Ashley Adelman of Infinite Variety Productions: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist
You are you. Decide what kind of artist you want to be. And also know — that can change. You change, life changes, but always — you are an artist, no matter where your career is. Just remember and trust that.
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Adelman.
Ashley Adelman, the artistic director of the not-for-profit theatre company, “Infinite Variety Productions,” an international playwright, whose use of primary documents has resulted in historical productions such as The Best Immersive Show, “Nellie and the Women of Blackwell,” an international tour in Italy and Australia of her play “In Their Footsteps” and over ten years of producing, directing and writing in the professional theatrical world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
As a kid, I never felt like I belonged. After my parents had quite the messy divorce, I became the “odd” kid who wore my father’s old t-shirts and did not care enough to comb my hair. This led to being bullied in elementary school. However, in the third grade we had class auditions for The Little Mermaid. Something about being on stage and connecting to a character made me feel not so alone. Even at that young age I loved how my imagination was sparked even with audition sides. Other problems could not get to me because I was able to understand people, moments and life a bit more, even from a silly third grade production about a mermaid in love with a man she did not know above the sea. This led to being cast as the main character. From then on, it did not matter if I was confused by my parents not getting along, kids being mean at school, or feeling lonely. I had a world that was endless every time I was cast in another production, or read.a new play and considered who the characters were, or the world of the play could be.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I guess I already gave a bit of it above but also I never intended to have this be my career. I loved the world of theatre but never thought about it being a career. Mostly because I went through life not thinking of the future, just trying to get by in the present moment. I did a lot of theatre campls, theatre classes, summer stock, just… any way to learn more about this..thing I found fascinating. I think the moment that made me realize that although I started by acting I wanted to be have more of a social justice aspect to the work and create more of it myself, was a class in college. It was a scenery class. We were told to look at a cup on a table. The cup was filled to the brim and placed in the middle of the table. Then we were told to close our eyes. The teacher moved the cup to the edge of the table. When we opened our eyes we were asked — how did we feel? I immediately felt nervous, scared and did not want the cup to spill over. That I was told is theatre. We are humans and have reactions and care for things. We do not want them to fall and if we see they might — we feel for them. So the cup becomes a person and how can you get an audience member to care and be scared they will fall? And how does that lead to further discussions about our own fears and moments of “frailty?” This led to me wanting to direct, devise and work with other artists to not just create a show, but an experience and a way to use the arts to examine humanity.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
November 2021, my company and I took the play I wrote and directed to Italy for the Onstage Festival. The play was the Documentary piece “In Their Footsteps,” about the five American women who served in the Vietnam War. This was an amazing moment for a myriad of reasons. One being that after a year and a half in quarantine we found ourselves not only performing but doing so overseas. The play was translated into Italy and the words projected above the action on stage. The company that hired us had talk backs and we got to see how a play about American women in the military related to an audience in Italy. Various activists were brought in and many layered conversations happened. The crew in each theatre and I bonded over our experiences as artists during Covid and our appreciation to be working together in that moment. The actors were phenomenal and gave their all. When it was all done, I grabbed a train and spent two days in Florence. I could not believe all the people I met, the impact that the play had on so many levels I never could have imagined. That time last year I was inside wondering if theatre would become obsolete and all I would ever have was zoom for art. That moment, that trip, I was grateful for art, artists and the way we all persevered.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
During the pandemic I interviewed 8 women who went down into these caves in South Africa and brought up fossils that we know now are ancient ancestors of ours. They are hominin like us.
I am using these oral histories to create a play that takes place in a time in the future. An AI has brought the audience in to examine, learn and excavate these women, the careers they are in, and to examine the bigger question — what does it mean to be human? Who gets to decide that? Who and why are some in society given a voice and others have it taken away? And in a career where we remove fossils from the ground to learn more about them, ourselves, and hopefully future generations, what are the ethical and moral implications of doing so?
The play is being workshopped using the oral histories I conducted and once the proper funding is secured is in talks to partner with one of the local museums, several schools and a few other STEM organizations.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
In one of my first Documentary Theatre plays I went out and interviewed five American women who served in the Vietnam War. And I could not have been luckier to have met these women, to have the honor to tell their stories and even more so, in the present day, call them my friends.
Through doing this play I not only have been lucky to have conversations with each of them outside of the play but to take the show to Texas in 2019 for The Women Overseas Service League. Me and my team had done this show for Veterans before but never for a whole room of women veterans. In the past, we organized talk backs with veterans and the audience learned from them. This time after the show, myself and the cast sat on the stage and learned from the audience. We heard more stories, moments the play brought up for them and just a wonderful hour of meeting further women whose stories added laughter, sadness and connection in that room that only those who were there would be able to talk about. I was honored and still am honored to have met Judy Jenkins Gaudino, Doris “Lucki” Allen, Jeanne “Sam” Christie, Lily Adams and Ann Kelsey. These women began this journey and I hope to be able to share their stories with everyone and learn as many as I can along the way.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
You can draw inspiration from anything. Other artists, a great movie but sometimes even the little things. As a director I draw inspiration from other artists. I read a script and feel when the playwright is trying to stay. A play I did last February called “Permanent Collections” by Thomas Gibbons is based on the true story of the Barnes Museum. As I read it I kept getting images of the actors freezing, very Brecht like at the end of each scene as another scene comes up. This led to the idea that the play should be in the round as I wanted each audience member to have their own, different perspective. As we look at a painting, we all have our own experiences that influences what we think we are looking at. I believe it is my job as a director to uncover what the playwright is trying to say. Then to encourage the actors to make choices. It is a great honor to have that job and mostly just help other voices become stronger and come together to create a full production. Also, as said, sometimes the inspiration comes from the littlest thing. As I worked with the actors I got to the end and wanted to make a devised bit. I had basically an hour to work on this. At that moment the sound designer plugged something in and it gave a loud buzzing sound. THAT became the inspiration for the ending, and I was able to devise something powerful from just that one moment.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I do not know if it has but I try my best to do so. History does not repeat, people repeat history. Therefore, I hope by bringing stories of people from the past, to the people nowadays at least starts conversation so certain events do not occur again. Actually..not even that they don’t occur again — that they don’t and we do much, much better.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Commit and trust your artistic instincts. I had never done an immersive show before my play, “Nellie and the Women of Blackwell.” This play brings the audience undercover with Nellie as she is admitted into Blackwell’s Asylum to find out how they were treating the women patients there. I knew that Documentary theatre could bring lessons of the past into the present but felt like this story needed more than just a performance on stage. I knew it could be immersive, where the audience feels what the women who were committed back then felt. Where they could meet the patients and Nellie and using the text from Nellie Bly’s expose on her undercover stint as the basis of the text, I was able to find a way to do what I always wanted — really bring the past into the present. The play was a success, got great reviews and now I know to trust my gut. I could have taken the safe road and what I knew would work. I took a chance, but this leads to my next what I wish someone told me — commit to your idea, your artistic vision.
- Be guided by passion. I love Documentary theatre. Not everyone does. If you are going to produce or create your own, let your passion lead you. If you think too hard about will people like it — you’ll stop yourself before you begin. Because not everyone will. That’s the plain truth. But be honest with yourself and your work. Know what you could have done better but if you lead with your passion and love for what you do, it will, in time, get you far. An example is my first play, “In Their Footsteps.” I loved the idea of using props for sound effects and five blocks that get used as many different set pieces by stacking and placing them in different ways. As a kid I would make up adventures from my living room and believe that anything on stage can be what you want it to be if you believe it. That was my concept for the design for this play. I though was unsure and my first workshopped production I questioned this concept and especially the sound effects did not wor! The space was so silent for so much of it. BUT — It’s because I didn’t trust myself. I took a few months and really committed to the idea and now — the play has traveled, won awards and how it is done, with simplicity and creativity- is always a favorite.
- Think outside the box, especially when producing your own work. I think as theatre makers we obviously try to get our shows in a good theatre. Do not stop trying for that but also know — there is a whole world that would appreciate your art. An example — I did a show about WWII women pilots. I invited and eventually became good friends with a woman who worked at a WII hangar in Long Island. We then found a way to move the play for a few shows there. That same show was brought to The Women in Military Service of America Memorial Museum. Both of these places were not theatres. I invited them to the show and then discussed how we could work together. Think about how you can take your art further than a theatre. See what partnerships beneficial and how other organizations would be could benefit by having their stories come to life in a nontraditional way. Spaces, partnerships, and events that match up the themes of your play — reach out. You never know.
- Surround yourself with artists that inspire you. You do not have to work with them. But have a group of artists in your corner. For days when you get a bunch of rejections, they will understand. For times when you are problem solving you can call them. This especially helped during Covid. I was able to workshop a play via zoom by having artists around me who knew the type of art I loved and could challenge the piece as well as support it while we were all stuck inside.
- You are you. Decide what kind of artist you want to be. And also know — that can change. You change, life changes, but always — you are an artist, no matter where your career is. Just remember and trust that.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want to find an affordable way for artists to learn from each other. There are fellowships out there that bring artists overseas, but they are limited and a lot of times still have fees. Outside of college, when students go overseas artists should be paid to go over and learn about other styles. To see what type of art is being done in Berlin right now. To bring over artists to see how art is being revived in NYC. I know it is pricey but even in a city is having a hard time creating, perhaps a group of artists from elsewhere can bring in a breath of fresh air. We hear about the old-time salons, when artists would meet up in Europe and just talk about art, why does that not happen anymore? I want to learn from those in the UK and be inspired by their ideas. To not make artists feel so separate from each other. The government needs to find a way to encourage their artists, to learn from each other. To not just use their art for their own cities but make travel a priority. And to go a step further: travel even within our own country in the USA. Especially with Covid, traveling with theatre is even harder. Artists throughout the country have a lot to give and there should be subsidized money to support artists performing their work across city borders. To pay artists to bring their art to other cities. Encouraging artists from down south to work with artists from the north. Even if our ideals are different, all we can do is put the art out there and then walk away. But no matter what — we should be paid to share these ideas and collaborations. To me art can change a nation. So why not find ways, not to just fund it in the big cities but encourage and help the growth of the artists themselves?
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
I would love to sit down with Emily Mann. She is an inspiration for her documentary plays, to her directing, to her time as an artistic director. I researched her a lot and anyone who does not know about Documentary theatre should research her (besides looking into her for her many other accomplishments). I would love to learn more about the interviews she did for Still Life. How she narrowed down the material she had, how she felt she grew as a writer and artist and thoughts on Documentary Theatre nowadays.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Follow my theatre company at:
Follow me at:
Head to my website at: www.ashleybadelman.com
Head to my theatre company’s website at: www.infinitevarietynyc.org
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Ashley Adelman of Infinite Variety Productions: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.