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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Rumaker

A Story on the Importance of New Beginnings (or why this is the last I AM Series: Blog Post)

It started in the first weeks of Spring, with Yuko telling me, “I feel disconnected from the featured artist events.”

I asked her what she wanted to do if not the monthly events at Bar Thalia. “Panel Discussions,” she said. A few months later, the NYU x I AM Series panel discussion with artists occurred, on the theme of Crime & Punishment. Yuko was overjoyed, having brought people together through a format that inspired her.

At the next I AM Series monthly event, she said it again. She had no more interest in doing these featured artist events at Bar Thalia. It upset her. The venue and her had a great relationship. So many members of the community she had created had connected with her through the monthly themed shows. She didn’t want to let people down.

I wanted to tell her, “If your heart isn’t in it, then you aren’t in it.” These events might have been her vision and creation, but it was time to move on if her current vision and passion was elsewhere. I felt like I was watching the beginning of the end of a close friend’s romantic relationship. I knew it was over, but she still had no clue. I said nothing, knowing the breakup from this showcase was bound to happen one way or another.

Early in the summer, we found ourselves chatting on our kitchen floor late at night. I decided to get to the bottom of her unease. Yuko will be the first to tell you that she dislikes being asked lots of questions when she doesn’t have clear answers. As I asked her question after question, in the way I sometimes do as her creative strategist, she became frustrated.

“I don’t know,” she would say.

I would respond, “What would the answer be if you had to guess?” Annoying to her, I’m sure. But she played ball.

After about an hour, she revealed how she wanted to go home to Japan to visit her family. It had been years. I asked her why she hadn’t gone yet. She said she didn’t have the funds.

I said, “For a few years you couldn’t go home because of Trump and the visa situation. You waited for a year for your green card, but your narrative became ‘I cannot go home.’ Once you got your green card, the narrative stayed the same, but the reason changed. So instead of saying ‘I can’t go home,’ and holding onto that narrative, let’s commit to getting you home, no question. Then the problem solving can be focused on figuring out how.” I asked her to get precise on exactly how much she would need for the trip, then to see how much she would need to make. She came up with an estimate number. I then said, “Okay, now to figure out how you want to make this money.”

The next day she came up to me and said, “I started writing my solo show. I’m going to do it as a fundraiser for Japan.”

This solo show stood in the shadow of her first attempt at a solo show, 18 months earlier. She had planned on doing a show, but got scared no one would come, so she invited a bunch of friends to do a show with her. Thus, I AM Series, a space for creatives and artists to come together to support one another, was born.

Three days later, she gave me the script to look over. I gave her notes and edits, she made the changes, she asked me to direct it, I said yes. We had 4 weeks to put it together.

We discussed fundraising strategy, marketing, logistics, and rehearsal process. We roadmapped a clear game plan and challenging financial and ticket sales goals. Just the two of us wouldn’t be able to make it work though. We needed a solid team on this.

Our other roommate, Shino, returned home from producing a Charlie Brown in Japan. I used that as more evidence of why Yuko got to go home, too. Shino became our producer. Fundraising plan, check. Rehearsal schedule, check. Sarah Glassman came on as Yuko’s Music Director. We jumped all in, flying at the seat of our pants, loving (and crying through) it all.

Four weeks later, the show succeeded by every standard set for the show. More tickets sold than expected, more funds raised than expected, more fun than we thought it could be. Yuko was overjoyed. She had put the monthly event at Bar Thalia behind her.

Yet we started talking about plans for the next showcase in September. We had dates set through the rest of the calendar year. We couldn’t just drop them. Even though Yuko was disconnected (as were the rest of us) we trudged on.

Old habits die hard.

At the same time, I was editor-in-chief of this blog. It was an experiment we started over the summer, an idea I had been itching to try. Yuko trusted me with the responsibility and I jumped on it eagerly. But it didn’t take long for me to realize it wasn’t what I thought it would be. Either it was the timing, with other projects (like Yuko’s solo show), or it was simply my execution of the blog, not as connected or interested in it as I thought I would be.

Not wanting to disappoint the team who had entrusted me with the blog, not wanting to be a fraud or a failure, not wanting to quit too early on a good idea, I kept quiet.

Old habits die hard.

Now for an aside. Last year, on a subway ride at 4am, I read a short little business strategy book called Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson, an allegory for successful decision making that explores two humans and two mice who live in a maze. Each day, the four characters search for cheese. Once they find a pile of cheddar, the two humans get comfortable, while the two mice keep exploring between meals. One morning, the cheese runs out. The mice leave for new cheese right away. The two humans, comfortable and content having once had a mountain of cheese, are afraid to leave. What if there is no cheese in the maze and they die? What if they waste their energy and fail to find something else? If they just wait a little longer, the cheese will definitely come back.

Substitute cheese with “monthly showcase” for Yuko, and “blog” for me, and you’ll have the core of our dilemma. We had grown content with the existence of the blog and the monthly showcase, but when satisfaction no longer came from these sources, we found ourselves unwilling to move on. People were counting on us. Yuko’s team was counting her. She was counting on me. We couldn’t quit these things.

In refusing to let go and move forward, we made ourselves upset and angry and frustrated and tired. Once the cheese has moved, all you’re left with is your hunger and fear. Each showcase, Yuko would come home frustrated. Each blog post, I would hear that voice in the back of my head saying I wanted to work on theater and music.

We resented these feelings, wanting to push away and ignore the dissatisfaction. But the desire to move on was our truth, getting louder and angrier and sadder until we had no choice but to acknowledge what we really wanted. Bar Thalia and the blogosphere were no longer our arenas of choice and cheese.

During a meeting months earlier, Shino had said she wanted to make theater. Recalling that idea, I asked, “why don’t we make the solo show our thing and start a little apartment production company.” Having spent months working in operations at a start-up, I was inspired. I suggested weekly production meetings to plan and organize ourselves. We would just be doing what worked with Yuko’s show, but with someone else’s show. Chasing the cheese instead of waiting for it to move.

We decided the last few I AM Series showcases on the 2019 calendar would be special. I suggested that I AM: Ghost involve ghostwriting. During I AM: GRACE, poet extraordinaire Lady Kay and I collabed with a piece where we interchanged short passages. Shino asked us if we wrote each other’s words. “No,” I said, “But that would be a great idea for a show.”

For our grand finale, I suggested we do a competition style show, since Yuko and I had just recently finished obsessing over Rhythm & Flow (and I grew up watching reality competition shows). We knew we wanted to create high interest for ourselves by doing things that we enjoyed and didn’t feel pressured into doing. Shino, Yuko, and I were excited about this one. We had a taste of that cheese.

I AM: FINAL is occurring this Friday, and we are excited for it because it’s new and scary. 8 audience members who enter their names will be randomly selected to compete in 3 rounds. Each round, a panel of I AM Series Showcase hosts will act as judges, whittling the contestants down from 8 to 4, then from 4 to 2, then finally deciding the winner, who will receive at least $150 and an opportunity for a future I AM Series event slot. Get your ticket here!

We have no idea if people will come willing and prepared to compete. People might be too unsure of the structure, wary of the prizes, or too afraid of being judged to have fun. We could be putting out a $150 prize payout and come at a loss because of ticket sales. We could embarrass ourselves as judges trying on a format we are new to. This could be a huge disappointment if it doesn’t work, with all the marketing Yuko has created and promoted, all the ideas I’ve nuanced into a workable show format, all of Shino’s feedback and legwork on the backend. We worry so much about all this and more.

But we don’t give a fuck. Period. We are doing it because our instincts compel us to, after much thought, reflection, feedback, and discussion. We are trusting ourselves to make our vision work, even if the vision changes again and again and again. We got a taste of fulfillment and joy and excitement and we’re going for more of it.

We won’t give up on our shared dream to develop opportunities and discussions that empower artists and creatives. We won’t give up on finding ways to pay artists. We won’t give up on collaboration with those whose voices are marginalized and ignored. We won’t stop creating community in a time and place where isolation and individualism is considered the norm.

And it’ll look completely different in two years than it does right now.

I’m getting hype typing this, because we are starting over and this time we are wiser, stronger, smarter, better prepared, and clearer in vision than the last time.

We still have I AM Finale to rock. The Artist Circle Potluck will be back in 2020. Shino Frances: Here I Stay is premiering in December. The next Panel Discussion event is slated for Spring. Yuko’s second solo show comes in early 2020. We have other top-secret shows coming throughout all of 2020.

This next decade is going to be amazing! We are so glad you are willing to take the journey with us!

So, without further ado, as your editor-in-chief on this short experiment, this is a bye-for-now. As one of the hosts of I AM Series monthly showcase, smell ya later alligator.

This is Brandon “Brando” Rumaker, signing off! Ciao! :)

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