Friday, September 23, 2016

Leaving New York: Post #4

Leaving New York: Post #4

This is the entry that I’ve been putting off writing, because writing it means that I actually have to say goodbye to New York.

Image result for hangar theatre

I am sitting in the lobby of my beautiful theatre, on a gorgeous autumnal day in Ithaca, and I couldn’t be happier to be here.  A few weeks ago, Rafa and I (with the help of two strapping young men) packed up a U-Haul, drove to Ithaca, and unpacked in the beautiful house that I will move into shortly, once the renovations are complete.  Nota bene: We kept the NYC place because:

            1)  Rafa will still be living there (and I plan on being back there plenty)


      2) Nobody ever said, “I gave up my rent-stabilized 2BR in NYC and golly gee that was a great idea!”

We’re able to do this, if you’re curious, by converting my office into a bedroom and taking in a roommate.  Did I mention how grateful I am to my spouse, who at this point in his life has accepted that he’ll be living with a roommate because his husband has dreams to run a theatre somewhere? 

What I’m saying is: I still have my home in NYC. I have moved to one of the most beautiful places in the country and the world.  And yet still, the decision to leave New York was the hardest thing about taking this job.  After weeks of deliberation (and many therapy sessions), I think I know why.  I’ll tell you a little story about language and Mexico to make my point.

Image result for Mexico City
Mexico City

If you grow up in Mexico City[1], you refer to yourself as chilango, which literally means “belonging to Mexico City.”  But for our purposes, we can think of the term as the kind of pride New Yorkers take in calling themselves New Yorkers.  If you’re a chilango, however, there’s a word you use for everyone who wasn’t born in Mexico City.  That word is provinciano.  I believe that those Mexicans not from Mexico City feel some resentment about the phrase, and really, who can blame them?  It would be like if New Yorkers called everyone else in the USA provincial.  I said called, not thought of.  

But this little story illustrates my greatest fear in leaving New York.  For all the horror of living in New York: the ridiculous rent, overpriced restaurants, sweltering heat, numbing winters, the bombardment of cruelty you can experience in the ten-minute walk from your apartment to the subway, the feeling like you have to be making a seven-figure salary to not feel worthless, the horrible traffic that makes leaving almost as difficult as getting back in, the cacophony of light and sound that is its own perpetual bombardment; the Faustian bargain you make is that you get to have access to the best of everything. 

Now, I know all you non-New Yorkers may balk at this summation.  “Chicago’s improv scene is as good if not better,” I hear you saying.  “What about the restaurants of Los Angeles?”  “The museums of D.C.?” “The seafood of Boston?”

And of course you’re right – all of those cities excel in those areas.  But New York excels in all of them.  Every single one.  There’s no other city in this country (or the world?) where you can go to a world-class seafood restaurant, museum and play every night of the year without having to repeat.  Or do anything else for that matter.

Not only that, but I am living proof that you can live in New York on an artist’s income (read: hovering around the poverty line) and still experience all of those things.  And not just in the theatre world.  I have enjoyed the Metropolitan Opera from twentieth row center seats.  A few times.  I have watched a Mets Opener from the owner’s box and watched Jeter’s last game (which I swear was rigged) from a private box, with catering.  I got into the Freedom Tower before it was open to the public.  When I was in New York last weekend I went to see two plays.  Mayor de Blasio was at one.  Lena Dunham was at the other.  My tuxedo, which I bought when I was 15 to attend some high school proms and still fits, got used regularly during my 19 years in New York.  It brushed elbows with, well, I hate to name drop, but let’s start with Meryl Streep and Jude Law.  I have attended countless Broadway openings and restaurant openings and gallery openings.  All for free. 

But where this matters most to me is art, specifically theatre.  I’m not saying the theatre in New York is better than anywhere else.  I’m saying it’s better than everywhere else.  Just because there’s so much more of it.  And I can hear my friend John Iacovelli insisting that LA produces more plays than New York does.  But even if that’s true, who ever heard of flying to LA for the weekend to catch a few plays?

Image result for new york city
I heart NY.

In my 19 years in New York I saw thousands of plays.  So even if they’re as good as theatre other places, seeing so many more of them means I have spent more hours of my life watching inspirational theatre than a non-New Yorker has.  And so much of what I make, I realize, is inspired by that work.  Seeing the best theatre in the world, all the time, inspired me.  It showed me the work that I wanted to be making, both in terms of quality and aesthetic.  I suppose if I were a different artist I wouldn’t need that to make the best work I can.  But I’m not.  I’m the kind of artist who thrives through exposure.  And so, my fear in leaving New York, is that I will become provincial.

Truth be told, I’m not sure if I would’ve been able to do it even five years ago.  But most of my friends have had kids now, or moved to New Jersey, or had kids and moved to New Jersey, and with the exception of my buddies on the soccer team and the wonderful Upstart Creatures (which will solider on with Suzanne Agins assuming Co-Artistic Directorship with me) I don’t really have a community to hang out with.

And honestly, New York isn’t the city it was when I moved there almost exactly 19 years ago.  It’s hard to be objective about how it’s changed, because of course, I’ve changed too, and when both the object and the viewer are in states of transition, you never really know what is an empirical change and what is perspective.  At the least, I know that every time one of my favorite places closes and is replaced by a bank, pharmacy or waxing salon, a part of my heart dies.  At the most, I know that going up 9th Avenue and seeing all the stores that are no longer there, like photographs that have been over-developed, is its own kind of trauma.

I’m planning on coming back to New York a lot.  For Upstart events.  For plays. For weddings.  But writing this as the sun sets over Cayuga Lake, I’m also looking forward to my years in Ithaca.  Especially because the more my artistic vision for the theatre takes shape, the more excited I am about it…

[1] No one in Mexico actually calls Mexico City “Mexico City.”  They all call it “DF,” for Distrito Federal.  This was the case until January 2016, when its denizens voted for the city to become its own state (but because it’s also the capital of the country, it can’t be an entire state, so now it’s something in between and Rafael isn’t happy about it).

Post #3: On My Decision To Pursue and Then Later Accept The Position of Artistic Director At The Hangar Theatre - The Application Process

The Application Process

Post #3

Around five years ago, I decided to start applying for small Artistic Director jobs.  The response, uniformly, was a chorus of crickets.   And then, about a year ago, it’s like the PTB decided to take pity on me. (PTB = Powers That Be. Points if you could place the Buffy reference.)  “The guy’s about to turn 40,” I imagined them saying with slight condescension, “We might as well call him.”  Part of this newer response, I’m sure, had to do with having reached a threshold of experience (imagine me singing a gin-soaked “I’m still here” in a slinky number).  But also I had the fortune of applying to institutions with which I was familiar.  This meant I could write application letters that weren’t just regurgitations of my resume in prose form.  Instead, I could write about the directions in which I could help lead them.  What my vision for them would be, per se. 

After receiving word that I’d made it to the semifinalist round, I met with Jessica Casey, Chair of the Hunt for the Next Artistic Director Committee , who gave me the salary range, which felt totally reasonable.  A short meeting with Managing Director Josh Friedman followed.  This meeting, I imagine, was longer for applicants who were not the Interim, and an opportunity for the theatre to describe itself, artistically and financially, to the applicants.  Ten of us had made it to the semi-finalist round. A few people pulled out at this point and a few more were eliminated.  Three of us made it to the finalist round.

My brilliant writer friend Bridget Carpenter gave me a great piece of job advice once: get the job, then figure out if you want it.  But here’s the funny do-si-do of applying for an Artistic Directorship: by the time you make it to the final round, you basically have to swear that you’ll accept the job if they offer it to you.  It’s a complicated relationship to navigate, because the theatre wants you to commit to it before it is willing to commit to you.  I’m not entirely sure this is equitable, but as the Pioneer’s former Artistic Director Charles Morey shared on my Facebook wall when I got the interim job (and I’m paraphrasing only slightly): “To be a great Artistic Director, you have to put the needs of the theatre in front of your own.” 

I tried to keep this in mind as we entered the final part of the application process: the interviews.  The other candidates were flown into town on consecutive weekends. Because I was already here, the Hangar didn’t need to pay for my travel or housing – see, I was already a good deal! –  but all three of us were put through the same process.  

Even having worked as the Interim for almost a full year, even after months in Ithaca and days spent prepping, I still wasn’t fully prepared for the rigor of these interviews.  Having never been a finalist for a job like this before, I didn’t know what to expect as I headed into the two-day process. This was the schedule

Date Time Event Place People

Monday, August 1st

11:30am - 12:30pm Meet with Search Committee Hangar Theatre Search Committee

12:45 - 1:45pm Lunch with Adam
Adam Zonder - Production Manager

3:00 - 4:00pm Meet with Helen Office Helen Clark - Education 

4:00 - 5:00pm Administrative Staff meet with candidate Office Administrative staff

Tuesday, August 2nd

10:30 - 11:30am Focus Group #1 - Education Hangar Theatre Education Committee

11:30am - 1:00pm Focus Group #2 - Season Planning Hangar Theatre Search Committee/Artistic Advisory Committee

1:00 - 2:30pm Break

2:30 - 3:30pm Focus Group #3 - Finance/Development  Hangar Theatre Development/Finance Committee

4:30 - 5:30pm Cocktail hour/meet the community Hangar Theatre Board and community

5:30pm Dinner with Josh
Josh Friedman - Managing Director

Wednesday, August 3rd TBA Exit Interview TBA Margaret Shackell

And don’t be fooled: in this vocabulary, meal means “interview plus food.”

My initial meeting with the search committee went pretty well, as did my lunch with Adam Zonder, who was the Production Manager when I was here 15 years ago as a Drama League Hangar Directing Fellow.  It didn’t hurt that our relationship that summer had been surprisingly productive (I suspect Adam and I were two of the most surprised by this).  Education plays a huge role at the Hangar, and Helen, the Director of that Department, probably spent as much time telling me what direction she wished her department could grow as I did talking about the same thing.  Even though our desks had been next to each other, it was incredible how revealing dedicating time for a single purpose can be.   But since Helen and I ended up rescheduling our meeting, I ended up meeting with the Education Committee first. I had grown up in the McCarter Theatre’s Outreach Department. I’ve taught at inner city middle schools, high schools, and colleges across the country.  This was the committee meeting I was least nervous about.  At least, that’s what I tried to tell myself half-way through, as I was clearly bombing it.  I wish I'd spent more time actually thinking about what I'd like to do with the Hangar's Education Department.

To be interviewed by the people I’d gotten to know and like so much over the last few months was alternately enjoyable and awkward,.  And what I thought was my brilliant season was presented at the next meeting, but I was stunned when people didn’t fall over themselves telling me how brilliant they thought it was (I often feel that way, frankly).  The Finance/Development committee was kind – this was clearly my weak spot, and I felt like a politician, delivering empty promises with no idea of how to execute them.  During the cocktail hour/meet the community event the Board President’s children interrupted me by crossing to the refreshments intermittingly during my speech, which allowed me to cover for getting off track with some light banter.

The final events, dinner with Josh the Managing Director and lunch the next day with the board president, permitted a frankness that is difficult to muster on an every-day basis with the two people I probably had worked closest with as the Interim.  

I hadn’t felt like I’d crushed it at the end of those 2.5 days.  If anything, I was surprised at how much more thoroughly I’d been forced to think about a job I was basically already doing and had already committed to accepting.  As difficult as it was for me, I couldn’t imagine how much harder it would be for the two candidates who came in from out of town: it got me thinking about how much I rely on context, like how much a board member’s history with the institution affected the meaning of a question she might ask me at any of the multiple interviews to which I’d been subjected.

Mostly, however, engaging formally with all these people I’d been working with for months made me realize how much I really liked them, how much I really liked working with them, how much I liked the town and community, and how much I really wanted this job.

But wanting this job and being ready to leave New York City were entirely different things…