And then we watched lanterns float over Lake Superior

December 31, 2011

(I know, it sounds like a Death Cab For Cutie song.)

Just before I turned 16, my family moved from London, Ohio to Marquette, Michigan.  We had vacationed in Marquette, and we fell in love.  So, my parents decided we should move there.  It is a pretty incredible place.  It gets tons of snow!  We used to have to shovel our roof off each winter to keep it from caving in.  And, living on Lake Superior?  Well, it's fantastic.

One of the best parts of moving to Marquette was meeting my friend April in high school Junior year.  She is my oldest friend, and she is magical.  In high school, she was the kind of person who was nice to (and liked by) everyone, especially new kids like me.   She's a lover and a dreamer.  April likes to fantasize about Paris, while I fantasize about...ways of organizing my life.  My pragmatic self appreciates her romanticism.

So, while in Marquette this week, Ben and I went to see April and meet her partner, Jeff.  That was a little nerve-wracking, because, well, what if I didn't like him?  You never know.

But, Jeff is fantastic, and I could instantly see that he is the perfect partner for April, and it was a great night!  You talk to some people, and your heart feels gigantic, and you miss them before you even leave.  Just as we were about to part ways, April and Jeff remembered that they'd brought Sky Lanterns with them.

I had no idea what they were talking about, and assumed we were going to light some lanterns and hold them next to the water at the harbor.  But, we lit little tiny parachutes that floated over Lake Superior.  I felt like a little kid- it was such a joyful moment, watching them all float up.  I have plans to buy a bunch of these.  Maybe you want to, too?

I wish you a bright new year.

Brand New

December 26, 2011

We spent Christmas with Ben's family making fires, indulgent food, and experimental cocktails in a house overlooking a frozen lake.  It was hard to pry myself out of my new flannel pajama pants today.

Tomorrow we fly to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my family moved when I was sixteen.  Now it's home to just my Mom and her husband.  Returning to Marquette, I often imagine it as it was when I left to go to college at 17-- a hippie haven surrounded by the stunning Lake Superior; a place that's full of many family memories.  Now it's just a part of my family picture.  And maybe, as we all grow older, the holidays become this for us- an opportunity to examine the similarities and differences between how we imagine family and childhood, and it's actualities--and even possibilites.  I think of this now that I have my own family and home here in Minneapolis.  It's been 2 1/2 years since I was in Michigan, and I wonder what it will look like when I return.  I feel like it's an important place to visit as I end 2011.

My dear friend Betsy and her wonderful sister Molly have a tradition for New Years of deciding on three words that best describe the year past, and three for the year ahead.  I love this, and eagerly await deciding on my words.  It's pretty magnificent to think of a new year with a clean slate, especially as I look back on the jam-packed, epic year that was 2011-- not bad or good, but a series of ebb and flow, frustration and giganticness.  I can't wait to see what 2012 will hold.

So, what would your 3 words be?

Alan Berks: Stop Talking + Make The Work

December 22, 2011

Alan Berks is a local playwright and director, and creator of Alan Berks & Company.  He also co-founded Minnesota Playlist- an online resource for local theatre artists- with his wife, Leah Cooper.   It's worth noting that Alan makes a mean experimental cocktail.  Here he talks about making Playlist, the challenges of being an artist, and ways of making it easier for yourself.

Alan & cast rehearsing How To Cheat {Photo by Aaron Fenster}

L: How long have you lived in the Twin Cities?

A: Since July 2003.

L: What brought you here?

A:  I got a fellowship at the Playwright’s Center, actually- one of those Jerome Fellowships, where you have to live here for a full year.  And, once a month, for a weekend, I would drive back to Chicago.  But my car broke down in late November or early december, so I was carless and stuck in Minneapolis.  So, I couldn’t get back to Chicago...and I had started dating Leah [Cooper].  It’s a great place to live, too.

L:  Why did you stay?

A:  I liked Minnesota as soon as i got here.  I had moved around a lot, and I was tired of it.   Someone was giving me money to be a playwright, and in certain circles having a Jerome Fellowship was very impressive.  So it was great.  People were giving me money, and I got to do what I wanted to do.  It was a really nice combination of things.  And then the Jerome Fellowship ended.  I got a job as an Assistant Professor at St. Cloud State.  I had been doing a lot of freelance teaching for years- adjunct stuff where you piece 3 or 4 classes together and you make 20,000 a year.  And it just happened that I was someone who could teach business writing and playwriting, which not a lot of people could do.  And I remember saying, “I’m not going to do this for less than 30,000 a year.”   That’s how naive i was.  And the starting salary was 45,000.  I was shocked that people were going to pay me that much to teach classes that I already knew how to teach.  So that was perfect for a while.  But I got sick of the drive to St. Cloud, and I didn’t want to be a professor.  Afterwards, I freelanced for a while, and Leah and I traveled, and then I freelanced some more and made Minnesota Playlist.  Then I took my current job as Communications Director at Pillsbury House.

L:  Why Minnesota Playlist?  What made you want to make it?

A:  Leah and I like having ideas.  And a lot of time we sit around thinking “what if.”   Leah doesn’t like to sit around and talk too much without just deciding to do something.  We both thought it would be cool, because it didn’t exist.  And we also thought it would be financially viable, because somebody had to play for classifieds on the site.  And we thought that money could justify the amount of time that we put into it, and that maybe it would be a good part time gig that would help us then do the art that we wanted to do.  Which all happened to be true...we just needed to be making more money with it than we were.  It was much harder to make Playlist for Leah, because she had to do computer programming, which she had done before, and she underestimated how much she despised it.  It was much more work than she anticipated.

 L:  Playlist cultivates a community of artists, and published performer profiles and classifieds for local theaters.  There’s a lot of conversation and writing about topics relevant to artists.  Can you talk about creating the community aspect?

A:  With Playlist, I thought we’d talk about topics relevant to artists and making work, and then change would happen.  And I still think it’s valuable to talk, and that it’s had a pretty positive effect on people- to be exposed to different ideas.  But, I think it depends where you are in your journey.  I’ve realized that some people really want to listen to other people, and a certain number of people are constantly going to say shit all the time.  And there are a good amount of people in the arts community, and maybe all communities, who are like that.  And I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like- WOW!  You really actually love to complain, you’re not about the solution.  And that’s just a fact.  And, the general sense of community doesn’t move the ball very much.  At some point, you just have to stop talking and do the work.  That’s where I’m at right now.  I’m at a point right now where I say let’s not talk about the work, at least when it comes to generally speaking about art.  You get to a place where you either do it, or you don’t.

L:  Something I’ve struggled with is trying to find stability as an artist-- a balance while juggling life and money-making and projects.  How do you do this?

A:  If you want a stable life, don’t be an artist.  The moment you say you care about something, and that you want to actually  do it well and you want to devote yourself to doing it well whatever it is, whether it’s starting a website or being good in your marriage or’s hard fucking work.   You can achieve a certain stability.  For instance, I can find places to produce my work relatively easily because people will not ask me for rent, they’ll just split a ticket price with me.  And I can get grants.  In this town, grants are like rain, you just have to know how to fill out the thing.  And I’ve developed a group of people that I collaborate with, and know how to set clear boundaries with them.  I’m pretty sure that none of this would have ever happened if I hadn’t spent the last 8 years in one place doing stuff.  Making something sustainable and’s just hard.  It doesn’t feel like that’s what you’re doing while you’re doing it.  When we built Minnesota Playlist, the first year and a half was so rough, that we doubted that it would work.  And, it wasn’t making enough money- and we weren’t sure if it was eventually going to.  Should I be a choreographer, or should I be a yoga instructor?  Every single one of these things, in order to be any good at it, if you have any standards whatsoever, is absurdly difficult at the beginning.  You’re just going to work your ass off in order to get it right- in order to create the potential to have a stable life.  You can’t know what’s going to work out.  People make lives in the arts here.  So, if you really want to be an artist, you might as well do that.  And if you don’t, you should do something else.  Because no matter what you do, it’s hard as fuck.

 [At which point, Ben joins the conversation.]

B:  Sticking around [the Twin Cities] seems to be a really great way to excel.

A:  Yes.  Because other people quit.  At a certain point, you’re the only one left.  But still, you’re still doing it because you’re good at it, and because you get some joy from it.

L:  You said to do the work.  Can you talk about that?  What’s challenging about that for you?

A:  I’m not good enough.  That’s what’s hard about it.  The work's not good enough.  And I don’t have enough time to make it better.  That’s the crime.  It would be better if I had more time.  So I used to get angry with trust fund kids, or people will connections to money or fame, which really helps.  And it’s not that these people aren’t talented- they are.  But, having the time that money buys you is really important.  I work a job right now, and apparently I’m good at it, but it takes every moment.  I’ve never worked so hard in my life.  So, I wish I had the time to dig into artistic things.  The more time you spend doing it, the better you get at it.

Candy Simmons and Randy Reyes in How To Cheat {photo by Aaron Fenster}

L: Why did you start Alan Berks & Company?

A:  I like to do certain things in a certain way.  I think you might as well put your name on it, and put it out there, and let people smack you around, because they’re going to smack you around regardless.  It’s possible that I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve gained some kind of credibility with the people who come to see my work.  So, saying Alan Berks & Company makes sense, without seeming too arrogant.  I just want to do some work that is mine, that I think is good, and I want to make it clear that it’s about company, whether that means it’s ensemble based, or work for actors, or collaborating with another designer.  Collaboration is my thing.  It’s a branding things, too- showing people where they can see my work.

L:  What do you want to do next?

A:  The particular experience of doing How To Cheat [recently produced at the Gremlin Theatre] and the response that it’s gotten as been really positive.  We’re selling tickets, people like it, and I love the collaborations I’ve established.  I’m definitely going to do something next year under this name, because I want to continue to build something over time.  I was listening to an interview with Doomtree, and they were talking about how they’ve been making music and collaborating for 10 years, and for the first while there were just 5 people at the show...then 10...and now they sell out shows at First Ave.  So, I’m working on that idea.  I want to do Six Characters In Search of An Author. Set in a reality tv show.

Weekend Acrobatics

December 13, 2011

I like performances that allow me to step into a fantasy world for a little while-- maybe a few minutes, or maybe for an evening.

Maybe this fantasy world involves pizza, a ukelele, unitards, a cardboard cloud formation, Joni Mitchell, and superhero poses. MAYBE.

Photo by Scott Pakudaitis

This past weekend I had a great time having a small role in my friend Eli's dance piece for the Zenon Dance Zone winter performance.  The Dance Zone is Zenon Dance School's performance group, which I participated for several years after college.  More recently, I was a visiting choreographer for the program.  Through the program you can take classes, dance in the work of local choreographers, make your own work-in-progress pieces, and then showcase it all at the end of the term!  The performance consisted of work from brand new choreographers, and also from very established ones.  Like Laurie Van Wieren.

Her piece "I Am Not Comfortable With The Acrobatics", performed by  Stephanie Stoumbelis, Eli Ebbenga, and Missa Kes, stole my heart.  It had me tearing up one moment and then laughing rather obnoxiously the next.   And, yes, Missa played These Boots Were Made For Walkin' on her ukelele while in tree pose.  And I wanted so badly to leave my seat and join their unitard-wearing clan, especially so I could share in their monologue on ass-less chaps.

What makes a good performance?  Attention to detail?  Sincerity?  A sense of humor?  {I think I like not knowing.}

The War of Art

December 10, 2011

I’m working on a grant application.  It doesn’t matter what it’s for, the process is the same: I agonize over work samples with a critical eye, and I battle insecurity as I attempt to articulate what I make and why.

Yesterday I was looking through video footage of my performance piece I Like You, which was produced last June.  Re-watching the work brought me right back to the stress of making it-- the stress of working with crunched time, of coordinating rehearsal schedules and space, of trying to think creatively, but being so anxiety-ridden that it felt almost impossible.  In fact, making that piece completely burned me out.  It was after this burn out that I started this blog to remember what I enjoyed doing outside of art-making, because it appeared that I didn’t know how to make performance in a way that wasn’t completely self-defeating.  You know, without becoming a total anxiety-ridden insomniac that’s battling a constant fear of failure while working on a piece, and without the steep and depressing crash that comes at the end of it all when I realize that hardly anyone saw it, that I’m- once again- in debt over it, and that now...despite the stress...I miss it.

I mean, doesn’t that sound like FUN?!?!  Doesn’t that sound sustainable?  Not really.

I know I’m not the only one who exists artistically in these ups and downs, because I’ve talked to dozens of others.  They are actors, musicians, writers, directors, and choreographers.  They are artists who get trapped in the world of comparison, who get bitter about casting and reviews.  Like me, they get worked up over audience sizes, the money they don’t get paid and the grants the missed out on, and the jobs they hold to support their artistic habit.

A lot of people tell me that these feelings and thoughts are just what go along with being an artist.  I hear the word “passionate” a lot, and words about artists being more prone to drastic emotional ups and downs, and lots of insistence that this is what makes artists good at making art.  And I want to call bullshit on this.  Because, I don’t think that this should be part of what it takes to make good art.  I don’t think that artists are doing anyone a favor by cultivating a style of living that leaves them bitter, jealous, depressed, and anxious.  It feels unnecessary; it feels a bit bipolar.  It eventually leaves us looking at our art like an abusive significant other, when we really have no one to blame but ourselves.

Last week Jen Scott told me about Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, and it’s follow-up book, Do The Work.  I just finished The War of Art, and I have to admit that it pretty much blew my mind and perfectly articulated why I have been unable to make artistic work in a sustainable manner.  And everyone should read it: it’s short, sweet, and applicable to any and all artistic pursuits and entrepreneurial ventures.  And, yes, it does look (and sound) a little self-help-y.  And, he might reference angels at a couple of points.  But, fuck it- maybe we could use some help.

Pressfield offers up a new framework for working as a creative person.  And, he starts with the thing that prevents us from making art in the first place: resistance.  The book starts with saying that to accomplish anything, we must fight resistance.  He most clearly defines resistance as self-sabotage; it is the part of ourselves that gets in our own way, seeks to rationalize our actions, and allows us to over-think our decisions.  Resistance prevents us all from doing the work that we want to do.

So, how do we combat resistance and do the work?

Pressfield writes about combating resistance by thinking like a professional.  He points out that we all know how to think like professionals, because we hold/have held jobs.  He says that a professional...

:: shows up everyday.

:: stays on the job all day.

:: works for money, not for fun.

:: doesn’t over-identify with their work.

:: is prepared to receive praise or blame at work.

What The War of Art then insists goes against what I’ve been taught about being an artist; he says that too much love [for your art] is a bad thing.  He advocates for adopting the attitude of a person who works for money.  And, I think this is pretty brilliant.  I think that when our art is the thing that we love the most and over-identify with, that we can’t find any perspective outside of it.  Suddenly, if the artistic career is going really well, WE are doing really well.  And, if it’s not, suddenly we’re suffering.  That’s a really scary thing considering that a great deal of the artists success is completely out of his or her hands.  All the artist can do is show up and do the work-- every single day.

The goal that The War of Art encourages us to work towards is not some kind of victory.  It isn’t a grant, a producer, a book deal, or a role at the Guthrie, although those things might happen along the way.  The goal is to handle yourself to the best of your abilities- to keep working regardless of fear, without over-thinking and with or without praise.  The goal is to stop thinking hierarchically- to stop thinking in terms of comparing ourselves to the artists around us, and to just do our own work for the work’s sake, rather than attempting to validate ourselves and our artistic calling.  And, that is really, really hard.  In fact, it feels almost impossible.

But I like it.  Because, it means committing myself to finding a sense of identity outside of being an artist, while I continue to make the work that I think is important.  And, it sets up a system of thinking that encourages me to support the work of others without being threatened and resentful of it.  It provides room for creative anxiety and pressure to dissipate, because I know that despite the fact that I will inevitably make shitty work alongside the good work, that I will keep making work regardless.

Obviously, it's really hard to perfect a mindset like this.  And, I think that it’s worth noting that looking at my work samples still made my hyperventilate with insecurity, even after reading the book.  Because, it's hard to get out of my own way.

What do you think?  Are you an artist who has found a sustainable way of working?  Do you think this book is full of shit?  Discuss.

Soup Season

December 7, 2011

I'm fairly good at budgeting lots of thing, but I struggle with the food end.  Food snobbery is dangerous, and so is the endless supply of new restaurants in town.  But, it's the holidays and I'm losing my job for the month of January (fun!), so I'm in budget lock-down mode.  That means we might be eating a lot of this soup, which would be ok by me.  We make a pot at the beginning of the week and eat it for days in a row.  You can serve it over rice.  Or make it with just beans.  Or garnish it with tortilla chips and sour cream.  Or you could probably add whatever odd pantry items you have around.  The spices can be adjusted, depending on what you have, but the clove and cumin are really delicious.

Southwestern Chili

Makes 10-12 servings.  (It's very easy to freeze, or you can halve the recipe)

5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 chili- serrano or jalapeno (optional), finely chopped

1 1/2-2 sliced onions

2 15 oz cans of beans (or more if you aren't using some other kind of protein-- I use kidney, pinto, or black beans...or a mix)

2 15 oz cans of corn

8-10 cups of water, veg stock, or chicken stock

1 pound  ground turkey, TVP, or diced chicken in small pieces

1 28oz can of diced tomatoes

1 t. cumin

3/4 t. clove (start with less if you're not sure how much you like)

3/4 t. paprika

3/4 t. smoked chili powder

salt & pepper to taste

1.  In a large soup pot over medium heat, saute together the garlic, onion, and pepper in some olive oil.  Wait until the onion is getting a tiny bit of brown (5-6 minutes).

3.  Add the ground turkey (or TVP or chicken), if you choose to (you can also nix the meat/TVP in favor of extra beans).  Sautee until the pink is out of the turkey (5-6 minutes).

4.  Add the tomatoes.  Stir.

5.  Add the first 6 cups of the water or stock.   You can always add more later.  Add the corn and beans.  Stir.

6.  Add more water or stock if you choose.

7.  Bring to a boil, and then let simmer for 20 minutes over low heat.  Add the seasonings to taste.

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