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Arts. Work. Life. Season 2: Episode 6

ARTS. WORK. LIFE. is a podcast from the Association of Performing Arts Professionals about what it's like to work in the performing arts, featuring bold, untold stories from arts workers.
ARTS. WORK. LIFE. Season 2. Episode 6.


Breaking Out of the Box

Being prematurely judged or misunderstood can be frustrating, limiting and even harmful. In the final episode of Season 2, artists and arts administrators share stories of pushing boundaries, subverting categories and defying expectations.

Act One: “Up-Rising” with Emily Isaacson, the conductor and the founding director of Classical Uprising in Portland, Maine.

Act Two: “Such Creatures” with Luke Greeff, a dancer, choreographer, circus artist, and educator in Chicago, Illinois. You can find the resource Luke mentions in their story, Gender Expansive Practices in Dance Spaces: An Introduction here.

Act Three: “More Than Madness” with Sam Simon, a playwright, author and actor in McLean, Virginia. Learn more about his show "Dementia Man" here.


NOTE: The transcript below is provided to make the podcast more accessible to our audiences. Designed for the ears, the podcast is meant to be listened to. Stream the podcast here.


Claire: When Emily Isaacson was a teenager, you might've thought that she spent her summer Friday nights hanging out with friends or going for a drive, but she didn't even bother to make plans. She knew where she was going to be.

Emily: Both my parents really loved classical music, so we grew up going to concerts, and it was like church. You every Friday night in the summer, you went to these concerts, no questions asked.

Claire: On one hand Emily loved hearing this timeless music, but on the other hand, she was a teenager. Wearing a fancy outfit and sitting quietly with her parents in a music hall wasn't exactly her first choice.

Emily: Just like all of this, like rules and etiquette while my friends are swimming in lakes and driving cars, et cetera.

And I'm the person in that audience by 20, 30 years. But also I felt really moved by this music.

But not getting to respond, engage, interact in any way, was not my jam. And I felt that really early on that sort of split, like, I love this music, but I don't love the way that I'm being asked to experience it.

Claire: That tension actually shaped her career path.

Although she wanted to be a conductor, the traditional route of attending conservatory just didn't feel right to her. So she studied a lot of different subjects and ended up earning two Master's degrees and then a PhD in musicology.

Emily: So it may come as no surprise to you that there are not very many jobs as a conductor, that it's very competitive and that it is really an old boys’ club. And so there's so many more talented musicians and conductors than there are positions for us. So fast forward through my two masters and my doctorate, I'm applying to like a hundred jobs in every sector of music that I can think of.

Claire: She was in her early thirties at this point and had two young children and was pretty elated when an old family friend reached out to her.

Emily: And this man that I had known my entire life was at my bat mitzvah, at my wedding, who, um, is a professor at one of the major conservatories in our country approached me and said, “I would like to start a music festival in Maine. Would you like to do that with me?”

Claire: Emily jumped at the opportunity. He brought prestige and financial backers. She brought fresh ideas. Together they presented a very successful summer festival. But as they were preparing for their second year, things started to fall apart.

Emily: I haven't talked about this publicly, um, yet, but I want to, I think it's time.

He, uh, he started to call me randomly to tell me that I. would never be taken seriously as a musician that because I was a mom, I was distracted that, uh, if I thought that my degrees were worth anything, I was kidding myself because real musicians don't care about degrees, that I made, I was making a fool of myself on the podium.

I mean, just you name it. sexism and elitism. and it got worse from that, and I'm not gonna go into the details of what gets worse from there, but it got worse and it got ugly, and it was by far the most horrific thing I have ever experienced in my life and made me lose a lot of faith in humanity.

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Emily: I don't want this to be a #MeToo story, like I, not because I, I'm not worried about backlash from him, but I think that sometimes when people share their stories, that then becomes the only thing they're known for. And I, it's really important to me that I am known for my creativity and my inventiveness and my leadership and my vision. Some of that was developed out of this hard experience, but that I am not identified by that experience.

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Claire: You’re listening to ARTS. WORK. LIFE., a podcast from The Association of Performing Arts Professionals.

I'm Claire Caulfield.

So having someone tell you who you are, what you're capable of, or what's best for you, it can be incredibly frustrating, and it can even be harmful. That rigid box or stuffy category that you're placed in, it can make or break your career.

So today's episode is all about “Breaking Out of the Box”.

With a story about one arts admin whose definition of pushing boundaries is very different than the industry standard.

Then reflections from someone who felt forced to choose between two boxes and what happened when they rejected categories altogether.

And then we end Season 2 with a truly special journey about defying expectations.

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Claire: Act one: Up-rising

We return to Emily Isaacson for today's first story. Emily decided to leave that music festival and start her own company. She produced events that brought classical music to audiences in new ways, ways that she would've liked as a teenager: Outdoor shows, family-friendly shows, shows with beer pairings, and even yoga classes set to classical music.

Over the years, her company – called Classical Uprising – it became a success. Which brings us to January 2023 when Emily attended the APAP conference in New York City.

Emily: I was really excited for all the panel sessions with the consultants about best practices and data and like, you know, the stuff that my organization can't afford to do on our own.

And then I was there to network. I was hoping I'd meet some new friends and colleagues who would dream with me.

I met somebody who I would've been too intimidated to go up to, uh, or reach out to individually, but we had been talking about our projects around the table and she said, “Oh, you sound like your stuff is really cool. Like, let's. Get coffee and talk about it.” And so we found a little corner of the Hilton to sit in and to chat. And uh, I was super excited to talk with this person because they're one of the artistic programmers for a major festival, and they had this program called “Breaking Boundaries”. And I'm like, “Yes, this is me.

Like I am all about pushing genres and formats and like I'm all about breaking boundaries.” And then, um, I said, “Tell me about this Breaking Boundaries thing.”

What are you doing this year? And the person said, “Women composers”, and I was like, okay, that seems like 50% of the population of sexes. So that seems like a little. not super boundary breaking, but like whatever, like benefit of the doubt, go for the ride. And I said, “oh, cool. Okay, great. What are you doing the, the following year?” and they said, “We're gonna do minority composers.” And that was just when my heart went into my stomach and the mixture of like frustration and anger and sadness.

Um, I think a lot about allyship in these, national conversations around race inequality and inclusion. And I think a lot about performative allyship and to say minority composers just, it, it felt so tone deaf to the conversations that we've been having in our larger society.

And you know, I'm good quick on my feet, so I pivoted and I was like, “Another way that you could think about like pushing boundaries, is by thinking about like who we're performing for, how we're performing and what, what are the things that we include in the performance that make people feel either included to be there or more connected to the music than they did before?” And I start giving examples from my programs about, doing Flight of the Bumble Beer where you do music flights alongside five-ounce pours of beer or doing Bach Bends Yoga.

Like really, here's some like con this is not lofty ideas. Here's some concrete ideas and this person could just not understand what I was talking about. That was so frustrating for me because it made me realize that the national conversation and the conversation that I'm trying to have is just ships passing in the night with the way these major classical music organizations are being run and the echo chambers that are happening inside them.

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Emily: I had a couple of conversations like that.

I had a lovely conversation with a wonderful man from a big time agency.
And he said, “Listen, I really love what you're doing. I think it's great and I think it's where we need to head. But I'm sorry. I cannot take you on as an artist because I can't sell you. What you're trying to do doesn't fit into the orchestral world.”

It like brought back that sinking feeling, that I'm an outsider, I don't belong. And so if this is gonna happen, I'm gonna have to pave my own way. And that is on good days, an exciting thing, but most days, like a really hard and exhausting thing.

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Understandably our human brain wants to categorize people and things, but that is not helpful.

Um, so people wanna label me as a woman conductor, and that, that's my whole soapbox. The other thing is they say, “Oh, well, the fact that she wants to do, you know, Hayden's creation in a park must mean that she's really not that sophisticated a musician. She's doing it differently because she can't hang with the big boys and the old club and you know, this, that, and the other thing.”

Or like, “Oh, isn't it cute that she wants to do things that are not just four kids, but intergenerational because she's a mom and so focused on being a mommy and mommy music”, and it's like, that is not the case. That is, that is not the case.

I'm advocating for a different way of presenting and producing classical music, so that it is. more social and more interactive and more casual, in the way that actually it was originally conceived.

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There's a script. If the people in power, whatever you wanna call it, um, there's a script that's readily available to them to put other people down who don't look like them or have the same background as them. And, um, it's easy to reach for that script of like, “Oh, you're a mommy or you're whatever”, because they're threatened that they don't have the answers. It's just like toddlers. They act up when they feel their space is being threatened, and so if they feel like, oh, maybe that person has an answer that I don't have, I gotta shut that person down before they have a chance to show that what I'm offering is not of as much value.

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That experience taught me that I am so much stronger and braver and tolerant of risk than I ever thought I was. And that just because you're uncomfortable with something doesn't mean that you can't handle it.

And, in classical music, we're really taught to look up to mentors and to people older than us for verification of how to do things. And this experience taught me like so many of the adults I admired did horrible things or didn't say stop it.

And so we've gotta be those people for ourselves. Like we've gotta be our own advocate.

It taught me that I am fully capable of taking the helm, being the leader, making it my time. Making it our time.

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Claire: Emily Isaacson is the founding director of Classical Uprising in Portland, Maine.

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Claire: Act two: Such Creatures

As Luke Greef built through their career as a contemporary dancer, choreographer and circus performer, ze met a lot of other transgender and gender non-conforming artists.

It was really exciting to find a strong community of people Luke could relate to, and ze felt lucky to find a good job at a dance company that employed other artists who didn’t fit into the gender binary.

But Luke often found zimself having the same conversations with management about insensitivity and accommodations — again and again and again.

Luke’s story begins about seven years after ze started at that company, when preparing for a performance at a brand new venue.

Here’s Luke.

Luke: We were setting up for a concert in June of 2022, and we were at a space that did not gender the dressing rooms. It was a incredibly LGBTQ-friendly space.

We came in for tech week, and the company had printed out signs with their logo on it, gendering the dressing rooms and had posted them over the, the venue signs that said gender-neutral. And the company had assigned all of the dancers to the binary dressing rooms, based on, I think, the binary gender that they thought we fit best.

Uh, I remember that a lot of my colleagues felt very uneasy about this, and I was stretching and trying to figure out what to do next and was approached by one of the staff members who had made that decision.

And they had asked me to essentially tell them that it was okay. I knew I didn't have the backup to speak what I wanted to speak in that moment.

Perhaps if this was in an environment where I had not been screamed at, or been treated negatively before in certain, in these situations, maybe that conversation on the fly wouldn't have felt so, uh, intimidating for me in that moment.

And that moment where I was just trying to stretch, and I was just trying to be a dancer and was being forced back into this role that I didn't ask for.

And the really jarring part about that is we had just gone through a pretty deep dive into how to be more inclusive and safe and welcoming and equitable, and this was something that came up, pretty regularly in our conversations.
Trans colleagues and I had already had these conversations with them about why we need to not gender the dressing rooms.


Dancers often feel like they can't speak up in companies, and that's not towards this company in particular. I think that's towards, a lot of dance companies and the culture that's created, that dancers feel like they are expendable and if they say the wrong thing or speak out about their pay or treatment, that, they could easily just be either pulled from the project they're on or not invited to come back and that's their income.

Because I, I had income aside from my dance career, I was often the one to be a little more vocal about the issues.


I was in the dressing room for this concert. And I remember looking at myself in the mirror, half of my makeup on and thinking, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this? And then I realized I don't have to be here. Nobody is forcing me to be here.

However, because I am not unprofessional. I did the show and I put the best performance I could.

I went home, and I sent my resignation email in that day.

I signed the email with “Pride was a riot.” I was done. and I, at the end of the day, I think I decided that it was worth jeopardizing my career, if it meant that I didn't have to go back there.

I had before this incident had already been working with a dear, dear dance partner of mine, Ashaand Simone. And we had created this partnership that we were calling Such Creatures.

And so after leaving this company, I was able to put a lot more energy into Such Creatures and specifically into defining Such Creatures as a trans and neurodivergent-led and -focused company. We say in our bio that we specialize in quote, “trans audacity”. That is incredibly indicative of what we do and the attitude that we have.

We started to draft a gender expansion primer for dance companies.

It was basic things like casting, dressing rooms, how to engage in conversations with artists about their identity.

It blew up a little bit on the internet, gained us a lot of recognition in that we weren't just a company of trans dancers just doing our thing, like we wanted to change the landscape of the dance industry for the benefit of the queer community and the neurodivergent and disabled community.

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It takes a lot of administrative work to run a company. And I'm sure that's nothing the listeners don't know. It's still just the two of us.

Do I still get burnout? Absolutely. But, it’s so much easier to manage it because it’s fulfilling. It's different because I can see the change that is happening, and it makes me so happy.

We're seeing a lot more trans and gender-nonconforming and queer-run companies really come up, especially in Chicago.

And I love that. I love to see that community, and I'm energized by that.

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We previewed two evening-length works at the Chicago Circus and Performing Arts Festival of 2023, which is always a wonderful time.

One of them was a work that was very close to my heart that I built, called Missile Kid, which is about my experience being both trans and autistic and how those intersect.

Missile Kid for Such Creatures earned me the LGBTQIA artist award from the festival, which was just an incredible recognition, and very validating because it was, for both me and for Such Creatures, it seemed like we were being honored for being our unmasked, genuine, super-queer selves because that is exactly what we put on the stage.

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Claire: Luke Greef is a circus artist, choreographer and educator in Chicago, Illinois.

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Claire: Act three: More Than Madness

About five, six years ago, Sam Simon started having little memory lapses, small things, forgetting where he left his keys, having some trouble with driving, but then one day it was like a black hole materialized in his brain and memories began slipping away.

Sam was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and a lot of people assume that his career as a writer and actor would be over, but Sam refuses to accept that assumption, and he started work on a one man show. Sam's story today is about challenging those preconceived notions and his journey to accepting whatever the future has in store.

Sam and I spoke the day after he premiered a one-man show at the 2023 APAP conference.

Sam: I don't think neurologists should be allowed to even treat people with Alzheimer's and, and cognitive impairments unless they're equipped to assist them and navigate this world.

Our first experience with the neurologist was like out of Frankenstein movie.
He basically said, “You're just gonna get worse. You're going to probably die from this. Here's a prescription, I gotta go.” And it's like a hidden section of aging in society that nobody wants you to see. And so I want to bring it out to the public. I want to air it, I want to talk about it.

Memory, uh, centers and uh, what happens inside nursing homes and assisted living centers. They have memory centers. One of the worst things that can happen to people is to be alone and to be isolated. And these places isolate them.

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The idea that I could do something on stage with, I hate the word, they call it dementia. And you listen to me on this and you say, oh, that guy doesn't have dementia.

Well, I've learned that it's a terrible word, and the process of Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline is different for everyone. We've had to make fairly dramatic changes in our daily lives because of it. But it comes in different areas. Don't ask me to try to work on any of our financial stuff anymore, you know?

But I can sit here and talk to you and, um, I can begin to write a play about this.

And I did my, um, showcase last night, and I was humbled by the reaction. Um, I think I have something to share with the art world and with the world.
So I'm hoping that Dementia Man, which is the name of the new show, is a work of prog, in progress.

There are valuable things to be able to show and tell, including the possibility that somebody with early-stage Alzheimer's can get on stage.

>> Audio from performance: “Ladies and Gentleman, please, welcome to the stage for ‘Dementia Man’, Sam Simon.” [applause]

It’s not a happy topic. I think they're gonna be questionable whether there's the audience for it. Um, I think there will be, and I think I've learned, you don't get into communities until you're part of one.

And do we know that there's a Dementia Action Coalition? Do we know that there is, um, Eastside Institute in Joy of Dementia. [laughs] You know, there's, it is a tragedy narrative.

You know, there is a counter narrative and I do have an intention, by the way, in this work to counter that narrative.

And that narrative is that life with Alzheimer's disease is not worth living. There's a book out there, I'm not gonna name it ‘cuz I don't want to about how somebody who's diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's, my diagnosis, and they went to Switzerland and did assisted, accompanied suicide. And I'm also been surprised at how people say, “Yeah, if that happens to me, that's what I'll do.”

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I happen to have my own belief that life, uh, is the most valuable thing, and I don't think we know what goes on behind that blank face. So if you've been to, uh, memory wards, if you've seen people with advanced Alzheimer's, or dementia as we call it, we've gotta get a new word, you know, you can see just blank faces. We don't know what goes on behind that face.

I've written a poem already and then there's a line. I love it. I write something and then it becomes a lesson to me.

I wonder what the Sam Simon of me then will know about the Sam Simon of me now.

I understand I may be going away, but what's going away is the cognitive Sam Simon of today.

I believe that there will be a different cognitive entity. And I, I had had somebody recently say he, he would go visit his aunt an hour a month, and they would just sit for an hour and he'd leave.

And then one day on his way out, she said, “Thanks, thanks for visiting me, John.” So there was something behind there

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So last night was a preview. It was a, uh, showcase. The feedback was beyond my, uh, I, I didn't know what to expect, and I didn't expect, um, not only a standing ovation in a full room, but the people come up to you quietly afterwards.

There's a gentleman who I think a presenter came up and said his wife is going through it, and he thanked me because he too could have a better, another channel, another road.

The narrative right now out there about people with dementia, and I hate the word, one of my goals is to relegate that term to a trash heap.

And the trouble is, it is the word. So I, I can't pretend it's gone. And I think I would do a disservice if I called it “Cognitive-Impaired Man”. And we may need a different word. So I don't know the word yet. Um, It is the broadly recognizable word. And so in some ways the con, the contradiction of the meaning of dementia, mad. So the mad man and an impaired person, a person with a disability, is what we're gonna see in the show and in the process.
Uh, Reverend Harper, has a book called On Vanishing, and she, she too, hates the word and makes an argument that people like me with dementia add value to their community by being present among them, and maybe even in the theater world, that theater itself will be better and the artistic world will be better if the theaters can include deeply forgetful people with cognitive impairments in their community as, uh, artists, maybe in house as well. But this is about putting them backstage or on stage and in the companies.

And I think it's possible. if you're out there and listening to this, don't turn it off immediately. Don't say, “This man is mad.” Of course, we can't do that. Of course, you can do that. There's a brainstorming technique. The brainstorming technique would be, if you had to do it, how would you do it? So if you get, no, I can't do that. Say, all right, And all of a sudden you can do it because you think about how that can be accomplished.

So I hope I can, nothing else in the theater world writ large that if I can get this work out there, that people's imagination about what is possible on stage is changed and yet to be imagined accommodations or adaptations to enable that to happen.

>> Audio from performance: “... the meaning and the importance in life. Thank you very much.” [applause]

Dementia Man. what I've discovered in its early stages is that there's a story to be told and performed. I've always worried that, that I can't bring it to where I want it to be.

But there's nothing I can do about that, other than I have to be able to not let the disease win or take over or, and I might not be able to help that.
I'm lucky so far, but I was told five to 10 years and it's been about five years.

So that's, there is a sense of urgency. Uh, of getting it done.

If by this fall we're ready to go on stage, I would be really, really pleased. And, you know, I'm needing to find brave presenters, brave theater people.

It's a one-person show. I understand the economics of theater.

Um, how do you, How do you make money off of this?

I'll say it three times. Partnering, partnering, partnering.

You know, memory clinics, dementia friendly itself, this national program, um, hospitals, churches and synagogues and smaller venues.

What the other thing I thought, maybe you offer them as a public service, a 20-minute different thing, so there may be imaginative things. People aren't gonna think be, thinking about that if they aren't confronted with it. So maybe I can be a confronter as well.

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I don't know the end of the story, so I'll have to make that uncertainty an essential and element of the play

And it may not be anything we want to happen. And it may be tragic. That is unfortunate. And, you know, sad, it's not the path we may want, and it is what we're on. Then embrace it and make the best, if we can. It will give us more control.

Deeply forgetful and cognitively impaired people are human beings who have a value to society. And I, I want to echo the idea that society is better when they're part of your community and when they're included.

And do everything you can and when and if it, and if it happens in your family or in your community, please, please work to include these individuals and find a way to say yes and make life better for everyone in the community.

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Claire: Sam Simon is a playwright, author and actor in McLean, Virginia.

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Claire: And that's a wrap on Season 2. Thank you so much to everyone who has been listening and supporting us, whether that's telling a coworker or friend about the show, posting about it on social media, or leaving a review. We work really hard on these episodes, and it means a lot.

ARTS. WORK. LIFE. is a production from APAP – the Association of Performing Arts Professionals.

APAP is the national service organization for the performing arts presenting, booking and touring industry. You can join APAP at

I’m Claire Caulfield, your host and producer.

Jenny Thomas is our amazing executive producer.

Music is from Blue Dot Sessions and additional audio today was from Sam Simon’s Performance of Dementia Man at the 2023 APAP Conference in New York City.

As always, this podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of The Wallace Foundation. So thank you.

Other thank yous to Shanice Mason, the APAP staff and board of directors, our storytellers today, and the hundreds of thousands of arts workers across the world.

Your stories matter, and arts workers ARE essential.

Speaking of stories, if you work in the performing arts and want to submit your own story to this podcast, visit

And if you enjoyed this episode, which as always, I really hope you did, please leave us a review. It helps other people find the show.

Carolyn: Arts, Work, Life. that’s real *laugh*

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Resources and Links

The following resources may be helpful to our listeners.

INTRO/ACT ONE: Pushing Buttons/A Compromise and A Coda

ACT TWO: Encore

ACT THREE: An Aha Moment


This podcast made possible with the generous support of The Wallace Foundation and listeners like you. Donate here.
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Photos: Lynn Neuman at a recycling facility; Thamara Bejarano courtesy of storyteller; Taylor Gordon photo by Jon Tayler; Craig Knudsen returns to the opera stage in 2018.
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