Swim Pony uses science-minded experimentation in artistic exploration

It might seem that science and the arts are at odds with each other – “left brain” vs. “right brain” thinking, facts and stats vs. thoughts and feelings, lab coats and calculators vs. paint brushes and political provocation. But at the heart of science is a quest for knowledge driven by experimentation – creativity at its core.
As an undergraduate, Philadelphia-based artist Adrienne Mackey majored in theatre and chemistry. At first blush, one seems to have shockingly little to do with the other, but it is her background in science that has shaped her work in theatre.
She graduated knowing that she wanted to do original, site-specific work, but was not drawn to the idea of the “traditional” ensemble-based theatre company.
“[My chemistry studies informed] my sense of process and experimentation, both in terms of the content of the work and the way the work was made,” says Mackey. “As a young director and eventually self-producer, I always figured, ‘Oh, I’ll just find a group of people and make a theater company,’ but it just never quite seemed like the right choice.”
She would work with a small group of people for one project, then break it apart and form another group for another project – “more like a band than a theatre company” – while taking on different roles herself with each project.
When she decided she wanted to formalize the brand name of the work she was doing as Swim Pony, she wanted to create a model that would allow the company to change as it grew, not wanting to pigeonhole herself into any one thing. She remembers seeing the interests of one of her mentors, the founder and artistic director of the now-defunct Mum Puppettheatre, grow beyond puppetry, but he had set a mission that was totally fixed and couldn’t be adjusted.
Mackey wanted to keep her options open and her themes broad, with the freedom to pursue any kind of project she wanted, “as long as [the project] was artistically fulfilling and plays with the boundaries of how people think about live performance, like testing a theory in a scientific sense.”
She incorporates that kind of rigorous scientific inquiry into much of her work, and, whether intentional or not, themes of science and exploration tend to emerge. Past projects have included SURVIVE!, an experiential performance/installation/choose-your-own-adventure story that explored the existence of science and humanity in the universe through 128 possible unique versions of the show. Giant Squid – a co-production with The Berserker Residents that mixed elements of deep-sea sci-fi, screwball comedy, and cooperative Eldritch Horror – toured science lecture halls throughout Philadelphia.
There was also a collaboration with Eastern State Penitentiary, The Ballad of Joe Hill, looking at the turn-of-the-century folk music icon, union leader, and executed murder trial defendant Joe Hill, a haunting production that truly maximized its site specificity. Both Squid and Joe Hill were part of Swim Pony’s “Outside the (Black) Box” series, funded by the Knight Arts Challenge.
“These are all about getting people into different ways of interacting with the performance in a space,” says Mackey. “[Outside the (Black) Box] was an aim to fund theatre in nontraditional spaces to get people out of this idea that there’s only one version of what a live performance can be.”
A fellowship with Fringe Arts got Mackey thinking about how artists in different mediums approach their practice – and how those different approaches can be used in collaborative, experimental ways.
“[During conversations with artists from other mediums], I noticed that the dancers really thought differently both about process and about creating content,” she says. “Dance and theatre are identical in about 90% of the ways that they do things, but I just started to really think about and frame things differently when I spoke to people from a different medium.”
Once again, Mackey decided to experiment. She submitted a second proposal to the Knight Arts Challenge for Cross Pollination, a residence program that would bring Mackey together with two other artists from different genres who would simply “hang out together for a week and share and make things, then invite people to come in and interact with whatever we did.”
To her (delighted!) surprise, the project was funded…and suddenly she had to find a whole lot of artists from other genres to participate in it.
“I probably sent a thousand emails!” she laughs. “‘Anybody in Philadelphia who makes a thing please apply for this crazy program!‘ I was posting flyers at any coffee shop that had a poster board, and was online pulling any email address I could find. [I would send emails saying], ‘You seem to make cool stuff, please apply for this program! This money comes from Knight, I swear it’s legit! I’m not selling anything!'” 
After a year and a half of planning, her hustle paid off: the first round paired Guggenheim Fellow novelist Ken Kalfus with installation artist Cindy Stockton Moore from Grizzly Grizzly, who made an interactive walking audio tour that ended with a live scene written by Kalfus and directed by Mackey. One group had a modern dancer paired with a fiber artist who studied Navaho rug weaving. Another group paired a dance duo with a photographer, and they explored the idea of how we present shame as artists.
“I direct all the time; my whole goal was to invite the other two artists in and say, ‘This is a trio effort. I have no more or less weight than you two in terms of how we explore and what we do.’ It was really neat to just be in a room with somebody without the pressure of having a massive final project,” says Mackey. “It felt like this amazing thing – both the connection to different people in the community but also to continue to play with that sense of experimentation and trying to keep my brain open to different possibilities of making things. It really felt like it was equally a research project for the larger [artist] community.”
The first round of Cross Pollination ran for eight weeks from September 2014 to January 2015. The second round starts this fall and will consist of six groups over six weeks.
“The first year was all about asking, ‘How do you write an application for this? What kind of team do you need? What kind of space do you need and what kind of stuff do you want?’ And also how to communicate it. We were figuring out what it was as we were doing it.”
Another upcoming project from Swim Pony will examine the intersection of art and technology through the mediums of participatory theatre and gaming. Mackey is working with the game studio at Drexel University, where she also teaches, bringing together the Swim Pony artistic team with computer programmers to work on a War of the Worlds type of app paired with live performance.
“How can you maximize what live performers can do alongside what tech can provide in a useful structure? How can I think about other mediums? How can I connect with other kinds of creators? What is the super power with theatre in particular?” Mackey asks. “We really want to cast the audience member as the central character. Why wouldn’t they just go watch Netflix? That’s been really exciting working on this game stuff and thinking of ways to get games out of the digital realm and into the city. People crave that kind of [authentic, real world] participatory experience.”