Midwestern Robot

10 things I’ve learned about working in storefront theatre in Chicago, in no particular order

It’s all about who’s in the room.
  1. Sometimes the storefront is a church gymnasium. Or a church basement. Or the upstairs of an old funeral home. So check the climate control situation before agreeing to the production. Is there heat in winter? AC in summer? If not, have a good long think about immersive theatre and how it should or should not relate to your play.
  2. Pay attention to every actor’s every question, even if they’re not directed at you. Even if they’re only mumbled. It’s not your job, but track them with the director and stage manager and whoever else, to make sure everything gets answered.
  3. It is your job.
  4. It is your job, but it might not be your place. You are the first emissary from the magic place where your play came from, but only the first. The play only arrives fully in this world after many people give it their talents, time, good will, and hard work.
  5. The most important thing is the people. When you’re lucky with cast and crew, you’re beyond blessed.
  6. Whenever possible, think long term.
  7. Don’t let long-term thinking blind you to what’s happening in the room right now.  
  8. Assume everyone is at least as sensitive as you are. Choose your words and your timing carefully.
  9. Bring treats.
  10. Write any program notes a few weeks in advance, so you have time to change them if something bizarre happens right at the end.

Possible personality origin story

Photo of Grandpa with Mom, Auntie Marie, and a lampshade
Venial sins, mortal sins, and lampshades.

I was eight or nine, and my mom was in the basement cutting my hair with her father watching. She would have been mid-40’s, younger than I am now. I always think of Grandpa as 95 but he was probably early 70s, still working part-time as a foot messenger for Cannonball. I know he was retired from the CTA by then, because I’d only been three or four when Mom put me on her lap for his last L ride, flashes of light speeding past and someone’s shoulders blocking the view ahead. 

On this day Grandpa was at the height of his bargain-gathering phase, hardy enough to haul multiple shopping bags full of discount socks and skates and egg timers from Montgomery Wards and the Marshall Fields bargain basement around the Loop and back to his and Grandma’s apartment on Oakdale. He’d then organize the stuff and take it on the bus to deliver to his kids every weekend, using the free pass given to retired CTA conductors and drivers.

One of the bargains was a home hair-cutting kit—scissors and shaver and blades organized in a hinged, red metal case with a rattling handle. It came from Sears Roebuck and Company, where Uncle George worked in the Fire Safety Department. Either he was keeping Sears safe from fire or servicing some kind of product customers could buy like an insurance policy, and it gave him an employee discount card that Grandpa borrowed on Wednesdays to combine with the senior discount.

Mom complained privately that her sister Marie always got the better stuff. Grandpa always went there first on Saturday mornings, taking the Austin bus south to Jackson, walking west to Marie’s, offering up the week’s haul of costume jewelry, small appliances, saucepans, and then stopping at ours on his way back north. Mom prided herself on never appearing to need anything in Grandpa’s bags but after he left she’d say, “Marie’s kids get skates that fit and we get a bunch that are too small or too big.” On some bargains, like the Brooke Shields clock or the hair-cutting kit, Grandpa got multiples so she and Marie got the exact same thing.

I sat on a high stool in the basement, pink plastic cape fastened around me and Mom trying to cut my hair. Grandpa stood watching. Mom muttered, “Damn this thing,” when she couldn’t get  my bangs even all the way across and had to keep making them shorter. Grandpa proclaimed, “It’s a bad carpenter who blames his own tools.” Mom retorted—a verb you could never apply to Marie, who accepted all things with a quiet, uncluttered smile, while retort should have Mom’s picture beside it in the dictionary, hand on hip and half-turning away, “That’s because a good carpenter doesn’t buy crappy tools.”

In that answer is possibly the kernel of my entire adult personality. Don’t ask, don’t appear to need, know that someone else is getting a better version of whatever it is than you are, and passive-aggressively blame the benefactor you really should, for all sorts of reasons, be thanking.

Of course Mom also got the fun of sparring with Grandpa, a man who silenced many including Marie with his unrelenting moral code: Life is an obstacle course comprised of venial sins and mortal sins, and the only safe activities are bible-quoting, bargain-hunting, and occasional practical jokes. Maybe Mom felt it was worth getting second-choice merchandise for the pleasure of reminding him she didn’t subscribe.

When she and Maria were still living at home Grandpa wouldn’t let them go out at night, some bible logic about wise virgins keeping their oil lamps full. One night Mom rebelled and got herself dressed up for the Riviera ballroom. When Grandpa asked what she thought she was doing she said, “I need an oil change.”

Marie used her Sears hair-cutting kit for years to cut all her children’s hair, plus Grandpa’s and Grandma’s. Mom’s lived in our linen closet unused for years, lid latched and metal handle rattling whenever you opened the closet door, until they moved and I never saw it again. 

In search of the deep

Are we there yet?

The problem

The other night Xeena mentioned a video on Facebook and asked if I’d seen it. I should have, because my husband Dave posted it. “Noooo,” I fake-apologized, in that way people do to let you know they are better than Facebook, “I haven’t been on.”

“Oh, are you taking a break?”

“No….,” I smiled coyly and tried to remember what it is I’m doing with Facebook right now.

“Are you just limiting your time?”


“Well, what? What’s the mystery?”

“I’m just kind of…scheduling my time on social media differently,” I finally stammered out. Ugh, that’s not what I mean, I thought. I’m making social media sound way more important than it is/should be in my life. I’m an adult for God’s sake. “I mean, I’m just trying to make it more an intentional part of my schedule so that I can focus on other things better, um…”

Xeena smiled, maybe wondering why we were still talking about this. She added, “I just kind of do what I want to do when I want to do it.”

Yes! That’s what I want, too! Only I have bigger wants and smaller wants, and too often my smaller wants (ice cream and online shopping) hijack the bigger ones (writing something longer than 7 pages).

The solution

I’m reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, and adapting the wisdom for my own brain and heart. Newport is a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of technology and culture. His writing has helped me think differently about my time and what I’m doing with it.

Here are the points that stuck out to me, that might be useful to you:

10 steps to the deep

  1. Plan every minute of my workday, Monday–Friday, from 7 to 5:30. Revise the schedule throughout the day as needed and don’t stress about the constant changes. Cross out 2pm writing session and replace with online shoe shopping. No shame, just recognition.
  2. Experiment to find the right format for this constantly changing schedule so it works for you. iCal is great for appointments, but I want something more tactile. I’m now using a steno pad with one page per week: schedule on one side, to-do list on the other. I like it but am still fussing with the layout.
  3. Block out 1–2 hours per day for deep work sessions. These are chunks of time when you work without interruption on projects that take extended concentration and imagination. What might you create in those extended chunks? You’ll only find out if you find out. Ultimately I’d love to have a 3-4 hour deep work session every day, but if I can manage an hour right now I’ll be happy.
  4. During deep work sessions, disconnect from the web. Do any research before that time. Maybe work in a different spot than usual.
  5. Don’t take a break from social media but instead, schedule it appropriately into your week. For me, an hour a week is enough to check in to Facebook/Insta/Twitter, and do the light kind of connecting those platforms afford.
  6. Free yourself from the reactionary frenzy of email. Don’t feel compelled to respond to every single message. This one is hard for me because not responding just seems rude. Who am I kidding, these are all hard for me. Make people work harder to merit a response. Eek.
  7. Compose emails in ways that reduce successive emails. For instance, give people choices of a time/place to meet and then say, “let’s consider your response a confirmation.” Try to do this without sounding like a tool.
  8. End the workday at 5:30. Yes, this sounds impossible. Try.
  9. Have a shutdown routine. It will probably take 15–20 minutes. During this time, review your to-do list and make any necessary revisions. Review the next few days on the calendar and make sure you’re aware of upcoming deadlines and commitments. Take care of any last-minute emails, since you won’t be checking email again until tomorrow. No, really.
  10. Finish your routine with a verbal confirmation. Say it out loud, as a cue to your beloved brain that it can move on to a freer rhythm, where it presumably will relax and make all sorts of powerful connections that don’t happen when you’re constantly thinking about work. “Shutdown Complete” is what Cal says. I’m still composing my own personal phase. If I were British I could say, “That’s me, done.” I think that would sound cool. But for now, I’m borrowing “Shutdown Complete” yet saying it in a robotic way that makes it my own.

Those are my takeaways. There’s a lot more to the book, including a streamlined version of the arguments in Digital Minimalism, which I read first but didn’t finish. That book is basically about how digital engagement doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It’s a matter of what’s of value to you. At a minimum, books like these invite us to acknowledge and engage with the power of seemingly small choices. If you check them out or experiment with similar practices, let me know how it goes.

How to Marie Kondo your creativity—part 2

We could have saved sixpence. We have saved fivepence. (Pause) But at what cost?

—Samuel Beckett, All That Fall

Real world aside, this experiment is paying off. It took a week to complete Day 1 (Writing—digital), but I feel the difference every time I sit at my computer.

For instance, I never realized how much energy it took to steel my mind against the digital mess of a jam-packed file window. In that nano-second before I decided to search instead of browse, I would sublimate a pang of disgust. But now that my files are organized, opening that window gives me a small jolt of energy instead. It’s like savoring a sip of Peets instead of enduring the taste of lesser coffee, just to get the caffeine. 

Day 2. Writing—physical.

Having tidied the digital files, today I move to the physical ones: binders, loose papers, the diary from 8th grade, a dozen blank books friends have given me “to write in” that are too pretty to write in, countless  journals and notes and playbills and newspaper clippings.

Most of this has been living in my office, in a grim oak bookcase from 1993. Already, I’m certain this is not going to work. Digital files are one thing, but words on paper feel sacred—and, in almost equal measure, outdated and forlorn. How am I going to get rid of any but the most obviously useless?

Step 1. Pile everything on the bed.

photo of a pile of binders and papers
Here goes.

Or, in this case, on the floor. At first, I wanted to cheat and extract one item at a time from the bookcase. But as soon as I said, to hell with it, and starting piling, I realized two things:

  1. Binders have no touch appeal. In their plastic-i-ness and random colors and Sharpied spine labels, they don’t shout “creative synergy!” but instead mutter “windowless computer lab.”
  2. I almost never use them. When I need something, 99% of the time I pull up the most recent digital draft instead.

This is annoying to acknowledge, because a few years ago I created a binder for every full-length play I wrote, every class I taught, and every category of shorter writing. Old drafts, notes, contact sheets, programs, feedback, everything was filed into these binders. I spent countless hours making tabs for different kinds of writing exercises. I bought document sleeves to put programs and cast notes in. I labelled each binder on the spine for easy reference and put it in the bookcase. And then, I almost never opened them again. 

But I’d put so much work into hole-punching and binding. Was it for nothing? And what about all the journals and notes that have no digital equivalent? 

Step 2. Sit down with an expert.

Jill Howe has been there.

For advice, I turned to storyteller and producer Jill Howe, who has been posting beautiful photos of her tidying process all year. We met at one of my favorite breakfast spots, Over Easy, and Jill convinced me that the papers are tamable.

Over corncakes, Jill confided, “Before, with storytelling I did everything on paper. And I would keep every draft, so I’d have like 20 drafts of a story. I mean, it was kind of fun in the beginning, like, ‘Look at all the work I’m doing!’ But if you’ve told a story now and then you tell it again in two months, you look back and go, ‘I ended the story like that? What the eff was I thinking?’

“So now, when I do a piece for a show, I have the final draft and that’s really the only paper I keep. I don’t need the 20 drafts that got me to that point.”

But Jill admitted that there’s the stuff that’s easy to toss, the stuff that’s easy to keep—and then there’s everything in between. Luckily, she also had a solution for this, the largest category. “Are you familiar with Evernote?”

Step 3. Get some apps.

Jill converts me to Scannable right at the table.
Scanning at Over Easy.

Jill uses the notes-app-on-steroids Evernote and Evernote’s free Scannable app to digitize and organize all the in-between stuff. “The app takes a picture, immediately crops it to the frame, and turns it into a high-quality image,” she explained. “You can make folders in your Evernote for all the different categories, and scan directly to those.”  

Jill also has a WiFi scanner that she keeps on her desk, along with a tray for day-to-day stuff like bills and receipts. “When the pile gets deep, I pull out the scanner,” she said.

She recommends the Doxie, which runs about $200, handles multi-page documents pretty well and promises to sync easily with all major cloud services including Evernote and my pick, Dropbox.

Step 4. Hold each document…

Photo of my dog Nola looking at documents
Sacred is a matter of opinion.

Once you’re set up with a scanner or two, you’re ready to:

  1. Pick up a notebook or stapled pile of something.
  2. Turn each page.
  3. Decide whether to keep the whole thing, toss the whole thing, scan selected pages, or scan all the pages.
  4. Put the binder in a donation bin.
  5. Thank and then trash every page you can possibly live without. 
  6. Trash sacred words? Like, in an undignified recycle bin? 

Step 5. Have a bonfire.

photo of empty binders and papers
Anyone need some binders?

About that whole written-words-are-sacred thing I was feeling? Jill’s been there, too. “I’ve been carrying around journals since I was in college,” she told me, “you know, repressive, horrible poetry. And you know, that whole corny thing about, does it spark joy? It just reminded me of things I didn’t want to remember. So I asked a friend, ‘hey, can we build a fire in your backyard?’”

So instead of tossing my outgrown scribblings in the recycle bin, I’m collecting them for a bonfire, first day it’s warm enough to sit outside around the fire pit and toast some marshmallows.

Step 6. Stay motivated.

photo of Jill Howe's library.
Jill’s desk. My goal.

Jill advises taking before and after pictures to remind you of why you’re doing this, and to help fine-tune your work. “There’s something about taking pictures,” she said. “I would declutter a space, take a picture of it, and—I couldn’t see this in real life, but when I’d look at the picture I’d say, ‘that’s still too much.’ And I’d go back and get rid of more.”

Now that I’m actually going through each item, I’m kicking myself for piling everything on the floor. I hate the mess and this is taking way too long already. But that’s exactly why the pile is brilliant. I’m extra-motivated to move quickly so I can get what I want: a digitized library of documents, journal entries, and notes that I can access from anywhere without ever having to dust.

Thank you, Jill! Thank you, Marie. And thank you, Samuel Beckett.