The Outlier Eye

As the one company member involved but not quite neck deep in this process (thanks, grad school), I have had the rare opportunity to visit rehearsals once a week as an outside eye. I'm also the one in the show without really being in it because I'll be running cues--for the first time ever--for An Homage to Whatshername from the booth. (I'm grateful to have Robin building the cue book and to pass on her stage management wisdom next week. I'll try not to screw it up since I only have one shot.) Being on the periphery of Almanac action has, in last year, made me miss the rehearsal room because there is so much momentum gathering in the rehearsal room and in the company. That said, keeping a foot in the door with involvement as a once-a-week visitor to the process showed the ways in which the company is able to rally behind a lead artist, which is a welcome process for our ensemble. I can't help but smile when I think of how the devising process went with Communitas in 2014 and to compare it to how smoothly the room is running in Whatshername. I am also incredibly proud of Almanac's commitment to devising original works and the track record over the last three years.

The third can't come soon enough so I can watch the show unfold and bloom in front of the audience at FringeArts.

-Lauren Harries

Yesterday was a disaster

right from the start. I walked in (late) to our dangerously short rehearsal preceding the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts staff show, and felt like something was off. Swiftly we worked and reworked the excerpt we'd decided to share, swapping Robin in for LJ's part, which Robin calmly took on -- quickly learning and practicing tricks she'd never done before.... surfing Ben up to two high on her back, catching Emmanuel and Cole as they fall backward into the group's arms from up high.....   It was clear to all of us we were working on borrowed time and yet we stubbornly pushed on. This is something we do well:: We challenge ourselves and we challenge each other.  Usually asking more than what feels safe or possible. Often inside pressure cookers of limited time.  And often we find, surprisingly, that we are actually capable.  With wide eyes and pumping blood we find our bodies doing things together we've never done before. 

So in some ways this flash rehearsal felt familiar.  Except, as audience members arrived, it became increasingly clear Joe was too sick to perform. His body, hit by a gastro-intestinal infection, was literally shutting down before my eyes.  He needed to lay down, see a doctor, drink water -- anything but perform an acrobatic dance.  So there we were, again reworking the piece, only now in darkness backstage with the rest of the show's performers, with few minutes to spare.  

I'll add here that catching a flying body is much harder with three people than with four, as one can imagine.  And, trying to do two peoples' jobs can get you punched in the face by a foot... which is exactly what happened to me.  So there I am, top of show, crouched in the darkness weeping silently.  My nose felt like it was broken and gushing blood (it wasn't... it is actually just bruised thankfully) as I ran through the newest changes in my head over and over.

Then, we were in it.  We were dancing, tumbling, lifting, falling gracefully. 

Until I felt Cole behind me actually fall off Emma's shoulders.

Until I saw her stand and test bearing weight on her right foot.

Until she whispered to me "I think I broke my foot" as she limped towards Ben to help Robin and I catch Emma.

Until the extra weight of Emma's torso on Cole was too much and he tipped towards the ground and rolled down instead of landing suspended in a basket of arms. 

We got off stage and catapulted into action.  Emma carried Cole to the car and all five of us went straight to the emergency room -- simultaneously laughing at this mess of a day while also praying nothing was broken and recounting all the ways we could have been better to each other.  

I'm SO happy to share that Cole's foot is NOT broken, just badly sprained.

Nevertheless, we were all viscerally reminded of our limits. We wondered, could this have been prevented? We could have communicated better about scheduling more rehearsal; we could have called it all off when Joe stepped out; we could have been more centered or let some elements of the piece go. But so much of what happened felt like a freak accident. Cole got hurt doing a trick with Emma that they hadn't just learned or taken someone's spot doing. It just happened.  

Last week, it just happened that Joe's mother's heart stopped. And the doctors and nurses really couldn't tell us why. Immense precaution and care have marked the last five months for Maggie and Joe, since he gave her one of his kidneys.  While she was sustained unconsciously by machines all week,  I found the diligent records she'd made of everything she had done and eaten and felt in her body since the successful transplant. Everything had been done to make her healthy. She had fought so hard and held on so tight to life. And still, somehow, now she is gone.

I am consumed by reflecting on what we can control and what we can't... what to hold onto with stubbornness and perserverance, and what's worth letting go for something bigger. My love and respect for my Almanac family entangles me in desire to both push boldly and take immense care. The boundaries of care and push can sometimes be blurry, and we're all still learning.

 

-Evelyn

I am no good at words

The first thought that popped into my head when Robin looked at me and said, “You have to write a blog post for Almanac”, was “I think I would rather do just about anything else”. 

I’m terrible at transforming a thought in my head to a word out of my mouth. 

I’m terrible at writing. 

And above all I am terrible at grammar. 

But then I had a second thought. 

I’m not sure it matters that I am an inadequate writer because how could I or anyone else ever put into words how incredibly special Almanac is as a family, as an ensemble, and as a home. 

How could I possibly boil down into words the feeling of unending support I feel from Almanac?

How do I write a few sentences about (literally) flipping backwards into the arms of your family. Not hesitating or questioning if they will be there to catch you?

How do I explain that I didn’t sleep for two nights and I feel lost and confused, but it all drifts away with a hug from Emma, a joke from Lauren, or a beautiful smile from Evelyn? 

How could I possibly tell our audience that in many ways Almanac saves me everyday? 

It is a true shame that I am not better at writing. 

Because if I could truly tell you how special Ben, Robin, Emma, Lauren, Joe, Evelyn, LoHa, Mark, and Nick are or if you could feel the love that I get to feel by being part of this group…I think your heart would would swell like mine does and there would be a lot more magic in the world.  

My blog is short… and I am not going ask anyone to edit this. 

I love you my acrobatic troupe, my weird ensemble, my idiots, my friends, my family. 

-Cole

First Draft of An Homage to Whatshername

There's a particular sticky patch I run into in every creation process I'm a part of -- especially those made from scratch. The first draft. Today we presented just such a draft of An Homage to Whatshername to a small audience of peers.

The first draft is exciting! It's the first time we get to feel in our muscles and tongues what the performance will feel like. Everything starts to become real. But it's also the moment when we feel how far we have to go. The first draft is like a first kiss -- nerve-wracking, exhilarating, clumsy. The second and third kisses may lose some of the magic, but they gain the softness and the attention and connection brought by experience.

As our audience settled onto the acrobatic crash mats we'd laid down as seating, we all milled about - using the bathroom, running a final few tricks that had gone less then perfectly in our last run, fidgeting and feeling like we were forgetting things. Finally we got going, and section by section we felt the gears clicking together for the first time.  With an audience's attention suddenly on the work I started to feel it changing. I became more aware of the moments when I felt lost onstage - why is this transition happening? Why is this what comes next? And the moments when it all clicks together and I hear the audience respond along with us as a moment unfolds.

I am struck at this moment, after having recieved feedback from the audience and debriefed on the sunny, gritty sidewalk outside of Rebel Circus Arts, that we have at once so little and so much to do. A show is built! We preformed it!  Yes, of course it will get better over the next few weeks but I am finally past the blank page terror of having a bunch of pieces that have never been strung together. But on the other hand, I see now how much more weaving there is to do to really push the themes we're exploring.  To know that this piece is doing something useful in the world. To know that it is doing so with precise and full-bodied choreography.

Here's to the second and third kisses to come, to all the drafts that will mark our continued relationship with this performance.

- Joe

IAMMADEOFSTARS

This past week we performed a new show called IAMMADEOFSTARS, and I can’t stop thinking about it. We were improvising acrobatics, and that’s a risk that takes a ton of trust, but that wasn’t what kept me up the nights leading up to the shows. We were playing in a satirical language where I slowly became less and less interested in the comedy.

There’s a version of IAMMADEOFSTARS that doesn’t approach the world of unabashedly weird performance art from the safe side of irony. We were allowed to perform without fear because we were commenting upon artists, rather than earnestly embodying art. I typically loathe commentary, and perversely, that was one of the targets of our satire: the rarefied and epistemological concept art that has over time become so wrapped up in itself that it ceases to connect to the world. If artists are only able to speak about the artistic process, or the function of art or its opposite, then we will mummify ourselves in a blanket of our own commentary. We will cease to be a living stream, connected in a flow of ideas from observation to analysis to synthesis to performance. And there we were, commenting on art. We were like a power strip plugged into itself, funny for its failure to function, but no less dead. 

There’s a version of IAMMADEOFSTARS that might could begin with a different goal: the goal of exultant beauty, of reflection without embarrassment, of generous performance that leads with vulnerability not as a fad flavor of art but because we hold central to our making process the ability to let every mask and armor fall in service to showing the audience the risk of being moved. 

On Saturday night, there was an improvised moment where Nicole ‘froze’ me, and spoke to me from behind. She said that it’s alright. That there’s no danger. That I can’t be harmed. That we’re safe here. It felt like encouragement to let go. It set my mind racing to this thought: this entire time, all nights of the show and most of my life as a performer, I have been talking a big talk about vulnerability but seldom letting myself be in a position where I might be moved to an unknown feeling, or seen in a way I wasn’t carefully controlling. 

Our joking was my armor, my need to be more aware than those strawmen artists whom we pilloried, pretending they might not just be me. I’m still afraid of making the show I really want to, the IAMMADEOFSTARS that braves the risk of being seen without the escape hatch of the thing I know I can do: humor. Communitas was close to this, a show that became humorous not through intentional comedy but because we can’t help but laugh when we see and understand. 

I feel like a coward because we found a backdoor into the uncensored potential of pure spontaneous creativity. The healthy way into a state of unselfconsciousness involves awareness: an acknowledging of our internal censor, the voice telling us that we're imposters, we're doomed, the idea is dumb, everyone will hate it, and choosing to pay no mind to that voice. Especially during improvisation, wherein impulse is primary and ensemble support is indispensable, we must let go of that hesitation. 

We got to ignore the censor by feigning ignorance, by playing blind and oblivious to any other possibility than our brilliance. Real artists must evade the censor with their eyes on it, defeating it through practice rather than ignoring it with mock confidence. 

So here's the curious horseshoe effect: the more we allowed ourselves to pretend we're in the midst of performing the most brilliant performance art in the history of the world, the more we opened the possibility that sections of what we made might be inspired and beautiful and worth holding seriously. We allowed ourselves the liberty of making without feeling the risk of showing something personal. I’m eager to try the real thing without to coy cheating towards it.

Harry Shearer said of the satire Spinal Tap, "The closer we dared to get to the real thing, the closer the real thing dared to get to us...it's like reality is calling our bluff at every step along the way." I want to call my own bluff and lay all my cards on the table.

One of the performance rules inside the show was: we may not smile. It's hilarious to see idiotic premises treated with self-seriousness, but it makes me wonder, what if we just made the show that we would make without a smile? What do I take seriously enough to believe in? Is there anything that fits that criterion? Or am I too much of a ceaseless trickster to behave with the reverent gravity we're sending up in IAMOS? I feel like an immature teenager, still trying to pretend that I’m too cool to care, then quietly going to the library to secretly look up the topics I’m too embarrassed to admit I’m into. So, what do I care about enough to make without irony?

There's fatherhood, maybe. There's the need for a constitutional amendment enshrining citizen funded elections. There's the sickness of white male privilege and its unpalatable but necessary cures. There’s enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life, and even buried in that sentence is the only theme that may be inescapable...

-Nick G

My weeks with the ALMANAC family

Today we share a guest blog post from Isabelle, a lovely young woman from Germany who has been helping us out in the rehearsal room and during performances for the past few months. Isabelle just graduated from High School, and while preparing to spend a volunteer year in Bolivia, is visiting family in Philadelphia. We are very lucky to have her!

My Weeks with the ALMANAC Family

Amazing. That was one of my first thoughts when I met the people behind ALMANAC and got to know their work ethic. I have only spent the past couple weeks with this amazing group, but there are various reasons they are just amazing and I want to share them with you.

Laughter. One of the really lovely things to see is all the laughter during rehearsals. I’ve noticed that they devote the majority of their time each day to the upcoming performances. However, there is always room for coming together, having a moment of rest, and laughing. They just genuinely enjoy their work and working with each other.

Merging. As you can probably imagine with all these different personalities, there are also plenty of ideas coming up to expand, improve, and change the existing performance. What’s great about ALMANAC is that every voice is equally heard and appreciated. By providing an environment where everyone can express their ideas, the final show that you’ll see is going to be a merging of all these people’s personalities and thoughts.

Acrobatics. I was amazed from day 1 what bodies are capable of doing. It is just stunning to watch them practice their stunts. Seeing the spark of an idea turn into a beautiful shape, which will astonish you. Not only have I watched them go through taxing floor acrobatics over and over again, but I also had the chance to see 6-people-pyramids and walks with one or even two people on their shoulders as if it were the easiest thing imaginable. The strength, agility, and motivation everyone brings to the rehearsals are part of why ALMANAC’s shapes are so intriguing to watch. They have a lot more to offer, but I don’t want to spoil the show. So if you want to get the full scope of what ALMANAC has to offer acrobatically, you should definitely check out the Fronteras performances at the beginning of May.

No. Not a word you will be hearing a lot. ALMANAC is like a small family built on trust. Consequently, no matter what you ask, you will very rarely hear a no.
Can you bring/buy me lunch during the break? – Sure.
Can I have your car? – Of course.
Can you climb onto the 10-12 foot high human pyramid? – Sure, I’ll try. 

Ambition. A lot of effort goes into the current projects, and it seems as if ALMANAC’s thoughts about the upcoming performances just circle around their heads 24/7. During these hours and hours of rehearsals, they always keep their goal in mind – creating an acrobatically convincing performance to convey their message. Day after day they improve their acrobatics as well as theatrical bits and pieces until they reach perfection. They don’t give up. They’ll continue to work on it and stay positive despite the exhaustion they might feel once in a while.

Creativity. To create a complete show it is a necessity to have creative people on your team. Here you have young, energetic people full of ideas and the need to express them. Everyone contributes to the project in their own unique way – through their professional experience, with a suggestion for an acrobatic shape to portray a specific theme, or maybe even a feeling they want to share with the audience. 

So don’t miss out on the stunning performance awaiting you in May. I sure won’t.

- Isabelle

Coming back around to blogging

The inefficiencies of the ensemble form constantly reveal themselves to its practitioners. Ever present and unavoidable, to commit to this form of governance/way of making work together is to uphold that inefficiency as a value. 

Habitually, we, as Almanac, stand before assembled groups of 100-500 elementary school students and, after thoroughly physically exerting ourselves, earnestly ask them to consider the question: "What can we do together that we can't do apart?" We asked this question at no fewer than seven separate assemblies this week, as we began a residency  in a consortium of public school west of Philadelphia, and as we brought the work of Fronteras to Puentes de Salud's after school program. 

Of all the things we could present as essential during our brief audience with the next generation, we choose to ask this question, not because the character values of teamwork, trust, and cooperation are almost universally stenciled on classroom walls, but because this question is truly is at the heart of our identity as an ensemble; it's what keeps us going and lends us a sense of purpose: if we didn't believe that more amazing, unexpected, and beautiful things could be created together, by solving problems together, by playing together, by organizing ourselves in a nonhierarchical way, then there would truly be no Almanac. 

And with that nonstructural comes a necessary embrace of the inefficiencies that the business world is constantly working to excise. That in itself can start to feel like an act of protest, or at least resistance, and that is not lost on me, personally, as I choose to continue to work in this messy and often stressful mode. 

 

One of the casualties of that inefficiency this Spring has been a lack of maintenance for this blog. I think from the outside, people may assume that Almanac is more well resourced than it is. But this Spring has been the busiest season ever for us, and even though there are more hands on deck than ever, there are more tasks than ever to complete, and some have fallen through the cracks.

 

To me, the Fronteras pieces are starting to reveal themselves as living at the intersection between the personal and the abstract — a border that maybe doesn’t often emerge, yet is one that is proving quite fruitful artistically. As we turn the corner from wide exploration into crafting, honing, and fine tuning these pieces, we will learn a lot from them. And we will need your help along the way. Please join us for works in progress showings, including next Friday, March 24th, at Valley Forge Middle School, of all places, where the first 30 minutes of one of these nascent pieces will be seen for the first time. And stay tuned right here for details about full-length works-in-progress showings for both pieces on April 12. We would love for you to help shape what these pieces become.

 

Ben

Day 15: Two Anecdotes

For english, see below!

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Quiero dedicar este espacio para compartir la interesante experiencia de ser un Mexicano en Estados Unidos de América (EUA) en un momento de tensión y hostilidad socio-política. Para esto me he de apoyar de dos anécdotas, que si bien se pueden parecer sucesos ingenuos, para mi representan el cómo, sin importar creencias o posturas políticas, nos aferramos a la idea de poner etiquetas que nos permiten identificar e identificarnos en una sociedad.

 

Primera anécdota, “Un sueño no americano”

Previo a la presentación de Lizzie, un musical al que Ben y yo fuimos a ver en el 11th Hour Theatre Company (Christ Church Neighborhood House), decidimos entrar a un bar a tomar una cerveza, había sido un día largo y necesitamos despejarnos. Al momento de estar ordenando nuestros tragos, uno de los consumidores del local se percató de que mi identificación no era de este país, por lo que gustó de entablar una conversación conmigo en un español, que honestamente era difícil de entender. Se realizaron las preguntas básicas de cualquier viajero (¿Como te llamas?, ¿De donde eres?, ¿Hace cuanto llegaste?, ¿Te gusta Philadelphia?). Al parecer esta persona era hijo de puertorriqueños que habían inmigrado cuando él era muy joven. Todo orientaba a una conversación promedio sin la mínima perspectiva a ser importante, es entonces que planteó su última pregunta, ¿Y porqué decidiste mudarte a este país? a lo que amablemente le hice saber que no era así, que mis intenciones eran las de estar con mis amigos y colaboradores solo por una corta temporada y que posteriormente regresaría a México. Me atrevo a decir que fue el final de la charla pues inmediatamente su actitud cambio, el hombre parecía un tanto confundido por mi respuesta, o quizá solo era que ya no tenía otra pregunta para hacer, como quiera que sea decidí despedirme y le desee una linda noche.

 

Estoy intrigado por el suceso ¿Porque creería que mi intención era venir a vivir a EUA? ¿Será la arraigada imagen de mexicano en busca del sueño americano? Son muchas las preguntas que me surgen de este encuentro, pero en vez de contestar, quiero dar la ventaja de la duda al tiempo y a la experiencia.

 

Segunda anécdota, “Un mexicano de verdad”

Pig Iron Benefit Show, Almanac está por subir a escenario a presentar una nueva pieza en la que se ha estado trabajando las últimas dos semanas. Para mi este es un día importante, ya que por primera vez compartía escenario con Joseph Ahmed, Lauren Johns y Mark Wong. Se escucha la voz del presentador, - “...y desde la ciudad de México…. con un mexicano de verdad.... ¡Almanac!...”- se escuchan los aplausos y la bulla de la gente. En ese momento un torbellino de emociones y pensamientos círculo por mi todo cuerpo, volteo a ver a mis compañeros que amablemente me sonríen. Realizamos nuestro número, una mezcla extraña de circo-danza-teatro, y como era de esperar después de tantos ensayos, todo salió perfecto. Después de la presentación el idioma español fluía por toda la instalación, desde camerinos hasta la sala principal, me di la oportunidad de creerme un elemento exótico en una noche especial.

 

Desconozco las cifras de migración latina a la ciudad de Filadelfia, pero se que hay una gran comunidad de hispanohablantes desarrollando arte, por lo que me ha causado mucha gracia el suceso. Por una parte experimente la inclusión a un grupo que no conocía en un lugar mayormente ajeno, por otra, el sentimiento de ser un extraño y de no pertenecer. De una forma muy sutil e ingenua se marcó la diferencia entre yo y todos los que estaban en ese lugar. Reconozco de dónde vengo, mi cultura, mis tradiciones y me siento orgulloso, pero al mismo tiempo me considero algo más que el significante de un país. Esa noche sentí como si me hubiesen robado la oportunidad de conocer a las personas y que me conocieran por lo que soy y no por mi nacionalidad.

 

Estados Unidos de América, al igual que México, está levantándose entre marchas y protestas en busca de un cambio por un mundo mejor, más unido y más humano. Pero creo que el verdadero cambio se tiene que realizar también en nuestras prácticas diarias y que aún nos falta mucho por caminar.

 

-Emmanuel-

-------------------------------------------------- English ------------------------------------------

 

I want to dedicate this space to sharing the interesting experience of being Mexican in the United States of America at a time of socio-political tension and hostility. For this I have to report two anecdotes, which, though they may seem trivial, for me represent how regardless of beliefs or political views, we still cling to the idea of putting labels that allow us to identify and identify ourselves in a society.

 

Anecdote 1, "A not american dream"

Before the show Lizzie, a musical that Ben and I went to see at the 11th Hour Theater Company (Christ Church Neighborhood House), we decided to go to a bar to have a beer – it had been a long day and we needed to relax. When ordering our drinks, one of the other customers of the place noticed that my identification wasn’t from this country, so he started a conversation with me in a Spanish. Honestly, his Spanish was difficult to understand. The basic questions of any traveler were asked (What is your name? Where are you from? When did you arrive? Do you like Philadelphia?). Apparently this person was the son of Puerto Ricans who had emigrated when he was a child. Everything pointed to this being an average, forgettable conversation, but then he raised his last question, “And why did you decide to move to this country?” I kindly let him know that I was not moving to USA, that my intentions were to be with my friends and collaborators only for a short season and I later would return to Mexico. I guess that ended the conversation because immediately his attitude changed, the man seemed a bit confused by my answer, or maybe it was just that he did not have any other question to ask.  I decided to say goodbye and good night.

 

I am intrigued by this event. Why would he believe that my intention was coming to live in the USA? Is it the ingrained image of Mexican in search of the American dream? There are many questions that arise from this meeting, but instead of answering, I want to reserve judgement so more time and experiences can happen.

 

Anecdote 2, "A real Mexican"

At the Pig Iron Benefit Show, Almanac was about to come on stage to present a new piece that we had been working the last two weeks. To me, it was an important day, because for the first time I shared the stage with my new friends Joseph Ahmed, Lauren Johns and Mark Wong. On stage, the presenter said, "... and from Mexico City .... with a real Mexican .... Almanac! ... ". We could hear the applause and the noise of people in the crowd at the Trocadero. At that moment, a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts circled my whole body, and I turned to see my colleagues who kindly smiled at me. We did our number, a strange mix of circus-dance-theater, and, as was expected after so many rehearsals, everything came out perfect. After the presentation the Spanish language flowed all over the place, from the dressing rooms to the main room, and I indulged myself in believing that I was an exotic element on a special night.

 

I do not know the figures of Latino migration to the city of Philadelphia, but I know that there is a big community of Spanish speakers developing art, which caused me a to have a lot of fun conversations about the piece. On one side, I could experience the inclusion in a group that I did not know in a place that is largely foreign, on the other side the feeling of being a stranger and not belonging. In a very subtle and ingenuous way the difference between myself and all those in that place was marked. I recognize where I come from, my culture, my traditions and I feel proud of them, but at the same time I consider myself as something more than the signifier of a country. That night I felt as if someone had robbed me of the opportunity to meet people and be known for who I am as an individual, and instead I was forced to meet them as representative for my nationality.

 

The United States of America, as well as Mexico, are rising between marches and protests in search of a change for a better, more united and more humane world. But I think that the real change has to be done also in our daily practices and we still have a long way to walk.

 

-Emmanuel-