're making a play about the future. Do you have any dreams or hopes for the future?

Katie: My own or for the future of humanity?

Jed: Let's do your own future. Do you have any artistic dreams?

Katie: It's something to do with confidence and leadership. I have a lot of good ideas, and I have a hard time expressing them. I have a hard time verbalizing what I want to see. I have anxiety about being in charge because when I was growing up I was quick to be in charge and tell people what to do and I ended up in a career where I tell people what to do. It makes me feel like people think I'm bossy or too aggressive. People use the word "intense" when they talk about me and that makes me feel bad. I have a hard time stepping up when I want to because I don't want to be that person. I don't want to be the intense, bossy person.

Jed: I'm the total opposite of that. I'm a just shy person, and I'm starting to embrace it. Maybe you could try embracing that you want to speak up.

Katie: I'm learning about that now. That's why my goal for the future is to learn that I am a good leader and just try to hone my skills as a leader rather than worrying about not being the leader. As a follower I will produce good material, but often it's helping somebody else with their vision, which is really important, but you know, I also have some crazy ideas and I want people to play in my world. Some really fun, exciting things come up in my world, but I have to invite people in in order for that to happen.

Jed: Do you have any specific projects in mind?

Katie: I would like to do a project about things like this -- like militant aggressive fitness.

Jed: We're sitting next to a Cross Fit.

Katie: Yeah, like the addiction and the ferocity that people are now approaching fitness and endurance and masochist work with. People are like, "If I'm going to be fit, I'm going to be a monster." There is no moderate fitness anymore. There's something about killing yourself that's appealing and sexy to people right now. It's very American: Go big or go home. People only understand progress through numbers and expansion and the only way to get better is to do more of it. People also see community. Like, if everyone is doing a marathon then you'll do it too. There isn't a huge community around moderate fitness. I fit into the category of someone who goes big or goes home, but I'm also learning how to counter-act that. I'd like to make a piece that starts there as a way to go in somewhere. I'd like to do something hard with bodies and really push people and be like, "You like that? Let's do it and let's do it and let's do it." I'd like to put someone on a bike for, like seven hours in front of an audience and see what comes up. I find it very emotional.

Jed: I bet Aram would do that.

Katie: Aram would totally do that. I want to rent a gym and lead people through different rooms and see the weird ways people work out together, just see what comes out. It could be very homoerotic. The mirrors and just people staring. . . The things you say to yourself and to each other can be really inspiring and also really demeaning. The words could be very telling, but also the way you work out. Some people go to the gym for four hours but only work out for twenty minutes. They're just walking around, they go out, they come back with a meal. It's a weird culture.

Jed: I'd go see that play. Is there anything else you want to say?

Katie: I'm so glad you guys are here.

Jed: I'm glad we're here too.


Meet Alice

Next up in our series of interviews between Jed and the Sans Everything co-creators of Lightning Rod Special, we invite you to. . .

Meet Alice.

Jed: Look at that view! Who's that on top there? Is that Mr. Penn? It's not Benjamin Franklin.

Alice: I don't think so.

Jed: Not everything in this town is. . .

Alice: No. I'm pretty sure that's William Penn. Though to be honest, Scott would know better.

Jed: Where are you from?

Alice: I grew up on the northernmost part of the Jersey shore. Just before you drive off into the ocean, that's where I'm from.

Jed: Did you make plays when you were younger?

Alice: I did. When I was a kid I lived on this little dead end street and all the kids in the neighborhood would make this thing called the Summer Circus. We never did it, but we imagined putting a lion's mane on our younger brother. My friend was going to be the lion tamer and the big finale was that we were gonna have all the kids dressed in white sliding down into a big mud puddle. But we never did it. It was just a lot of planning. My friend and I were always putting on little plays. We put on Spice Girls concerts.

Jed: Which Spice Girl were you?

Alice: I think I was Scary Spice. Because she had a lot of hair and I have a lot of hair.

Jed: Was she --

Alice: The black one? Yes.

Jed: Do you think there's any link between Scary Spice and Candy Scrapple?

Alice: There might be. I've never thought about it until now, but there might be.

Jed: Did you do plays in school?

Alice: Yeah, I was a Hot Box Girl in Guys and Dolls in 8th grade.

Jed: What does that mean?

Alice: Uh. . . It's like being a cabaret dancers. But as an 8th grader it just means you're waving your arms back and forth. I think we wore short-alls. Like overalls that are shorts. But then in high school we did two plays a year and I did all of those. Starting off as a village person in Aladdin where I sold my bread and grapes. And culminating as a senior with the lead role in The Hobbit.


Jed: Yes! Were these insipired by the classic tales? Or were they inspired by the movies?

Alice: No. This was before the movies. So it was non-Disney. We did watch the 70's movie version of The Hobbit. I had to wear stockings covered in hair and big ears and a lot of fat padding. And my best friend was Thorin Oakenshield, so we were two ladies playing Bilbo and Thorin. And then I went to college for theater at Marymount Manhattan.

Jed: After Marymount did you go to Double Edge?

Alice: Well, while I was in college I took a movement class and that's where I was exposed to Lecoq and I was like, "This is perfect. I need to go to this school." And I studied abroad over the summer with a street theater company in Paris who had come from the Lecoq School called Frîches Théâtre Urbain. Actually they're doing a show about Mars right now!

Jed: Everybody loves space right now!

Alice: I know! Come on! But I really loved that method of working -- the physical method. So after I graduated I thought I'd either do weirdo physical theatre or I'd do Shakespeare or Noel Coward for the rest of my life. I thought, "Nobody's going to hire me to do like, normal shows." And then I saw a poster for Double Edge and I just went. It was great. I had a great first experience.

Jed: How long were you there?

Alice: Three months. I did a winter internship and it was the first time I made stuff on my own -- which was scary, but it was transformative. I knew I couldn't go back to NYC and be in shitty plays that like three people come to. But I was also too broke to move back to New York and so instead I moved back home to New Jersey with my mom. I was just padding around, working at a vegan coffee shop with my hands to the sky, ready to receive whatever was coming next. A friend of my mother's had a friend who had spent time at Double Edge and he told me about Pig Iron. I looked on their website and read about the school they were starting and saw that it was exactly what I wanted. But it was too scary to move to Philadelphia for two years and so I just stopped thinking about it. Then three weeks before the application was due, I thought, "I'm crazy!" And I just did it. I had three transformative experiences around theater-making: I studied with this company in Paris, I studied with Double Edge, and then I studied with Pig Iron. Each time I didn't really know anything about them, I just heard about them and did it. I was at APT [Pig Iron's School for Advanced Performance Training] for a little while before I even remembered that what I'd wanted originally was to go to the Lecoq School, and I was doing it.

Jed: And now we're here in South Philly staring at the skyline.

Alice: With Billy.

Jed: Billy Penn. So, are you a candy person?

Alice: Oh yes! I'm a dessert person. Not gummy candies because my teeth are too sensitive. I can do like two gummy bears. Sometimes hot cheese makes my teeth hurt. I feel it go down to the roots of my teeth.

Jed: I feel like a lot of people have that.

Alice: Well, I told my dentist about it once and she checked and was like, "You have deep grooves." And I was like, "Yeah I do. I'm in a funk band."

Jed: Oh yeah! So that was a project [Red 40 and the Last Groovement, the funk band Alice dance's with] out of school, right?

Alice: Yeah. It started at APT. It was Martha's [Stuckey, Red 40's front-woman] final project.

Jed: Was she like, "You're going to be a squirrel-based dancer."

Alice: No! We'd been doing some improvs around back-up singers and back-up dancers. Martha's prompt from the teachers for her final project had been, "The tail wags the dog." And so she was thinking about behind-the-scenes stars. Eventually she wanted to make a band, but I'm not a great singer and I don't play any instruments. Originally me and Melissa Krodman were a duo of dancers and everything was synchronized, but then Mel couldn't keep doing these gigs and so she dropped away and I couldn't keep doing the same moves by myself. That would have been even weirder than what I do now.

Jed: But were you already crazy?


Alice: Yeah, I think so. But Candy Scrapple [Alice's character] opened a crazy box. And she is crazier than most of the things I do. I don't have a lot of sweet moves so I just dance really hard.

Jed: In watching you, I feel like Candy Scrapple is the secret star of the band.

Alice: Candy Scrapple definitely feels that way. She's like, "This is my back-up lead singer."

Jed: What are the performance things you wish you could do more of?

Alice: The next piece LRS is going to make is something we started at APT. It's called Fetus Chorus. I get nervous talking about it because it's really offensive and it's designed to be that way. It's a grotesque, so that's the point, but still. I'm really excited about it. I love the work that gives you permission to be totally not appropriate. I have lots of rules for myself about what you should and shouldn't do in my real life -- not like I'm restricted, but it's so liberating to be so terrible. It's real fun. And then I just want to make more. . . I love being in a making room. Doing stuff.

Jed: Have you done much straight theatre since college? Alice: When I graduated from college I only did straight theater and I was doing the worst straight theater in NYC. I once was in a show I knew was really bad and I asked a woman who runs a successful Shakespeare company what to do about the show, and she was like, "don't put that on your resume." The company was notoriously bad. It was a genuinely rough experience. We did one performance where no one came, but the director still made us do it while he sat in the booth. When I left NYC my major goal was to do a show with a stage manager working on it. All of the shows I did were so scrappy and not scrappy in a good way. They were mostly companies that had been around for awhile but there was still no money and just poor quality.  It was a little bit like, "Well, we got a URL so we better keep doing stuff." But in Philly I've done a couple straight plays and they were great. The last last show I did in NYC was a piece of dance theater and that was actually pretty exciting. It was the first thing that made me feel like, "Oh, these are maybe people who will introduce me to the right people for me."

Jed: Did you ever think about going back to NYC after APT?

Alice: Not really. Staying in Philly just made sense. I had no ties in New York and no work waiting for me. Way more was available and exciting for me here.


Meet Jenn

We continue our series of interviews Jed is doing with Sans Everything co-creators of Lightning Rod Special by inviting you to. . . Meet Jenn.

Jed: Do you ever get mistaken for anyone?

Jenn: I was told I look like Keith David. A boxer who's now dead -- Floyd Patterson. It was the former editor of Vibe Magazine who told me I look like Keith David, which I sort of understand.

Jed: What movies did Keith David do?

Jenn: I don't know. Uhhh. . . (looks up and recites Keith David's IMDB page)

Jed: A lot of stuff.

Jenn: Yeah. Anyway. Floyd Patterson threw me for a loop and so I looked him up and I was like, "I kind of understand." Sometime people have to say stuff. Do they say stuff to you?

Jed: No. People don't talk to me. I go invisible.

Jenn: Really?

Jed: Unless someone's pan-handling. Or if I'm in a good mood. People don't seem to perceive me as someone they can talk to, which is a shame because I love to give directions!

Jenn: I think if I saw you on the street I'd assume you were thinking about loftier things.

Jed: (Talks about himself for a while) Wait. Is this about me? I'm going to ask you some questions now. Where are you from?

Jenn: I grew up in Baltimore. In a neighborhood called Pig Town. It's between the B&O Station or Round House and the Stadium -- Camden Yards and also the Inner Harbor. Downtown Baltimore.


Jed: What's the history of Pig Town? Is it like Fish Town?

Jenn: Yeah. Which is where I live now.

Jed: Oh really? Pig Town to Fish Town.

Jenn: The Jenn Kidwell Story.

Jed: Is there a story to that name -- Pig Town?

Jenn: Yeah. It's where there used to be slaughterhouses. They would run the pigs through the streets. And the pigs -- or the meat -- would be on the trains. Now it's a cool identity. There's banners. It was not cool when I was growing up. I liked it, but there were parts that were really rough. My neighbohood is super old. It's like an 18th century structure that had fallen into disrepair and people could buy buildings really cheap and then you could design the interior of the house. And my parents made their place really '80's. When I go into houses that are really '80's I can hear the music -- Luther and the Al Jarreau. Stevie Wonder. Chaka Kahn maybe. I grew up playing violin and my dad really loves classical music. He plays the clarinet, the oboe, and the basoon. But then my mom has really terrible taste in music and also no interest. My parents do not dance. They are not physically expressive at all. My dad had polio (giggles) which is not funny at all, but for someone like me who likes to move and dance, my parents are the antithesis. When I was in elementary school I'd get my hands on instruments and just try to bleet things out. Like, for a week I would play the trumpet. The flute. The glockenspiel. No! Not the glockenspiel. "Excuse me mother. I'm trying to culture myself." (laughs)

Jed: So you played music. Did you perform when you were younger?

Jenn: I did. I think my first play was A Christmas Carol in the 4th grade. I played Mrs. Cratchit. I had a lovely time. And then in 5th grade I was in Robin Hood. I was the narrator. Then I changed schools and after that I did every play. I loved being on stage, but I also thought it must be the thing that everyone wanted to do, and so I didn't think I could really do it for a job. I had an impulse to be a garbage person because nobody ever wanted to do that. This was also the age of, "Nobody ever says they wants to be a junkie when they grow up." And I just thought, "Man, some professions get such a bum rap."

Jed: Professions!

Jenn: I mean, I knew a junkie wasn't a profession! I always wanted to be a performer, but I tried to quell it. I thought, no I'll be a saxophonist, a photographer, and then a stand-up comedian. I thought I was funny as hell! (laughs)

Jed: Did you ever do any stand-up?

Jenn: Well, not until Donelle. And that was not my own. While in character once I did a stand-upish thing in drag with my cohort Jes Conda. Maybe we should do it in New Orleans! Wanna be my stand-up coach?

Jed: Sometimes I think I'll do stand-up. I think I'd be so bad, but in an interesting way. Like, I think people would just feel bad for me.

Jenn: I'll laugh for you. My laugh is good enough for like five laughs.

Jed: What were the circumstances of doing Donelle?

Jenn: I answered an ad in Actors Access. It had to have been in '08. Early '08, right? I get so confused. It was an ad for a performer, an African-American woman where you play this role where. . . I can't remember exactly what it said, but it was paid. I get this call and talked to Joe [Scanlon, the artist] on the phone. He explained the project and I said, "No thank you. I don't want to be a part of this post-colonial bullshit." And he was like, "No no no! It's not like that!" And he spoke more about the project and his interests, and I was like, "At some point can you envision that anyone can play Donelle?" And he said "Absolutely." And so I said, "Okay let's have an audition." And so I had an audition and I got the gig. One gig. It was just performing as Donelle at an art opening for really good money. I wore my own clothes -- this dress I'd never worn. And the money was so good that I thought why not. And I decided,"I'm going to play a character that's really far from me." She spoke really low and was a close-talker and really intellectual and had no sense of humor. If anyone said anything funny I'd be like, "Oh. Uh-huh." It was really alienating. It was kind of fun and cool and then all these other opportunities started opening up. It started becoming more of a collaboration. We were talking about how Donelle was so awkward and I was like, "She needs conversation starters written down." And so I wrote down ideas on index cards -- like jokes. If conversation floundered I'd pull out these very safe conversation prompts. People would just halt and try to get away.

Jed: Did people know you were pretending?


Jenn: Some people did and some people didn't. The very first time the head of the Brooklyn Museum came up to me he was like, "Wonderful work." And other people that night had also talked to me like I was Donelle, but they seemed to know. Like they were trying to test me. But the head of the museum didn't know. Then later there was an opportunity to go to London and so this other woman Abigail went as Donelle. The two of us traveled as Donelle. I ended up going to the Whitney and seeing Dan Graham and I got really excited about him and then the collaboration between Joe and me just kept getting more exciting and we were building on each other --

Jed: At this point are you enrolled at the Pig Iron School (for Advanced Performance Training)?

Jenn: No, I was still in NYC when we came up with the idea for Richard Pryor, but it was right before I went to Pig Iron. I was doing Richard Pryor while I was in school and had to miss a little because I went to Prelude, which is in the fall. Then I did it at Yale, then I did it in Paris. Then she got invited to the Biennial. Then all hell broke loose. The Whitney didn't want Donelle to be in it and then they did. We had the tour laid out and then the venues fell through because they didn't want to pay me. They didn't realize what the project was and they decided they didn't want to be involved. Then we went to Oakland and this Berkeley professor decried my performance. I'd just come off stage, I got some water, and sat down to do the talkback. He immediately stood up and said, "I knew Richard, this is blasphemous. Who do you think you are? You're a bad performer. What are you, a lesbian just walking around in men's clothes?" It was the worst. Like, an actor's nightmare. And then I wrote something for Hyperallergic. Then we had a meeting over the summer, but what -- it's 2015? I haven't done any Donelle stuff in a while. There's this thing on the table to go to the Congo, but schedules have been hard.

Jed: How did you feel when that guy stood up and yelled at you?

Jenn: I felt terrible. With the whole thing I am constantly like, "Is this okay?" It's always good to do stuff that makes you wonder if it's okay, but . . . You don't want to be the kind of person who's not at all porous to what people have to say, but at the same time you have to be behind what you're doing. What's the balance of feedback? Accepting validity and also knowing it's just their feeling and it doesn't have to stop you. In the moment, I was shocked and then another man jumped up and defended me. He said he was an activist on the street, but came in here to be entertained, and that's what I did. It's classic for what I get myself involved in: super divisive. Sometimes I wish I could just do something really nice.

Jed: It's funny. Even when I think I'm being provocative people are like, "Yayyy!" I wonder about people who like being in that provocative space. How do you deal with what comes from it?

Jenn: In the last leg of the tour, YAMS just happened and I was getting coded messages from people or strange friend requests. I started feeling really paranoid. And then I felt pissed because I realized people didn't want to talk to me, they just wanted to look at me. It was just about Joe. At this talkback in Minneapolis -- not at the Walker, but the curatorial staff from the Walker tried to vilify Joe. They spread themselves out around the room and then they tried to give Joe the business -- a bunch of white dudes. And this one came up to me and told me that I had no agency. "You are not in charge of yourself." They accused me of not knowing the history of performance art. And I was like, "Do you think that I don't know that? This is a statement you're making to me under the guise that what this man [Joe Scanlon] is doing is wrong, racist, and exploitative. But then you look at me in my fucking face and can tell me some shit?" I felt really alienated. There was this woman who had protested in LA and then this shit happened in Oakland. I did a bad show in Chicago. Detroit was fine. That's the one that's online. Minneapolis was crazy. Nebraska was kind of the best show, even though there was only seven people. Joe and I just drove for hours and hours and spring was coming to America and we just talked about everything. Then we pulled up at like three in the afternoon to Lincoln, NE. Our venue in Omaha had pulled out and so Joe had booked us into an Irish pub. We get there at like 3pm and our contact isn't there. And I'm like, "I'm doing a contentious drag show in Lincoln, NE." We went to the hotel that was part SRO -- it was just a whole thing. But finally things came together and we met this beautiful comedian who was warm and warmed up the crowd and he did a great job and it was the best. Then we went to the last show. It was in St. Louis and I was like, "I can't wait for this fucking thing to be over." The last thing that happened before I took the mustache off for the last time, was this couple stopped me on my way to the bathroom after the show. This black couple stopped me and they said, "Hey. We loved it. The only problem was it was too short. We loved it." And I said, "Oh that's so nice. You know, it's been really hard because it's so controversial." And they were like, "Why?" And I explained the whole thing about how I am playing this artist who doesn't exist who's playing Richard Pryor and it's all these levels of artifice created and people don't like it was all created by a white guy.  And they were like, "Why? Isn't art supposed to be like that?" And I almost started crying. I think that's the thing you're always supposed to remember. Are you doing the thing to please the people or to stir the people?

Jed: Was that a good experience?

Jenn: What. Donelle?

Jed: Yeah. No regrets?

Jenn: Oh! Yeah, no regrets. I would say answering that ad. . . Changed everything. It's been really positive. I mean, I still have questions. It's complicated.