Songs for the Struggling Artist


Ashes and Light
September 11, 2014, 4:32 pm
Filed under: art, dreams, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

It is the 11th of September, 2014. Thirteen years ago, the smoke blew over Brooklyn, where I was nestled, safe from harm. This is an anniversary for so many awful things but for me, it is also a reminder of something powerfully great and the two are inextricably linked in my mind.

That morning, even before all the damage was done, my friend Shannon called to make sure I was okay. (I was. And still in my pajamas. And remarkably, she got through to me via the phone when so few could.) Shannon and I had been talking for months about working together on a play. We’d bandied the idea back and forth and Shannon, who was living in California, had been toying with the idea of moving to NYC to do it. When she called that morning, I thought, “Well, that will be the end of that! She’s not going to move to New York now, not now that the city is under attack, not now when rubble is falling and smoke is permeating the air!”

In fact, it was quite the opposite. The horror of the situation seemed to galvanize her and she said, “That’s it. I’m coming. We’re going to do this.”

For me, that was the real birth of our theatre company. It was that moment when the world was falling apart, when destruction seemed to be raining down on us – and we decided to make something.

It felt then, and still feels, like the only response to destruction is creation. And while that first show we made had nothing to do with 9-11 or politics or even destruction – it was, in a sense, a response to all of that. It was, for us, an assertion of the power of creativity in the face of death.

I find myself newly moved today, when I think about Shannon’s fierce choice to come here and make something with me. It got me thinking about how our little company, that was born in a difficult moment, has survived throughout all the subsequent difficulties.

If feels like this theatre was born out of ashes and it helps to remember that when it seems too hard to go on, when it’s so challenging to keep making things with so few resources and so little encouragement. Today, I’m reminded that we were compelled to make a bright thing in a dark time. And as we go on, I feel like the darker the moment, the lighter we are compelled to shine, even when the odds are against us.

Today, I’m remembering both things, the ashes and the light and I will carry both of them forward to the next marker in time.

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Selling Out and Self-Deception
September 11, 2014, 12:56 am
Filed under: art, business, music, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , ,

On the You Are Not So Smart podcast, I heard that the generations behind me don’t know what the concept of “Selling Out” is. When asked, one interviewee thought it was when a show sold all the tickets. (It is, yes, that, too.) But – the idea of selling out, as in selling your artistic soul down the river for commercial success, is (supposedly, according to this show) not in the common parlance for the young.

It would seem that the current blend of market value and artistic value are now so mixed up, many people don’t even recognize them anymore. I find this disturbing. While I’d be happy to have an opportunity to sell out, I feel it would be important to know that I’m doing it and why.

But selling a lot of tickets and getting a lot of YouTube hits doesn’t mean your art is good. I enjoyed reading Penny Arcade’s post on this topic. She said,

“Today’s downtown performance world operates very much on a basis of popularity rather than on ability. It is very easy to feel like you are succeeding with your work when what is actually happening is that you are succeeding socially. “

Her perspective on the new landscape rings very true to me. Art should not be a popularity contest. And yet it feels like it is.

I heard an episode of RadioLab that I’d heard before. The last time, it set off a chain of responses, including anxiety and sadness. The thing that set me off then, and struck me again in hearing it a second time, was the story on self-deception. I don’t want to ruin the punch-line of the story (so maybe listen to the segment first before reading the rest of this.) but studies seem to indicate that people who are better at self-deception are more successful.

This rings true for me and I (initially) found it depressing because I am very bad at self-deception. I felt that I had not yet achieved success in the traditional sense due to this self-deceptive handicap and I despaired at ever having any in the future. And it can be a handicap – when I asked some fellow indie theatre–makers how they keep going in the face of almost certain indifference of the world, one of them answered with, “I think you have to be a little delusional.”

This makes a lot of sense. I was much happier and more successful when I was convinced that my tiny theatre shows were going to change the world. Over the years, I’ve lost many of my self-deceptive abilities. When hearing this story for the second time today, though, I started to think about the competing impulses of cultivating self-deception and cultivating truth.

As an artist, I am (perhaps compulsively) interested in truth. I am curious about what is REALLY going on. I am captivated by the investigation of what is underneath. There is a world of art and philosophy that falls into this camp. Much of my favorite work follows this line of inquiry. Do I wish for Elizabeth Bishop or Dawn Powell or Remedios Varo to have been more delusional to achieve more “success”? Definitely not. But is a lot of the art that is “successful” delusional? Absolutely. And how much of that might we deem sold out?

It’s becoming clearer to me that selling art comes from a very different impulse than creating it. The best artists I know are not self-delusional, they question themselves constantly. The ones that are impossibly sure of themselves often find more success but that confidence can feel like a con when it comes to the content of their work.

For me, being clear about the difference between artistic success and popularity, between truth and big numbers, between selling out and investing in, helps me focus on the task at hand, which is (always) making good art. And the only way I know how to do that is by being as honest with myself as possible. The successful self-deceivers can succeed on their own metric, I’ve got my own.

 

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photo by litherland

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“Is this what it feels like to be a man?”

I recently finished watching Seasons 1 and 2 of Call the Midwife. My first thoughts, after watching an episode or two, were “Is this what it feels like to be a man? To see your gender entirely at the center of stories? To have a wide variety of characters and not just one pretty one to be the romantic interest for the lead?”

It has been remarkable to watch stories not just featuring women but about some of the most quintessentially female experiences you could have. Watching stories about pregnancy and childbirth, for one, but also abortion, domestic violence and motherhood.

That all feels pretty revolutionary to me.

But in addition to things like the thrill of having the main romantic story happening to the most awkward of the women, there is also the extraordinary effect of watching so many women in authority.

Every single midwife in the series finds herself in a position of authority at some point, so we watch the younger ones struggle with it and find their own voices and power. That, in itself, feels instructive as this is not a narrative we ever really get to see in the media. But the other part of it is the way authority sits on the older women in the show. They are in charge and there is no question about it. It occurs to me that I have spent most of my life watching media that models for men how to take on authority (or how not to) but leaves women to figure it out for ourselves. 

To watch a community of women in full command of themselves and the world around them is something I don’t think I’ve ever had an opportunity to watch on screen before. I love Orange is the New Black and its community of women, too, but because it is set in prison, all authority rests in the hands of the state, so even though the show is fantastic, it doesn’t have the same empowering effect. 

Call the Midwife isn’t perfect (It’s very white, it can be way sentimental and sometimes the plot twists make me roll my eyes) but it is thrilling to experience a TV show that offers so much female-ness.And given the way theatre tends to follow TV and film, it gives me hope for a future when we could also have this sort of thing can stage. More please. More of this.

*call the midwife

P.S.  On another note, I also love Masters of Sex. Set in almost the same time period, dealing with women’s health and created by women with a woman at the center. I am particularly thrilled to see a story that is so concerned with women’s sexuality and ambition in a way that we rarely see on TV. It doesn’t have Call the Midwife’s variety of bodies and ages or its authority – but it embraces some of the darkness and pleasure that Call the Midwife couldn’t possibly engage in. What would happen if these worlds could collide? I would definitely watch that show.



Reframing Rejection

Getting up the energy to apply for things can be really challenging. Whether it’s grants, fellowships, residencies, festivals, contests, publications or production, all applications amount to buying into RENT SEEKING, an economic concept (There’s a great podcast about it on Econ-Talk .) This is all to say that applications are highly inefficient way to distribute resources. When I’m the person expending all the effort to apply, it can sometimes be very hard to motivate spending the many many hours of work for either no return or very little return, especially when I weight it with resources spent. Because of this, I’d severely slowed down on applications like this round about the time I went to grad school. Until last fall.

A year ago, author, Monica Byrne published her rejection list (called her anti-resume) on her blog. It is an extraordinary document – and one of the things that particularly struck me about it was the sheer quantity of places she’d submitted her work. She endured a STAGGERING amount of rejection and just kept applying to things (theatres, literary agents, residencies, magazines, prizes.) After reading her list, I decided I need to up my game and apply and apply and apply to everything, no matter how many resources I wasted in this process. I was a flurry of applications this year, of all kinds, and I was pretty proud of myself for doing it.

Then a few months later all the rejection letters started to roll in. Some of them were more disappointing than others. But they were all the same. No, Again and again. Grant? No. Fellowship? No. Residency? No. Prize? No. Production? No. Writer’s Group? No. An endless parade of No, from many different avenues.

The applications were for me, for my company or some combination of the two. It’s a whole lot of No. One day, I got three rejections in a row. One in my mailbox and two in my email. And from an economic perspective, this is ridiculous. If I’d gotten paid for all that work, I’d have a decent salary. (Shame I didn’t!)

But from another angle, these sorts of attempts are the only way to transcend the artistic ghetto I’ve found myself in and I probably just need to keep applying to things until something hits. Byrne submitted hundreds of applications before they started to hit and once they hit, the odds went up and she started to hit more and more. At least that’s what it looks like from her list.

The trick for me now is to try and figure out how to continue to motivate myself to apply even when the odds aren’t good, even when rejection is almost a foregone conclusion. Could I switch my thinking to see if I could get as many rejection letters as possible? Have each rejection be a celebration of some kind?

When I did a lot of auditioning, I sometimes managed to think of those auditions as my job, to see the audition as the performance, as the end goal and not an attempt for something beyond it. It helped. Because I like performing.

But I’m struggling to find a way to convince myself that filling in applications is the end goal, because I don’t enjoy filling out applications. And while I love writing, I don’t enjoy writing artistic statements of varying word/character counts or plot summaries or answering “Why I want this residency” questions.

Every time I spend hours (or days or weeks) filling something out, I have to convince myself I really want to get that thing in order to write convincingly about it. And every time I don’t get it, it becomes harder to apply to the next one.

So I’m in search of a re-framing device, some way to have receiving a rejection letter be good news and affirming. In their book Switch, the Heath brothers talk about Triggers (setting up an automatic response to something.) I want a new trigger for rejection letters. Some way to tie pride or contentment or some positive emotion to receiving them. I thought about getting myself an ice cream every time I received a rejection – but I really don’t need THAT MUCH ice cream. There are the writers who wallpaper their bathrooms with rejection letters – which I would totally do – except that 90% of my rejections come in my email now. And I’m not printing those things out just to smear paste on them or tear them up.

The Heath brothers also talk about this idea of an elephant and a rider, that when we’re riding a (metaphorical) elephant, the emotions of the elephant really determine where we go, that the rider can only do so much when the elephant’s emotions get involved. So I’m trying to figure out how to motivate my elephant to do something that generally makes me feel bad and somehow find a way to make it feel good.

Have you solved this? Suggestions welcome. I can’t imagine I’ll ever be in a position to be able to avoid applying for things altogether. So I need a way to make peace with the labor of applying and the rejection that comes after.

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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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