Songs for the Struggling Artist


In Which I Read That Dragon Book, Part 3

If you’ve been playing along, I’ve been reading this book due to its weird commonality with both my dragon blog and my audio drama. You can read Part One and/or Part Two. I will spoil this book for you so if you want to be surprised by anything that happens, skip this one. Not that that would be a big deal, actually.

NOV 8

I’m back in the game with When Women Were Dragons. I had apparently read 78% before it was returned to the library. So we’re back on the horse (or dragon) with 22% left to read.

Having been away from this book for a while, I found it challenging to drop back in. My attention kept sliding around as I read the account of the protagonist’s prom where a bunch of girls turned dragon. The real drama seemed to be that a lot of girls were nice to her for a change and that she found them very beautiful and then they were naked and then they were dragons? Primary image – green glitter.

But our protagonist doesn’t turn dragon, presumably because of those knots her mother tied. So I guess the drama is NOT turning dragon while all the other girls transform.

Then school gets canceled and the librarians tutor dragons and then there’s an “academic” talk about how this is the next dragoning.

I guess, given how beautiful the protagonist found one of the naked girls before she dragoned, this might all be an elaborate coming out story? Which would actually be cool – but the dedication and introduction led me to believe this might have something to do with Christine Blasey Ford?

We’ll see, I guess.

NOV 9

I might re-title this book A Series of Not Particularly Exciting Events with Dragons. It’s just, like, ok, she graduated from high school, started college and moved in with her aunties who happen to be dragons but it doesn’t really matter. They still cook and clean and brush the little girl’s hair.

Also, at her aunt’s suggestion, the protagonist finally opens the box her mother left her to look for the secret bank accounts she left behind. And they’re there! How fortunate! What a surprise! Too bad she didn’t bother to open that box when she first received it! And speaking of boxes she hasn’t opened, as far as I know, she still hasn’t read the stuff her aunt left behind but now she doesn’t need to because her aunt is there and could tell her anything she wants to know. But apparently the protagonist doesn’t want to know anything and just pouts about all the help she’s getting from dragons.

Best part of this book? The kid who has little dragon outbursts where she suddenly grows talons and ruins her shoes before returning to regular feet. I suggest this author scrap this whole book and re-write it from this dragon kid’s perspective. She’s the most interesting character of any of them.

NOV 10

Guess who’s back? The protagonist (her name’s Alex, I don’t know why I can never remember that when I’m writing these) is reunited with her friend that her dad went into the homophobic panic about. And it seems like he had a “good” reason for the panic because these two are besotted with each other but completely unable to acknowledge it yet. It takes a conversation with a dragon scientist to clarify that a) her aunt is a lesbian and b) Alex is probably in love with her friend, too.

Also her aunt is in a dragon quadruple? Four dragon ladies who are all in love with each other? I mean, okay, cool. I guess this book is just an elaborate coming out story after all. And I guess that’s cool but I’m not sure I love what it seems to be implying. Like, since all the dragons are mostly just super helpful aunties and church ladies and knitters and what not, it seems to be suggesting that lesbians are all just nice ladies who want to cook and clean for you. And in my experience? Lesbians have a lot more to offer than being nice wives to other ladies. There are no radicals in this book just overly helpful ladies who want to brush your hair.

And then there’s this scene with the nice dragon scientist doctor guy who just wants to come over and observe all these ladies and see the baby dragon transform for the first time, a process we have been led to believe involves some nakedness and he seems really genuinely interested for science but also…it’s somehow creepy?

This book is so weird, you guys. So weird.

NOV 11

This book keeps feeling like it’s ending and then doesn’t. They finally let the kid become the dragon she wants to be and then everyone becomes dragon activists for her. I thought that might be the end because this book has been headed there ever since this character could talk.

But wait, there’s more!

The protagonist’s girlfriend (and yes, now they are out as girlfriends) turns dragon and tries to convince the protagonist (Alex) to join her. But she doesn’t.

I thought it might end there but wait, there’s more!

I don’t know what actually the end is yet but it’s clear there are more chapters after this. I’d had enough by the time we got to the girlfriend dragoning up. But I think we’re ALMOST there.

Fingers crossed someone will actually read the hidden materials from the beginning – but I somehow think everyone has forgotten those, including the author.

THE FINAL CHAPTERS are coming soon. They’re a whole other post because it turns out I have a LOT to say about this whole experience.

This should be the cover of the book she should write instead, featuring the most interesting character.
Photo by Taylor Kopel on Unsplash

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It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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The Death of Gatsby and the Scene

Around about the time I was coming of age, my hometown was becoming a scene. Our hometown band was about to hit the mainstream and art was seeping out of every corner of the place. There were plays in bars, on the street, in art galleries. There was an artist who sold his paintings for $3 and also painted the walls and restrooms of restaurants all over town. His work was everywhere. It was a heady moment.

Into that heady moment, stepped a man who my friends and I called Gatsby, because he was always dressed up like a 1920s gentleman. He had an air about him – a man out of time. I live in New York City now, and here you’d never notice this guy. He’d slip into some faux speakeasy and you’d just think – oh sure, one of those – but then, there, in my hometown, this guy was highly visible. It was a scene then and Gatsby quickly took his place at the center of it.

I was part of the scene, too. I was in a play at the art gallery with the man who a couple years later became a rock star. I was in the play in the writer’s apartment. I was in the legendary production of Hair that happened in the ROTC building. I hung out at the restaurants where the cool hung out and I was in the Three Penny Opera featuring the hip alt bluegrass band as the orchestra. I played the old mother, at age 19 – but still. I was in it. I was there. But somehow I wasn’t really included most of the time. And it wasn’t just that I was young. Many girls much younger than me were seen on the arms of the cool guys, at the cool parties, on cool guys’ retro motorcycles. They were cool chicks.

Then, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t more IN the scene. I mean. I wrote poems, too, just like all the fellas. I played guitar. I was ALSO obsessed with the Beat poets. I also wore vintage clothes. (Hats especially! I was the one in cloches and such. I had a hot pink feathered one for special occasions.) I was doing so many of the things the cool guys were doing – not because I was trying to be cool but because that’s just where I was at. And yet…Gatsby never spoke to me. He probably didn’t know my name.

Decades later, in this era, I heard that Gatsby has been shot and killed by his girlfriend. The community heaved in grief. Many people I care about were devastated. There was a great mourning for the man and also the scene of which he once was a big part. It is beautiful and awful and nostalgic and odd and endlessly captivating.

I want to be clear that the facts of this case are more or less in and they are tragic and sad but I’m not here to talk about the facts of this case. What I feel the need to unpack is my own journey with both the news and the history of the scene and how they intersect.

My first response to this dramatic circumstance was to mourn with those who were close to him, to mourn the symbol and the past he took with him. I immediately assumed that the dominant perception that his girlfriend was crazy was correct and that that was the whole story, because that’s what those closest to him thought.

But then the podcast I’d just finished listening to (Believe Her) came to mind, in which a young woman had shot her abuser, an outwardly gentle man who none of his friends could imagine hurting a fly but who routinely assaulted his girlfriend and posted his assaults to Porn Hub. I didn’t want to assume Gatsby was somehow involved in his own murder but I also could easily imagine how he could be. I didn’t really know him after all.

And once I’d thought it, I couldn’t help searching for evidence in one direction or another. I looked first at my own experience with him – one wherein I was invisible, one where he spoke to my friends who looked like models but not to me and I recognized a pattern of behavior I have seen over the years in other people. Those who don’t see women as people are historically the most dangerous. I just read this article about the court case around the Shitty Media Men list and writer Claire Vaye Watkins says, “I am saying a sexist negation, a refusal to acknowledge a female writer as a writer, as a peer, as a person, is of a piece with sexual entitlement.” This is what raised my antennae.

Gatsby had a reputation for dating a lot of young waitresses. In a small city, dating young waitresses is like dating models in a big one. It reflects an interest in aesthetics beyond other characteristics. And again, I want to be clear. I did not know this man but it was easy to extrapolate, to guess, to wonder.

Approximately 30% of the women in prison for murder are criminalized survivors – that is they defended themselves and the state locked them up. Not a lot of women kill for no reason. The latest news suggest that this woman did. But I couldn’t help noting other factors that made me nervous about just assuming things were as they seemed. Gatsby’s girlfriend was a 38 year old circus performer. He was a 53 year old finance professional. There was a disparity of age, finances and experience that suggested a power differential. Gatsby had a gun collection – one of the guns was the murder weapon. So, I guess he had a loaded gun collection? Or at least a bullet collection alongside the gun collection? Maybe lots of kind gentle men you know own a lot of guns – but in my experience, a man with a lot of guns is a man to be wary of. So – Gatsby’s crazy girlfriend murdered him with one of his many guns.

And it is awful. It is. But it was wild to watch a community of people – many of whom I used to know – unravel around the situation.

Apparently other women had noticed that it was mostly men who were openly grieving his loss. Other women wondered, aloud – un-like me, if there could be more to this story than “crazy girlfriend kills partner.” One woman leapt to the defense of the grieving men saying they were probably more feminist than a lot of women she knew. And probably that is true for her and I’m sorry she knows so few feminists but sorry, no, this would not be true for me. A lot of these dudes, though I have a lot of affection for them, aren’t demonstrably feminist. They’re maybe not actively sexist but I’ve not seen much feminism from them.  Granted, I hang out with mostly feminists these days so my bar is high. Just being a mostly nice guy doesn’t qualify you in my book. These guys were the scene back then and despite being a lifelong and active feminist, I would never have made the mistake of mentioning it to this crew at that time. Maybe things are different now. I hope so.

The community – the one from the past and the one of the moment – were sort of running into each other and from my distant post in NYC, far away from this, from my hometown, from my own nostalgia for that bygone Gatsby era, I felt as though I were watching a community car wreck in slow motion. There were a lot of heartbroken Gen X and Gen Jones men in incredible wrenching mourning for their friend and a lot of Millennial women trying to sort through the mess – some loudly making assumptions, some defending, some grieving, too.

Was Gatsby a gentle man or a closet abuser?

The man was cool and very visible. So a lot of people had opinions. In the True Crime podcast version of this story, we’d hear from all of them and decide for ourselves what we think. Having not had any contact with this guy in decades, I have no idea. He was an icon in a small community. That comes with some baggage, I imagine.

This is the thing, though, that I keep returning to. I hung out with some of these guys in the apex of this heady movement in the 90s. Some of them saw me and some saw past me. They didn’t think I was cool but women weren’t really at the forefront of this scene. They were barely in it at all.

There were some cool chicks around though. The cool chicks then were a different sort of girl. A lot of them were very vulnerable in some way. I went to the house of one of these guys one time and when we got there, there was a girl in his bed. He told me she’d just run away from home and had nowhere to go. She was in high school. He was in his 20s. There was a lot of this sort of thing in those days. The cool chicks drank a lot and smoked like chimneys and now I realize that they were likely also processing an abundance of previous trauma. A girl like that might finally go “crazy” in her 30s. A lot of these guys wanted to “help” these girls. But they also wanted to have sex with them and I’m going to guess that sometimes these things did not sensibly go together.

Where do I fit these memories in the True Crime podcast version of this story?

What I keep returning to was how uncool I felt myself to be among a lot of fellas who were into a lot of the stuff I was into. As a young woman, I was not IN the scene. But now I know what it feels like to be seen as an equal, to be genuinely cool to my fellow artists – to have a mutual artistic experience. The scene was a boy’s club. In those days only cool chicks were allowed. I literally cannot recall a single identifiable woman from this scene. This is not to say that they weren’t there. I don’t remember everything. I didn’t know everyone. But I was on the look out. If there’d been a woman to look to in this movement, I’d have locked on like a lobster.  My sense is that women just weren’t really included as visibly as the men. If you were a woman in this scene then, I’m sorry I didn’t see you either.

This has happened throughout history in arts scenes. Remedios Varo was a surrealist. She was at the salons. You can see her included in Exquisite Corpses. You can see her work on their themes. She was in it. But read a book on Surrealism and she might only get a passing mention as Benjamin Péret’s lover. She was IN that scene but never seen as an equal part of it.

She and Leonora Carrington made their own scene in Mexico City, I think. They may not get a chapter in the Art History textbooks like the male Surrealists do – but they built their own world, where they weren’t the girlfriends of the cool guys – but the center of a magical realist world.

It feels like, scenes are for men and the cool chicks who hung around them. Being part of a scene that was once a genuine SCENE was exciting. I do have tremendous nostalgia for that moment in time but it is accompanied by a strange lacuna. On reading the newspaper article about Gatsby and the scene, I had the strange sensation of having been there but always just out of frame. The play in the writer’s apartment that Gatsby sent a typewritten note about? I was in that play. I was kind of the center of it. The band that Gatsby promoted? I was in those audiences a lot and I was in that musical where they were the orchestra. I’m there but not there. That’s what it was like to be in the scene then. I could stand, center stage, sing my heart out and still be entirely invisible.

It turns out that the crazy girlfriend shot Gatsby in his sleep. She shot him with his gun, called the police and began livestreaming. It’s an awful situation. The end of the True Crime podcast is just sad. It’s just really sad. All it is is sad. But ultimately this is not about Gatsby. Just like The Great Gatsby is not really about Gatsby, is it? It’s the world around him. It’s the scene.

And you know something? F Scott Fitzgerald was in a scene. Maybe he WAS the scene. But my favorite writer of the period, Dawn Powell, was born the exact same year and wrote truly remarkable novels and plays that were well received at the time and never felt herself part of the scene. Not Fitzgerald’s scene and not the theatre scene, which Powell longed to be a part of, as well. (Read her diaries for lots of these sorts of moments.) She was so much not a part of scenes that her work went out of print for a very long time. Meanwhile, no one gave a damn about The Great Gatsby when it first came out but the scene grew in retrospect and now few American students can escape reading it.

Of course, I long to be a part of a scene again but I want it to be one where women are full artistic participants and not just the cool chicks at home in an artist’s bed. Thinking about Gatsby sent me down a lot of paths I haven’t visited in a while and I see them a lot differently than I did decades ago. A scene shifts in the rearview mirror – it gets both a glow and a sharper focus.

I learned about Gatsby’s death a few hours after I wrote about meeting Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I’d been thinking about one of the most famous art scenes in American history and about what it was like to be a woman trying to just be seen by someone from it for a moment. I was patronized by a man who hung out with the Beats but was so confident in his position in a scene that he preferred not to be called a Beat poet. There was a chiming quality of these two things for me. These were highly visible men in artistically exciting times and just out of the frame, just a little blurry and off to the side, I’m sure there were many women who longed to be seen, to be heard, to be in the scene for real and not just there and out of focus.

Good night Gatsby. Good night Ferlinghetti. Rest well gentlemen. I’m so sorry for the loss of your loved ones. You made an enormous impact on a lot of people.

Now –

Ladies? Y’all want to start a scene with me?

What was it like to read The Great Gatsby in Italy in 1936? What was THAT scene like?

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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A Moment with Ferlinghetti

Maybe it’s the weather today, which has a kind of air that feels like San Francisco, but for whatever reason, I flashbacked to the time I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

It was my first time in San Francisco, and I’d already been to City Lights, hoping to lay eyes on him, this poet who’d inspired me in my teens. I used to make artworks out of his poems. I’d photocopy my favorites, paste them to a newspaper front page and paint around them. She was very earnest, teen Emily.

Anyway – early twenties Emily was in San Francisco, trying to follow the way of the Beats, drinking cappuccinos in North Beach and hanging out at City Lights. And I don’t remember if I knew Ferlinghetti was going to be at this restaurant nearby or he just happened to turn up – but I sat furiously writing in a booth a few tables away until I could work up the courage to go and ask him for an autograph.

In those days, I was writing on brown paper bags that I’d made into signatures that I then stitched into the book cover I’d made out of an old olive oil can. I’d fill up the book, cut out the pages and then start all over again.

I figured I’d ask Ferlinghetti to sign my notebook as it was all I had with me and I knew I’d savor it in its context. It would always be in this moment –  the time I met Ferlinghetti while I was writing in San Francisco.

I worked up the courage, offered up the front page of my homemade notebook and asked him to sign it. He took hold of it and he said, “Is this where you write all your great thoughts?” or something to that effect. And then he proceeded to flip through it.

The horror I felt, that he might somehow read some unprepared unguarded bit of writing that was not meant for him….I was mortified. Then he signed the front page and it was all over.

And, yes, I treasured that page but always with a sense of shame that I couldn’t really identify. I tried to just feel pleased but it was complicated in ways I couldn’t put my finger on. Now, in my 40s, I recognize that I was being patronized. Now I know that I felt shame because the great poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti took one look at me and my home-made notebook and knew I had no great thoughts, just aspirations. Silly girl.

And now, as an artist in my 40s, I also recognize it as a fairly gendered experience. It likely wasn’t just my youth, my quirky clothes or my weirdo notebook that made him think my “great” ideas weren’t worth much. It’s likely that it was the simple fact of my being a young woman – or just a woman. The Beats weren’t feminist. Not in any way. I’d already read Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters about hanging around the beats when she was Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend. I knew that girls weren’t welcome in this particular clubhouse. But it took me ages to put together that this would mean I would never be seen by this sort of artist as a fellow artist. I would never be taken seriously by most male artists, I understand now.

I try to image what would have happened if I’d been a young man in this situation with Ferlinghetti. Maybe he would have been just as patronizing. It’s hard to know from here. I think, though, if I could go back in time and talk to my earnest twenty something self after this event, I’d like to tell her a few things about what I see now.

Dear Twenty Something Emily,

Yes, he was a great writer and of course you admire him. But that doesn’t give him the right to just open up your journal and rifle through it. It’s not his book. You offered him a page to sign and he treated your book with no respect. He did not ask your permission. He did not get your consent. It was not a kind way to engage with a young writer. Let’s imagine a younger writer came to you with their notebook and asked you to sign it. Would you laugh about their great ideas and flip through their precious notebook without their permission? Never. Not in a million years. He had power and he used it to make you feel shame. He could have used it to buoy you up but he did not do that.

I wish he had. A little boost from the great Ferlinghetti might have given you some extra confidence that you sorely needed at the time but he chose not to do that. He was kind of a dick to you but you’re not ready to recognize this sort of behavior yet. You’ll understand later. It sucks and I’m sorry. I wish you’d meet someone with some power who could boost you instead of patronize you but this is not that moment. Here’s where you start to learn how to boost yourself. It’ll serve you well. Keep doing it.

Love,

Yourself from decades down the line.

This is the notebook that I asked him to sign. It’s a song notebook now so I don’t re-bind it anymore. But it was this one. I made it in a Tin Can Artwork course. I still have the page/notebook he signed somewhere. Just not sure where.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Cheffing and Cooking in Education

It’s been a while since I’ve been in a classroom but an interview about my time at BAM and a journey through some old files have gotten me thinking about it some. It feels like I miss it a little bit and I’ve been trying to work out what part of it is still calling to me.

I’m not nostalgic for being in a classroom. I suppose I miss being with the students some but I don’t miss the toxic environments that most schools tend to be. I think what I really miss is inventing exercises. That’s the creative bit. For me, it was a satisfying stretch of my artistic muscles to create an experience for students that will help them discover something about a work of art. I was pretty good at it, I think.

Was everything I made up a hit? Hell no. There’s a high rate of failure in creating curriculum, especially when results can be so uneven. I’ve taught exercises that were tried and true across many schools and then, for whatever reason, it would just tank in a random class, for no obvious reason. Teaching Artistry can be a little like stand-up comedy in that success and abject failure are on either side of a very thin knife and you can never be sure your best bit is going to work.

But still – I made up some good stuff, some of it as ephemeral as an improvised scene and some of it has made its way through the channels such that I sometimes found my own invented exercise coming back to me from elsewhere.

Arts Education – and maybe just education in general – tends to be a haphazard collection of what a teacher has learned from elsewhere. In classrooms, teachers are hungry for things to try, games to explore, warm-ups to add to their repertoire. These are the things that can keep an arts teaching experience fresh – especially for a teacher who has a room full of expectant young people to teach and hours of class to fill.

Good exercises are good food to hungry teachers. And food is actually a good analogy, I think. For me, some parts of teaching are like being a chef. I’m creating new things, putting unexpected ingredients together, presenting new ways of looking at old material. And in other moments, teaching can be more like being a line cook – just getting the menu items the way they’ve always been prepared on the table as fast as possible.

So what I’m realizing is that I miss being a chef sometimes though not being a line cook. This is actually one of the things that made me quit my job at BAM back in 2013, even though it felt like an artistic home and the place where I did some of my best work. The main program I worked for changed from one where they needed three consummate chefs to one where they just needed some line cooks to execute some dishes they’d hand down to us. And after 13 years of cheffing, I just couldn’t become a line cook.

For an administration, standardizing the curriculum is very sensible. They can clearly articulate their product. They know that each classroom is getting more or less the same experience. They can, more or less, mass produce an arts education experience. You don’t need to pay chef wages. You can even hire people who’ve never cooked before and just give them the recipe. I understand the appeal. Divorcing the art on the stage from the work in the classroom means you can replicate the same thing over and over. You can have mass produced marketing materials. That’s all very convenient and I do understand why it seemed like the right thing to do. But to me, it was like taking a Michelin star restaurant where a chef tailors the meal to the diners and turning it into a McDonalds. And from what I understand, even the McDonalds is out of business there now.

I suppose when I think about the circumstances under which I would return to teaching, it’s clear I could only come back to a place that hires chefs. I’m not interested in being a line cook at McDonalds. Or, given that it seems to be the invention of curriculum that still interests me – maybe I should just write a cook book.

Is this cat a chef or a cook?

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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The Empress’ Shoes
November 10, 2022, 12:57 am
Filed under: art, class, TV, writing | Tags: , , , , , , ,

It was the shoes that made me suspicious. It was either the kind of story that was true and became the central story of this woman’s history OR it was entirely invented. So I went looking for some historical context for The Empress, a German TV show about Elisabeth of Austria. I learned a lot, though found nothing about the shoes. I’ll come back to them later.

The show is delightful; I’m not going to lie. It is a fun romantic period drama full of court intrigue and historical detail. I am enjoying it very much. But I have learned that it has very little to do with this woman’s actual life and I’m curious about the motivation for the differences. In essence, the writers have made a beautiful historical fantasy. What if Old Time Europeans were like we WANT to be, but in prettier costumes? It’s an intriguing mythologization, really.

What if The Empress were a headstrong iconoclast way ahead of her time who speaks her mind and shoots guns and doesn’t do what she’s told? What if she’s a poet and doesn’t care about her appearance like everyone expects her to? What if she’s loads of fun and really nice and her only flaw is that she doesn’t know how to suppress her true self? What if she marries the emperor out of love not because she wants to marry up? Of course we love her! These are our values!

But – it turns out – while she was really smart and did read a lot of books and she did write poems, she was VERY much concerned with her appearance. She spent two hours having her hair brushed every day. To wash it (every 3 weeks) took the entire day.  She was obsessed with “tight-lacing” her corset, such that many people were worried about what she was doing to herself. (Unlike the show, where she is apparently shocked to be laced into a corset and would prefer to go without.) All historical accounts suggest that she was unusually concerned about her appearance – even for an empress. She was apparently so fat-phobic that she made her daughter afraid of Queen Victoria when she met her.

This is not someone who might suggest rolling around in a muddy stream with her beloved. I mean, it’s an enjoyable scene in the TV show – but wildly improbable. And the central premise of Emperor Franz Josepf Emperor and Princess Elisabeth just falling in love with each other because of their personalities is very fun in the show but not at all what happened. Yes, her older sister was supposed to be the one to marry him (like in the show) but he spotted the fifteen year old Elisabeth and insisted on her instead. So he looked at the 18 year old sister and went….”Ah, no. I’ll have the child, please!”

 I can see why all these choices were made. We want a love story, not a problematic age gap! We want a ballsy heroine not a vain clotheshorse! We want a woman ahead of her time not one who embodied many of the complications of her own moment. These choices are made for the TV show to please us, to give us a heroine we’ll really root for.

Which brings me to the shoes.

In the fifth episode, they take the Empress out to see the people and she breaks protocol and goes into the foundry to see a little urchin she saw disappear there. The Empress sees the state of the child’s feet and gives the child her own shoes.

What a saint! This rich lady really cares about the poor! If only anyone would listen to her instead of just admiring her beauty! It’s just what we want in a leader! Someone who’d give away the very shoes upon her feet! Wow!

But I cannot find even the barest mention of Elisabeth giving even the smallest shit about the poor. This is not to say it wasn’t so. I haven’t read any of the books about her and I have seen no primary resources – so maybe in those, she cares nothing for her possessions and really sees poor people. There ARE stories about her caring for veterans and people with mental illness later in her life, and there’s one kind of performative Christmas ritual for poor children. But that’s all I could find. I think this collection of extra-historical things in the show are best read as a contemporary fantasy – one in which a wealthy princess is really a compassionate hero of the people, one who really gets it and would forsake her own comfort for the needs of the poor. She’s an Austrian Princess Diana but even more generous!

She’s so ahead of her times she’s even ahead of ours in her treatment of the poor! She’s a hella compassionate royal!

But of course – the actual Elisabeth was raised as royalty. She was a princess. She would have been fed on the same view of the poor as everyone else in her class. She wouldn’t necessarily have had an especially common touch. If she did, nothing I read about her suggested it.

I think this is a contemporary fantasy as well – that all it takes to change things is one nice rich lady who sees that the poor are people too. And I’m not saying there aren’t nice rich ladies like this – I know some personally, in fact. But they rarely manage to move the needle in the way that shows like this imagine they would. In the end, this show would seem to have very little in common with the actual lives of these people. Instead, they are transformed into a comforting myth, a revised history where someone somewhere once had an enlightened leader, sort of, or would have, if they’d let a woman lead.

We do this all the time. Shakespeare did it in the history plays, turning actual historical figures into heroes and villains – with hints of truth. Hamilton is the myth created by a musical theatre nerd based on a financial writer fan boy’s mythologization of an American founder. It is normal to do this, for our entertainment. I’ve done it myself in writing about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. I mythologized her so hard, I gave her an apotheosis.

But I just feel like I’m ready for a much more complicated relationship with historical figures. The way Elisabeth actually was probably isn’t like-able – but it is interesting! It is complex and weird. (While she had her hair combed for two hours a day, she learned to speak Greek! That is some multi-tasking!) I also feel like it’s important to track what story a work is trying to tell through their mythologization of an historical person. I think, perhaps, creating a fantasy of a compassionate, forthright, rebellious, adventurous Empress gives us hope for a world where such women could find leadership now. It is serving a purpose. It’s why the whole enterprise is enjoyable even if it’s hilariously inaccurate.  Maybe we’re all just longing to watch our leaders give away their shoes.

These aren’t the shoes in question but it is a real nice historical shoe!

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The Free Ride Mystery

When I ran my Metrocard through the turnstile, it came up Insufficient Funds and I frowned and looked around for the machines to fill it up. (I was not in my usual station so it wasn’t immediately obvious.) As I walked away, I heard this police officer call me back. There’d been three of them lounging by the turnstiles and one of them had come forward and was offering to swipe me in. I was baffled but not about to argue. He told me to have a nice day and off I went, very confused.

As I rode home, I tried to work out why this might have happened. It did not feel like he was hitting on me in any way, so it wasn’t a pick-up move. Was it an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the NYPD with leftie radicals like myself? I didn’t think so. I don’t think the NYPD is at all worried about what we think of them. I’m pretty sure this guy doesn’t know or care that I’m very interested in defunding the police.

Was it maybe Help a Quirky Artist Day and no one told me? I don’t think so – though I do wish such a day existed.

Perhaps he’d mistaken me for a healthcare worker? I was wearing a mask and the dress I was wearing has been mistaken for scrubs before. (By a doctor! Who should know better!) This felt like the likeliest possibility. The officer’s gesture had the quality of one public servant helping another.  And despite the fact that I have never seen scrubs with a skirt, there’s something about this green wrap-around dress that reads as hospital garb to some people. I was satisfied with this theory though I cannot prove it in any way.

I imagine that the cop felt good about himself helping out a healthcare worker – and I wondered how he’d feel if he knew my actual vocation. Would he take his free ride back?

What would it be like to live in a world where folks might be as happy to see an artist out in the wild as this guy was to help who he might have imagined me to be?

I’m certainly glad that someone out there is doing all they can for the healthcare workers they run across but mightn’t it be better to just pay our nurses better? To give them the time off they need? To have, say, a national healthcare system we can rely on and help workers care for everyone equally? Wouldn’t that be better than randomly giving free rides to people you perceive to be healthcare workers out in the world?

I’d wager that most struggling artists could use a free subway ride even more than a nurse could given that a nurse has a salary and possibly a travel allowance while most struggling artists are managing month to month on spotty freelance gigs, But I feel pretty confident that no one would institute such a program. Help a Quirky Artist Day will likely never come to pass.

I don’t mean to look a gift ride in the mouth but I can’t help unpacking unusual circumstances – and this was very unusual for me. Maybe for public servants, like healthcare workers, it is commonplace. Is it? I’m curious.

Not the exact scene of the mystery but pretty close.

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Making Shakespeare Accessible

In an interview about my work in Shakespeare education, I was asked what we did to make Shakespeare accessible to the students. I couldn’t help but laugh. To me, it’s like asking, “How do we make hip hop accessible to the students? How do we make Marvel movies accessible?”

You don’t have to make Shakespeare accessible. It just is. Does everyone love it? Nope. That’s ok. Not everyone loves Marvel movies either, believe it or not. But put a really fantastic Shakespeare play in front of students and they’re just as likely, if not more likely, to enjoy it, as a fancy grown-up crowd would.

Are there tools to help them engage with it more deeply? Absolutely. I use them all the time. But the only preparation the entire student audience at BAM had for Ralph Fiennes’ Richard the Second was a 45 minute workshop from me in their classroom. And those students were INTO that show. Richard the Second! Not A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Richard the Freaking Second. They get it. They got it. It wasn’t that hard.

This is true of most rigorous art works. My friend has his students watch four hours of a Wagner opera in his class. Not all at once, granted. But despite lots of people declaring that those students aren’t really capable of engaging with complex music, they love it. They’re into it. They benefit from context, sure – certainly in the way that I’d maybe enjoy a Marvel movie more if someone broke down some of the related back stories for me before I went. But – ultimately – it’s not a special skill to be able to enjoy or engage with a work of art.

The conversation around accessibility is entirely backwards. We don’t need to be discussing how to make things like Shakespeare accessible to students, in terms of their understanding, because it is easily done. Open the door to the work. Put powerful words in their mouths, maybe just a few at first but eventually they’ll be ready for all of them. Let their bodies be animated by exciting language and the access has happened. The real difficulty of access is making sure everyone is welcome in the building. It’s making sure people with disabilities can come and experience everything. It’s making sure there are affordable tickets for people who want to attend. That’s the main accessibility issue as far as I’m concerned.

Many times, I’ve been a part of breaking open a student’s world by bringing them to see some amazing show and they fall in love with the language and the feeling and the world. But how will they return? How could they afford a ticket without the grant funded student trip? How could they bring their grandmother to see what they have seen? That’s the accessibility I’m concerned about.

I’ve seen too many students, who others have counted out, take hold of Shakespeare’s language and shake the very foundations of their school. I will never forget the student who no one wanted to work with, who was a real pain in the ass for his teacher and whose school was in real trouble – and he took hold of Launcelot Gobbo’s speech in Merchant of Venice and showed us all. He thought he was rebelling doing it by himself – because I’d structured the speech as an Angel/Devil exercise for groups of three students. But he wanted to do it alone – and was so good – we brought him to BAM to showcase his work. That speech was his. He owned it. No one imagined he could do it but he was extraordinary.

I’ve learned that the program I spent thirteen years teaching Shakespeare for is gone. First, they cut off its limbs by separating it from live performance and then they just ran a sword through it so they don’t teach Shakespeare there at all anymore. That’s how you really make something inaccessible – you no longer give students access to it.

And on one hand, I understand it – Shakespeare’s hold on the American Theatre is extreme and it prevents the work of women and people of color from rising through the ranks. It is very important that we give voice to writers other than Shakespeare. But it’s not as if this theatre, that killed its Shakespeare for students program, has stopped producing Shakespeare for adult audiences. It’s just not for young people anymore and I’m afraid it’s from some misguided idea that they just can’t get it, that they are unable to understand it. Often people with fancy degrees think you need a fancy degree to be able to relate to Shakespeare. And I’m sorry but your fancy degree doesn’t give you special powers that a kid from East New York doesn’t have. You may be able to analyze the trochees but that kid knows how that show made him feel.

I feel like denying kids access to Shakespeare is denying them a multitude of valuable experiences. Could they learn to explore juicy language, expand their sense of possibility and self, discover a sense of size and power through another writer? Sure. Of course they could. Will they though? The movement has been toward non-fiction in schools. Shakespeare was the only one left. He was the only writer named in the Common Core. Sure, it’d be amazing if schools started teaching Adrienne Kennedy all of a sudden but I think it’s unlikely to happen. Students will just get less literature in general and they’ll see less live performance.

We have decades of Shakespeare education. The culture is rich in references to his work. Giving kids access to his language means they’re part of that conversation, not excluded from it. Giving kids powerful speeches to say means we’re giving them powerful models that they may have in their bones when they run for office down the road. It may mean they have richer images to be inspired by as they write the great works of the future. The more exciting rigorous and visceral language we can give young people to say, the more tools they’ll have for whatever they do.

Does it have to be Shakespeare? No. You could try some Christopher Marlowe. I’m a big Thomas Middleton fan myself. But trading one dead white man Renaissance writer for another doesn’t really help. And our culture has done a real great job of burying women and BIPOC writers so sometimes it’s hard to find writers that a school will recognize as “literature” but you know, please teach them anyway. Find the ones that get students fired up and please show us all. But meanwhile, we’ve got Shakespeare. His work has inspired people for hundreds of years. Don’t deny kids access to that power. That’s the real accessibility issue.

Hey kids – this is a prop in one of the plays. You think you might like to see it?

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A Visit from the TikTok Fairy Godfather
October 17, 2022, 8:59 pm
Filed under: American, economics | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The video made me cry. It was clearly meant to – and it succeeded. It’s the one where the young man asks the stranger – an old man with his walker – if he’ll go to Disneyland with him and they go to Disneyland and have a fantastic time and at the end, the old man (100 years old, a veteran, we’re told) tries to express what the day has meant to him and cries. He says he thought his life was over. It is moving and very sweet. And very popular. I saw the TikTok video on Twitter where it had millions of view and then looked for it on TikTok where it also had millions of views and it’s also on Instagram, where I assume it also has millions of views. If I were Disney, I’d be setting up a Bring an Elder to Disney Program right now, because I predict this is going to be a trend. And it would be a lovely trend. Young folks searching out older folks to take them out for a fun day? Awesome.

But of course I had to look more deeply at all this because as sweet as it is, there’s something dark underneath. The reason this 100 year old man thought his life was over was, I assume, because we have TERRIBLE support for our elders in this country. There’s very little in the way of services and many elders just fall through the safety net. Because there is no safety net.

And I looked up the young man who took this 100 year old veteran to Disneyland and I watched many of his other TikToks and he’s very well intentioned. Kindness is his brand. His videos are full of him handing very poor people a wad of cash or taking them shopping. And I cried through a lot of them, I’m not going to lie. The unhoused guy who just wanted some art supplies when asked what someone could get for him? Heartbreaker. The guy living in a broken down car who will soon have a van of his own because this guy’s raising funds for him? Very moving. To see a person’s life changed with a handful of cash is really hard not to get caught up in. I cannot fault this guy for going out there and handing people life changing amounts of money.

But I can’t stop thinking about how dark it is that this sort of TikTok Fairy Godfather is the only hope a lot of folks have. It’s very cool that a lot of his viewers band together to support getting a homeless person a place to live but they wouldn’t have to if we, as a society, just managed to take care of our vulnerable citizens. It’s very nice for all of us to cry over the man going shopping for art supplies and helping to fund getting him a prosthetic leg but why couldn’t we just allocate some of our taxes to ensure that folks like him never have to end up on the street in the first place? We shouldn’t need a tearjerking kindness video to make sure that everyone has a home and the services they need to live. Because this fairy godfather of TikTok can’t help everyone.

I can’t help thinking of all the people who aren’t video friendly – that don’t cry when they secure his largesse or the people he never meets at all.

It feels like the mark of a very decadent society that we have those sorts of entertainments. In the disability community, it’s called Inspiration Porn – where abled folks use the images and stories of disabled folks to motivate themselves. It’s the “This guy climbed a mountain with one leg and one eye. What are you doing with your life?” sort of thing. And I think these TikTok videos, where we watch poor people’s lives get changed with cash, are mostly poverty porn. Look how easy it can be to change a poor person’s life by just handing them a bunch of money. But actually that’s right. Pretty much all the evidence points to giving poor folks money as the answer to poverty. But doing it on an individual basis instead of at a societal level just seems cruel.

I like these videos while I watch them but the more I think about them, the sadder I get. It reminds me of that Selfless Teacher story I wrote about a while back – where the teacher won an award for making sure her students were fed and had clean clothes. It’s the same situation of lionizing and supporting one nice example, one lucky good egg while we let the rest languish. As a society, we could solve homelessness, for example, by just giving folks homes. Evidence suggests that this is much cheaper than all the ways we currently deal with homelessness. But it wouldn’t make good video, I guess? Kindness coming from individuals just plays better on screens? Anyway, this sweet old guy got to go to Disneyland with a generous stranger. It’s a nice video. Just don’t think about it all too deeply.

These are fairy godMothers…but they are from Disney! Here random person – have a life changing experience!

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Playwright in a Novel, Playwright in a Film

This book I’m reading is not the first book to do this, but it is the latest and it is enough of a trend that, when it happened in this book, I may have said, out loud, “Oh no, not this again.”

It’s this thing where novelists and screenwriters put a playwright in their piece. In these works, the playwright always becomes super successful and gets famous and rich and, I have to assume, receives all the accolades the writer dreams of, but in theatre form. My sense is that they do this because they don’t want to write about a writer too close to themselves. If they’re a novelist, the protagonist can’t be a novelist, that’s too close – and a playwright, they imagine, is like a novelist but more social and glamourous. A screenwriter imagines that a playwright is like a screenwriter but artier and nobler.

I’ve read and seen a lot of works with playwrights in them and the plays are ALWAYS a triumph within the narrative. They always end up with a hit. They are always on Broadway or the West End or featured at the National Theatre in London. It is tremendously easy to become a hot famous playwright in a novel or a movie. It seems to be a particularly sexy fantasy for other writers.

But I know a lot of playwrights. I even know a lot of very successful playwrights and I’m quite certain that while their lives are full and interesting, they are never nearly as glamorous as these other forms make them sound. Their paths to success are never simple. There is no overnight success for a playwright. It just doesn’t work like that. And there’s something so wild about the fantasy that it does. It doesn’t work like that for other writers, either, I’d imagine. You don’t just meet the right person at a party and instantly end up on the New York Times bestseller list. You don’t write your first film in a drunken stupor that weeks later is featured on screens across America.

But this story line is so common now, this one of a playwright catapulted to success, that it has started to feel like a trope. The trope within this trope that I often see recurring is the playwright revealing important things about himself and his personality through his work. We see scenes in his life repeated onstage, sometimes word for word. (I’m saying he and his because it is almost always a male playwright who is the subject of this work.) The novel or film includes whole swaths of the playwright’s plays so we can learn more about him. Or maybe so we can understand the Freudian echoes or Jungian archetypes operating beneath. Those “plays” almost always suck and they are almost always enormous hits in the story. Do bad plays become hits in real life? Yes. All the time. I’d even say most of the time when I’m feeling cynical. But these plays are not SUPPOSED to be bad in the book or movie. They’re supposed to be genius. And aside from being bad, they just don’t function well as plays. Like, they’re not theatrical or dramatic. Maybe every writer thinks they can write a play? I don’t know – but nothing makes me want to throw a book across the room like a novelist’s epic “brilliant” play in the middle of the story.

The book that made me think about this is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. It is beautifully written and artfully constructed except for the theatre stuff. It’s an interesting mix, though, because some of it is spot on, theatrically speaking. She has the atmosphere of the field and the vibes of the location down. She has spent some time in theatres. She probably has some actor friends. But there are these moments where the story moves so dramatically away from the possible. The actor who gets drunk and writes a brilliant play (that is secretly punched up by his wife) and that play becomes an instant sensation and then another and another until they’ve got a country house in Connecticut or somewhere. It’s like this novelist knows what actors are like at a party but not how the economics of playwriting actually work in this era.

I was rolling my eyes at this instant success of this instant playwright (no development necessary for this wunderkind!) and then (slight spoiler) in the second half of the book, we learn that the instant hit was manipulated into position by the wife. She blackmails someone into asking and paying for a production at Playwrights Horizons and when no one comes to that production that she bribed into existence, she calls all their friends. But even this is improbable. Are theatres impervious to being bought? Nope. If someone offered them enough money, I have little doubt that arrangements might be made. But how would a criminal from Philadelphia know which theatre to put pressure on? How would he know who to throw his cash at? I feel like you’d at least need to know a TINY bit about the theatre business before you bought your way into it.

Also – I’ve tried to get all my friends to come out for things in New York City and that this wife could fill up an off–Broadway house on such short notice, with their friends, feels like some magical thinking. I think the author thinks this means the wife character cheated her way into helping her husband succeed – but having the skill to browbeat all your friends to come out for a show one night is probably actually what one needs to succeed. If you can get a couple hundred friends to come out and support you, you’re probably 75% there, as far as a theatre career is concerned.

So this little revelation certainly helps mediate the question raised by the sudden random success of the playwright earlier in the book – but it doesn’t explain how this sudden success turned into a celebrity style career. Even the most famous contemporary playwrights still struggle to have their work produced and very few of them are treated the way the one in this book is. I can’t think of one. (Not a living one, anyway.)

I am starting to find this trope very transparent. Every time I encounter a playwright in a work in another genre, I feel like I understand how they ended up there and why the author chose that particular profession for their protagonist. Maybe I’m hoping that the next person who wants to write a playwright will consider what tropes they’re falling into and either learn a lot more about the theatre world or choose a different profession for their protagonist. I do not blame this author (Lauren Groff) at all. The transposition of one kind of writer to another is very logical but it raised a lot of questions for me.

Is this book the story of this author’s life? I would never assume so – but then, the way she writes the playwright’s life as such a direct reflection of his life makes me think it must be. I actually think playwrights are less inclined than other writers to write autobiographically but you’d never know it from the way they’re depicted in fiction.

It’s like, it must be so nice to be a fictional playwright in a novel or a film! You never have to struggle with producers over your rights. You never have to talk to a theatre’s administrators about where they’re going to get the incentive money to put up your play. You never have to fight with directors over the way the show is going. You never have to cry in the greenroom about how the actors fundamentally misunderstood those lines. You just go to fancy parties, have fun artistic friends and drink nothing but champagne after shows! It’s a dream! Who wouldn’t want to be a playwright?!

Every night in the life of a playwright!

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Your Work Isn’t Trash

My storage unit was filled with show shit. That is, it was full of props, set pieces, costumes, puppets, mask molds, rehearsal materials, marketing stuff and lots of random creative remains. I hadn’t seen these things in a long while so when it began to emerge, I said, “Well, a lot of this is going in the garbage!”

Meanwhile, it’s complicated. I saved a lot of this stuff out of a sincere hope that I’d find a way to produce the shows again. I have those giant gold frames, the hat boxes and the portable racks for a show that we toured for a little while and hoped we’d tour again. I kept the materials from our creative process on The Door Was Open in case we got the opportunity to explore further. We haven’t. And those six hula hoops probably aren’t entirely necessary to keep around. Nor is the big bag of wallpaper scraps. But I kept them because I hope they WOULD be called into service again. That wallpaper was a miracle in our Research and Development process! Could I really just get rid of it? I haven’t made any theatre (in person) in years. What a lot of leftovers from my theatrical practice! What a terrible theatrical pack rack I seemed to be! I was feeling very rueful about it, truth be told.

But my dad, who was helping me move all this stuff, had a different perspective. To him, it looked like a theatrical life well lived. He told me he was proud of me for making all those shows that that stuff came from. He said it reminded him of the spaces of some theatre folk he knows (and respects). I was feeling like my artistic work had turned into trash and he talked me down off that ledge. It’s really something to watch your feelings go from trash to pride so quickly.

I was talking with a friend about this experience later and she could relate to that feeling around thinking of one’s art as trash. She talked about her body of work adding up to some crap in a closet that her kid would have to deal with someday. She tells me she often thinks about just hauling it all out to the garbage. That thought horrifies me, though! I treasure her work. I could not bear it if she threw it away and I hate that it ends up in a closet because people should get to see it!

But we all struggle with this, I suppose. This feeling that a life dedicated to creation means generating a lot of trash. Sometimes it is literal trash. In my case, I should definitely put that bag of wallpaper scraps in the recycling. That much, I think I can surrender safely. But sometimes having a body of work can just FEEL like trash. It can feel like we’re hanging on to old garbage because it’s not the thing we’re working on at the moment – but it’s not trash. Having a bunch of evidence of previous creations is actually very cool. It’s easy to forget how meaningful these things were and are, still. Don’t throw away your work. Someone will treasure it. It is not trash.

photo of our stuff for Research and Development of The Door Was Open by Kacey Anisa Stamats

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