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Living the Life Creative (in NYC)

I grew up in the sort of home in which I was told that I was ‘creative’ from a very early age. My drawings and stories and poems were praised and treasured. I recently sorted through boxes of them in my mother’s house and scanned some of the more impressive works. As an example of my early work, I think this drawing really speaks for itself. Note that my teacher marked it ‘Excellent!’

Scan Jun 10, 2019 at 3.02 PM

The idea of myself as a creative person is so integral to my sense of self that it has often shaped my choices as an adult. In my twenties I scorned jobs that did not engage me creatively. I moved away from the field of law because it seemed dry and boring. When I discovered the colorful madness of ‘underground’ New York I was thrilled and dove in as quickly as possible. In the midst of attaching paper flowers to the ceiling of a loft with fishing wire, I was swept away by the beauty of imagination in action. This article in the New York Times featured the woman I was working for at that time, and it perfectly sums up the ethos and magic of that community.

“a tight-knit community of makers and performers, who share resources — from bolts of fabric and guest lists to manpower — and some ideologies, the most urgent of which is a do-it-yourself mentality that defines a good time not as passive entertainment but as a participatory event.”

It was after a year of living the life creative that the financial pressures of reality began to intrude on the world of imagination. I am privileged to have parents who can and often have supplemented my income. I was able to indulge in this fantasy far longer than most people would be able to, but I did eventually feel compelled to move in the direction of a more reliable form of income. Many creative people make it work without family help. They hustle much more than I did. Maybe some of those creatives are also more creative, more talented, better at marketing themselves, more connected. There is a whole world of people who make a living through performance, event production, lighting design, directing, and many other creative pursuits. At that point in my life I lacked the confidence to believe I could be one of them. I went back to school. I tried to be a first grade teacher. I did not succeed. I worked for years as a full-time nanny, a role that certainly involved creativity, but was not connected to a larger community.

When I chose to once again pursue a creative career I did so from a more adult perspective. I networked. I sought opportunity everywhere. I did big jobs and small ones. I had side hustles. I was always looking for my next project. I built my digital rolodex of producers, performers, venues… I joined groups. I reached out to people I admired. I had some marvelous successes. I created things that I loved and that other people loved. You can see lots of information about my work on my portfolio site. This image, of Ms. Tickle performing at one of my History of Burlesque events, fills me with pride.


I was truly engaging my imagination. I was living the life creative. There were moments that were  spectacular, but the truth beneath my self-promotion was that I was drained and deeply unhappy. The financial pressures were overwhelming. There wasn’t enough work and it didn’t pay enough money. Every moment was taken up with anxiety. When I landed a dream gig I found that although it took up all of my time and energy it only paid two thirds of the amount I was paid as a full-time nanny. I loved working with creative people and I loved defining myself as one of them, but I was also digging myself a hole of debt that I couldn’t get myself out of and becoming more and more unhappy every day.

A month ago I took a job at a start up. It is not a creative role. I have difficulty even admitting to people I have worked with in the event production world that I am doing such a job. It seems like a way of saying I have given up, that I am not creative after all. The stability of a job with a good paycheck, benefits, and a 9-6 schedule in an office, is marvelous. My friends tell me I seem healthier than I have in years. I fear that I don’t know how to define myself if I am not working creatively. My mother tells me I will of course always be creative, but the attribute seems meaningless without the output. I couldn’t sustain the life creative. Perhaps I will return to it again in some more stable future. I wish that I could value myself more in this new role, as a stable adult who rarely finds glitter stuck in odd places. I am hoping that being able to define myself as happy will compensate for the loss.

New York doesn’t love me back.

I love New York. Some of my earliest memories are set in the Greek and Roman section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, running past noseless busts on my way to the food court. New York is full of opportunities, but they will never be handed to you. New York requires that you take what you want, not wait for it to be freely given. I have now lived in this city for fourteen years and some of my friends who have been with me for much of that time are starting to leave. Each person who says that it’s too hard, too expensive, too exhausting to live in NYC, makes it that much harder to argue that it’s all worthwhile. Like most things I think it’s all about the spin. This is the same story written twice, but with different spin.

I woke up late, sweaty and exhausted. My window air conditioning unit kept my bedroom at a barely tolerable temperature. Wrestling with elastic I managed to clothe myself sufficiently for spin class. I packed a change of clothes and other essentials and rushed out the door. The heat hit me in a wave of sticky air; it felt like I was swimming in muck. I practically ran to the subway station and then waited with growing frustration as the ETA changed from 5 minutes to 6 minutes to 8 minutes to 7 minutes, at which point I stopped watching the screen and tried to become absorbed in my book. The train finally arrived. “This is 4 train running on the 3 line to Atlantic Terminal, then we will be on the 4 line, we will be on the 6 line in Manhattan.” There was muttering among the passengers but no one looked particularly concerned; we all lived in Brooklyn and the weekend changes were generally taken in stride. The train car was at least 20 degrees colder than the station. I had failed to bring a sweater, a rookie mistake, and sat shivering miserably, continuing my attempt to become absorbed in my book. A few stations later a mother boarded with a screaming baby. The screaming seemed to fill the entire space. The world became full of screaming. There was nothing but screaming. The train stopped between stations in the tunnel. “We are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us.” A few passengers risked glancing at the baby. The mother seemed much less concerned than we were and was in fact playing Candy Crush on her phone. “We will be moving shortly.” The train lurched into motion. The baby, momentarily startled, stopped crying. Everyone held their breath. We reached the following station and the mother and child disembarked. Our breaths were released. I got off at Union Square only seven minutes before my class, which was eight blocks away. The Green Market was open and hundreds of people, strolling and browsing vegetables, blocked my path. I ran frantically, weaving between strollers and push carts. I reached the studio just in time. I clipped into my bike and prepared myself for the ride.

My alarm roused me from an unpleasant dream involving traffic jams. The room was cool and dark. I walked into my living room, blinking in the bright sunlight that came through my east facing windows. Once I was dressed for spin class and packed for the day I hurried outside. My block was bright and colorful, with huge sycamores casting shade on the kids playing on the sidewalk. My nearest subway station was only a few blocks away and my line already had the digital displays showing the train’s ETA. The train moved slowly but I ignored the announcements and focused on my book. It was chilly in the train car, a welcome change from the heat and humidity of the station. After a few stations a mother and her screaming baby boarded the train. I exchanged glances with an older woman across from me. I could tell that we both felt annoyed but also amused by the absurd picture of the mother playing Candy Crush while her baby cried. The train stopped between stations. “We will be moving shortly.” The train jolted forward and the baby, momentarily startled, stopped crying. The woman and I both broke into laughter, which we attempted to stifle when the mother looked our way. She got off at the next station. I left the train at Union Square and raced up into the Green Market. The smell of strawberries was almost impossible to ignore but I had seven minutes to run eight blocks. I tried to take in the array of colors and smells as I wove through the crowd. Despite a few near collisions I made it to class, clipped in, and was ready to ride.

Every moment of life in NYC has to be spun, but I tend to think that’s true of any place. It is always possible to find the place you live exhausting and overpriced and lacking in something fundamental. Or your environment can be full of connection and beauty. I choose to be a New Yorker.

Touring New York

Recently I entertained a guest from Israel who works as a tour guide. We discussed at length how a tour guide can shape your understanding of a place, and this prompted me to explore the tour options that exist in New York. Since this is New York, there are a range of marvelous options, which can be perfect for both residents and their guests.

Levy’s Unique New York packages their ‘unique’ tours around specific themes and eras of history. They ran the first tour I ever took in NYC, a walking and eating tour of the L.E.S. focusing on the Jewish history of the neighborhood. I remember dill pickles and bialys. It was an exciting glimpse into the world my grandmother grew up in, years before I discovered the Tenement Museum. Since then I have attended several of the tours they’ve done in conjunction with The Strand, including a fabulous tour of the village, which they titled “Bohemians and Beats of Greenwich Village Literary Tour.” The guide, one of the Levy brothers, managed to find remnants of generations of artists, writers and musicians, within the highly sterilized environs of NYU. It was exciting to hear about all the madness that had once taken place on the streets where I was a college student. I particularly enjoyed a story about a wild party in the room on the top of Washington Arch. Thanks to Marcel Duchamp et al. you won’t be getting up there anytime soon, but Gothamist was granted a private tour and their pictures are stunning. Here’s one from the top.

View from the top of the Washington Arch, (Evan Bindelglass / Gothamist)

View from the top of the Washington Arch, (Evan Bindelglass / Gothamist)

For those of us without press credentials, our access to the hidden spaces in NYC is limited to the weekend of Open House New York, which is coming up very soon. They’ll be announcing the list of spaces on October 6th and preregistration will be open on the 7th. This is a very exciting opportunity to look inside some of the amazing buildings that are usually closed to the public. In some cases you will have guidance, and in other cases just an open door. This video gives you a taste of the positive (gorgeous spaces!) and the negative (long lines!) aspects of this annual event.

In addition to the always entertaining Levy brothers, I have noticed an uptick in the number of tours that seem to be aimed at residents, rather than tourists. I have tickets for one upcoming tour being run by the Obscura Society. They have titled the tour “Into the Veil: An After Dark Exploration of the Green-Wood Cemetery.” From what I can tell based on the description, this is somewhere between immersive theater and historical tour.

Where Green-Wood’s Gothic arch rises above Brooklyn there exists a portal between the land of the living and the realm of the dead. Since the 19th century, that brownstone gate has represented the connection between those two spaces. On this special autumn evening, cross that portal and join Green-Wood and Atlas Obscura for a night of exploration and discovery. Attendees will make their own ways, on their own unique adventures, weaving together stories from the 560,000 lives interred across Green-Wood’s historic 478 acres.

Navigating below the silhouettes of thousands of starlit trees, curiosity will lead you through winding pathways, revealing hidden spaces of music, history, and experience. Music performances, readings, stargazing, and other activities will unfold over the course of the night, and each attendee will choose where their own night will lead.

Just as Green-Wood was designed as a place for Victorian New Yorkers to step between the veil of life and the afterlife, so too will modern visitors transport into a liminal space where the city’s past and present meet.

Another great choice for New Yorkers and tourists alike are Other World Tours. I loved their tour of Lower Manhattan. I learned many fun facts but my favorite story involved the fence around Bowling Green Park. It was originally erected to protect at statue of the king before the revolution. Afterwards not only did they remove the statue but they all hacked the crowns off the fence posts. The fence that is currently standing is the original, and you can still feel that the posts are uneven because the crowns were hacked off by revolutionaries. Next time you’re downtown cop a feel of those posts.

Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan

Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan

My favorite Israeli tour guide tells me that a big part of his job is creating ‘magical moments’ that help the people on his tour feel connected to Israel. While I’m not certain that there are tour guides in New York who have that goal when it comes to tourists, I think many of the tours aimed at New Yorkers are very much about helping us to find the magic in our normal surroundings. We live in a city with many layers of history, numerous fascinating stories and interwoven lives; the magic is there just under the surface.


Interactive/Immersive Theater

When Sleep No More opened in 2011 it presented New Yorkers with a new kind of theater experience, one in which we were expected to interact with the characters and the set, to build our own story, to choose our own adventure. I remember when I first visited the McKittrick Hotel I was baffled by the lack of dialogue and confused by the labyrinthian set. I felt like the piece failed to truly tell the story of Macbeth and I missed the familiarity of the dialogue. At the same time I was fascinated by the layers of detail evident in all aspects of the sets. I remember riffling through file cabinets in the psychiatrist’s office and finding hundreds of detailed case files. At times some of the rooms felt crowded and towards the end I wished we could sit down to watch the final dramatic death scene. Perhaps the most brilliant innovation by the theater company Punchdrunk were the masks. All audience members wear masks and this somehow makes the audience into part of the set; looking around you stop seeing the other audience members, they blend into the scenery. This gives each audience member the strange feeling that they are alone, that they are the only person watching this drama unfold. I loved that feeling. I remember it made me feel much more part of the play, and though this could be a frightening feeling it was also very exciting.

Photo of Sleep No More, borrowed from i-docs.org

Photo of Sleep No More, borrowed from i-docs.org

In the years since the opening I have heard many of my friends relate their experiences at the McKittrick Hotel. There has been a proliferation of guides to the show, which give you details on which characters to follow to witness certain key scenes. Some of my friends have gone multiple times so as to see the whole play from each possible perspective. I think the impossibility of doing this in a single visit is a real weakness for this sort of immersive theater. I think we are all burdened as audience members with a deep fear of missing out, something we do not usually cope with when it comes to theater. The fact that each member of the audience will have their own unique experience can also be positive- your experience is special. As immersive/interactive/exploratory theater goes I think Sleep No More remains the gold standard. The sets are exquisitely detailed and fun to play with; the acting is professional and the choreography beautiful. All this comes with a price tag- $120 per person, including no food or drink, but you can see where your money is going.

I have recently attended two other theater pieces that fit into the immersive/interactive category. Both had some of the same problems as Sleep No More and some of the same successes. Queen of the Night aims to be a very sexy sort of interactive theater. The actors flirt and touch and place audience members at the center of sexy dances. Plot is almost nonexistent in this piece but all of the circus performances are stunning. Their promo video gives you only a brief glimpse of the amazing tricks being performed on stage, and sometimes even on your table, but it does give you a taste for the atmosphere.

In this case individual experiences can be extremely different. My closest interaction with a performer was when one of them performed a sexy dance behind me while I watched, as instructed, via a fragment of mirror. On the other hand one of my friends was taken under the stage for a blind date with another audience member, moderated by several performers. Another friend was passionately kissed at the table just before dinner. The strangest experience I’ve heard of was that of an acquaintance who was taken back stage and directed to take a milk bath in a giant claw foot tub (she complied of course). This range of possible adventures is tantalizing but can also lead to the aforementioned fear of missing out. Your individual adventure, with or without milk bath, will cost you $150 per person, including decadent but somewhat DIY food and drink. In contrast I have seen similarly amazing acrobatics performed by Company XIV for lesser sums, but the performers stayed onstage and I stayed in my seat.

The second interactive/immersive piece I saw recently was Cynthia Von Buhler’s latest creation, Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic. This lavish bit of performance tells the story of the death of Olive Thomas in Paris in 1920. The audience follows the cast from one set to another, witnessing (if you manage to follow along) the death scene performed in three different ways, leaving you to wonder which was the true version. The actors stay in character throughout the evening and you are encouraged to talk with them and try to glean more information about the mystery of Olive’s death. The sets are very lovely but less immersive than those of Sleep No More. There are wires and stage lights that break the spell a bit. The dance numbers are fun and the amazing aerial performance hanging from the chandelier is spectacular, but there are no acrobatics equal to those performed at Queen of the Night.

Dancers hanging from the chandelier at Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic

Dancers hanging from the chandelier at Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic

In this case the audience was encouraged but not required to dress up for the occasion. My friends and I were there in full flapper regalia but many of the audience members were not, which I found a bit distracting. In fact I found myself wishing we had masks or that costumes were required, so that I would feel more immersed in the world of the 1920s. This is a real problem for this sort of show; how do you make the audience feel like they are part of the show if they’re not willing to dress the part? If you require costumes how much of your audience will you lose? The ticket price here was a bit lower, $75 per person, but included no food or drink. Would it be impossible to sell tickets at that price if it was necessary to dress up? Queen of the Night requires ‘festive clothing’ and that seems to be no deterrent. Perhaps the creator wanted this to be more casual fun?

The idea that theater can be immersive and interactive is exciting and I’m looking forward to seeing more shows of this variety. I am hopeful that future productions will learn more from their predecessors and make conscious decisions about how to handle the fear of missing out and the need for the audience to look the part. What experiences have you had with this form of theater? How do you believe it can be improved?

Circus in New York

In most places circus means one of two things; one involves elephants and clowns and the other is called Cirque du Soleil. In NYC the genre of performance we refer to as ‘circus’ has been expanding over the last decade and has now reached an amazing level of variety. On the one end are amateur recitals featuring regular folks like you and me and on the other are fully professional theater productions featuring some elements of circus. This exciting genre now includes all manner of aerial apparatus, fire performance and such esoteric skills as ‘trick jump roping’ and burlesque infused clowning around (or clowning infused burlesque). Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending two shows- one on either end of the spectrum.

At Big Sky Works in Brooklyn the great Tanya Gagné trains the next generation of aerial performers and gives them the opportunity to try out their new moves in front of an audience during frequent variety shows. They also host more professional productions starring many great aerialists. This weekend I was able to see some excellent performers, some newer to the stage and some veterans. They soared through the air on ropes, silks, trapeze, lyre…

Aerialist on rope at Big Sky Works

Aerialist on rope at Big Sky Works

It was fun to see amateurs trying out new moves and gaining confidence as their routines continued. It was also wonderful to see seasoned performers playing around with the apparatus and truly exhibiting artistry. In this setting performers are able to experiment and craft an act of their own. Talking to one of the performers after the show I could tell that she was passionate about her art and loved sharing it with an audience. This version of circus is very inclusive; the audience feels connected to the performers emotionally (they also tend to be very very close). It is also inclusive in the sense that you know classes are available and that you too could become such a performer; the thrill of being 20 feet up dangling on a rope feels immediately attainable. I myself used to take silks classes at Skybox aka House of Yes when it existed out in Bushwick (they are supposedly opening a new space soon). It was wonderful being up high and learning to wrap the silks around myself for a drop. I gave it up because the cost became too high but I hope to find a way to take classes again soon.

The night after the show at Big Sky Works I went to St. Anne’s Warehouse for a much more professional, though not very traditional show. This was a KNEEHIGH production of Tristan & Yseult adapted and Directed by Emma Rice, written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy. The NYTimes reviewer wrote that

“This crossing of emotional boundaries, which sabotages our typical programmed responses as an audience, is the shaping force of “Tristan & Yseult.” And I can’t think of another company that achieves this dynamic as vividly and unexpectedly as Kneehigh does.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the story I would suggest reading the New York Times review in full; the reviewer was absolutely smitten with the production, as was I. This preview will give you a taste; sadly the run is finished but I’m sure the company will return with something just as delightful.

In this show circus accompanied more serious theater; you could say the drama was infused with circus. The lovers were lifted off the stage using harnesses; they capered and embraced above the ground delighting in the first overwhelming flush of infatuation. There was a great deal of clowning including balloons distributed to the audience and silly glasses. There were fight scenes choreographed like dances and a man playing a woman pretending to be a queen. I think it’s simply wonderful the way the circus arts have become part of the mainstream and I think that theater in New York is the better for this addition.

I am very much looking forward to seeing how circus continues to creep into serious theater and how amateur circus performances continue to draw more audience members into their community.