It had been ten years since I’d been on a bike. Jetlagged and disoriented, with more than fifteen hours of plane and train travel hanging around me like weights on my limbs, already filled beyond capacity with the strangeness of being in a new country, I stared at the drop that might make me overflow: a little blue bicycle. My host in Augsburg, a German student named Leonie I’d met for the first time half an hour before, had already hopped onto hers, tucking her skirt underneath her and resting her right foot, in its red high-heeled shoe, on the pedal. This was a clash of cultures in miniature: growing up in hilly, car-happy Pittsburgh, I’d never developed comfort with or love for two wheels; Leonie, raised in a country crisscrossed with bike lanes, I’m sure never thought for a second that a twenty-two-year-old human wouldn’t be totally at home on a bike. “We’re going to the train station,” she said, tossed me a key to the lock, and that was it. No words of encouragement or sympathy. She was off. Standing there and staring at my new ride in disbelief until she’d pedaled out of sight wasn’t an option—I had no idea where I was, no cell phone or knowledge of German to help me figure that out if I lost her—so I was off, too, wobbling over the cobbled, twisted old city center streets into the thick of Augsburg rush hour, helmetless in true German student style.
Five years later, hardly a day goes by where I don’t commute a good ten or twenty miles by bike. I’ve lived in Chicago and Brooklyn without buying monthly metro cards from March through November. The way a bicycle changes my experience of a city, acquaints me with its contours, tattoos its cardinal directions deep in me through muscle memory, gives me a truer sense of its size and the way one neighborhood gradates into the next, is something I can’t imagine living without. But it took that do-or-die ride in Augsburg to get me in the saddle at all.
I want to talk about creating necessity. If we believe necessity is the mother of invention, then necessity should have a place in a conversation about innovation.
There is value in forcing yourself to do the things you think you can’t do. It’s like when I finally learned German. Fifteen months of language classes with other American students at my university and I could ace any grammar quiz but I couldn’t make my mouth or brain form a sentence in real time. It took moving to Berlin. It took roommates who, when I told them not to speak English to me, listened. It took a German boyfriend. It took being willing to speak like a five-year-old at the age of twenty-five. Very few born-and-raised Americans are put through this experience. It’s something you have to seek out.
There are things you can only understand through doing them. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since seeing Aaron Landsman, Mallory Catlett, and Jim Findlay’s City Council Meeting last week, with its apt tagline, “performed participatory democracy.” You show up and you’re told no one’s in charge but you, anybody can do this, here are the roles you can choose to play this evening, ready-set-go. There are a lot of things going on in City Council Meeting but where I find it to be ultimately an extremely valuable piece of live performance is in the way it makes its audience go through the motions of being a city council member, or a speaker at a council meeting. It’s less a performance than a rehearsal, and in this it shares a great deal with Theater of the Oppressed techniques. As a councilmember or speaker in City Council Meeting, you are literally reading transcripts from actual meetings and inhabiting the complex rules and ceremonies that govern these meetings, and this has the effect of making them less foreign and scary. “Anybody can do this,” you hear it over and over in the course of the performance, but the experience of actually doing it is the real gift that City Council Meeting gives its audience. And City Council Meeting creates a real feeling, for its audience members, that their participation is necessary: the show can’t happen if nobody steps into these roles. That’s what makes us step in. The need creates trust.
External structures and commitments create necessity (I need to keep my day job so I can eat and pay rent, I need to go to the workshop I teach on Mondays because I’ve committed to the afterschool program and the kids in it, I need to volunteer to play a speaker in City Council Meeting so that the show can happen). But as a theatermaker who largely self-produces, the “necessity” of creating the stuff I want to make as an artist is (at least at the outset) completely personal. So I’m always working towards making that necessity feel real and external to myself. In other words, make myself feel like I need to figure this out.
I have two favorite ways of creating necessity. One is deadlines. Bold ones, ones that involve commitment. There exist lucky humans who stick to personal goals and deadlines once they’ve set them. I’m not one of them, so I have to find a way to make my deadlines real and make them matter. There has to be a way in which I’m held accountable. Buying a plane ticket so that I know I’ve got to get on a plane on Wednesday to meet my German or Serbian collaborators. Committing to a performance date and knowing there’ll be audience.
My other favorite way of manufacturing necessity is through collaboration. You’re accountable to someone other than yourself. But it’s important to structure the collaboration in a way that moves forward, that makes you do and not just talk. Force yourself to do the things you can’t do, or that you don’t yet understand. And build deadlines into these collaborations, too, ones that feel real and scary.
When it does nothing else, creating necessity makes me get shit done. It makes me do the things I want to do.
But it has the potential, also, to birth innovation. Necessity by itself isn’t enough to make invention happen. It’s when it feels necessary to do something that seems impossible.
And innovation isn’t always huge, apparent, or immediate. In the case of learning to love bicycles, I wasn’t blazing any trails. I didn’t invent a bicycle and I didn’t invent a new way to ride one. Then again, it fundamentally altered the way I live in direct and indirect ways, and it’s led me to create my life anew. If I work towards making my own creative practice new with every project and every day, and making that creative practice feel necessary, then innovation’s going to be a part of the artist I become.
Cory Tamler is a cofounder of performance collective Yinzerspielen, with which she has created and produced performance pieces in the USA and abroad since 2009—most recently, an evening of short performance pieces curated each night by the audience at The Bishop. She is the recipient of a CEC ArtsLink Project Award and a NET/TEN Seed Grant, was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin in 2011 and holds a B.A. in physics and writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She has written features and criticism for HowlRound, the Theatertreffen blog (Berlin), and Artparasites. Upcoming: Casa de Pessoa (in IATI Theater’s Performing Arts Marathon, NYC); Unlisted: Second Steel (series of site-specific performances activating public space, Pittsburgh). She lives in Brooklyn.