on professional polyamory, sincere storytelling, and being a mess...

May 26, 2013 / by Lian Walden

(this is probably the longest blog post I will ever write. turns out I had some decompressing to do!)

I spent the first half of Professionals Week feeling overwhelmed, the second half feeling enlivened. I believe the turning point was the epically and unexpectedly cathartic lunch with Momma Bear Shanks
during which I fell madly in love with the nine other fellows and thereby became an official champion of (purely professional) polyamory. I am very grateful to Gabriel for creating a space for us to see and hear one another and to express ourselves “off the record” without the pressure to finesse and impress with a pre-packaged spiel.

A mentor of mine once warned me that as a director I would get asked time and again to put myself in a box; to define and confine myself and my capabilities according to a narrow set of interests and experiences. And yet directors are by nature multifaceted beings with diverse passions and skill-sets that don’t always cohere into a neat professional byline. (This is my self aggrandizing way of saying that we all have varying degrees of AD-hey, what’s that? :) During the week, many of us were troubled to realize how quick the industry is to typify artists and how little control we have over the label we’re given.

I have often struggled to integrate what I feel are my conflicting identities as an artist and an individual: within me lies an ambitious scholar and a Latin American hippy; a career-driven New Yorker and a community-oriented Californian; a hunger for Broadway and a yearning to make theater in a barn; a desire to root and an insatiable wanderlust; a city girl and a nature-lover; a cynic and a Burner…and yet these are all stories I tell myself to derive some cohesion from the particular chaos of my existence (it seems apropos to mention here that throughout the week, six of my nine colleagues found occasion to exclaim to me, “You’re a mess!”, not knowing that I’d already been told the same by another fellow; that’s a story I’m beginning to identify with as well).

My unwarranted identity crisis hinges on the misassumption that these multiples selves, interests, and desires are incompatible, but recently I have been seeking harmony in contradiction. The filmmaker Shekhar Kapur speaks about this concept: “It’s the effect of looking for harmony in contradiction that exists in a poet’s mind, that exists in a storyteller’s mind.” During that epic lunch, I discovered in my colleagues some beautiful contradictions that hadn’t quite revealed themselves in the short bios we’d tired of hearing each other recite. “I appear rational, put together, and in control, but the emotional well runs deep,” said one. “I love directing plays, it’s what I’ve been doing, but I kind of want to make theater on farms or along the Mississippi River; I think I’m actually a big hippy!” said another. “My brand as the artistic director of this company does not quite reflect my sensibilities as a director,” said a third. “I WANT TO MAKE DIVERSE FORMS OF THEATER,” said a Romanian accent.

Amidst these contradictions was spectacular clarity of artistic intention. Yet the contradictions themselves are what affirm my faith in my colleagues’ capacities as storytellers. As we continue to discover, develop, and define our artistic identities, I think it’s important to nurture these contradictions because they make us better and more honest storytellers. The shows we saw that I disliked were resigned to resolution from the outset; they were neat and safe and unprovocative, and it saddened me that audiences so readily devoured such pandering. To paraphrase my man Kapur, the telling of a story is the acceptance of contradiction, not resolution. “Harmony is the suggestion of a thing that is much larger than resolution. Harmony is the suggestion of something that is embracing and universal and of eternity and of the moment.” Hot dang, that’s the kind of theater I’m after, and at this moment I feel particularly emboldened in my pursuit.

A year ago I was living in a vintage VW van getting ready to travel from Buenos Aires to Caracas and back again before a capoeira injury sent me back to the States. Divine intervention. A few months ago I was learning what it means to fail, helming a project that got out of hand. Tomorrow I head to Ithaca, where I can only imagine the kind of harmonic hurdles that lie ahead. Stephanie, the artistic director of the Hangar Theater, encouraged us to make an artistic mess this summer. I don’t believe I’ll let her down!

I am so grateful. Grateful to be back in New York after eight years away from my home state. Grateful for the meaningful connections I made with some of the other fellows, which I hope will be lasting. Grateful for the opportunity for artistic growth and creative rigor that awaits me this summer. Grateful to have the Drama League’s support at exactly this juncture in my career. And grateful for all the free champagne I guzzled during Professionals Week…I’m still feeling bubbly.

Since I’m blogging like a pretentious fool, I might as well include a pretentious (but pertinent!) quote:

Art is a mystery.
A mystery is something immeasurable.
In so far as every child and woman and man may be immeasurable, art is the mystery of every man and woman and child. In so far as a human being is an artist, skies and mountains and oceans and thunderbolts and butterflies are immeasurable; and art is every mystery of nature. Nothing measurable can be alive; nothing which is not alive can be art; nothing which cannot be art is true: and everything untrue doesn’t matter a very good God damn…
— e. e. cummings