Filed under: art, business, music, theatre | Tags: Charlottesville, Going Local, How to Be Your Own Booking Agent, Peoples Theatre Project
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.
Filed under: art, dreams, theatre | Tags: Follow Your Bliss, Follow Your Blisters, Follow Your Rhino, Joseph Campbell, Rhino
If you’re an artist, your life path has surely been labeled, “Following Your Bliss” at some point. When trying to explain your haphazard opportunities to a stranger, your skip-stop lifestyle or whatever unconventional path you have followed, someone will explain it to themselves with, “Ah! You’re following our bliss! Just like Joseph Campbell said!” And you smile and you nod and you feel like you’re lying when you say, “Yes, yes. That’s right.”
Fact is, though, it doesn’t feel like bliss. (Campbell himself later in his life is reported to have said, “I should have said ‘Follow your blisters.”)
To me, my life feels not like following bliss but like following an elusive rhinoceros in a forest. It is a beloved rhino, to be sure, one that I have fed and cherished throughout its life and one for which I have great affection. But I have also watched it trample on a great many other things as it lumbers ahead of me, just out of my grasp. Sometimes I catch up with it and get a chance to give it a bath, sing it its favorite rhino songs but most of the time, I am running like mad, trying to catch hold of it. I’m clearing the branches that smack me in the face, nursing twisted ankles from tripping over roots, trying not to stop too long for food or water.
The rhino leads me to all kinds of inconvenient places and gets me into all kinds of trouble but I know that the trouble of just letting it run wild without me would be worse. The choice, for me, seems to be to chase the rhino or watch the rhino run wild and tear the place up, trampling everything around me.
Actually, now that I think about it, I’m going to name my rhino, “Bliss” so when someone asks if I’m following it, I can give a hearty unqualified, “Yes! That’s right!”
Filed under: art, business, theatre | Tags: Activism, Change, Myth of Poverty, Optimism, Positive Thinking, The Antidote, The Brooklyn Commune Project, The League of Independent Theater
When I was a teenager, I applied and was accepted Early Decision at my First Choice College. I’d only visited once and was a bit starry-eyed about the place before I went. I remembered someone asking me, “But what if it’s not all that you hope for?”
“Well, then, I’ll change it!” I said.
And I believed I could. I firmly believed that I could change anything I put my mind to. I’m not quite sure where this belief came from. Not from my experience: I was wholly incapable of changing the public high school I went to despite all my railing against it. Regardless, I was full of idealism and fire at that time and truly believed I could change anything and everything.
You may not be surprised to learn that I was due for a come-uppance and had that belief thoroughly shaken many times over. I have a great deal of head-shaking affection for the version of myself who believed she could change everything. Bless her heart, she had no idea what she was up against and also a whole mess of sweet hot ego to push her through.
I often encounter the shadow of that person that I was and usually I see it reflected in other people. When I write about the failures of institutions and systems, inevitably someone will give me a kind of pep-talk, a “You go in there and shake things up! You can do it! Just believe in yourself!” The 18-year-old version of myself would have taken that pep talk and run right into the fire with it. (So would the 25-year-old and probably the 32-year-old, by the way.) The 40 year old me shakes her head and bites her fist at the foibles of American support.
I think it is our cultural belief that any individual can change everything. We pick out one hero who made a change and say, “That guy did it! It was him!” We tend to look at the fight for civil rights, for example, and make it seem like Martin Luther King, Jr. did it all by himself with maybe a little help from Rosa Parks. But the truth of that movement is that hundreds of thousands of people worked together in a targeted, organized communal push to create that change.
There is such a strong bias toward the hero in our culture that it filters into almost everything. We have a blindness to systems and institutions and an overemphasis on individual change. So we refuse to see that a corporation is racist in its organization and instead tell the individual to adjust his attitude about the racism. Rather than acknowledge the forces of economic inequality, we encourage every person to get out there and make it! And we blame them if they don’t.
I see this happen in the Arts, too. There is a desire to believe that the system works and that the cream always rises to the top. We think that if you have talent and are nice and work hard, that success will be yours! (See also this article in the New York Times about the comforting myth of poverty: “Who wants to believe you can work your whole life and end up not being able to afford food? You want to believe those people had to have had something go wrong with them, in order for them to end up in that place. ” – Margarette Purvis, from Food Bank for NYC)
I was listening to this podcast in which two well-known comedians talked about their path to success. They talked about how sometimes they’ll meet a guy who hasn’t made it and they’ll be all confused, because he’s so talented and how could it be? And then poof! They find his tragic flaw and their own successes are justified.
But the fact is that there are structures and systems in place that privileges the success of some over others. It privileges men over women, white people over people of color, rich over poor, the young over the old, the able-bodied over the disabled and so on and so on. Our culture would prefer to look at the flaw in one person that can explain their “failure” rather than the big picture that sets some up to succeed and some to languish in obscurity. (And, as I just learned from the Brooklyn Commune Project’s report, for every artist who is making a living from art, there are 20-30 who are not. And that’s just making A living. I think the numbers probably jump for a DECENT living.)
And, you know, people can get really cranky when you point systematic stuff out. That’s when the real Positive Thinkers will start to accuse you of being bitter (the greatest American sin) and suggest you join the Landmark Forum or do a course with Tony Robbins or a dozen other businesses that exist to puff you up and make you shiny. There are any number of books and articles and motivational speakers who will insist that if you just think Positive, the world will be your oyster. Many will go so far as to insist that if you just believe hard enough, what you want will be yours.
As artists, we’re particularly prone to this sort of thinking. We have to be. The odds for our success aren’t good. Sometimes self-delusion is the only way to keep going. I’ve done it. Did it for years. I totally walked that Positive Thinking Talk. I have walked into more impossible situations armed with nothing more than optimism and conviction than I’d like to count. I’ve been a “Leap and the net will appear” person for most of my life. Problem is, sometimes the net doesn’t appear. Most times, in fact. And when you’ve landed on your face enough times, you start to think maybe it might be a better idea to examine the conditions around the leaping a little bit. Check the wind, as it were. Maybe see if you have a friend with a truck and a feather mattress who might be willing to wait below where you’re leaping, in case that net doesn’t show up after all.
There’s some new scholarship around Optimism and psychology. The Antidote is a book about these ideas and after years of being sure I could change things by myself, I can’t wait to read it. I need some new way of leaping, a way to create change that doesn’t involve falling so firmly on my face all the time.
Additionally, I’ve found a great deal of actual hope in people that are coming together to make change in my community. I joined the League of Independent Theater this year and I’ve already seen them make a difference in all kinds of sectors I’d thought were un-touchable. Similarly, the Brooklyn Commune Project has pulled together a passionate group of people who have worked tirelessly for the good of the whole.
It’s starting to dawn on me that when we’re just Thinking Positive, we’re all on our own. We take on all the risk in exchange for all the (possible) glory. But when we are working together, facing the edges, as it were, we don’t have to work so hard to pretend it is all alright. We tackle the hard stuff. We see it. And some of us hold the net ready while the others are jumping. We don’t have to Believe so hard that way.
P.S. I just watched an RSA video of Barbara Ehrenreich talking about this exact thing, from a different perspective. It made me laugh and feels like EXACTLY what I was trying to say. Watch it.
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: Arts Education, Emotional Currency, Love, Passion, teaching artist
At a panel discussion I attended recently, an arts education guy said, “We want teaching artists who have a passion for this work. We don’t want people who are just looking for another gig.”
I’ve heard this sort of thing in Arts Education so many times, it’s a little like the refrain of a song. (“Oh, that old line again! Love, love, love, they’re always looking for love!”) But I heard this idea in a new way this time. It occurred to me that the subtext was, “Don’t ask us about how much it pays. Don’t ask us about working conditions. Don’t think about this as a job.” This sensibility is very common in this field and one of the reasons we, as teaching artists, are so under-supported.
We are meant to love our jobs so much that we’d do it for nothing, yes, we would! Sometimes this idea is explicit – like the time I went to a Professional Development workshop and in the first exercise of the day, we were asked to step forward if we “loved teaching.” There was an assumption that we’d all have that in common. I have to tell you that in that moment I’ve never hated teaching more and I’m no longer in a place where I can lie about how I feel. I am extremely capable at many varieties of teaching and when I am doing the Work, most people assume that it is my passion and will say so. I hear varieties of “You seem to love it so much!” all the time. At which I smile mysteriously. I feel like it’s nobody’s business how I feel about it if I am getting the job done. It’s not my business if a pilot loves flying planes, I just want my plane to take-off and land safely and get me where I’m going.
There is a strange emotional currency that runs through education and arts teaching especially. Somehow the field demands not only what you do but how you feel about it. I think this adds to the devaluation of professionals in education. You know who’s the most passionate about teaching the arts? Those who have never done it before. And when arts organizations privilege passion over experience, when they hire people who “love it so much!”, they’re devaluing the skill that it takes to hold a room, create curriculum, translate an art experience to a classroom, etc. My own preference is that if I work for you, you get to tell me when and where you’d like me to teach but you don’t get to dictate how I feel about that experience.
I think there’s some confusion about the job here. There’s an assumption that if I can’t convince an education director that I love this so much that I’d just do it for free, I somehow won’t be able to convey the magic of the art to a room full of students. And the ramifications of that assumption radiate outward where we, as teaching artists, don’t feel like we can ask for what we need because we’ve agreed that we do this for love and not for money, right at the outset.
It’s a devil’s bargain and it’s partly why most Teaching Artists last about three years before moving on to something else. This then means that the dominant pool of Teaching Artists are young, very passionate and extremely inexperienced. Those of us who carry with us years experience are the ones making noise about things and we become the nuisance to an organization that wants to believe it’s doing it all for love, despite the fact that almost everyone else in it is making a living wage. Everyone but the ones doing the teaching.
There are many things I do love. Teaching is what I do for money. And I believe in it. I care about it. I am actually very passionate about the work, I will concede. But probably not in the way that guy at that panel discussion meant. I passionately hate it, fight for it, rail against and for it. But I can’t say I love it. Not when I’m supposed to.
It’s like those cash registers at my local grocery store that remind the cashier to smile at the customer. Those messages don’t work. The cashiers smile even less than they do at other grocery stores I frequent. You know what might make the cashiers smile at the customer? A living wage. Health Insurance. A sense of being able to control their experience. An ability to contribute to the greater culture of the business. Funny – those things might actually help me love teaching again, too.
Filed under: art, education | Tags: Arts Education, Dasani, New York Times
When I saw the New York Times article about “The Invisible Child” go through my Facebook feed, I thought, “That kid could be one of my former students.” I didn’t read it, though, not at first. Given that I’ve taught thousands of young people in the last 15 years, I figured every kid looks like a former student. It wasn’t until I’d seen the article go through my feed for the fifth or sixth time that I finally clicked on the link and read it.
Turns out, the child at the heart of the piece IS, in fact, a student I taught. While she’d grown up a bit since I last saw her, it was clearly the same Dasani that I’d worked with at PS 67 in Brooklyn a couple years ago.
Like many of my friends, I found the article moving and fiercely compelling. (I stayed up well past 2am one night reading it.) It’s a remarkable piece of journalism and I felt some bittersweetness in having some experience with its subject and her narrative. But I think there’s another narrative that is hiding within this one, one about the Arts and how Dasani became the self-reliant, articulate kid that she is.
We don’t see Dasani before she goes to the Arts school in Brooklyn. We don’t see her fall in love with dance. We don’t see how she came to be the kind of kid who would figure out how to get to Harlem from Brooklyn on her own for a rehearsal. I don’t know what the links in that narrative chain are but I do know what some of the conditions were at Dasani’s elementary school that allowed those things to happen.
1) Her school, unlike MOST public schools in NYC, had a dance studio in it and Dasani had a dance teacher and a regular dance class. Additionally, her classroom teachers expressed a great deal of interest in what their students did there. They were great supporters of dance and tried to integrate their movement work into their class work.
2) Similarly, her school had a music teacher and a music room and a music class. And the students’ work there was featured in their classroom teachers’ presentations.
3) Despite the article’s suggestion that PS 67 had no resources, her school did, in fact, have a computer room and her class had regular access to it.
4) Dasani not only had a theatre residency with me, she had teachers who would take what the class learned in theatre and then integrate it into their studies. Before the grant ran out, the school had an ambition to make sure students got exposure to theatre in every grade.
5) She had teachers who gave her, and her fellow students, writing and public speaking skills, which they practiced regularly. The students also often wrote creatively and practiced articulating their feelings and analyzing them. I saw it in action.
The Arts were a major part of Dasani’s childhood and they have clearly continued to play a large role, in that she’s gone on to study dance.
Dasani is a remarkable kid. But I will say, she was in the company of dozens of remarkable kids at a remarkable elementary school. And yes, I worry about her. You couldn’t read that article and not worry about her. But I actually worry less about her than I do about all of the students in her position who didn’t have the elementary education that she did. You can probably tell from the article that Dasani has a remarkable store of self-reliance, resilience and charisma. There’s something about her that makes me feel like she’ll somehow land on her feet.
But – what about the students who never found a reason to fight to go to school, who don’t have loving relationships with teachers and administrators, whose experience of poverty doesn’t have the bright spots that Dasani encounters?
It’s funny to think of a kid living under the conditions that Dasani has endured as having some advantages but that’s weirdly how I see her. And the major advantage that she’s had, in my mind, is an arts-based education. I think Dasani’s experience of the arts probably helped her to become the sort of kid a New York Times reporter wants to write about. It helped her become a spokes-kid for others in her situation.
If you’ve ever tried to teach a kid how to think metaphorically, you know how tricky it can be. Throughout the article, Dasani uses metaphor and expressive language like a total pro. And I believe that it was her exposure to the Arts that gave her that skill. I just wish we could give that gift to more of her peers.
Sometimes in Arts Education, there is a sense that the Arts can save kids in terrible situations. I think it’s important to recognize that the Arts aren’t going to get Dasani a home or solve her family’s difficulties. But what the Arts can do is give a kid skills to look at the world creatively, to find a reason to go to school, to develop valuable passionate discipline. And The Arts can’t do that in a piecemeal sort of way. It doesn’t happen with an occasional residency with a teaching artist. It doesn’t happen with a single visit to a museum. It comes from a sustained and integrated commitment to the Arts. It comes from having dance AND music AND visual art AND theatre AND having them on a regular basis. I want that for every kid in New York City and I want it for Dasani, all the way through the rest of her education.
Filed under: art, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: collaborators, loss, NYC, weddings, women
Over the years, I have made theatre with a number of extremely talented remarkable women. I started a company with women and make work with a woman-centered sensibility. These women are also my dear friends and most of them left NYC a long while ago. Until recently, I just saw myself as an odd victim of fate, surprised by fortune that almost every major collaborator has picked up sticks and gone elsewhere.
Then I started to think. Almost to a person, these friends/collaborators have gotten married and moved away to follow their husband’s (or wife’s) career path. Many of them have, in that moving, also given up theatre. I can name you former theatrical collaborators up and down the West Coast, in the mid-west and in Vermont. As far as I’m concerned, the country is littered with former NYC theatre practitioners and their partners.
Is this a post about how women shouldn’t put aside their own ambition to follow a partner? Nope. In almost every case, these women are happier, more at ease and thrilled to be able to have livable homes, babies and actually afford healthcare.
So what’s the problem? Well. NYC has lost a slew of remarkably talented female theatre practitioners. It is a loss to Theatre in this city. Given what a hostile environment it can be for women, it is no surprise that many of them hitch their wagons to their partners’ stars and just hightail it out of here. But the loss to the culture is profound.
When it comes down to it, it’s almost impossible to advocate for your own career when it has nothing to offer you. So when your partner gets a nice job across the country or is getting offered enough money to support you both, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from going.
The only female theatre artists I know who have stuck it out in these NYC trenches are either single or partnered with other theatre people. And listen, I know this isn’t a scientific sampling but I wonder about it. I wonder if theatre is losing its most smart talented women because the circumstances are so ridiculous. And if you’re one of those who hasn’t left yet, I want to meet you. Because I’m very afraid that the next wedding I attend will mean the loss of yet another collaborator.