About Me

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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Benefits of Twitter, Part 1

Last night, after seeing his wonderful show in the Philly Fringe, I went out for a drink with my friend Ben along with the rest of the cast and crew.

 "What's going on?" he asked me.  "I feel like most of our conversations these days are through Twitter."

"Most of my conversations in general are through Twitter," I joked. 

He laughed.  "I think that might say something about you you don't want to be said." 

"Twitter completely opened up my theater world," I said to him without hesitation, embarrassment, or hyperbole.  My friend Sarah, who was sitting with us, thought about it for a second.  "It's true," she said.  "It kind of did."

Ben is not the only person to have given me a hard time about using Twitter.  It seems like the (first) world is divided pretty squarely into people who are really into Twitter and people who are really not into Twitter.  "Ugh," my sisters scoffed when I went home for Christmas last December after I signed on to check my feed.  "I CANNOT BELIEVE you are on TWITTER." 

"It's for networking purposes ONLY!" I defended.

Although I've gotten increasingly more social in tone over the past year, my Twitter account was and remains specifically a tool to broaden and deepen my community as a theater artist.  It's worked surprisingly, spectacularly well.  Go ahead, challenge me on it.  I will sing my love of Twitter to the rafters every. damn. time.

It's a bit reductive to say, "it's not what you know, it's who you know" about making theater in New York, but you learn pretty quickly that it's damn near impossible to do without a strong and supportive network of people whom you can draw on for resources. Finding actors, designers and technicians, getting connected to rehearsal and performance space, borrowing props and costumes,  securing financial support, simply seeking experience and advice, finding a person or company to produce your project, or evening finding the project ITSELF - none of this can get done without a group of people who like you or your work and are invested in your success.

Five years ago, as a cripplingly shy girl who found it difficult just to tell a stranger I enjoyed their show without my heart sort of leaping into my throat, building such a community was difficult.  I sucked it up, bit the bullet, pressed on and eventually got a lot more adept at socializing with strangers, but networking has never been my strong suit.  I've always been looking for new ways to make connections, get involved, and my foray into the theatrical interwebs started as just that - another idea. 

"I've been thinking about starting a blog," I said to a friend off-handedly.  "I think it might, you know, widen my community.  I'm thinking it would be a good way to talk to people I wouldn't normally meet.  And I write a lot better than I speak.  I'm way more articulate."  Plus, I had been moderately aware of the community since the marketing director at Women's Project had asked during me my internship to compile a list of New York theater bloggers for a "grassroots campaign."  I knew for a fact that there were a lot of interesting playwrights and producers writing worth reading and talking to.  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized it was a really, really good idea.

So I did it.  Right away, I started feeling the benefits.  I found I really loved learning about arts, culture, politics and current events through the lenses of people who worked and thought and created like me.  I found dozens of exciting and engaging blogs like Parabasis, CultureFuture, On Theater and Politics, Jamespeak, and of course, 2AM Theatre.  I also found that it kept me thoughtful and engaged and gave me a sense of creative purpose to write on a regular basis.

Except nobody was really reading my blog, except my dad, who to this day I believe remains its biggest fan.  I emailed a friend of mine who had a very successful blog and asked her how to get people to read it.  She emailed me a pretty awesome list of things to do (which, with her permission, maybe I'll post if anybody's interested?) the most salient of which seemed to be Join Twitter.

I resisted.  I did not DO Twitter, I did not UNDERSTAND Twitter, I did not LIKE Twitter.  But saw her reasoning and opened an account.  It took me a long, long time to figure it out.  I remember messaging a friend of mine who was already an avid Twitter-user in extreme frustration, "Can you PLEASE explain to me how a hashtag works???"

I remember I agonized about my first tweet.  What the hell was I supposed to say?  What did I have to say that was important enough or interesting enough to "tweet" it? 

I later realized that the answer to that question is nothing, which is at once the beauty and the terror of the 140-character limit.  Every once in a while, something really profound or worthwhile can emerge, but generally speaking, there is very little one can say in 140 characters that is of any substance whatsoever, or that makes any sense on its own, as an isolated piece of information.  The result, on the negative side, is that Twitter becomes a dumping ground for all manner of inanity that would best remain unsaid.

The cool part of it, though, is that it creates this culture, this environment of not having to think too hard about what you have to say, and all of these random ideas, responses, jokes, and revelations all get released into this big communal cloud of stream-of-consciousness. The worth lies not in the singular but in the collective.  It's not about any one specific person, or one specific tweet, it's about easy, dynamic exchange of thoughts as they appear and are shared publicly.  It becomes about the conversation.

I became immediately obsessed and in love with that conversation.  I followed my favorite blog, 2amt, to the concurrent dialogue on Twitter, even though I had absolutely no clue what a hashtag conversation meant.  The idea of an engaging and supportive community conducted digitally across time and space has never been so fully realized as it has been by 2amt.  I was welcomed with open virtual arms for the simple and undiscriminating reason that I was smart enough to learn to type the characters #2amt before I pressed the button that said "Tweet." 

Through 2amt I met more and more people, and my virtual community began to both expand and deepen.  The experience made me realize that there was a whole facet of this whole "networking" thing that I hadn't understood and had been sorely missing these five years that I've spent in New York: a network that is not just a source of knowledge and support, but a source inspiration.  A group of people whose ideas excite you, and whose questions challenge you.  A group that gets you constantly thinking about the work that you really want to do, because you're constantly seeing and hearing about the kind of work that you really want to do.  It's not enough, I realized, to have a support base of people who want you to do your work, you need to have a support base who make you want to do your work.  These people, these challenging, engaging, inspiring people, I found on Twitter, of all places.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Harlem Grey Gardens

Our downstairs neighbors are gone. Evicted -- I saw the notice go up on their door at the beginning of August, and now, at the beginning of September, they have long disappeared.

I've been meaning to write about their departure since I saw the eviction notice go up, but every time I try to piece together the significance of their going, how sad and strange it is that they should go now of all times, I come up a bit short.

To understand how much their presence marked the time Sarah and I spent in this little apartment, I have to go all the way back to the beginning, to when we first moved in. We become aware of the two women, a mother and a daughter, who lived directly below us almost immediately; they didn't make themselves easy to miss. They babbled and muttered to themselves on the stairs. They averted eye contact when we saw them, or sometimes simply had that bleary look of someone whose vision is not in this plane of space and time. They dressed in dirty, disheveled clothing, the mother's immense dinnerplate glasses permanently skewed across her face. They cursed at us under their breath as we passed them.

In our first few months in the place, we were plagued by a number of pestilences. Mice, bugs, and, most troubling to me, a weird, unpleasant smell that drifted through the pipes. The super blamed them all on the women downstairs. "Their apartment is filthy," he told me. "And they won't let nobody in to clean it." More gossip floated in over the next few months: They lived in complete squalor; the apartment hadn't been cleaned or renovated in years; they had four big dogs that they didn't walk enough and the apartment was covered in newspaper and shit. When people knocked on the door, they never answered.

It's hard to separate the truth from the myth, but I will say that once their door was left open long enough to get a peek inside.  I didn't look squalorous, it looked abandoned.  Wrecked.  It looked like the gutted out remains of a crumbling building before it's completely rebuilt.

Sometimes Sarah and I speculated on the two ladies who were the apparent source of all our apartment problems. Sometimes we swapped unbelievable stories. Once, I ran into one of them rounding a corner and she took a swing in surprise. Once, Sarah let her pass on stairs, ushering her through with a friendly, "go ahead," to which the woman responded, "Don't f*cking tell me what to do, f*ck you."

They were frustrating and tiresome, but mostly just a joke or a crazy anecdote. We called them "Harlem Grey Gardens," a name that fit even more aptly when a neighbor told me the daughter once sang at the Apollo and had been booed offstage. Then in the fall of that year, Sarah again ran into the same woman, the daughter, on the stairs, only this time she not only swung, but made contact, hitting Sarah a couple of times in the head before Sarah could get away. Then they became scary.

We called the company that at the time managed the building, and thus began a several-year-long oddessey of us asking them what they intended to do about the violently disturbed neighbors downstairs and them doing the management company equivalent of shrugging and sighing and avoiding our questions. They told us to file a police report, which we did - now what? They told us to file a police report if we had another altercation with them, which we did - now what? They eventually handed us off to a lawyer who would periodically email us about upcoming hearings that went nowhere and accomplished nothing, guardians supposedly assigned by the state who changed nothing, and would occasionally ask us to be available to "testify" in some hearing or another, but would never follow through.

I went through a very fearful period, as I know Sarah did as well. The daughter, whose name was Denise (we learned a lot about the women in this time - the daughter was Denise, the mother was June and while both seemed deeply unstable, only the daughter appeared to be violent) never hit either or us again, but she did try to attack Sarah once or twice more but both times Sarah screamed at her so loudly she retreated. And she chased me down the stairs a number of times, issuing curses and threats the entire time. It was during this time that I held my breath every time I walked past her door, avoided unnecessary trips up and down the stairs, was afraid to do laundry because of the noise I made dragging my laundry bag.

Eventually, things died down. The daughter stopped accosting Sarah in the hall. Although she would occasionally open the door and hiss as I walked by, she stopped chasing me down the stairs. Sarah speculated that she had been "off her meds" when she had attacked her - it would explain the relative peace after that brief, violent period.

We stopped contacting the lawyer. We both got tired. And I, for my part, decided that I didn't want to have a hand in their eviction. I saw a legal document once that stated their rent, which was $125 per month, all of which paid, no doubt, with some kind of government aid as they clearly had neither jobs nor anybody taking care of them. If they lost this apartment, I doubted their ability to find a new place to live. This is how homeless people are made, I thought to myself.

Things eventually assumed a state of normalcy, although their presence was never really forgotten. The ownership of the apartment building changed hands, but the new management company seemed as impotent as the last on this issue. The women would still occasionally issue threats as I passed their door, I'd ignore them. Sometimes they'd bang on their ceiling - our floor - when they felt we were being too noisy, but sometimes they'd bang on their ceiling when I was sitting quietly on the couch so I ignored that too. I never really stopped holding my breath as I passed their door, never stopped feeling my heart beat in my throat when I heard steps approaching me on the stairs, thinking, is it her? Never stopped idly wondering if someday she'd snap and lunge at me from her door with a kitchen knife or a frying pan.

It's kind of hard to wrap my head around the fact that I know the answer now. No. No, no she'll never snap and come at me with a frying pan because she's gone. I still hold my breath walking past her door and then remind myself I don't have to. And I even start a little when I hear someone on the stairs of a different building.

And it's bizarre, almost confusing, that these women - these women who have so defined my time in this apartment and thus my time in New York City are leaving now, now of all times. When Sarah and I are both vacating the apartment, and my time in New York is coming to a permanent close. It makes things feel frighteningly final, like it's not just me leaving, a whole world is shutting off.

The good news is, I hear they're moving somewhere in the Bronx, not to the street. Sarah ran into our new landlord in the hall, and he told her the story. But it's still a little sad, I think. Sarah also learned from the landlord that both the mother and the daughter are in fact diagnosed with schizophrenia, so I hope this means someone actually is looking out for them, that they'll be taken care of the way the need to be. I hope they do okay in the Bronx, or wherever they land.