Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Interview: Andrew Simonet

Andrew Simonet is a choreographer, a writer, and an advocate for artists based in Philadelphia. In 2006 he founded Artists U, a grassroots, artist-run platform for changing the working conditions of artists. We at CR were introduced to his work through the Artists Raising Kids project he recently initiated through Artists U, but Andrew is perhaps best known for his work from 1993 to 2013 as a founding co-director and choreographer of the award-winning Headlong Dance Theater with collaborators Amy Smith and David Brick. His projects include CELL, a performance journey for one audience member at a time guided by your cell phone, and This Town is a Mystery, performances by four Philadelphia households in their homes, followed by a potluck dinner. With Headlong, Andrew also helped found Dance Theater Camp, annual festival of workshops and collaboration for professional artists that is entirely artist-run and free for all participants, and the Headlong Performance Institute, a school for experimental performance with full college credit. As someone whose own work is so grounded in helping fellow artists identify and achieve their goals, he's got plenty to say on the topic of raising kids while sustaining a creative practice.

CR: Briefly describe your kids: ages, names, general temperaments…

Andrew: Jesse Tiger, 8, collector of unusual facts, inventor of trading card games, devoted reader. Nico Wolf, 6, keeper of our family traditions, sword fighter, tree climber.

Andrew + the boys (photo: Pierce Backes)
CR: You’ve just put together the crowd-sourced Artists Raising Kids Compendium through Artists U… so of course I have to ask one of the questions from that project: What are three things about raising kids you’d go back and tell yourself?

Andrew: “Slow down at the beginning, Andrew!” I did too much following the birth of our first (including starting Artists U). Having two little ones beautifully and ruthlessly made me simplify.

Be adventurous. Having an intensely colicky infant made us careful early on, maybe too careful. We were a bit more adventurous with the second, but overall too cautious, I think.

It’s ridiculously interesting and beautiful.

CR: Your wife is involved in the performing arts too. How do you two negotiate the demands of family versus rehearsal and performance schedules, and how has that changed as your kids have gotten older? 

Andrew: That was hardest in the early years. We used a ton of childcare. At first, it was
babysitters, and we have been blessed to have some remarkable, beautiful people as babysitters, which really helped. They were a big part of raising our kids, and their love and spiritual depth really affected us all.

performing in Headlong's You Are So Beautiful
(photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)
There was a lot of trading off: one person gets home and the other can go work. My wife had started teaching at a college, so between us, we had a fair amount of flexibility (work that could be done at whatever time was available, time off, the ability to determine a large part of our schedules). And we would try to stagger the intensive production periods: I get busy opening a show and she steps more with the kids, then we switch. It takes a lot of
mercy and forgiveness and advocating for what you need. I leaned on things I learned from my collaboration:

- Constantly choose not to resent.
- If everyone feels they are doing more than their share, the work gets done.
- No project or opportunity is worth the well being of the people involved.
CR: Thinking as big or small as you like, what changes or alternative structures would make the performing arts more accessible to artists with families?

I’m gonna quote myself in the “Artists raising Kids Compendium” here:
For me, this is part of my broader advocacy around sustainability. Artists who raise kids challenge a lot of the unsustainable assumptions in our field about money, time, and how to live as an artist. Those assumptions are bad for all artists, not just the ones with kids. I don’t advocate for the special needs of artist parents over the needs of others. I advocate for artistic lives that are balanced, sustainable, and professional, and supporting artist parents is part of that.

I think we as artists need to keep pushing to change the working culture of our sector. It’s dysfunctional for everybody: it’s workaholic, under-resourced (with most of the resources going to administrators, not artists), under-planned, needlessly competitive. We use as our model the 23-year-old, single, childless, healthy, frenetic artist living in a cheap warehouse. We need to include the whole arc of our lives, and parenting is part of that.

On a smaller, practical level, I think every organization should have a decent budget line for childcare. It immediately changes the conversation to one of possibility: what could we do to make this event/residency/festival/touring gig parent- and kid-friendly? I’ve seen a lot of growth over the past two decades in art institutions including kids in their programming, so they understand that this important to their mission and their future. When organizations have a roster of childcare providers on call and a budget to pay them (often true in activist and religious organizations), all kinds of things become easier. 

CR:  How has parenthood impacted your own creative work … as a writer, as a choreographer, as an advocate for other artists?

Andrew: My mission got bigger. Or maybe: simpler. When I started off as a choreographer, I really wanted to put my work out in the world (or rather our work since I worked in collaboration). Very early in my career, that broadened to include my community of like-minded performing artists. But when I had a kid, it got much bigger: I want more strong art in the world. So I can make my own work, and push to be rigorous and reckless, but really that’s how many dances? 50 in a lifetime? 70? I can have a lot of impact by helping other artists to survive and thrive.
Artist U's 5-year reunion, 2011 (photo: Jeffrey Fehder)

So, I started Artists U when we had our first child. (Again, not a great balanced parent choice, but definitely one inspired by becoming a father and seeing the world differently.) I’ve really been digging in to this curious question: exactly why is it so hard for artists in America? Artists are so ridiculously skilled and hard-working, why are we so often exhausted, overwhelmed, and broke? And why do so many of us lose touch with our deeper mission and still end up in unsustainable lives? There are lots of practical tools and strategies I’ve picked up, but the big thoughts are clarity and community. When artists are clear about what they are doing and when they don’t do it alone, they can make it work.

Artistically, I made a so-so dance about kids early on: the dancers, both moms, had to do the piece with their kids in tow, and whatever happened (nursing breaks, diaper changes, temper tantrums) was part of the piece. But I also found my artistic interests simplifying and getting deeper. I started to make a lot of intimate, immersive pieces, focused more on the bodies of the viewers than the bodies of the performers. CELL was a performance journey for one audience member at a time guided by your cell phone, You move through the city encountering performers (and non-performers), and you end up inside a dance, dancing as part of an immersive quartet. That really worked for me. I wanted everyone to have the embodied experience that dancers have: you are part of connected group, moving as one, responding and inventing, singing with your body.
This Town is a Mystery (photo: Kevin Monko)
Eventually I got rid of the professional dancers completely. This Town is a Mystery brought audiences to four Philadelphia households (very different neighborhoods, economics, cultural backgrounds). The members of the households perform a piece right their in the home, a dance theater show built from the stories and bodies and music of their world. And then everybody shares a potluck dinner. That was my last project with Headlong Dance Theater, the company I helped found 20 years ago, and it was incredible and overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine going back into the studio after that, working with the trained and fit bodies of dancers to make a piece for the stage. My artistic world had gotten so much bigger and stranger and more dangerous. And kids were a big part of that project. Two of the households had children in them who performed. And the traditions and bonds and ruptures of families were huge forces in that project.