Essay by

Summer Dreaming

Essay by

When you are possessed by a dream, when you are the inhabitant of a dream, you are driven by this, by a kind of heart beating.—Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Hélène Cixous

I dream more in the summer. I do it via a biking obsession. I bike to work, I bike around New England. I take a biking vacation in Maine. I like to see the world wheel to pavement. I dream about the people in the cars I roll up to on the crazy busy Boston streets. I imagine the lives of the people who live in the mansions along the Merrimack in Newburyport. I imagine the stories of the people who sell me homemade ice cream mid ride at Russell Orchards Farm Store and Winery in Ipswich. There’s something so strange about the intimacy and vulnerability of bike riding; the physicality of legs pumping, my heart beating, without the intercession or intermediary of climate-controlled travel or Internet interruptions. I am a foreigner to my undiscovered physical self and to these unfamiliar pathways of America. I dream.

Two bikers
Carl on a bike. Photo by P. Carl. 

Cixous says, “In dreams and writing our body is alive.” When I bike my body is alive to itself, and sometimes along a quiet country road with no passport required, I lose myself entirely. I awaken to see five miles covered via my cyclemeter. It’s a strange paradox, to dream in such proximity to being awake. This summer I’ve been dreaming about a one-woman boxing show, essays I hope to write this year, a book I want to finish, a show I want to make with a favorite collaborator, and the future of the American not-for-profit theatre. I write these stories on my rides.

And my dreams keep me alive—even if they nearly kill me.

Two American Theatres
I had just begun my serious biking season when my rides were invaded by my conflicted dreams for the theatre. The Tonys were a big night for the not-for-profit theatre. We rocked the awards. Some great artists, including women(!), took home awards, and some great shows that originated in the not-for-profit theatre won recognition.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that it made me wonder about my dreams and about what we dream as a collective of not-for-profit theatres and the artists who work inside them—big and small, local and national. What do we dream collectively when we take tax breaks and donations on the premise that we aspire, at least in part, to dream? And I acknowledge that perhaps there’s something wrong with me that I don’t dream the Tonys—ever.

And I wonder if we’re one not-for-profit theatre or, if we’re in fact, two? Because more than ever I feel like I live caught between two theatres: one that allows for dreams and one that keeps shaking me awake, telling me to knock it off, get real. Some leaders in our field argue convincingly that my dreams “live in a world of theory,” and that the real work of the theatre must follow commercial pathways and jet streams toward a destination called “success,” a destination that no open air bike route intersects. Perhaps these leaders are right to imply that my quest to follow new trails for defining success is better left to summer dreaming.

Perhaps to live, I must stay fully awake, in a zombie culture of night-walkers, the waking dreamless dead.

Awake to versions of success that mean nothing to me.
Awake to the white business model that guides our not-for-profit imaginations. How many white managing directors are there?
Awake, awake, awake!

In the thick heat of a summer ride I doubt my courage to keep dreaming. I drench myself with my water bottle, wipe the sweat dripping underneath my glasses away from my eyes, forcing myself awake when really, I long to ride dreamily into the high grass and toward the river of obliviousness and oblivion.

The Problem with Staying Awake
I have to dream to create. I can’t feel the world as it is, because awake I can only see the barriers. I can only see what I already know.

Awake, I watch the summer decisions of the Supreme Court—the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, women’s right to a workplace free of harassment—it feels like we are losing ground, moving backward in time. Although at the speed of an uphill climb, I see forward motion too—federal benefits for Lynette and me, an attempt at an immigration bill. Awake, I see two Americas—one clinging to the gospel according to Paula Deen and another demanding a new America, one healthy in mind, body, and spirit.

Those Americans cooking from the Paula Deen cookbook get fatter on their own ignorance, they humiliate young black girls whose friends are murdered by neighborhood vigilantes, they demand discrimination to assure their own forward momentum to hoard for themselves what belongs to all of us.

And then I see my own Facebook stream—theatre artists dreaming a more just America, concocting the unimaginable—new stories that dream new realities. But where do theatre artists go to dream? Where are the spaces for our bodies to be alive to ourselves? How do we dream a dreamy American theatre? How can we sleep in order to wake?


And then I see my own Facebook stream—theatre artists dreaming a more just America, concocting the unimaginable—new stories that dream new realities


Cixous says, A dream’s charm…there is no transition: you wake up in the dream in the other world, on the other side; there is no passport, no visa but this extreme familiarity with extreme strangeness.

This summer I crave more than ever foreign spaces of extreme strangeness. Sometimes being more alive to my body—on a bike, in a theatre—means being in a more painful and desperate and dangerous place.

Is dreaming only for bike rides in the summer?

When you are possessed by a dream, when you are the inhabitant of a dream, you are driven by this, by a kind of heart beating. . . .It is this, not the possibility of knowing the secret, that makes you both dream and write: the beating presence of it, its feeling.

I like that feeling of being possessed, of being undone and out of control. I like to ride downhill on the verge of wipeout, to see how fast I can go—to blur time and space, to be just for a few seconds, possessed by the singular sounds of my heart and lungs.

I dream to live in an ethical theatre, one where the frame and its contents live harmoniously—where our process surrounding the creative act demands the same rigorous dramaturgy as the product. I know I will never know the secret to making this possible. I live in a constant state of surprise at my inability accept that the world I dream is just a world of theory.

I am forced awake to the stories of singular bloated artistic egos and paychecks.
I wake up to the news of another woman being passed over as an artistic director.
I wake up to another discussion of personal tastes discriminating against artistic risk and diversity.

I hate being awake all of the time.

I realize the naïveté of my idealism. Is it too much to dream that art lives outside of commerce, at least a little? That our lives are more than the sum of our bank accounts, at least a little? That artists should be more ethical by nature because we value creativity just a little more than acquisition for its own sake?

And I feel my heart beating, pedaling too fast for my asthmatic lungs, hearing the wheeze of warning and possibility. I might keep dreaming or I might die.

Interpretation = Death
Like plants, dreams have enemies, plant lice that devour them. The dream’s enemy is interpretation.

Is this how we killed the dream of the not-for-profit theatre? Did too many of us interpret Zelda’s dream? Did we kill the very thing we sought to understand

Am I wasting too much time trying to interpret my own dreams? Am I spending too much time awake? I don’t know which is more deadly.

For today I will follow Cixous’ advice and I offer it to any of you who want to dream with me:

We must let ourselves be carried on the dream’s mane and must not wake up—something all dreamers know—while the dream is dictating the world to us. How can we do this? We must write at the dictation of our master the dream, pencil in hand, straddling the mane at full gallop.

It’s already almost ninety degrees this morning. I fill my water bottle, apply sunscreen, and pedal on.

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Polly, thank you for this gorgeous essay. My mind is buried in theory and data at the moment so I can't respond with anything remotely poetic, which I feel your writing deserves ... I was reading an academic paper this morning in which I came across the following construct for the "nonprofit": (*)

"The defining boundaries of any phenomenon can be set not only in terms of some set of traits but also in terms of a distinguishing essence. ...[In nonprofits] the components of this ethos inter alia are an orientation toward general amelioration, motivation that rests on some idea or moral principle, and a sense of mutuality, trust, and common cause among people engaging in nonprofit activity."

The important questions you are and have been asking go, I believe, to the heart of this construct and whether it still "holds" for a portion of the nonprofit theater. Are we still oriented towards educating society? Are we still motivated by ideas and moral principles (if not those articulated by Zelda Finchandler, Margo Jones, Herbert Blau, and Bob Brustein, then others)? Are we still working collaboratively with others in our field to advance common social and cultural goals?

Keep dreaming on your bike and keep writing.

(*) Quote cited in Dart (2004) and attributed to P. Reed and his 1997 report "Defining the nonprofit sector in Canada: What questions should we be asking?" (p. 3)

We have to keep "dreaming" as non-profits. I'm so sick of arguments against diversity and risk-taking structured around market reasonings and commercial rules. You know what makes little to no commercial sense? Creating theatre. We produce shows by saying "this is something I want to create and this is how I will fund it." A precious few NFP theatres even bring in 50% of their budget through ticket sales so why is that the leading decision factor in choosing the work?

We've been given a gift and a mandate to dream and improve the lives of our communities. I'd argue it's our legal responsibility to do so.

Ride on, Polly! At a silent writing retreat led Erik Ehn, I heard this: "Follow your writing. Don't make your writing follow you." Doing that took me somewhere I hadn't planned, a place my beating heart guided me to. I think the idea of "service" can perhaps be reclaimed to mean following where the dream leads, rather than ticking off--or fighting for better--items on a mission statement. I wonder too then, whether the attempt to speak to and change, resist or persuade THE FIELD is a disheartening tilt at windmills, born of the need for acknowledgement by perceived Power. And whether building some fiery uncertain thing with the passion of the dreamer, following the dream, is not a more powerful way to spend one's time in the end--since it may result (if enough of us do it) in sidestepping the monolith by making it irrelevant.