Songs for the Struggling Artist


A Tale of Three Teaching Artists
July 21, 2014, 10:51 pm
Filed under: art, education, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: , ,

Once upon a time there were three teaching artists. These three were the entire teaching staff of a Shakespeare program. Between the three of them, they had a lifetime of experience teaching Shakespeare to young people. They inspired each other and complemented one another’s styles. Where one was weak another was strong and they made a circle of knowledge that benefited both the institution within which they worked and the young people they worked with.

They cared deeply about this program that they had all spent a considerable amount of time and effort in helping to craft. They went to meetings about how to improve the work. They saw managers come and go and changes go along with them.

They had a lot of collective strength but found themselves increasingly at odds with a changing institutional culture, and the sacrifices they’d made to keep doing the work started to seem less worth it. One by one, the unit fell apart. The first to go went to teach English full time at a high school, where her students are privileged to have the full extent of her teaching and she has an actual salary and benefits. The second to go threw herself on the whims of the marketplace to become truly freelance, as she had been before the institution (for whom she used to freelance) became more institutionalized.

The third remains there and is now surrounded by artists with much less experience and much less perspective. She doesn’t get paid any more than these new artists but must, continually, educate her colleagues as well as her students.

And it is the institution’s loss. It let a solid formidable program fall apart because it could not recognize the value of what it had. And this is what happens when experience is undervalued and obedience is the rule of the hour.

All three Teaching Artists are doing just fine. But the Institution has lost.

 

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The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

There’s a really interesting conversation happening in the media these days about the value of a college education. From the Freakonmics show “Is College Really Worth It?” to The Economist article, “Is College Worth It” the worth of higher education is clearly on the table. The Federal Government is thinking about it, too. There’s a plan in the works to assess university education on affordability and value. Many people are trying to quantify what an education should be worth and judge institutions by whether they fulfill that promise. The stakes are high as Federal Funding hangs in the balance.

My alma mater has gotten in on the conversation early. As mentioned in a story on  Marketplace, the college is worried about the proposed measures of financial success of its alumni as a measure of value. It’s fighting for the place of Liberal Arts in the culture.

I find myself with mixed feelings about all this. I have great affection for my small elite liberal arts college. I believe in the values they’re discussing in the media and I am grateful for the role the college and those values have played in my life. What the college claims to do is exactly what it did for me and I value those skills. But I’m broke. And I wonder about the role Liberal Arts education has played in my broke-ness.

My small elite liberal arts education was expensive. At the time, it was the most expensive in the country. I was only able to go because of some extremely generous financial aid. When I was there, one half of the students basically paid for the other half.

It was a beautiful, rarefied place to learn. The atmosphere of the place encouraged deep thinking and analysis. It encouraged independence and challenging the status quo. We all left with a degree in Liberal Arts.  We all left with a lot of conversations about Truth and Beauty and literature and philosophy and history behind us.

What we didn’t leave with were jobs. Or desirable job skills. Which was fine at the time. We’d learned about something more important than money. Our values were marinated in philosophy and Art. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

My college prided itself on its uniqueness (slogan: We’re different, so are you.”) It attracted (and still attracts) people with an interest in independent thinking, people who are different, people who cluster at the margins of things. Studying there helped us develop our uniqueness. It trained us in individuality and independent thinking. As a rule, if there is a box, my fellow alumni and I are particularly skilled at thinking outside of it.

The problem is that, at the moment, all the money seems to be IN the box. I sometimes wish I’d gone to a place that trained me to think more conventionally – just so I could make some conventional dollars.

I started to think about all this after an alumni Holiday party where I encountered one alumna after another who was struggling with money and in the middle of a career transition. We all loved our alma mater but were a little mad at it too. There was a sense of “Shouldn’t we be seeing some financial return on our elite education?” Like, shouldn’t we be part of the elite having gone to the most expensive college in the country?

At some elite colleges, there is a pipeline. When you leave those institutions, you have a club membership, you have an introduction to the halls of power. Your degree can open doors. You go to Harvard, for example, you can go work with other folks from Harvard, whether in law or in comedy.

There is no such pipeline for us and maybe it’s because my fellow alumni didn’t go on to become investment bankers or politicians. They’re poets, philosophers, teachers, film-makers, journalists, musicians, theatre artists, visual artists, etc, (basically all the middle class jobs that are vanishing in the information/digital economy.) I think we partly chose the place because we were interested in those creative/academic lives – which is why I can’t blame the institution, as much as I’d like to.

I mean, I chose to work in Theatre. As Lewis Black said about theatre work in a recent podcast interview, “Crack whores make more money.” Theatre is what I studied and what I chose to pursue. So it’s my own fault, really. But I can’t help noting that if I’d studied Theatre at Yale, I’d have some worldly access that I don’t have with my degree. Is it the institution’s job to care for its alumni once they’re gone? Probably not.

But I also note that one of the hopes of elite liberal arts education as a whole is to transcend class, to give people a leg up the ladder. And it seems like, in my college’s case, the students who came in Low Income have remained Low Income and those who came in Middle Class have remained Middle Class and so on. And maybe the same thing is true at Yale. Maybe it’s NOT the Yale connection that opens doors but the socio-economic class that accompanies the student to Yale.

If that’s the case, then a measure that gauges economic success is really just a way to measure where people with money tend to go to school. It’s not so simple.

Would I have changed my elite liberal arts education? Nope. Not at all. It’s exactly what I wanted and it did all of the things it now claims to teach. The discomforting thing is how little those things seem to be valued out in the world. In a way, a liberal arts education is education for an ideal world. It educates aspirationally, almost as if people really cared about art and literature and philosophy.

I’d like to live in a world in which everyone were trained in thinking analytically, expressing ideas effectively, bringing innovation to things and thinking independently but, we live in a culture that seems to only care about money, that wants to measure what you learned by how much money you make, that wants to value people and experiences this way. A liberal arts education hopes that there will be some other measure out there – some other way of doing things and sometimes this means a major crisis in its students when we discover that no one really cares about our ability to analyze literature – and when we discover that all the things we loved and trained in are things that the culture has continued to devalue – artists, teachers, academics, etc.

Adjunct teachers around the country (who make up around 70% of faculty) make so little money that many of them have multiple other jobs. Adjuncts make peanuts. I know because I’ve been one. The most famous example was a beloved French teacher with decades of years of teaching at a college who died at 83 without health care or any sort of safety net. And my elite Liberal Arts College isn’t paying adjuncts any better than anyone else. Adjunct faculty are teaching students for pocket change, while the students are paying crazy amounts of tuition to learn from them.

And yet we persist. Because we love poetry. Or philosophy. Or whatever it is. And the college persists, in hope, I’d guess, that one day the world will organize its values a little differently.

Maybe in the future, when we are all artists, as Seth Godin suggests in Linchpin, our independent learning will start to pay out. No one knows. Meanwhile, if I were a parent, (I’m not, I can’t afford to be) I’d have big questions about where to send my child. To an elite liberal arts college where they will learn how to learn? Or to a college that might help them make a decent living when they’re done?  (Although, no guarantees now – I heard that there are so few law firm positions open that lawyers are waiting tables now, just like actors.)

I don’t have an answer for any of it. I wish that it weren’t an either/or situation – that the skills and values of a liberal arts college were so valued in the culture that everyone would come out of school and get PAID. And then a measure of how students do financially after going to school somewhere would be an actually sensible measure.

So, good luck, Federal Government, on your quest to figure out how to place value on all the colleges out there. You’ve got a hell of a task ahead of you.

 

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How Patronage Feels
July 15, 2014, 10:17 pm
Filed under: art, writing | Tags: , , ,

I recently published one of the first blogs I’ve posted since I joined Patreon. This means that for the first time, I will actually be paid for writing this stuff. It’s not a lot. At my current numbers, I’ll make $20. But it feels tremendously different than making no dollars for my writing.

I’ve only been paid as a writer a couple of times before (for productions of my plays at theatres and schools.) This is the first time, though, that I’ve been in a position to know that I would get paid for something I put out in the world. That is, I make something with the knowledge that there will be a financial return. It feels good, it feels direct and I start to understand what it must feel like to regularly be paid for things you value.

It feels so good to have a squad of people who like my work (or me) enough to want to support it or me. It makes me want to be better, do better, just for them.

In addition to feeling really good, this new patronage has started to shift the work itself. It’s not changing the writing so much yet. With the exception of this one, most of the current wave of blogs were written many months ago. But patronage has made a big impact on how I edit these things. It means that I take more time to look things over, to re-write. I take 4 passes at it, instead of 2. It means that I take the time to find the perfect links within a post. I take time to find the right images and I take more care with the way the text makes the switch from my word document to the wordpress platform. In general, the $20 my patrons are donating are paying me for those extra hours of care. Partly this is because I know people are paying for it but also because I know people are interested enough to support it and/or read it.

The pledges I’ll receive each time I post a blog are still nowhere close to paying me minimum wage for the hours I put into blogging, but they are a vote for this work rising up my priority list.

As a freelancer, I spend the majority of my time doing things that may or may not yield direct results. I go to networking events with the hope of meeting future clients. I update my websites with the hope that someone might end up there and hire me. I make posters and hang them in the appropriate locations. I fundraise for a project, which hopefully will be enough to pay me too. Very few things I do are a direct exchange and much of my time is spent trying to work out which thing will rise to the top of my to do list.

So this – I-write-something-and-get-paid-thing feels pretty revolutionary to me.

So, while this is, yes, a big thank you to my Patreon supporters (Thank you!) It’s also a plea for arts funding in the bigger picture. When you fund things you can make them better. Sure, that artist might make her dance without $20 . . .but $20 might buy her an extra hour of rehearsal space and that extra hour of rehearsal space allows the dancers to really drop into the piece, moving it out of adequate and into excellence.

The more directly you fund art, the more difference you will make in the work itself. That is, when you fund artists directly, rather than institutions, you can you’re your donations have immediate impact on what they are able to create. Take it from an artist who will be paid directly for her work, for the very first time.

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Class Questions

We were in the kitchen of our small house out in the country. The wood stove might have been kicking out its dangerous warmth. The buckets of drinking water from the ice from the creek may have been melting nearby. That’s if it was winter – but I don’t remember the season. We were at the kitchen table, though, I remember that. And I asked my mother what class we were.

I was in elementary school and somehow the subject of class had come up. Almost all of my friends identified as middle class. But I was confused because middle class seemed to mean you had some money and we didn’t really seem to have much. We didn’t have plumbing in this house, for one thing. At the time, my mom worked as a secretary and my dad drove the Bookmobile. So at the dinner table that day, my mother eventually answered my question with “lower middle class” which reasonably settled my confusion around the lack of money we had compared to my friends.

Many years later, I find I am newly confused about this class question. Here in America, the myth of our classless society remains – even as income disparity becomes more extreme. The only class Americans are meant to have is the middle class. This is the only class we’re allowed to discuss. The working class, which in other cultures can be a point of pride, is an aspiring Middle class and the Upper Class is either the Elite or Upper Middle Class.

It seems to me that there is another class in operation that we don’t talk about and that is an Artist class or the Cultural middle class. Financially, I am not even close to middle class. I have been eligible for food stamps at many times in my life (though I’ve only used them that time the application came along with my contract at the theatre where I was working full time for $50 a week.) But I’m culturally middle class. I have a Master’s and a Bachelor’s Degree.

One of the things that’s awkward about this artist class confusion is that we operate in a world that is completely in line with us culturally but out of line with us financially. When our friends from college go out for a birthday dinner, they throw down $40-a-person like it’s no big deal. So usually we don’t go out to our friend’s birthday dinner because that $40 is our grocery money. We get farther away from our cultural peers as their lots in life improve and ours remain hand to mouth.

If you choose to make a life as an artist, it’s very likely that you will find yourself in this awkward middle space – with all the indicators that would suggest upward mobility but the reality of a downward mobility. Should we identify more with the working class then? At my first meeting with the League of Independent Theater, John Clancy proposed the idea that we’re not getting anywhere until we acknowledge that we’re actually working class.

I’m interested in this idea. As Planet Money recently pointed out, most artists have extreme downward mobility. Daughters and sons of doctors and lawyers become artists and their salaries never rise to meet their parents. But because these artists grew up middle class or upper middle class, perhaps identifying with the working class is loaded somehow. It may create a kind of cultural cognitive dissonance.

We don’t have a metric for people who are culturally rich but financially poor. But there are tons of us. And we spend a lot of time and effort pretending we’re doing better than we are. We go into debt to buy clothing that will help us fit in with our cultural peers. We go to those dinners with our friends. We go see the Broadway show even when we really can’t afford to. I mostly don’t do these things anymore myself but sometimes it’s unavoidable. And I’m not saying you have to be poor to be an artist. It’s just that it often turns out that way. Most artists I know who’ve stayed out of poverty consistently have managed it by finding well-paid day jobs.

People talk a lot about the Starving Artist trope but when’s the last time you met an artist over 25 who actually acknowledged that they were starving? People say it’s romanticized – but the romance is almost always in the past. It’s Paris in a Garret in the 1800s. It’s Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith when the Chelsea Hotel accepted art in lieu of rent. But I’m sure, even then, starving wasn’t so romantic. Last year’s troubles and all that. Poverty sucks. It sucked before and it sucks now. But pretending we’re not poor because we are culturally rich means that not only are we denying our own experience but also the opportunity to band together with the working class, to use our cultural capital for good.

We have a class society, whether we acknowledge it or not, and maybe we need a designation for the artists. There was that movement towards the Creative Class a while ago but it didn’t really catch on, not among actual creatives. Maybe that’s part of the reason it turned out to be ineffective. Meanwhile, the middle class that we might have aspired to is vanishing.

I wonder if it’s all just a distraction from the real stuff at the heart of it all. That is, a living wage for everyone, artists included. It seems that while our primary value as humans is money, all of us, the poor, the working class, the artists, the cultural rebels, the back-to-the-landers, the non-profits, will all be left out of the benefits of a money-driven society.

If someone asked me at my kitchen table today what class I am, I couldn’t give them an easy answer. That question would probably yield more than the asker was bargaining for. The answer would be as long as a blog post.

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(Not My) Morning Pages

A fellow artist spotted me in the local coffee shop with my notebook and pen and said, “You’re doing your morning pages?”

Now, I knew what he was talking about and if you’ve read The Artist’s Way, so do you. I read The Artist’s Way in 1996 and it had a profound effect on me. I was fresh out of college, working at my third acting job and had just realized that being an actor was not only going to be really fucking hard but was also not going to be enough for me artistically. The Artist’s Way was my first step toward creating my own work. Along with Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, it started me writing every day and I have held tightly to that practice ever since.

What’s interesting to me about being asked if I’m doing my morning pages is how I definitely don’t think of what I’m doing that way. Now, just as Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way) would suggest, I write a bunch of nonsense every day. Pages of it. Just blah, blah, blah, journal, diary type “the weather’s beautiful, the weather’s awful” shit. But, I now think of these pages as clearance. When I write pages of nonsense, I’m just clearing the decks. It’s like stretching before the game, not the game itself.
And the thing itself can evolve out of the garbage that spills out of the pen at first. Sometimes in expressing my fury at the theatre business, for example, a little blog post is born.

Eventually, actual writing can emerge out of the compost I turn over when I begin. I can turn up stories or plays or ideas that lead to new projects out in the world. But what is most important to me is the discipline of sitting down and getting to the writing. And I have created a great many structures for myself to keep my head in the game, to keep tending the garden, even when I’m tempted to just keep raking the compost.

It goes like this: I clear the decks. (practice inspired by Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg.) I make a list of images (practice inspired by Lynda Barry.) I write in response to a line from Hamlet (a practice that leads to a whole lot of nonsense and the occasional short story) and then I get to ten minutes of timed writing on the thing I’m “really” working on. This is sometimes a play. Or a novel. Or a short story. And it comes last because it is the meat of the matter. I put myself in a number of funny arrangements just to get to those highly concentrated ten minutes. And while this ever-evolving, patchwork practice has been inspired by a great many writers, it is tailored to me and mine.

Sometimes it all strikes me as a little silly – all these structures just to create a something every day but then I think: this is the REAL work of the artist. The work isn’t the stuff that gets seen, although that’s lovely. It is the creating of structures in your life to allow yourself to create. The creating part is easy when you’ve got the right conditions. The real challenge is laying the groundwork to have the right conditions on a regular basis. And really, you can call that whatever you want. Morning Pages. Wild Mind. The Bones. Art. Whatever.

spirals on hamlet

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What I Wish I’d Said to the Losers

While judging the semi-finals of the English Speaking Union’s National Shakespeare Competition this year, we, the judges, were asked if we wanted to say anything to the participants after the winners were announced. Without a moment’s hesitation, I exclaimed, “No!” – somehow horrified at the thought. About two blocks away, however, I suddenly realized exactly what I wanted to have said. I found I wanted to have spoken to the students that hadn’t won, to the ones who had worked so hard on their monologues and sonnets for this competition and suffered a big disappointment at the end of it.

This is what I imagined I’d say to the “losers”:

I was in EXACTLY your position many years ago. I, too, lost my region’s ESU Shakespeare competition and now I’m here judging it. And frankly, the experience of losing something like this will better prepare you for a life in the theatre than winning ever will.

No one in theatre wins all the time. Even the most successful people, the ones who seem to work constantly, will go through periods of profound rejection, of unemployment and loss. There is no way you can win more than you lose in this business. And when you’re winning, you’re still losing. Let’s say you book an amazing Broadway show, for example, but accepting it means you have to give up the play written by your best friend that you’ve been promising you’d do for ages. And that’s the best case scenario. Most actors have to get rejected from hundreds of gigs before booking anything at all.

From where you’re sitting now, it might seem possible to keep winning and winning and winning. I know that’s what I thought I’d do. Look! I made it to Nationals in Dramatic Interpretation! I won Best Actress at the State Drama competition! I got the lead in one school play after another, while simultaneously conquering college and community theatre shows. I really thought I couldn’t lose. So this ESU Shakespeare loss really cut me deeply.

But losing was the best thing for me. It gave me fire to win at the next thing. And if I’d been dissuadable, it would have dissuaded me from pursuing theatre and Shakespeare. (Oh, if only I’d been dissuadable. It is such a heartbreak rollercoaster world out here. It is the worst. And also the best. And also the worst.)

So to the losers of this thing, while I know it feels terrible to lose (it really really does) take some comfort from knowing you’re getting a head start on this whole life-in-the-theatre thing that the winners won’t have. And winners, don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to lose in the future.

 

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Playing the Rent Game: Or, a New Way to Approach Arts Patronage
June 25, 2014, 1:13 am
Filed under: art, business, theatre | Tags: , , , , , ,

Sometimes my patchwork, freelance, artist’s life can feel like a carnival game. I imagine it to be one of those big thermometer gauges that are usually accompanied by Strong Men in leopard print onesies with giant hammers. And every month, the game is to see if I can make rent. Each little gig adds up – $50 here, $100 there, until the red reaches the top of the thermometer and Ding! Ding! Ding! Ladies and Gentlemen, we have RENT! We have a winner!

Strong man

While I usually win the game, sometimes I don’t. And I’m always playing. This is why I have many jobs at once. But as precarious as it is, it does sometimes provide me with time and flexibility to make my art, which has always been my top priority. It’s just that mostly I don’t get paid for that bit.

I put a lot of things out into the world and almost none of them come with financial compensation. There are plays. There are theatrical events. There are songs. There are little bits of prose. There are quilts. And there’s this space here – the blog – where I write about the Arts and the many struggles associated with making a life in them. Last night, I was thinking about how I put so much content out onto the web, so many words, articles, thoughts. It would be amazing if I could get paid for some of them.

Then, today, through the Freelancers Union, I discovered Patreon. This is, it would seem, a new way to support artists and seems to do exactly what I was imagining. On the site, artists post content (seems to be mostly music videos at the moment, but I bet that’ll shift) and people pledge to support them every time they do. It’s essentially like giving a band in a bar a tip. You don’t need to pay a cover charge – you can listen to the music for free – but , if it pleases you, you can throw a buck or two in the hat. Patreon is a digital hat for content creators (i.e. artists.)

In other words, a group of people can be the patrons for an artist creating stuff. For example: A patron might pledge a dollar every time a songwriter posts a song. And while that one dollar won’t make a huge difference by itself, you get 800 people playing you a dollar for your song and suddenly you’ve won the rent game. Even if only 20 people give a dollar for your song – you’re still $20 closer to the top of the thermometer. It’s a new form of patronage and I think it’s pretty smart. So I signed up.

But what could I post? Most of my work as a performing artist is not something that translates well to the digital medium. It is one of the major downfalls to working in a Live Art.

But my work ABOUT working in Live Art lives only here in the digital world and my blog is the only thing that I create that tens of thousands of people have seen. So – it would seem like there might be at least a few of those tens of thousands who might be interested in being a part of this new form of patronage. If you’re one of them, you can support me on my profile over on Patreon.

I’ll keep posting all this content for free, of course. But you could help encourage me to create more, to write more and make more art with your patronage. (Or your tips, if you prefer that metaphor.) I don’t write for a magazine or anyone else. I’m not beholden to commercial interest or publication ethos. I actually just write this stuff for us. And maybe this Patreon thing will mean being a part of a revolutionary way to support art and creativity and free thought. I think about what Jaron Lanier says about the vanishing creative class and how the open internet that he helped build has mostly not done squat for us artists. He talks about how the culture has come to expect all its information and creative stuff for free – and this is putting journalists and artists and the bulk of the creative class out of business. I don’t know if this Patreon thing will help tip the scales back to a more generous, arts supportive world – but I’m up for giving it a shot.

And if you’re an artist, and you decide to experiment with Patreon, too – let me know how it works for you. Post your profile in the comments and maybe we create a chain of patronage – a new world of the New Economy. And all across the land, the artists who have been playing the Rent Game every month can watch the thermometer rise to the top every single time.

thermometer




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