Songs for the Struggling Artist

“You have so many men to protect you.”
October 18, 2014, 12:27 am
Filed under: Gender politics | Tags: ,

I got on the elevator on the 25th floor. I rode it alone until the 20th when 6 big and boisterous men got on. That’s one woman and six men in the elevator, for those of you keeping score at home. One of them looked at me (once the doors had closed and we proceeded to the lobby) and said, “Aren’t you lucky? You have so many men to protect you.”

And I laughed. Because I think that’s what the comment was designed to accomplish. And it seemed the safest thing to do. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this comment as I walked away. I don’t know whether he really sincerely thought I was lucky or whether he was attempting to dispel a possible fear of being stuck in a small space with a group of men.

It is entirely possible that this guy was sincere. And when he’s out in the world with his buddies, he sees his role as a protector, as somehow defending women against the ills of other men. But what he doesn’t realize is that none of us can ever know for sure which side he’s on. In fact, hearing that a total stranger is there to protect me actually makes my fear radar go up. Probably, he’s a great guy. Ready to do good. But from the outside, it’s impossible to tell a protector from a predator. Sometimes they can be one and the same. This is something that so many women were trying to express via #YesAllWomen. It can take some time to know who we can trust.

The funny thing about this line in the elevator was that it actually drew everyone’s attention to the possible danger of the situation. 6 men, 1 woman? Could be trouble. Before he said anything, I wasn’t consciously worried about the odds. It was the middle of the day. They were coming from some work thing. I felt reasonably safe in that elevator. As soon as he mentioned that all those men would “protect” me – I instantly started calculating all the things I might need protecting from. #1 was being alone in an elevator with a big group of guys like this.

It felt a bit like he was trying to assuage a fear I didn’t yet have. But it had the opposite effect. I can see how confusing it must be for men in this sort of situation. How do you assure women you’re not one of the assholes?

In thinking about it, I feel like I’d have felt safest by just being treated like any human in an elevator in NYC. Ignored completely (it is our way here, is it not?) or acknowledged with a nod or “nice day, isn’t it?” or any other small talk that humans use with each other.

And he’s right, I am so lucky. But not for the reason he said. I’ve (so far) mostly beat the odds on violence and harassment. I’ve not had a lot of reason for needing protection. But if I did, you can bet I wouldn’t count on 6 random dudes in an elevator to do it.



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Rejection Post #2 (instant un-gratification)
October 12, 2014, 11:03 pm
Filed under: art, business, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

It’s 2:30 AM. This grant is only one page long but it’s taken forever. (The character limits keep cutting off my text, I can’t use much of anything I’ve written previously about this project, I have to track down a bunch of community board, senate, council and representative district numbers for my new neighborhood, etc.) Each time I’ve thought I was done, I discovered one more thing. Finally, at 2:30 AM, I click “Submit.”

I try to go to sleep but I find myself tossing and turning over funding. The grant I’ve just applied for would be $2500, which would pay for five performances for community organizations. I’ve been crowdfunding for this same project for the last month. At 17% of our goal, there’s only enough money in the bank to cover our fundraising costs and a rehearsal. It’s possible this project won’t be able to move forward. I spend a couple of hours staring at the ceiling crafting pleas for money.

That’s all just context for this, my second rejection blog in the series. And this one’s on a technicality. I felt it might make sense to give you the atmosphere in which I received this rejection. (i.e. sleep deprived and overwrought)

So, this afternoon, I received an email from the place I’d submitted my grant proposal, asking me to withdraw my application. This is due, it says, to my having applied to another granting agency with the same project.

And there is my first almost instant grant rejection. There are many things that are frustrating about this – the lack of information about this particular ineligibility in the guidelines, for example. (Something which, if it had been present, could have saved me days of work.)

But that aside, this little bump in the road speaks to a peculiarity in the arts funding culture of NYC. Local arts funding here cares about where you live if you’re an individual and where you are based if you are a company. City arts funding is parceled out by borough. The Manhattan council will only fund work that is based in and performed in Manhattan. The Brooklyn council will only fund work based in and performed in Brooklyn. Which, you know, that’s fair. Everyone has their territory. Especially when you’re dealing with governments and politicians.

What this funding structure doesn’t reflect is how art actually gets made in this city. For most artists, those boundaries don’t exist. We move like water and will flow where there are openings. With my company, for example, we’ll rehearse in any reasonably affordable location. When I was living in Washington Heights, Manhattan, I booked rehearsals in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, (which is over an hour away) with great regularity. We’ve rehearsed in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan so far. And if someone offered me a free space in the Bronx, I’d go there, too. The people we work with live all over the city and beyond. (Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, Long Island.) The current project aims to perform anywhere we can be of service. We’re not concerned with borders. Artists rarely are.

But governments are deeply concerned with borders – which is why the funding landscape is so full of little kingdoms, living side by side. Which, you know, fine, if they have to do it that way to get a little funding to artists, so be it. But I think this delineation may not be offering the best system for the people in those communities. If I make something in Queens that’s good, why shouldn’t people in the Bronx get to benefit from that good work? I live in Queens, but I don’t necessary want to have to go to Brooklyn to go see good dance. Couldn’t that cool Brooklyn dance piece come to me? Wouldn’t that be a good use of arts dollars? Sharing and commissioning good art for the communities that live in a place?

Anyway, I wasn’t eligible for this grant, that’s the long and the short of it. The email I got made me feel like I was somehow trying to pull one over on the arts council – like I was unfairly trying to double dip arts funding. When the truth of the matter is that I’m just trying to get some funding to share my work with whatever borough will have us, through whatever channels are available. And none of it is possible without a little more funding.

A couple of hours after I wrote this post, I returned to my computer and discovered another email from the grant coordinator. I’d gone back and forth with her a couple of times, trying to clarify the ins and outs of what funding went where and what I was eligible for. And the upshot of this series of emails was that my instant rejection was, in fact, un-instant-rejected. My application will actually proceed to adjudication. This was not an outcome I expected. Not in the least. But I’m thrilled by investigating this rejection, I found myself in a much better position.

So this may not be the last rejection post for the same application. Stay tuned!




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Rejection Reframed (The first of a series)
September 30, 2014, 10:40 pm
Filed under: art, theatre, writing | Tags: , , ,

After my “Reframing Rejection” blog, one of my (wonderful!) Patreon supporters suggested a possible solution to my application motivation question. [Short version of that post: How do I hook getting rejection letters to something positive? How do I keep motivating myself to receive them?] My patron’s solution?

“If you write a blog post – even one sentence – for each rejection, maybe you can turn it into income via Patreon? Let your patrons cheer you on?”

And so, my readers and patrons, I am giving that a try. I’m not quite sure how this chronicle of rejection will evolve but it starts now.

My latest rejection letter is from The Room of Her Own Foundation for the Shakespeare’s Sister Fellowship. I didn’t expect to get this Fellowship – but gave it a shot anyway, though. Some rejections are painful because you really think you’ll get the thing you applied for and some are painful because of the crappiness of the letter. This one was a particularly shitty rejection letter. There are a million qualifiers, letting me know how stiff the competition was, how qualified the judges are, how I didn’t even make it to the second round and gee, thanks for helping us make the process better. It’s such a clear example of the sort of rejection letter that is written to make the letter writer feel better.

As the receiver of rejection letters, I don’t need any qualifications or the “gosh, the competition was so good” lines. I just want the information. Did I get it? Yes or no. I might like a letter that just said NO or BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME!


When you don’t have enough money in the bank to make a withdrawal, the ATM doesn’t say, “There are a lot of factors that go in to how your money comes to you, various fees, the salaries of our CEO, etc and unfortunately, your request for dollars was unable to be met. You should know that a lot of other really great people are also asking for money right now and as much as we’d like to give money to everyone, we can only dispense a limited amount. We wish you all the best in your money seeking endeavors. Don’t be discouraged! Keep asking for money in the future!” Nope –the ATM just spits out a little slip of paper that says Insufficient Funds and that is that. I would prefer a rejection letter that was more like a bank slip, for sure.

I particularly hate when rejection letters for writing tell me to keep writing. (This one: “We hope that you will continue to write.”) Give me a break. You think your shitty rejection letter is enough to dissuade me from writing? Sometimes it might be enough to dissuade me from writing shitty applications – but from writing?!? I don’t know anyone who’s quit their art just because some committee didn’t accept it. I can’t really imagine a writer who could be put off writing by a rejection notice but then return to it by the same letter’s suggestion. There he is, crying into his email box about his loss as he reads the opening paragraphs, declaring that he will never write again and then, there in that last line, when they tell him to keep writing – he feels. . . HOPE! Again! “Oh, I WON’T quit writing after all! Thank you, Rejection Letter!”

Anyway, that’s Rejection #1 in the Rejection Documentation Project. Stay tuned for future rejections. I’ve just written a bunch of grants and residency applications, so, fingers crossed for some really good ones.


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Learning Funny from the SNL Ladies
September 25, 2014, 9:30 am
Filed under: comedy | Tags: , , , ,

The Women of SNL was a Special featuring the ladies from Saturday Night Live over the show’s history. While watching it, I was suddenly reminded of when my friend and I started an improv group in college. We wanted to practice some of the skills we were learning in our comedy class, so we booked the student run space and gathered a small group of interested improvisers. We tried things we’d only read about in books and explored things we’d done in class.

We went to a college where the male to female ratio was 1 to 3 but somehow in our little group, we had more men than women. We all improvised enthusiastically for a few sessions and then someone pointed out that my co-founder and created almost exclusively male characters. At the time, I was mystified by this habit. We were feminists at a (mostly) women’s college, why did every character come out that way?

Watching the Women of SNL, I had an insight into the why of that pattern. We grew up with very few funny female character models. Funny defaulted to male. I was a dedicated SNL watcher in my youth and at the time, there were very few signature female characters – aside from the ones in drag. (a la “The Church Lady” or Terry Sweeny’s Nancy Reagan)

The women that were on during my formative years were funny in relationship to men. They weren’t the stars of their sketches. They were written into the roles of bimbos, prudes and nags. You can see how they could have been so much funnier if anyone had known how to write actual women for them.

Watching the survey of the women of SNL all pressed up next to one another revealed how much of a difference there was in the newer generations of women on the show. Tina Fey’s position as head writer surely has to be credited with some of the monumental change between those seasons. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Kristen Wiig all took on female characters in a way that no one had been able to before them. Particularly radical to me, was how often these female characters are in relationship to one another. They were in sketches with other women. SNL started to pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors in their era. There are whole worlds of women that had never been on-screen before and it was inspiring to see them.

Watching the SNL special made me wish I had grown up watching women like Wiig, Fey, Poehler, Dratch and Rudolph for inspiration. I envy the young women who have grown up with them to look toward. I think they must have a much clearer sense of what’s possible, of roles they could play and how to be funny and still be a woman.

I heard a film critic talk about the definition of good satire as something that should always punch up. He said that the best satire targets the guy at the top. I think for me, in college, taking on male characters of any kind felt like punching up. There weren’t enough women in power to feel like I could punch up to a female character, I guess. Funny defaulted to male then, even as a woman and I’m so grateful to see that it doesn’t have to anymore.

SNL ladies

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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.

Initially, I  found this news 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.  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.


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.


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