Since your first term as Visiting Artist, and your later collaborations with some of Philadelphia’s cultural organizations, you’ve gotten to know the city’s cultural community fairly well. How would you characterize our community, and what changes or shifts are you observing in your most recent visits here?
I’m not sure I can confidently characterize a cultural community when there are always so many distinct individual ecosystems within it. Trying to answer this (rather than sidestep it, which maybe I’m still doing), I imagined characterizing the NYC “cultural community” (in which I have labored my entire career) and thought, “no, that’s impossible” (Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center to Bushwick Starr to drag performers at Lips?). I will say I have felt a particular equilibrium in Philadelphia: a baseline sense that the work will happen regardless of competition for the increasingly overburdened attention of the so-called powers that be (including audience)—without placing primary emphasis on that attention as a leading affirmation of the work—or as the most discussed roadblock. Yes, I have certainly encountered competition and ambition and nerves and even nuttiness (all good in the right measure) but not vibrating as hard with fight or flight.
BUT I am an interloper so I just may be naïvely picturing a landscape to envy. I do imagine (maybe erroneously) that (though costs in Philadelphia continue to rise precipitously) the relative affordability of the city makes it just that much more possible to work with just that much less fear—removing a tendency to trickle down that fear, displacing it to aspects of the work where it does not truly belong, which then boil back up to seriously impede.
BUT I think I might have said that of my own corner of the New York performance world when I was 25—which takes me back to how answering any of these questions might change most dramatically via internal alterations than external. (Maybe I am “25” again in Philadelphia because it’s a relatively new ecosystem to me—which, given my aforementioned “mature” career stage might be exactly the refresh my personal practice craves—hence my, possibly purposeful, naiveté).
BUT none of this really answers your question (sorry) but you have me thinking it…
And while I’m ranting I’d like to stand on a chair and say to your first question: Of course BOTH external and internal are changing, but right now I like grabbing full authority by asserting my sightline as the primary changer rather than having me as subject to a “changing field.” (It’s a little akin to my response to a question asked in some grant applications that goes something like this: “How will this grant change your practice going forward?” Sorry, I can’t afford to hand all that power to another when I am the only constant in my career.)
As your relationship with the Center has continued, has your thinking about the relationship between funder and artist changed at all?
My relationship with the Center was not my first relationship with a funder outside the traditional granter/grantee paradigm—but it was absolutely the most in-depth, the one in which I was given the most free reign (to put that in comparative context, I cannot quite imagine giving most actors that much creative rope). I don’t know that it “changed” my perception of the relationship between artist and funder. I am a character-driven story-teller so I always mentally/emotionally zoom into anyone with whom I am talking, trying to imagine their insides while listening to their speaking outside; in that way I have always experienced a “funder” as also a human with more back-story than the one available in a “grant meeting.”
What I did learn at the Center that I had not previously known was how many emotions permeated people on the 18th floor that mirrored those of most artists I know (though pooling in different amounts in different corners of the process). I had not seen before these specific fatigues and doubts and disillusions because I’d primarily witnessed grant officers when they prepared to be seen in their performance called a “meeting.” My rare backstage view added more empathetic oxygen to how I understood the more packaged view back in the public sphere (their performance). I wanted to disseminate that view to those who could not witness it, much as I want an audience to see the back-story of any character I put on stage.
About Ain Gordon
Gordon’s career encompasses three Obie Awards, two New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Playwriting. He is co-founder of the Urban Memory Project and co-director of Pick Up Performance Co(s), and his work has been seen across the US, including at venues such as New York’s BAM Next Wave Festival, New York Theatre Workshop, and The Public Theater; the Mark Taper Forum (CA); MASS MoCA and Jacob’s Pillow (MA); the Baltimore Museum of Art (MD); DiverseWorks (TX); Spirit Square (NC), VSA North Fourth Arts Center (NM); LexArts (KY); and Dance Space (DC).
Notable collaborations include work with Pew Center constituents, including Philadelphia’s Painted Bride Art Center and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where Gordon conducted research in the organization’s archives, leading to the play 217 Boxes of Dr. Anonymous (2016), which profiled Dr. John Fryer, one of the pioneers of the LGBT rights movement. Learn more about Gordon’s work on his website.