Songs for the Struggling Artist

A Fantastic Way to Support the Arts
April 15, 2014, 12:02 pm
Filed under: art, business, education, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

Here on the blog, the picture for artists is almost never good, so I wanted to share with you some happy news. Not long ago, I got word that someone (someone wonderful who I shall not name in case they wish to remain anonymous) has paid off my student loans. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am Student Loan Free!

The gesture is extraordinary and it makes such an enormous difference. The weight of that money stacking up on the back of my Master’s degree has been heavy and has loomed large in many ways. I am now free of it, due to my donor’s generosity but I am struck by what bondage many of the other skilled artists I know are still in.

If I were in a position to start another non-profit, (which I’m not, believe me) I would create something like Donors Choose to help artists get their loans paid off. You want to give a large donation that will make a big difference? Sure, you could donate $25,000 to a giant Arts Institution and I’m sure it will help buy the paper towels there for a very long time. You give $25,000 to pay off an artist’s loans, you give that artist freedom to create. You can reduce an artist’s payments or eliminate them entirely, thereby freeing him or her to make more art instead of loan payments.

I imagine a website where artists post a little profile – who they are and what they make, and donors could choose an artist to sponsor in whatever way they’d like. I imagine a donor might then be interested in the developments in the artist’s career afterwards. Perhaps the donor becomes a dedicated patron to an artist and her circle.

Now, I’d love a website/organization to just donate to artists to live and create art, as well, but I somehow suspect that transferring large sums of money from one person to another can create tricky tax issues for everyone and generally creates difficult expectations. (“Exactly what sort of art will you be making with my money? Will you paint a portrait of my family please? In the style of poker playing dogs? I did give you $25,000 to live this year. . .”) The advantage of paying off someone’s loans is that there are a couple of filters of both the loan company and (if it existed) the non-profit. I mean, heck, you could just pay off someone’s loans without a tax break (my donor did) but wouldn’t it be great to get some benefit from donating as well?

I don’t have any money. But if I did, I know I’d prefer to help one artist dramatically than to pour money into a giant institution that eats money like candy. I have several artists in mind (and they’re not me – because Ding, Dong my loans are paid!Yippee yahoo!) If anyone with more resources than me would like to start this thing, please let me know, I’ll help you do it. Or if you’re just looking for an artist to release from loan bondage, I’ll send you some names and loan numbers.

Where Teaching Artistry is going
April 9, 2014, 7:51 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

Ladies and Gentlemen of the blog, I have quit my last remaining Teaching Artist gig. I was hanging on to it – because I like eating and paying rent and things but not long ago, I finally cut the chord. And it feels fantastic. After spending the weekend teaching a group of future Teaching Artists (and Theatre Teachers) I found I couldn’t go back to being treated as if I didn’t matter – eating and paying rent be damned.

In addition to a profound sense of liberation, I have a new perspective on something I’ve written about before. You may recall that I was a little incredulous about the new theatre education programs and certification of Teaching Artists. In the Systemization of Art, I went on at some length. I stand by what I said before but all of it has new flavor. Having now taught within one of these programs, having seen what goes on there and who they have in the room, I am even more concerned for their future than I was when I was worried about them in the abstract. Now that I’ve seen what they’re capable of, I want a more sensible system for them to go into.

It seems to me that there is a tremendous divide between what happens in the Arts Organizations who have work to give and the people in these programs who have so much to offer. I saw extraordinary creativity, thoughtfulness and pedagogical skill in my students. They understand a lot and are able to enthusiastically engage in theatrical and educational practices in sometimes thrilling ways. And yet none of these skills are particularly in demand at most of the Arts Organizations that I’ve worked for over the years. What seems to be valued in the actual dollar-giving field is an agreeability, a fulfillment of grant-mandated goals and filling out a great deal of paperwork. The people in charge of these program are rarely educators and rarely have any sense of the operating pedagogy you might be using. My theatre programs have been managed by drummer, a producer, a literary agent, a classroom teacher, a handful of actors and so on. (No disrespect to any of those people, some of them were great, regardless of their background.)

So I look at my brilliant students, breathlessly learning new methodologies for blending their artistic practices with their pedagogical ones and I cannot imagine where they will get an opportunity to exercise that muscle again. My own muscles have gotten fatigued with the constant straining against disrespect and voicelessness in the institutions in which I have worked. Part of the pleasure of teaching these future teaching artists is that my creative/pedagogical muscles got their first real exercise in years. And now I have a protective desire to re-make the world for them. I don’t want them to endure the disrespect that I have have been straining against.

The field needs to take a good hard look at itself and start to figure out how to make the best use of everyone. To bring in these new teachers just to execute institutional lesson plans would be a total waste of them. Like it has been a waste of us. The artists and teachers have a great deal to offer Arts Institutions, just as Arts Institutions have a great deal to offer artists and teachers. It’s just that right now, no one is getting the best out of anyone, as far as I can tell. We mostly sort of bump into each other awkwardly – like middle schoolers at a dance. It’s like the Arts Institutions feel like, since they’re holding the purse-strings, that they know what’s best for education and the artists/teachers may actually know a whole lot more than we’re ever allowed to express.

I’ll confess, the last time I wrote about this, I was (underneath it all) a little worried about the new kids taking my jobs. Now that I’ve quit and I understand what the new kids are up to, I see that we are actually more alike – that they will be frustrated for the same reasons I am. If my experience is anything to go by, the skills they have will remain essentially invisible. All the potential will go unrecognized. They will be asked for only a fraction of what they are capable of and criticized for the results, while their extraordinary process remains unseen. And all those ideas I heard in their grad school classroom will stay in the Ivory Tower and never make it to the young people of NYC.

“Aren’t they beautiful?”
April 5, 2014, 1:30 pm
Filed under: art, education, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , ,

After a school performance and a vibrant Q&A about the story and the rehearsal process and the work behind the work, our host took the stage and said to the kids, “Look at these beautiful girls. Aren’t they beautiful?” He then added, “Did you ever think such beautiful girls could play all those characters?” and finally to us, “Do you have to be beautiful to be an actress?” Our answers? In unison, a firm and un-amused, “No.”

Now, first of all, let me say that I appreciate that this guy (who generously raised money to bring us in to this school) wanted to give us some compliments. I even appreciate that he thought we were beautiful. (I am not immune to praise!) But the words were shockingly at odds with the piece we had just performed. It was a little difficult to recover from. To me, the message underneath it felt like, “Do whatever you like, ladies. Challenge social norms all you like. Experiment all you like. But in the end, all that will ever matter is what you look like.”

These questions of beauty also point directly at one of the reasons we need to keep doing the piece. To so many people, like this guy, our primary value is our physical appearance, as objects of desire. We have done a good job as long as we have fulfilled our feminine obligation to be beautiful. I have seen so much theatre in which I can tell the women’s jobs are, essentially, to be beautiful. That is, it’s enough for them to stand around in pretty dresses looking attractive and occasionally saying something.

And we’re playing with that a bit, I confess, if only to subvert it. We are ultra-feminized at the top of this show. We have an extensive hair and make-up regimen and wear debutante gowns with all the trimmings. We start with the image of what we think we’re supposed to be. But then we do a whole lot of things outside that norm. Our hair usually gets messed up when we wrestle and our make-up smudges when we cry because we are busy DOING things. We are pushing on the door of what it means to be a woman on-stage.

There have been times when I’ve thought, “Oh maybe this isn’t so radical, maybe we’re experimental with the text, but our feminist underpinnings are maybe not so obvious. Maybe it’s not a big deal to play a wrestler in a ballgown.”
This guy’s comments reminded me of one of the key points of inspiration for this piece. As we conceived what we were doing, it was important to us to have “gender neutral” be feminine, that we could play male characters, as well as female, in dresses, to remind our audiences that womanhood could be complex, that we could have male and female qualities simultaneously. What I hadn’t thought through before now is how fully our characters are expressing the qualities the culture demands of us at the beginning. I don’t think of us as just expressing beauty but, to some, we are only as valuable as we are beautiful there at the top of the show. But as the play goes on, hopefully more value and possibility grows as the piece continues.

Also? I was floored by the question of “Do you have to be beautiful to be an actress?”
Because I have been fighting with that idea my entire life. Because you don’t have to be but it really helps. A lot. And that’s something I’d like to see change. Beauty can be so boring. Particularly since we seem to have a very narrow idea of what feminine beauty is supposed to look like.

For the sake of the children in the audience I, of course, wish that we hadn’t been reduced to our physical appearance at the end of the piece. But I hope we provided the students with some alternate views within the piece itself. It was odd – what this guy said – but also a great reminder about how much work there is still to do.

photo by Kacey Anisa

Ticking Boxes
April 2, 2014, 11:57 pm
Filed under: art, business, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , ,

Over drinks, a presenter was talking about his disappointment over the quality of the work he’d just seen. “It’s a show that ticked all the boxes,” he said, and he proceeded to name all the elements it had going for it (its cultural specificity and diversity were some of those elements.)


I realized then that this is likely how a lot of shows get booked, not for their quality, necessarily but what boxes the shows tick for their presenters. And given that each of those boxes likely represents a funder or access to grants, it is a perfectly sensible way to do things.


I’m glad that these are considerations for people presenting work. It’s important that someone is encouraging work that is culturally relevant, diverse and/or regionally driven. What I’d like to see is the addition of at least one other box to tick, I would like to see everyone add “gender equity” to their box-ticking lists.


At the conference this presenter and I were drinking at, for example, the ratio of men to women on stage was still 2 to 1 and while we saw an all male production, we did not see an all female production. We almost never do. And it seems like only strident feminists like myself ever notice. I know change comes slowly. And ultimately, we want to see the highest quality work, no matter what – but as long as you’re ticking boxes, scoring things a little higher for cultural or racial diversity, for example, why not add the same for shows that balance out the gender inequity?


If funding is driving the box-ticking, i.e., if diversity foundations are helping increase racial diversity onstage, then we need a funder to do the same for women on stage. If I were a foundation, or had the money to start one, I’d set up a fund to reward theatres that presented a substantial amount of women’s work, featuring both women on stage and off. Then the whole chain would sit up and take notice. Add that box, that gender equity box, then find a way to tick it.

No One’s Coming
April 1, 2014, 11:23 pm
Filed under: art, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , , ,

Andrew Simonet, of Artists U and Headlong Dance Theater, gave a talk on Artist sustainability at the Brooklyn Commune and told them, “No one’s coming.” (Listen to it, it’s smart.) This phrase was then quoted in the Brooklyn Commune’s report on the state of the arts, The View from Here. In this context, “No one’s coming” serves to remind us that we won’t be discovered at the drugstore counter and that no one is going to swoop us up and take us to the magical land of MAKING IT. It’s a powerful idea, if only in the revelation that so many of us have perhaps held an unconscious hope that someone was on his way to save us.

I found myself quoting this phrase in an exchange with a friend about the lack of feminist criticism of a Broadway show she’d recently seen. She couldn’t believe that none of our critics had taken the show to task for its sexism, or even mentioned it. I, unfortunately, COULD believe it. As far as I can tell, there is very little feminist coverage of the theatre AT ALL. Before I published my first feminist rant here I would have said there wasn’t ANY. I found out quickly that there is some feminist analysis, but those who are talking about these issues in theatre are doing it mostly in closed circles, without public amplification.

Since no one is coming, we’re the ones who have to do it ourselves. When I can’t find feminist analysis of something, I just have to make it myself. Slowly but surely we become the someone who showed up. People end up at my blog after searching for, “sexism, Peter and the Starcatcher.” Before I wrote about it, there was nothing to find in that search. Now I’m there. When someone goes looking for some help understanding why the show made her feel so weird, she’s got it.

My friend saw an award winning show, surrounded by people giving it an enthusiastic standing ovation and was hoping to find some help in thinking through the weird sexist layers she saw. And there’s nothing. No one’s there yet.  So in the light of No One Coming, I find it best to just show up myself. And perhaps if more people stepped in where they saw a need, we might begin to resolve some of our issues.

  One place to step up:

March 18, 2014, 12:02 am
Filed under: art, business, theatre | Tags: , , ,

In the writing and sharing of my blog, I’ve had some comments go through that cluster around the ideas of “You should be more confident.” “You should believe in yourself.” And “Why are you so insecure?” These sorts of comments tend to make me want to write posts with titles like, “I’m not insecure, I’m angry. There’s a difference.” Or “I believe in myself plenty. It’s the system that I don’t believe in.” or “YOU be more confident. Being confident is not a thing you can DO.” But these would not be productive posts. Most people are well intentioned when they say things like this. They’re generally trying to be supportive (however patronizing it seems) but I can’t help resent the derailing of whatever I’m trying to write about into my personal stuff.

Could I be more confident? Sure. Find me someone who couldn’t. Am I insecure? Sure. Sometimes. Find me an artist who isn’t. Nay, find me a person who isn’t! But the kind of insecurity people tend to talk about calls to my mind an adolescent behavior, a shoe-shifting , “Gosh, am I good enough?” quality. I’m good enough. I’m not gazing at the floor.

The kind of insecurity I am full of is ACTUAL LACK OF SECURITY. That is, financial security and job security. And up until recently, health security. (Until the Affordable Care Act, I hadn’t had health insurance since graduate school. Yay, ObamaCare!)

In fact, the only palpable security I actually possess is personal security. I am very sure of who I am, my art and what I can do. (Most days. It’s shake-able, of course.) And this is something most of the long-term, committed artists that I know share. They know who they are. They’re flexible and happy in their own skins. They’re very clear about what they are trying to accomplish. And many of them are also financially unstable, transient and, for lack of a better word, they lack security.

And we don’t need pep talks or platitudes for that. We need subsidies. We need a change in the culture to allow for actual living wages for artists. We need affordable housing and affordable artistic work spaces.

No amount of confidence is going to fix those systemic problems. No amount of belief. No amount of personal therapy. No amount of Positive Thinking.

I love that Brooklyn Commune labeled a part of their report on the state of the Artist, “It’s not you. It’s the system.” We are all insecure in so much as even the most successful Broadway performers have a series of temporary positions. Even while performing in high profile shows, artists can be underpaid. And look at Oscar Nominated actor, Barkhad Abdi’s situation. No one has job security. We are all of us insecure. However, the remarkable thing about artists as a whole is how stable we can be in that instability, how we can be secure even with extremely insecure situations. There’s a New Economy happening and we can be models for it. As Seth Godin says in Linchpin, we’re all artists now. We’re all insecure.

Going Local

I’ve been reading How to Be Your Own Booking Agent. I’m interested in learning how to take my shows on the road and even though this book is really geared toward musicians, I thought it was worth a read.
I was struck by a section on the importance of developing a local fan base first. I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, in a vibrant music scene so I saw these sorts of strategies work first hand. You guys heard of the Dave Matthews Band? See, I’ve seen it work. Firsthand. One Tuesday night at a time.
Problem is: Now I live in NYC. And going local here is very tricky. The resources are such that just getting to practice your craft and develop a fan base is actually a giant hurdle. There are theatre companies based here in NYC that tour all over the world but do not perform here in their home. And it’s not just true for theatre, which is admittedly, a high demand of resources where ever you are, but also for music.
Back when I had a band and was trying to perform around the city, we played anywhere we could, as much as we could. But most places we played wouldn’t book us unless we could guarantee a certain number of audience members. They wouldn’t give us the opportunity to play unless we already had a significant following. But how were we to develop a following if we weren’t able to play? It meant that most of the bands getting booked were just people with a lot of friends, not necessarily the best music or the most interesting.
Reading this chapter on Going Local in this book, I found myself yearning for a world of church basements that wouldn’t charge you to rehearse in them, for spaces that would be only too delighted to let you do a show in them, for places where people are thrilled to have something to do – instead of exhausted by all the cultural events they have to see.
But I suppose that’s what I signed up for in choosing to live here. I get the benefits of being exactly where the action is and of seeing remarkable work from around the world. I also get the pitfalls of having to raise tens of thousands of dollars, just to try something out on the stage. I love the notion of developing locally and companies like Peoples Theatre Project have found a great way to do it, but local development is a nut I have yet to crack. Given the tendency of this city to embrace only that which was born elsewhere, I feel I might have more success cracking the local nut elsewhere and bringing it back here after.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 275 other followers

%d bloggers like this: