Thursday, December 1, 2011

talent, generosity and bladder control

We were sitting at Staci's oak dining room table, munching on salad - six women from different backgrounds, with different skills sets. And what skills they were! One woman could build you some new kitchen cabinets, then grow you a bountiful garden and can all that goodness til the cabinets were filled. Another could rewire your house, sew up a cool purse and give you a stunning makeover. Another could plan your campaign for public office and then write a novel about the experience. Then someone else could write a play about it, then adapt it for a screenplay. Which several of us could produce and direct and then create a film festival to show it. One of us could throw the kick ass premier party, and another bring the shrimp etouffee - the real thing, mind you. And if you get too rowdy at the party, we even have someone who could read you your rights and run you downtown.

In other words, it was one hell of a lunch.

We were meeting to brainstorm about all things Flying Anvil. To share what we've accomplished so far and plan our next steps. Staci and I are opening up the process to people who have said they want to help, which is exciting  - and a little scary. Adding in more voices and hands will means sharing the load and benefiting from the rich experience these women bring to the table. But it also means letting go of some control. Which is a challenge for me.

So I took a deep breath, drank a little wine and focused my control freak tendencies on keeping the discussion on track. Yes, I am the agenda Nazi. But I also listened to all the wise counsel and good ideas. I am grateful to have such people in my life. And humbled by their generosity.

Oh, yeah. We all arrived to find a plumbing truck parked in front of Staci's house and two legs sticking out from under her house, like the Wicked Witch of the East in Timberlands, All the water was off for the duration of our meeting and  I was beginning to fear that splitting that bottle of wine wasn't such a good idea, when the plumber finally finished the repair.

We went out and gave her a heartfelt standing ovation.

Yep, her. The plumber was a woman. 


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

You know what's scary?

Patience has never been my strong suit.  Originally I thought it might take until the end of July.  Or August. Maybe September at the latest. But it wasn’t until yesterday, October 31 that the envelope went in the mail.  The big, heavy, “we are applying for non profit status” envelope.

The postal clerk behind the Fountain City counter was wearing “tattoo sleeves” in honor of the day.  “It’s the only thing I can wear and stay within the dress code.  Besides, I don't want to scare anyone.”   I thought, Lady, you can't frighten me, I've just spent the past four months wrestling with this 501(c)3 IRS form.  Now that's scary!

In addition to some logistical delays and other pressing matters (like packing up a house in Sleepy Hollow) that seemed to impede the process, there was the fact that the application contains sentences like the following:

“Using an attachment, describe your past, present and planned activities in a narrative. If you believe that you have already provided some of this information in response to other parts of this application, you may summarize that information here and refer to specific parts of the application for supporting details. You may also attach representative copies of newsletters, brochures, or similar documents for supporting details to this narrative. Remember that if this application is approved, it will be open for public inspection.  Therefore your narrative description of activities should be thorough and accurate. Refer to the instructions for information that must be included in your description.”


Or this:

“Do you or any of your officers, directors, trustees, highest compensated employees, and highest compensated independent contractors listed on lines 1a, 1b, or 1c receive any compensation from any other organizations, whether tax exempt or taxable, that are related to you through common control?  If “Yes” identify the individuals, explain the relationship between you and the other organization and describe the compensation arrangement.”

Say what?

So there was a fair amount of wading, sifting, and plain figuring out that needed to be done simply to parse the form.  Now more patience is needed as we wait to hear back from the IRS.  

In the meantime, there is plenty of work to be done. 

We are continuing our search for space and reading plays.  Do YOU know of any places in Knoxville that might make a suitable three hundred seat home for a theatre? Do you have any favorite plays that you think we should take a look at?  Let us know!


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Feet on the ground

Finally, Knoxville.  After planning, packing, cleaning and fleeing New York before Hurricane Irene marched up the coast, my friend April and I drove south down 81 to 78 to I-40 and rolled up to the house in Fountain City after 12 hours in the car.  It was an easy drive, made easy by traveling with a friend and much easier by popping tranquilizers down the cat’s throats before putting them in their carriers and in the back seat of the Subaru.
Still trying to catch my breathe, clawing my way to the top of the pile of boxes filled with things that seemed so important at the time. Note to self:  next time either leave or burn everything before departing. Have already had numerous adventures, including being robbed (more on that in another post) but getting my feet on the ground means that Jayne and I can move forward with the Flying Anvil. Fun, but heavy lifting. There's a lot to do, including finding a space.
Jayne, Eileen Conway and I went to look at a building with a "for sale" sign last week - a former radio station with a 500 seat theatre. When Jayne had called the realtor about it, he said, "Go ahead and take a look. It's open. If you find any homeless people living there, call the police." 
We took flashlights, called out loudly, "Anyone here?" No one was.  We spent the next hour with our lights flickering over the seats semi-circling the stage, the falling ceiling, an image of Jesus hovering above. Apparently a church had been renting the building but have since departed, leaving behind coffee cups in the kitchen and plastic children's toys in one of the rooms behind the theatre. The place was a complete, lovely, haunting wreck.  I overheard Jayne and Eileen talking about the history of the building that live broadcasts of Dolly Parton once went over the airwaves from this very spot. What happened here?  We stepped over debris, peeked into rooms, stepped gingerly on the spiral staircase that joined the first and second floors.  The wind blew in from broken windows, carrying the sound of children playing in a near by school.  What if? Could we? No, not this place, too much of a disaster, too much of a project, not the right neighborhood.  Yet it put some gunpowder under our imaginations.  We'll keep looking, plotting, planning, and dreaming.
Oh - and here's a short article on someone else with a dream and an anvil obsession.  Join the group!

Anvil Shooting: Fun, but heavy lifting

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

feeling our way...

Had a wonderful, albeit short, visit with friends Lianne and Ronnie this morning. They're in town from NYC and we brainstormed about what the Flying Anvil will look/feel/act like. I came away from our breakfast totally invigorated and passionate - and not about the cinnamon rolls, either.

Staci and I have been slogging our way through the 501c3 application for our non-profit status. Like all IRS forms, it's long and inscrutable. We puzzle and research our way through each question, and are left exhausted and cranky at the end of our Skype session. Staci is doing the lion's share- keeping us on task and on schedule.

It's not fun work, though I'm glad we are doing it. I want to understand each piece of this puzzle. So we're drafting by-laws and conflict-of-interest policies and three year P&L statements and when we're done in  a week or two, we'll send the unwieldy thing off with a pound of flesh and a hefty check. So there's progress -just not the fun kind.

Which made this morning so important. We can get so focused on the tiny, painful details that we lose the big sloppy picture we started out with. The one with all our dreams and crazy-ass fantasies in it. Where heavy, hard, powerful, immoveable anvils go lofting into the stratosphere.

Ronnie asked what kind of theatre we wanted to do. And I keep coming back to this one word: visceral. Theatre that hits you in the gut, that makes you FEEL something powerful. I'm not a snob about how we accomplish that - hey, I'm a dinner theatre veteran and have great respect for a properly executed spit take!
But I want you to laugh so hard that you hurt the next day. Or sob out loud. Or get a little angry. Or want to hug the stranger next to you. If that's not your goal, why bother? I'm tired of theatre where no one risks anything. Over the years, I've been fortunate to witness some life-changing evenings of theatre. That's what we'll aim for. And we won't hit the mark every time. But we won't give up.

Which brings me to something else I discovered in talking to Ronnie and Lianne. I said something new - I want a "cynicism-free" space. What do I mean by that? I guess that we all put our whole hearts into this. That we aren't afraid to let our honest passion and hopes and fears show. That we honor and respect every step of the process- from selling tickets, to vaccuuming the lobby to the show performed on stage.

And the key to doing that is, weirdly enough, money. Having been an artist (sometimes one who was afraid to claim the label) all my life, I know how being a freelancer of any kind means everything you do has a price tag attached. It can be soul-killing. Makes you a cynic. But knowing your work is valued and you will be paid, if not a living wage, then at least a meaningful amount of money, validates you in all sorts of ways. You can relax and give back a little. So the business end of this venture is as important to me as the art. We want to give back to the community - but we need a core of artists who are treated and paid as professionals in order to find that open-hearted generosity within ourselves.

I often tell my acting students that it's okay to walk away sometimes. To take a break in order to avoid the bitterness this business can brew in you. Then come back with a renewed spirit when they're ready. I feel like I have held theatre at arms length for a long time - and now I understand why. I didn't want to become cynical - lose the love I have for this work. I want to feel every step of this. Every agonizing IRS form and every thrilling breakfast conversation. Every astonishing opening night and horrifyingly small audience. If I want our theatre to make the audience feel - I have to be open to that as well.

One minute it's exciting, the next, I want to throw my computer against the wall. It's messy, but so worth it. Kind of like a good spit take....

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Smelling salts, anyone?

Nothing makes me swoon faster than filling in numbers on the business plan. My, how quickly they add up! But Staci and I are committed to doing this right - spending the time and the bucks it takes to create a theatre that enhances our community for years to come. But as artists, we're so used to scrimping and making real silk purses out of phantom pig's ears. And that skill will come in handy. But we're being realistic about what it takes and how much money is needed to get this Anvil flying!

We're also considering our opening gambit. And I won't be giving away times and places just yet - but I have an idea for a killer production that would fulfill all of our stated criteria - exciting, challenging, emotional and rooted in this community. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The time it takes...

I used to be someone who took life as if it were a curve banked for speed. The goal, as far as I could tell, was to get things done first and fastest. Decisions, including huge life questions, like who do I want in my life, where to live and how to pursue a career were made at lightning speed. Without a deadline, could I even exist?

I can't pinpoint the moment I started slowing down - was it burnout? Age? The sudden realization that I didn't have a clue where I was going even if I was breaking the sound barrier getting there? Some time in the past decade, the deceleration started. It scared the hell out of me at first; I thought I was losing my edge. Becoming irrelevant, soon to be left behind in the dust of all those younger, sharper people out there Getting Stuff Done!

But I find I have finally learned the value of letting things unfold in their own time. It's a revelation. Staci and I push the peanut forward, one step at a time, learning what this theatre wants to be and needs to be, as we go.
There are moments of urgency and frustration, sure. Like how to write a meaningful mission statement that doesn't rival War and Peace in length. But things inch along, feeling solid and purposeful and right.

I'm grateful for a slower pace. Guess I am embracing snail wisdom right now. There will be time to call the jackrabbit back later, as we get closer to opening night, Right now, I am reveling in the process!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sometimes all it takes is a little tilt

On the last day of February Jayne and I met at a friend of hers at Old City Java in Knoxville. Jim Owens is an actor and artist originally from Detroit. He and his wife lived in Knoxville for awhile ("I worked a lot" Jim said) and after exploring Los Angeles and San Diego he and his wife have recently moved back to Tennessee.
The reason we were meeting was that Jim had volunteered to work with us on a logo for the Flying Anvil Theatre. Why? Maybe he's crazy. Maybe he finds meeting middle-aged women over espresso exciting. Or maybe he's one of those talented and generous artists that I cross paths with in this business who remind me how exhilarating the process of creating art can be.    
You know what? Maybe it's all of the above.
However, even before I met Jim, I saw his work. Bold, colorful paintings and prints lined the brick walls of Old City Java. Jim paints what he terms "car-noir" - a combination of sexy autos and stylish women emanating attitude from Hollywood circa 1950.
And his work is amazing. 
Here's his website. Check out the goddess print. Cool, huh?
Speaking of cool - Jim had brought his Mac and we played with images, fonts, sizes, colors, words for the logo.  We drank more ice tea. Jim and Jayne discussed the wings, which Jim had originally hand sketched on the back of a napkin.  Jayne liked the left wing.  Jim advocated for the right wing. We joked about political leanings but quickly went back to the art. 
After about an hour Jim got an idea and put a tilt on the word "theatre."

 - and yes, yes, yes. Heavy, light, flying, tilted, serious, whimsical. Perfect.
We plan to put it on everything - shirts, hats, shorts. Maybe I can finally talk Jayne into getting that tattoo she always said she'd get. Someday.
At which point we'll put on our heels, slap on some lipstick, rev up the old Caddy, and varoom!  If we get lucky enough we may even get to pose for the next Jim Owens print.
Hey Y'all - watch this!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

NY Times reports on NEA comments - is theatre simply a case of supply and demand?

I find it fascinating that the "Are there too many theatres?" conversation is taking place on a national level. Is theatre an art form past its prime?  Are there simply too many demands on people's time, wallets, and attention spans?  Too many easy ways to find entertainment, inspiration and insight into the human experience?What the heck are Jayne and I doing, anyway, wanting to start a new theatre in Knoxville?  Does theatre even matter anymore?

Monday, January 31, 2011

It's good to be challenged.

Had an interesting discussion with friends last night about whether Knoxville already has too many theatres for its size. Paul made some strong arguments that this was so. Should we be discouraged? I certainly wasn't - for one simple reason.  And here I must walk a tightrope between honesty and tact, but imo, Knoxville has too few theatres that aim to astonish and emotionally engage their audience every single night.

Theatrically, we're stuck in a long-time cycle of low expectations, low self-esteem and low quality. "The audience is too stupid to get it. " and "It's good enough for Knoxville."  are two phrases I've actually heard spoken in local theatres - one professional, one community. It's an epidemic of mediocrity. No wonder so very many people here pay big money to fly to New York twice a year for their theatre fix.

There are two ideas central to our still-being-developed mission statement. High quality and maximum impact. High quality doesn't necessarily equate to spending oodly-gobs of money on sets and costumes, although the same high standards should apply there as well. I've seen a number of productions locally that mistook slickness for quality. For us, high quality is very personal - it's demanding the best of yourself and everyone you work with. Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago was founded on the principle of aiming for a better performance every single night of every show. A lofty goal, but one that excites and motivates me.

Can the Flying Anvil Theatre be the Steppenwolf of Knoxville? Can I fulfill my secret fantasy of becoming the Pat Summit of Knoxville theatre? Why the hell not? All it takes is an uncompromising commitment to choosing exciting, emotionally engaging plays performed by professionals who are passionate about pushing themselves and their craft past their limits. It's about understanding that the reason for our existence is the audience. Our job is to open a dialogue that challenges, entertains and ultimately, changes us all. We'll earn our paychecks like anyone else  - by putting out a competitive product that people want.

Are you rolling your eyes yet?  That's okay. We have a lot to prove. But I am motivated by memories of evenings in the theatre that left me emotionally drained, exultant, speechless, awed and altered. The six hour Dragon's Trilogy by Theatre Repere - performed on the stage at Clarence Brown. Steppenwolf's Grapes of Wrath. My first Broadway musical - Pippin. And I am bouyed by memories of theatres I've worked at that actually made money by putting the focus on the people in the seats - not to pander to them, but to invite them to share in an emotional adventure.

So even if there is too much theatre in Knoxville, I am certain that what Staci and I intend to offer is different and needed. And worth every penny we'll charge for it. If it isn't, well, then we don't deserve an audience.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dreaming a theatre into being

So last night, instead of sleeping, I designed our lobby. Played with color schemes and worried over lighting. I came up with some group sales ideas. I even imagined what I would wear to the gala opening! All fun - far more fun than the logjam of paperwork we're amassing as we negotiate the deep legal waters.

But here's a question for any and all - what would YOUR perfect theatre looks like? What would it produce? Where would it be located? How would you be involved? Give us your opinions, please. Help us dream this anvil off the ground!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Inspiration, dedication, determination

Ellen Stewart, the Mama of LaMama, died on January 13, 2011. I can't stop thinking about her.  I'd seen a production of Lanford Wilson's "The Rimer's of Eldritch" at her theater on East Fourth Street soon after moving to New York City. Ellen introduced the play looking like a gypsy - all spangles and bangles and wild, wild hair.  Someone whispered "That's LaMama."   "Who?" I said.  (Hey, I was young.)

In 2007 I had the opportunity to be one of the artists in residence at her theatre center in Umbria, north of Rome. Although we were told Ellen was there, weeks went by without seeing her. Finally one night she joined us after dinner. It was obvious she was ailing, but that didn't diminish the impact of her presence.  We pelted her with questions about her career - all of them some form of "how did you do it?"

 "It never occurred to me I couldn't."

Those words carry special significance as we work to form the Flying Anvil Theatre.  Ellen Stewart was a fierce fuse, an incredible role model of inspiration, dedication and determination.  I was in Italy for a month, writing, eating pasta, and breathing the same air as Ellen.  Is it too much to hope that a few  molecules rubbed off?          Staci

    NY Times Obituary for Ellen Stewart

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What I want.

I want a theatre that treats the audience like co-creators. I want to honor the sacred space between actor and audience. I want to make people laugh so hard their cheeks ache and bellies hurt the next day. I want to hear grown men sob during the show. I want people's eyes to shine as they mill about the lobby at intermission. I want my actors to be incredibly proud of the work they do every night. I don't ever want to be satisfied. I want to sell out shows and have to extend them. I want to take big, big risks that scare the bejesus out of everyone. I want comfortable seats and enough toilets in the women's bathroom. I want a state of the art lighting system. I want a bar in the lobby. I want to change lives. I want to pay actors a decent wage. I want rabid fans and volunteers who feel like they own the place. I want to say "yes!". I want long, indulgent production meetings, where we have intense discussions about colors and textures and metaphors and myths. I want to bring my dogs to work. I want to laugh. A lot. I want plenty of money for productions. I want to produce the best theatre in Knoxville. Scratch that. The best theatre in Tennessee - in the Southeast. I want an advisory board that holds us accountable and demands our best work. I want to develop a national reputation. I want to produce new, astounding work. I want to find new audiences, new ways to involve current audiences. I want to make money - have I said that already? I want to find something essential and life-changing in every production and share that with the audience.  I want to kick some serious ass. Is that too much to ask? Tough. It's what I want.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Anvils Away : CoolestOne.Com

Anvils Away : CoolestOne.Com

My friend Jim Ramsey forwarded this - fire in the hole, baby!

We kick things off.


Here's who we are - Staci Swedeen and Jayne Morgan. Two long-time friends, theatre artists, writers and teachers and perpetual dreamers who are about to embark on an odyssey of creation. Does the world need another theatre? We think so. As long as it produces stories aimed square at the heart and the gut of the audience. Who doesn't want to be moved, to feel something profound?

Join us as we feel our way through the process...balancing hardnosed fiscal realities with pie-in-the-sky hopes. Make that an anvil-in-the-sky. Because if anvils can can we.

Hey y'all, watch this!


Wild Dreams

Have you ever had someone call your bluff?

I have.  And it’s making me nervous.

Years ago in New York City I took one of those jobs that actors take to help pay the rent. And although the job was short term (handing out Virginia Slims cigarettes at Kennedy airport – remember those days?)  that gig had a long term impact on my life.

Two other young women had also been hired to hand out cigarettes.  One of those women was tall.  I took an instant liking to her.  We decided to stand together in one section of the airport (Two Tall Women) while the other woman (okay, she was short) went off somewhere, never to be heard of again.

The second day of work all of our cigarette samples were stolen.  Our boss told us to keep showing up, more samples would be delivered. They never were.  Instead Jayne and I had a two week long coffee break. We discussed everything from our current relationships (hot, volatile, bleak, so very 20’s) to our long term aspirations (grand, large, filled with confetti and glitter.) 

I’m not sure we actually discussed starting a theatre at that time – but I know I would have been nodding my head and saying “Yes, great idea!” if the topic had come up.  So it was at a little coffee shop at JFK that the seeds of the Flying Anvil were first planted.

Flash forward to 2011.  I’m in the process of moving to Knoxville.  Jayne and I are in the process of starting a theatre.  I’m excited.  I’m scared.  My bluff has been called.

I found an entry in my journal yesterday that says “In order to succeed beyond your wildest dreams, you need some wild expectations.”  We’ve got those in spades. Now let’s see what cards we’re dealt.

Have you ever had your bluff called?  How did you respond?