Make Good Art

So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.

And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

In May of 2012, Neil Gaiman gave a rousing commencement speech at “The University of the Arts,” exhorting the new graduates to respond to the challenges of life by making good (and idiosyncratic) art. In May of 2014, beset with fresh news of my cancer diagnosis, my partner and my love Liz shared with me the video of the commencement speech. Doing so, she reminded both herself and me that one way to respond to tragedy is to stoke the furnace of creativity, and to strive to stay most mindful of what is new and vital rather than what decays. I remain grateful for the reminder from Mr. Gaiman via Liz.

LoveyouGoodbyeMaybe Booklet

A year ago, a mentor and friend wrote a poem treating on the challenges of communicating love (lovingly) in the face of mortal challenge. Recently, one of his friends (having faced her own challenges) created from that poem a most exquisite, handcrafted type-setting in quarto format and with gorgeous illustrations. On the anvil of struggle, and using material that spoke to her, she forged these tiny masterpieces, and gave them as gifts. And in doing so, she exampled for me the heart of what Gaiman references in his speech: We are renewed through creation, and we both delay and transcend our own inevitable decay by forging and re-forging fresh art that impacts people’s lives after we are gone. And of course, in creation, we are (at least momentarily) diverted from the challenges we face.

LoveyouGoodbyeMaybe Woodcut

Through our mutual friend, she has since provided me with a small set of these booklets. They are now among my most prized possessions, and will be treasured for all my days. Thank you, my stranger-friend, for your creation. You have touched my life deeply.

[The video above really gets rolling around 10:00, when he leaves topics that are relevant primarily to new graduates of an Art program, and speaks to larger truths.] In addition to the quote above, some bits of the transcription I find most resonant are:

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

Make it on the good days too.

… while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.

The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.

The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.

…And where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?

My Clinical Trial & Why You Might Consider One

Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, but a survivor collecting information as carefully as I can. Please consult your physician when making decisions about your health.

“It is crucial to tell the story of the physical and psychic process of clinical trials, and as a result to become an arbiter of how trials are run.” – noted at the MD Anderson 2013 Survivorship Conference keynote by Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies

“Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.” – National Cancer Institute‘s, Treatment Option Overview

Once you’ve recieved your diagnosis, you’ve choices to make. What will you tell family; how will you tell children? Friends? Colleagues? How will you wrestle in the small hours with the worries that have appeared rapidly and grimly. And you must answer, likely urgently, how will you medically treat (or choose not to treat) the disease.

You make a personal and nuanced choice when selecting a medical treatment. I don’t here presume to offer medical advice; instead, I share my experience in a clinical trial, how I got here, why I chose it, and why I believe they can be worth considering as a viable option.

Treatment Landscape

Where the Clinical Research Unit (CRU) resides.

Where the UVA Clinical Research Unit (CRU) resides.

If you catch melanoma early, survival rates are relatively high. In many cases where it is constrained to the skin, it is operable (patches of skin are often removable and can often be helped to heal well). But when caught late, after it has spread (and is therefore classified as either “Stage III” or “Stage IV” depending on details), or when otherwise located in inoperable areas, the survival rates drops very substantially [reference]. This is partly because the common, recommended treatments (“standard of care“) we currently use are not very effective (for general reference, see the National Cancer Institute’s, Treatment Option Overview). For operable “Stage III,” a common post-surgical treatment is called Interferon. Interferon however is notable both for its unpleasant effects (mild to severe flu symptoms for the duration of treatment, often lasting two years or more), and for its lack of effectiveness (only a 10% improvement of odds of recurrence, which vary according to details about the primary, but in my case would have meant only a 3.5% chance improvement) [reference, reference]. With more advanced, complicated, or inoperable Stage IIIs there are other treatments, which mostly have worse side effects and less success. So, from a numbers perspective, once this disease starts to spread, that slope swiftly slips and our currently approved treatments do not offer substantial traction.

This landscape helps explain why odds of survival, which are comparatively attractive in Stages I and II, swings so poorly for those of us at more advanced stages. Crucially, it also explains why research in the shape of clinical trials is so important for the future of survival rates, and also why it is an attractive choice for treatment when compared to other cancers (if the standard treatment has a good chance of helping, why risk the unknown treatment?).

The Viability of Clinical Trials

After researching and consulting my doctors at MD Anderson (Dr.s Hwu and Ross), it became clear that a clinical trial would not only help further future treatment for myself and others, it would also be a sober, smart choice based on the relative risks and successes of the available treatments.

The head of my medical team Dr. Hwu, and my surgeon Dr. Ross, are world-leading researchers. Dr. Hwu specializes in immunology. When I let him know I was open to clinical trials, he helped me locate an open trial for which I was qualified and which had a seat opening soon at the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA) under his colleague Dr. Slingluff, the MEL58 trial. While there is/was a similar trial being run at MD Anderson, it had no open seats and there was no reliable ETA on when it would (such are the vagaries of running trials; it’s often all an experiment).

Getting Enrolled

Getting enrolled was no easy matter. Sheaves of documents had to be read and signed by my wife and I, medical documents from 3 different institutions had to be aggressively wrangled by me and delivered to the folks at UVA via countless phone calls and email messages to ensure that everything was in order and on time. I barely got in. Had I not had the essential support from MDA, and had I not had emotional and other support from friends and family it never would have happened.

On Trial

Then began 6 months of clinical trial, during which time I had 14 appointments at UVA to see Dr. Slingluff’s research team. Several of my trips to Virginia were for multiple weeks and included multiple appointments in order to cut down on the expense and interruption of constant flights. This of course is only possible if one can find affordable lodging nearby. During most stays in central Virginia, I was fortunate to lodge with a dear friend who lives in Staunton, a 1-hour drive from Charlottesville. I did however spend a couple nights with another friend who lives in Charlottesville, and crucially, I spent one night in the UVA Health System Hospitality House, which functions like a hostel for folks admitted to the hospital. It is bare-bones, tight quarters, with no luxury, but it is a safe and inexpensive place to sleep and the folks who run it are clearly engaged in a tight-strapped labor of love. We can all be glad that places like this exist, and if you are considering a clinical trial, look to see if a similar such place can serve your needs, and be sure to be nice to the staff who are clearly in it for love and not money.

The treatment portion of the trial was a number of injections (never more than weekly, and often with several week gaps between). These injections, which included “peptides” (whose function was to train my immune system to recognize melanoma as a target) and “adjuvants” (whose function was to turn my immune system on to overdrive). The injections themselves were very painful (a strong burning sensation during the several-stick injection as well as a minute or so after). Though side-effects vary, mine were about 24 hours of flu-like symptoms. These symptoms dissipated more quickly if I exercised moderately during that period.

In order to measure impact and effects (my layperson’s interpretation), the trial also included very many blood draws, regular symptom interviews (and a vetted keeping of a symptom diary), a biopsy to remove the skin surrounding the initial injection site (just like getting a mole removed), as well as a lucid lymph node biopsy removing the sentinel lymph node for the initial injection site. This last one was a doozy. Being awake while you are cut that deeply, and then asked “want to see it” in reference to your freshly removed lymph node was both a disturbing and also irresistible offer.

The treatment period lasted about 3 months, and then after another 3 months I returned for a final interview and blood draw. Now, with those trips completed, I will field a phone call annually and ensure that my scan results get sent to them. In a sense, I now become a binary piece of data in their findings: has the cancer recurred or not.

Financial Implications

It is generally true of clinical trials that the trial covers all medical care and treatment other than “standard of care” elements such as the normally scheduled CT/PET Scans, X-Rays, etc. In most cases, travel and lodging are not covered, though for some institutions and studies, this too can be covered.


As I was at the beginning of the trial (Stage IIIa re-sected with no evidence of disease), I remain NED. If I never have recurrence, I will never know if the clinical trial was the reason, and if it does recur, I will never know if the trial’s treatment delayed that recurrence. For now, it is enough for me that that I am NED and that I have tried my level best by pursuing the treatment I believe gives me the best chance.

I am extremely grateful for the chance I had to do this clinical trial. While the side effects were at times very painful, and while the inconvenience of frequent travel was sometimes burdensome (despite having the good fortune of friends near the research location), by comparison these burdens were trivial compared to the typical side-effects of pegylated interferon, which was the standard of care for my stage and condition. And while there is no guarantee that my clinical trial treatment will have had an effect, it would be difficult for it to be any worse than the odds of that standard treatment. And while I did not choose the clinical trial primarily because it may help others, I did get to contribute to the forward progress of medical science while making a rational choice about my own treatment, and my own odds of survival.


In early summer, friend and mentor Steven Tomlinson met me for coffee to visit about my melanoma diagnosis and treatment. He’d graciously volunteered at Beth Burns’ request to write and perform a monologue for one of the Matney vs Cancer benefit events she coordinated, and our get-together was a part of his research.

If you know Steven or his writing, you know he has a knack for getting to the heart of the matter, and before long we were talking about painful challenges and highest goals for working through the process of melanoma treatment. We talked about the challenge of answering the question “How are you?,” about my desire to interact with people in such a way that if it is the last time there will be no regrets, and my desire to learn a lesson from my dog, whom as a pup had become very ill but survived, in part due to her unflagging spirits in the face of the pain, discomfort, and isolation in a quarantine ward.

He would also talk to Liz and others in preparation. Below is the piece he performed in spoken-word fashion. (I’d give much for a video of that performance.) When he was done, he quietly handed me the printed paper he’d read from, with his markings and notes. I keep that paper near to hand at nearly all times.

Steven – I am most grateful to you for this gift you gave me and every one who was there that night, and for the gift of your friendship. [wags tail]

Viola (for Matney)

©2013 Steven Tomlinson, published with permission from the author

Viola's Sees Her First River

People ask, “How are you?” and I wonder:
What do you want to know? What can you handle?
What’s honest? What’s safe? What’s kind?

Ask Viola, and she says: YOU, HERE, NOW, LOVE, LICK, LICK, LOVE.
Of course, she oversimplifies. [She’s a dog.]
When I came home from the hospital, I thought I’d feel less helplessly dependent if I found something that depended on me. Isn’t that why people get dogs?

She knows no boundaries, no decorum, only joy effervescent, slathering sloppy kisses on my face, my sutures.

I ask: Viola, where does this come from?
Whence this mysterious annoyance of unconditionality?

And she cocks her head and reflects me in her eyes and wags her tail as if that were the answer.

And goddammit if she didn’t get parvo.

I find her curled up on the kitchen floor, fur matted with bloody diarrhea.

And I say: Shit, Viola. You can’t leave me. Goddammit, I don’t need this.

And in the waiting room, the vet strokes her tenderly and says,
“We have to put her in quarantine now.”
“What does that mean?”
“Sir, only one puppy in ten gets out. Even if we stop the virus, there’s the confinement. Dogs get lonely. They lose heart.”
“What can I do?”
“You can tell her you love her. You can tell her goodbye.”

I’d be more optimistic if I weren’t so good at math. If I were better at lying, I wouldn’t need to be such a good actor.

Viola, I love you, you know that.
Remember that. I’m right here.
And it’s not like there’s much left to say to someone who’s been licking you all over for weeks. And she says something hard to understand: LOVEYOUGOODBYEMAYBE — and flashes me in her eyes and wags her tail. LOVEYOUGOODBYEMAYBE.

No. No, you’re strong. You’re special. You can’t go — remember I’m here.


And I’m crying, as if more of my neediness does any good.


She knows Heidegger. She’s practiced.

I cover her face with kisses and give her to the vet and drive home trying to fathom a dog’s memory, the mercy of the eternal present. With any luck, she’s already forgotten.

But I will spend the rest of my life unpacking that gift.
And for the next two days, sharp bursts like arrows shoot upwards from my heart.

And the vet calls. “You need to come down here.”
“Is she…?”
“She’s OK. She’s going to be OK. We’ve never seen anything like it.”

And at his office, I find Viola, whole and stupidly happy, squirming in her bed, licking my tears.

“We’ve never seen anything like it. Her tail never stopped wagging.”

I say: You did it, Viola. You made it. Thank you. Thank you.
And she says: YOU. HERE. NOW. GO? [NO.] YOU. HERE. LICK. LICK. LOVE.

You can’t know how much love there is in the world until you need it all.
I just want things to get back to normal. But what is normal after you know.

So Viola and I lie on the couch, and I scratch her ears and say: I love you.
And I say: No. No goodbye. Just love.
And she cocks her head and wags her tail patiently as if to say: It is one word for us, these thoughts, together, always. You make two words? Weird. Funny.

So that’s how I am.
See yourself in my eyes.
If I had a tail, I would wag it.

Round One Winding Down

After diagnosis, I struggled for some weeks with the question of how to think and engage emotionally / intellectually with my effort to heal, to select carefully my Right way of abstracting it, of choosing the concept that would rally all my best resources for this protracted effort. A choice appeared: do I use the rhetoric of fight or the rhetoric of peace. With consideration, I chose to fight and to treat it as a battle for my life on behalf of myself and my beloved family (though here as everywhere dichotomies are at least reductive and usually false; surely there is a way of achieving both and other). Here I extend the metaphor of the fight to a boxing match.

As Liz and I move towards the  6-month-survival milestone which marks for me the winding down of the first round of this battle against cancer, it is time for me to look back, to status check, and to look forward to the next round; let’s cheekily call it a post-mortem. (I know, I know. Forgive me, for I am much more given to gallows humor of late.)

Looking Back

Now, about this round: it has been an active few months in the fight to keep my skin from killing me. Since my last post on the topic…:

  • the extraordinary benefit events coordinated by Beth Burns and contributed to by very many took place (which transformed Liz and my landscape, more on that soon)
  • I took a mind-clearing road trip to Taos with my dog Viola and met up there with my beloved sister for hikes up mountains, and river-swimming, and simple food
  • I got clean results on my three month check (August)
  • I succeeded in getting enrolled in a clinical trial in Virginia
  • two family members were diagnosed with cancer (both are now going through treatment with better-than-expected results so far)
  • I moved for 4 weeks to Virginia for part of the trial, and travelled back and forth one more time (so far)
  • During this time, I had the good fortune to work with Liz to co-direct a production of Tartuffe at Southwestern University (tickets), which opened last weekend and closes next

… and on December 4th, Round One will wind down when I get the results from my December 3rd PET/CT scan, which will either confirm that I continue to be “NED” (cancer jargon: “no evidence of disease”), or it will locate a recurrence or metastasis.

Some painful honesty: I am battered and bruised inside and out. I’ve got 4 new scars (one of which is sizable and actually scares children at the swimming pool, fo’ realz), and a life with 41 fewer lymph nodes. Emotionally and psychologically I’ve shifted, and of the ways to which I am alert, not all of them are shifts of which I am proud. I am however stronger and often (but not always) more emotionally resilient, and in some instances more courageous. There is something about staring sustainedly into the unforgiving eyes of death that has hardened me, for good and ill. And yet, it isn’t all grim. The support I’ve recieved has also made my heart grow a few sizes, and I am often acutely aware of how fortunate I am and have been in life. This is all to say that when, come December 4th, I win this round, it will not be because I look pretty (inside or out). But it is also to say that win or lose, this round (I can newly say with glorious green shoots of confidence) will not knock me down for the full count. I will be back to fight for Round Two, and if cancer wins Round One, I’ve bruised that fucker proper. To understand how good that feels, one need only know how recently it became the case I could say with confidence that I will be around for a Round Two (read “weeks ago”).

On Trial

I have been traveling back and forth to Virginia, where I have been supported by the incredible hospitality of Matt Davies, Amy Wratchford, and my friends at the American Shakespeare Center and Mary Baldwin College in Staunton. While there, I drive once a week to Charlottesville where the University of Virginia medical school team takes me through a clinical trial testing the efficacy of a “vaccine” for melanoma which consists of specific peptides (proteins) whose function is to train my immune system how to recognize the nasty cells, and “adjuvants” whose function is to shift my immune system into overdrive so that it can make best use of that recognition. The vaccine injection hurts like hell going in, and knocks me out a bit for about a day of feeling gross. However, this is a very modest price to pay. Additionally, they take various tissue and blood samples to make sure that the treatment isn’t doing harm. If the trial succeeds and gets approved, a vast improvement in melanoma treatment will have been achieved and fewer people will have to go through the standard “interferon” treatment, which can take 2 years and makes life  unpleasant, while showing little durable efficacy. This treatment period of my trial continues until January 6th, and I will be going back and forth between Austin and Virginia until that time.

Looking Forward

As always with these check ups, on December, two paths diverge in that there wood. If I am still NED, then I have reached a statistical milestone wherein my risks of recurrence continue to drop (dropping still slowly for a number of years), and which would mean that, while staying vigilant, I will be able to look a little less over my shoulder for a grim dude what wants to reap. In this case, Round Two might then be a less demanding round than the first, enabling me to focus more on quality of life and returning to a state of semi-normalcy (though I confess, I’ve forgot what that feels like and perhaps what it looks like). If, on the other hand, a recurrence or metastasis is found, I will launch promptly back into surgeries or new chemical or radiation treatments, and Round Two will again ask as much as I have.

I am confident. This can be beat, and it can be beat by me (with the help of friends and family). This battle will rage for a while yet, but it is possible. And while I sometimes find myself in miserable despair, it is increasingly often that I believe not only that I can survive this, but that I will. And with this change, Liz and I are now planning projects and expectations that track out years. Looking forward to a vital life, while accepting impermanence and the urgency of living truthfully right now – this is the lesson that is available to me now if I can sustain the courage to learn it. I plan on it.

Tartuffe Directors’ Notes (Unabridged)

On Friday night, Southwestern University’s production of Tartuffe opens (tickets), a production that Liz and I have been honored to co-direct. In theory, Liz and I are slightly allergic to director’s notes, feeling that the work stage must stand on its own without explanatory notes. And yet it is part of the process, and so we sat down to write them. In practice however, we must not dislike it too much, because when we got to writing, we got so carried away that we had to cut our initial draft by 50% to fit into the playbill. Yeesh.

Here below is the “unabridged” version of our director’s notes, half of which will only ever see the light of day here in this post.

Playbill Director’s Notes

Welcome to the 2013 Sarofim School of Fine Arts production of Moliere’s Tartuffe, one of history’s most controversial plays. In its first days, a performance of this play resulted in very public censorship, a frenzied series of physical and spiritual threats published in letters and newspapers, as well as a series of private letters from playwright Moliere to his patron, friend, and King, Louis XIV, pleading to have the censorship (and his resulting difficulties) lifted. Eventually, and after edits about which we know little (but theorize much), the King allows the ban to be lifted, solidifying Moliere’s status as a favorite of the court. It is this “unbanned” version of the play we have today, not the original.

On the surface, however, the play is hardly controversial; if the revelation here is that sometimes the overtly pious hypocritically use the appearance of their devotion to further their monetary and erotic goals, and that some of those times people are duped into generosity built on lies, then we all know the lesson before the play begins. Our televisions show us proven examples of leaders getting caught with their hand in one of several cookie jars on a regrettably regular basis. And one assumes that the common and court peoples of 17th century France were similarly un-astounded that not everyone was pure.

The real controversy is deeper, both in Moliere’s time and our own. The real explosions in the fight surround whether art itself has the right or duty to reveal hypocrisy of those in power. And the answer for us today is obviously “yes…” until, of course, you believe that you are the one being portrayed, mocked, and chastened. One need look no further than the pointed commentary and frequent backlash that Jon Stewart and the writing staff of The Daily Show receive from other news pundits and politicians as they mock the leadership of the free world.

When an informal (but tacitly sanctioned) group of the Catholic church succeeded in censoring the celebrated Moliere on the grounds that the titular character of Tartuffe was meant to skewer their group, the question of censorship was put to the court of public opinion (as well as a few other courts). And it got fiery (including a proactive and general excommunication threatened to any who attended the play) in both directions before resolving years later. After Moliere’s rewrites, which we can safely assume included increased showcasing not only the potential hypocrisy of overt piety (Tartuffe), but also making more prominent the fortifying results of authentic, even-minded, and rational piety (as represented by Cleante and Elmire), the censorship is lifted.

And the question of censorship in the arts, both active and passive, is still very much alive. While we perhaps cannot then thank Moliere for teaching us (or his contemporary audience) that hypocrisy exists, we can thank him for giving us many of the best phrases to name it, and also for generating a historical moment controversial enough that it still stands as a beacon, reminding us to resist censorship, and reminding us that a culture that has ceased to critique, mock and dissect itself is a culture too homogeneous to survive a catastrophe or, (more hopeful yet,) avoid one. Hats off to Moliere, an early fighter for a very particular and important kind of freedom, and not coincidentally, our First Amendment.

Why The Mash Up?

Tartuffe was written, and takes place, within a moment of transition from the elaborate aesthetic form of Baroque to the neo-classicism and function-centric aesthetic of the enlightenment, and from the theatrical form of commedia dell’arte to the earliest germs of realism. We see these pairs of movements conflict in various ways through the course of the play, which looks decidedly in both directions: fore and aft, (not ambiguous, but) ambivalent.

We have designed this production as a mash-up of “Louis Quatorze” France and contemporary pop-culture in order to cast light on this contrast within the play, while adding a modern pop to the potentially soporific (if virtuosic) looks and sounds of the Baroque.

Why The Resurgence?

This academic year, three central Texas universities (Texas A&M University, St. Edward’s University, and Southwestern University) will stage productions of Tartuffe; a web search suggests that this isn’t an anomaly specific to central Texas higher education. So why the sudden interest in this particular 325-350 year old play? It’s a popular title from Moliere, an undoubted contributor of the western canon, and yet, when we see a broad resurgence of a play as we see here, we can assume the play is speaking to some immediate zeitgeist. Tartuffe’s plot, in simple, pits hypocritical religious piety against authentic piety, as well as reason against gullibility. It would appear therefore that We are acutely concerned with hypocrisy just now. But while it is commonplace to find examples of political hypocrisy today, when we compare this moment to recent decades, it is relatively difficult to find examples this decade of highly visible religious hypocrisy (a la Ted Haggard, Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, etc.). Are we simply allowing “religious hypocrisy” to stand in for “political hypocrisy” in this art work? Or do we see small, daily, non-public examples of religious hypocrisy that aren’t making the headlines? Both? Neither? We don’t know the answer, but this play opens our eyes to it and our curiosity will outlive the run of this production.

Why This Translation?

We selected this 2008 translation by Constance Congdon (an alternative to the popular and masterful 1960’s translation by Richard Wilbur) for its urgent pace, its modern(ish) idiom, and its adherence to meter and rhyme. Congdon created a playable text that sounds true to both the Baroque and our own period.

The original was writ by Moliere in rhyming iambic tetrameter (a.k.a. “ alexandrine”), a metrical verse form which sounds natural in French. Meter is part of the play’s meaning, and its music, and so it was important to us to find a metrical translation. In English however, alexandrine sounds heavy to the ear, and so we sought an English translation to the lighter and more familiar “iambic pentameter.”

In Spring 2014, nearby St. Edward’s University will be using Ranjit Bolt’s 2002 verse translation. Join us as we attend that production too, for a verse Tartuffe-off. If we get our way, we will all subsequently stage a scene from West Side Story wherein the St. Edward’s cast and ours face-off in song and dance for translation bragging rights. Gauntlet thrown.

Thank you audience for joining us in the theater. And thank you faculty and students for having us as guests in your program.

We hope you laugh both with and at the fools,
Co-Directors: Liz Fisher and Robert Matney

A Day of Reckoning

Today is a day of reckoning. In a couple hours, Liz and I will learn the results of the most recent round of tests (PET/CT scans + brain MRI) to discover whether melanoma has come back since my surgeries this summer. My odds of recurrence will never be worse than they are right now. If we clear this hurdle, they will slowly get better over the next couple years, after which point they begin to rapidly get better until they plateau around year 12 at a relatively low likelihood of recurrence.

The result of this is that for the last week, I’ve felt rather like a person tied to a train track, hoping that no train is scheduled until after today. (Apologies are likely due to co-workers, friends and family for what I am sure has been a quicker-than-usual temper.) This emotional phenomenon is often called “scanxiety” in the cancer community.

If the results come back the way we want (and the way I am expecting), then our old treatment options will be reconfirmed, and one of them will begin before long. If the results come back badly, I graduate to stage IV, and everything changes.

I’ll post back here by end of day tomorrow with how this plays out. Many thanks to friends for your ongoing kind and loving support.

All Cancer-y Up In Here

It has been an eventful ride since my last blog post on tech/culture/theater.  On May 11th, 2013, I posted the following announcement to my facebook account as a way of sharing news I’d received a bit earlier with my community of family and friends.

“He that conceals his grief finds no remedy for it.” -Anonymous proverb.

Friends, the last two weeks has included a surgery and a gradually escalating series of diagnoses for me, currently “Stage III malignant melanoma” that has spread to at least one lymph node. This may be shocking for some of you; it is shocking for Liz and I. We wanted to let you know now because this facebook feed is about to be conspicuously absent of photos from our long-planned trip to Russia, and because before long we will launch into treatment and may need to lean once-again into our beloved community of friends and family for support. I’ll endeavor to avoid maudlin here (indeed I must), but be warned that it may get all cancer-y up in here. For the moment we are well and are in the process of discovering how best to prepare for a vital, healthful recovery.

[Content shift warning] While I intend to resume posting about the topics that interest me most (tech/culture/theater), I will also be writing plentifully about this journey with cancer, what has past and what is to come, including, wherever possible, information targeted to educate people on how they can help themselves and their loved ones avoid this dreadful disease and also information intended to help those who come after me down this regrettable trail.

New digs, blogwise

Some boxes take a while to unpack. Last spring, the platform was acquired by twitter and promptly moth-balled. I started then the process of transitioning to a new location for casual blog writing, but never finished. Until now.

The import of content from my now-mothballed to is finally complete, and I’ll be firing up writing again about culture, tech, theater, and health stuffs. Subscribe here if you wish to get updates via email as they are published.

Hacking Theatre In A Networked World

[Originally published at]

We come to the theatre to satisfy a luddite urge for something more visceral, more live and less mediated, more unpredictable than a two dimensional screen provides. It is, then, no surprise that the theatre selects for, and cultivates, in its practitioners a reticence to integrate new technology. Let’s own up, collectively we are late adopters.

As theater artists, we have an obligation, I think, to remedy this, or we find ourselves sprinting (faster) toward our obsolescence and abdicating our duty to hold a mirror to nature in an increasingly technological culture. Let us hack theatre for a networked world, using the internet’s numerical, geographical, and temporal scalability to interact with new audiences, insist on an ongoing and authentic relevance for our work, test new forms, and propagate new possibilities while preserving what is essential about our discipline. Let us trust that theatre is resilient enough to make this leap as it has made many others, and that it will survive a modest but important re-programming. And of course, in the pursuit of this remedial integration, let us seek methods that integrate deeply into the art and the aesthetic, rather than yield to the easy seduction of bolt-on and gimmicky technical appendages.

Austin, a bubbling cauldron of new works for theater and a world-class center of hi-tech startups should be a foci of this work, and yet it’s marvelous potential as a capital of innovation for digital integration with performing art remains largely unrealized. There are virtually no dedicated performance spaces with a functional wired internet connection, and only one, to my knowledge offering substantial connection speeds (>15 Mbps downs & 1.5 Mbps up). So our work is cut out for us in making good on these extraordinary possibilities in Austin.

I’ve been team-working with Beth Burns at Hidden Room Theatre, Graham Schmidt at Breaking String Theater, Ron Berry at Fusebox Festival, Paul Menzer and Matt Davies at Mary Baldwin College (Staunton, VA), and Philip Arnoult at the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD; Baltimore, MD) to work on disparate pieces of hi-tech integration into the work of theater on stage and off.

For Mary Baldwin College, we are currently working with the Shakespeare and Performance faculty and graduate students to co-create as an experimental platform for digital dramaturgy (or “digiturgy,” a term recently introduced to me by Cassidy Browning during the Cohen New Works Festival). We seek here not merely a simple web publishing site with access-control that attends to the requirements of fair use and copyright limitations in both professional and academic contexts, but also a means of integrating open APIs and freely available web-based data streams to open up new possibilities for dramaturgical content and analysis [such as the ability to simply plot a plays locations in an interactive map so artist and audience can pull the kind of data they desire about the play’s location(s)].

With the CITD, Mr. Arnoult, Susan Stroupe and I are preparing to digitize and live stream for real-time interaction many of the events of the Beyond the Capitals II project, an international exchange project funded by the Bilateral Presidential Commission: American Seasons in Russia, a program of the US Embassy in Moscow, and which will travel throughout Russia this May. Our goal is to ensure that all of the American participants in the Beyond The Capitals I project can take the journey with us and engage digitally and interact with the artists we will be visiting in Russia.

At Fusebox, we are in the early stages of building an Art+Technology platform to feature and sustain exploratory work, education, and productions that innovate in the area of art and technology integration. This year’s festival features a number of exciting works, including Motion Bank and Ant Hampton’s Cue China.

With Breaking String Theater and Hidden Room Theatre respectively, we’ve live-streamed various performances, QA sessions, and discussion panels including live textual interaction between audience members and artists. For Breaking String’s Vodka, Fucking and Television we doubled audience size and integrated the Russian playwright’s real-time responses and reactions into our post-show discussion. For BTS’s New Russian Drama Festival we’ve increased audience members and included commentary and interaction from playwrights and critics located in Russia. For Hidden Room’s original practices production of Rose Rage and premiere of Paul Menzer’s Invisible, Inc. we multiplied audiences, with synchronous conversation transpiring during the performance between digital audience members and artists. For these we’ve used both HowlRound’s #NewPlayTV channel and Google+ Hangouts On Air (G+HOA), and various hardware set ups, as well as Twitter to add additional textual interaction between audiences and artists.

In the Hidden Room, we seek to solve a distinct art/technology challenge with each project. The first challenge we undertook was to patch together two disparate geographical locations into one contiguous aural and visual performance space. In You Wouldn’t Know Her, She Lives In London (named so in Austin) / You Wouldn’t Know Him, He Lives In Texas (named so in London), we teamed up with Mimi Poskitt and Look Left Look Right theatre, and tethered a site-specific venue in Austin with the Roundhouse in London, with both venues including a portion of the cast and a full in-location audience. We picked up video in each location and cross-displayed it, “lining up” the people and equipment for mutual visibility for all participants. Additionally, we micro-phoned and cross-amplified the spaces such that if an Austinite opened a candy wrapper during the performance they could successfully annoy the audience in Austin and London. We then used a separate computer in London to take the video conversation between the Austin and London locations, and stream the results to the web for a third, online audience. In all locations, a twitter hashtag delimited text stream was presented and all audiences were encouraged to interact with each other and the performers for shared textual visibility.

Hidden Room’s next project was to tune our technical process to enable transcontinental rehearsal. With Rose Rage, we conducted our rehearsals with actors located in London, Cornwall, Virginia, and Austin. This process took us through 75% of the rehearsal period before we gathered in Austin to present a run of this 6 hour production.

Having been featured in panels at SXSW Interactive 2011 and 2012, Hidden Room was asked by SXSW to return in 2013 and present a performance. For this project, our goal was to discover means to feed transmedia content to an audience during a performance. The piece was called Girl With Time In Her Eyes, and for it we delivered to the audience QR Codes during the performance that yielded text messages, contact phone and email data, web URLs and other media which fleshed out the world of the play, offering clues to understand the narrative mysteries, and enable teamwork amongst the audience as they sought to retrieve all the available information. I think we learned more than we succeeded in this project, and yet it was a promising workshop for a later full production.

Looking to the future, I am currently working with actor and director (and my spouse) Liz Fisher to implement a method for collecting incremental digital feedback from an audience that allows the audience to steer the trajectory of a narrative. This project is in stealth mode right now, and I look forward to sharing more publicly about it soon.

Our world is networked, and our theatre need no longer be wholly defined by a proscenium arch, a back box, a physical space (empty or otherwise). The consideration that theatre, technology, and culture must proceed with some caution and with an eye towards preventing the loss of what is essential (and visceral and unmediated) is precisely what is needed in theatre, technology, and culture. It is then the honorable responsibility of those theater makers most concerned with the cultural impact of digital media to live in the belly of the beast, to hammer out what this new theater looks like, and to present their considerations to the process. Abdicating this, the field is left to those without these concerns, and theater itself rushes headlong further into obsolescence. Our increasingly digital culture needs luddite theater makers to have a seat at the table to hack a viable, rich, humane future.

Cadence Degradation


Effective communication relies, at core, on rhythm, cadence. Prior to affection or antipathy, empathy and comprehension, there is a cadence that invites us to listen, to engage, to participate. Competent communicators establish a cadence and manipulate it according to narrative, emotional, and other requirements. Superior communicators and performers establish this cadence with the audience with great celerity. And the building of a relationship, in part, is the building of patterns and activities that support being in sync. This holds for a speech, a conversation, a dance, a piece of theater, a business meeting, romantic intimacy, and so on.

Theater (and communication) that transpires not merely across a room, or a network, but across the internet faces a significant challenge: the latency introduced by transfer of audio and video data. And while this can be variously mitigated, it cannot be (and indeed, at a global scale will never be) eliminated. As data latency increases, the conversational cadence degrades. At latencies of 250 milliseconds, sustaining cadence, and thus narrative and dramatic connection, becomes stilted and awkward. Conversely, as latencies drop to sub 100 milliseconds, the rhythm flows and the artistic and emotional value of the communication is more readily established. A primary challenge of the work then is the prevention and mitigation of cadence degradation.

My goal in setting up the technology is a two-way lag of less than 100 milliseconds. Higher than that and we start “stepping on each other’s lines.” Unfortunately, at half-globe distances, even the speed of light yields a roundtrip lag-time of 200 milliseconds. So, it is crucial to get key participants on board with how to engage in conversation in ways that tolerate lag time.

Technical solutions should be deployed everywhere available to reduce cadence degradation. This requires consideration of network dynamics, including quality of service (QOS) packet prioritization, as well as microphone placement, etc.

But crucially, the solution cannot be purely technological (at half-globe scale, the tech solutions are unequal to the task). It also requires a panoply of communication human (humane?) techniques. For example, Beth Burns, playwright and director of the play that has been the crux of this work and exploration, discovered early that the little verbal cues we offer each other during conversation can themselves, as a result of lag time, be interruptive, compounding the issue and contributing to cadence degradation. She discovered that non-verbal cues such as a nodded head, a thumbs up, will indicate the desired assent and support in ways that diminish the interruption.

Among the ways to mitigate is to deploy the most effective data compression available to streamline data transfer. But there is, here too, technological limitations and opportunity for human techniques. The questions arises, how do we create visual/audio data that is most compressible? Still video images are more compressible than video images with dynamic movement (see the well-wrought wikipedia article on video compression for summary info on this point). As lag time builds during a video conference conversation, a way to address it is to create more compressible data, specifically, to be more physically still.

What this excitingly points to is the existence of a set of latent techniques for “acting for the real-time compressed data stream” that mirrors, but is not at all identical to, the set of acting techniques that the pioneers from stage to cinema first discovered. And no one I’ve found is talking about this yet.