While visiting City Market recently, I ran into an old friend of mine -- and of the entire city. Most people locally know Michael Runge from his performances with the Know No Stranger troupe and for being one of the first two inhabitants of Andrea Zittel's igloo, but before he was casting theatrical adventures with a projector and running around wearing a large costume pigeon head, he was a student at Herron School of Art and Design.
I know Runge from the time a
school friend convinced us both to accompany her on an impromptu road trip up to
Lafayette. During the ride, we killed time on that memorable afternoon with a hefty
amount of storytelling. At the end of the trip, before saying goodbye, Runge handed me a flyer about a project he was trying to put
together, just in case I was interested in participating in it. The flyer read:
Fast forward to last week at City Market. While we were catching up, he mentioned that he was taking a break from Know No Stranger. A "sabbatical," he called it. I found this surprising, given that KNS is at the top of its game. Its members are not just popular; they are beloved. They are also this year's recipients of the Performing Artist Residence at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
My conversation with the friendly artist left me thinking about how people find the courage to walk away from successful creative projects; it's not always easy to recognize the moment when work stops being challenging and starts being repetitive. I found Runge's decision brave.
To further explore the spaces between the productive periods in the life of an artist, I interviewed this local performer, Michael Runge, last week.
Jennifer Delgadillo: So you're going on a creative "sabbatical" from Know No Stranger. Can you explain the process that led you to that decision?
Michael Runge: It was a natural process really. Most of my decisions start with an emotional response to something, which I start to analyze logically. I had been feeling a pull to step back for a while and either ignored it or there wasn't good timing. I started to figure out why I would be feeling that; my entire identity was wrapped up in it, I didn't have a clear vision of where I wanted to go. I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable leading people. It became clear that I needed to act on the feeling.
KNS is constantly busy with cool collaborations and amazing partners, so there was never any natural downtime to take a break. I set an arbitrary date six months off (from Jan. 1, 2015) and said that would be the beginning of my sabbatical. I didn't tell anyone at first, because I needed to know what that meant to me.
JD: Why do you think it's important for artists to keep pushing themselves creatively throughout their careers?
MR: I guess it really depends on why you are doing it. If you are reaching for something beyond yourself, you have to keep growing. You have to explore new things so they can build on and influence each other. You have to share and collaborate so ideas can spread and change.
JD: How do you plan to explore or research your next creative endeavor?
MR: Again, I'm initially guided by emotion so I tend to chase whatever I'm excited about. I surround myself with people who are doing what I want to do and figure out how I can participate. I'm getting more and more interested in tech and mechanical stuff, and there are a lot of cool groups in Indy that are totally open to newcomers.
It's mostly about being honest with myself. I need to find out what I need right now. I can be pretty fickle about what I want from day to day. But what is it I need to grow in or what part of me do I need to feed to launch into the next thing? I'm still figuring that out.
JD: KNS is still successful and very loved. Do you feel this puts added pressure on the expectations for your next project?
MR: (He laughs) Not really. KNS gave me the confidence to do what I thought was right. I know that if I follow that same motivation, it will be exactly what it needs to be. Also, KNS started as a way to share our excitement with people, and most of the time we were doing what we thought was cool or funny.
The fact that people liked it was always a bonus -- never the motivation. I think the same thing would be true of anything I did. I'm following what I'm excited about and if other people are excited, that's a bonus. Obviously, I'm trying to do it in a way that shares it with the most people but I'm not a salesman.
JD: What are some lessons you learned with KNS?
MR: Anything is possible. Do what excites you and people will get excited. Be genuine and people will respond. Don't burn any bridges. Respect your collaborators and give them room to do what they love.
JD: What are you looking forward to learning next?
MR: I want more self-confidence. I want to trust my voice and know how to use it better. I'm always wanting to be a better human.
JD: What makes you happy right now?
MR: Fixing things. I have been working on an old motorcycle, and it can be super frustrating but supremely satisfying when it all comes together. I'm also having a blast meeting new people who are doing cool things.