Songs for the Struggling Artist

Feedback Loop
October 4, 2015, 9:28 pm
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

When I first started making my own work, I got an extraordinary amount of very positive feedback. While a lot of it was from the audience, the most consistent voices of support were those involved in the production. Based on their enthusiasm, I thought I must have been a genius – at writing, at directing, at producing.

It occurs to me now, though, that I was doing shows with theatre people and I now understand that theatre people tend to think everything that they’re currently working on is genius. I fear now that I ended up on this path because I believed all those theatre folk when they told me I was brilliant.

I started to think about this recently while accidentally witnessing a production meeting in a coffee shop. The creative team was young and very enthusiastic about the piece at hand. Many of them were genuine in their excitement but the lighting designer, it seemed to me, was just playing the game. He understood that he was expected to blow some smoke and so he did but he was struggling. I could feel him grasping for the words and tone to fit into the love-fest happening at the table. I suspected that most people in the group were fully convinced that this project would be the one to give them all their big breaks, while the lighting designer was there to do the job. It felt like he knew what he was doing and he also knew that the show under discussion was no better or worse than anything else he’d done. He was likely the most experienced artist at the table. I sympathized with his struggle.

A lot of us indulge in that “This shows is going to change everything!” idea – especially at the beginning of a career. And we all encourage each other in this delusion. It really can help buoy up a project. The endless feedback loop of people calling one another geniuses can be the fuel that gets a show off the ground. But it can be very painful when you’re the person in the group who knows that this piece is probably not going to be anyone’s big break. The odds are good that the show will close with not much notice and probably no one in that group is a genius. Most of us aren’t really geniuses and I wonder what we lose in imagining or pretending that we are.

On the other hand, I’m very grateful to each and every one of the people who thought (or even just said) I was brilliant. It was very nice. It felt good. That encouragement kept me going. And maybe what this post is really about is my need to have some of those people around again. It’s been a long time since someone called me brilliant and maybe that is what I need. Even if it’s just smoke. Maybe.

I just started reading The Rise by Sarah Lewis and she opens with a discussion on Mastery. She explores the idea that Mastery is the continued work on improving a thing, regardless of outside influence or possibility. Archers, for example, continue to work on their aim, despite the lack of outside adulation or approval. (There aren’t a lot of lucrative Archery contracts, you see. And can you name a famous Archer?) So, I’m interested in a theatre that is more interested in Mastery than approval. And while I like to be called brilliant as much as the next theatre person, I don’t want to depend on that “brilliant” feedback loop anymore. I want to get my aim exactly right for my own mastery and my own satisfaction. THAT will be brilliant.


You can get me closer to mastery by supporting me on Patreon.


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The Phantom Limb of Art
September 30, 2015, 3:57 pm
Filed under: art, Feldenkrais | Tags: , , , ,

Sometimes it feels like art is a part of my body. When I’m engaging it, I feel like I’m using all of myself. The whole system works better when I’m making art. When life keeps me from it – when there’s not money to make a show – when I’m not performing – when there’s no time in the theatre or onstage or in the rehearsal room, my art starts to feel like a phantom limb that I can’t control. No can see it but me but it itches and twitches. It takes up space in my nervous system. I cannot scratch it or move it. And the rest of me keeps worrying about that missing part of me – so everything operates sub-optimally.

My legs don’t walk as well – because where is the art?
My breath is more shallow – because where is the art?

I know there are people who can give up their artist lives and happily become lawyers or teachers or ad men or whatever – but I know that I cannot. Even if I somehow found a fulfilling high paying day job – my artist phantom limb would always be calling to me.

I currently have a very meaningful day job (though not at all high paying.) I love a lot of things about it. A client came in today in pain and in tears and left all smiles and ease. That feels great. But as great as it feels, it still isn’t art. I still ache for that which there is no time or money to do.

For many years, there was no cure for the (actual phenomenon of) phantom limb. People who’d lost a leg continued to experience pain in it, decades after they’d lost it. Recently, though, scientists have been experimenting with mirror therapy, which fools the brain into thinking the good leg is the bad leg and suddenly, there’s a shift.

What is the mirror therapy for the impulse to create? Just creating, really. The only way to scratch the phantom limb of art is to make art as soon as is humanly possible.


You can help my phantom limb by supporting me on Patreon.


Click HERE  to Check out my Patreon Page

My Customer Service Whisperer

My boyfriend is a genius at calling customer service, or anything like it. He manages to stay calm and collected and get what he came for. When I get on the phone with customer service, I become almost instantly furious. And I am not, in any other area of my life, a particularly furious person.

Watching him negotiate a call system, immediately after I’ve hung up blinding mad, is like watching a miracle in progress. I’m trying to understand what’s going on here. Why is he so successful at it and why am I so terrible? And is it gendered?

When my first pass at my most recent customer service exchange failed, he jokingly offered to call them back with his “authoritative male voice” (said with some irony) – and we laughed about it, especially when I said, “Yes, please!” in my damsel in distress voice. But I think there’s really something TO this idea of authority.

The fury that builds in me when I’m on the phone with customer service (or tech support or whatever) is related to a sense of extreme powerlessness – a feeling that nothing I do will yield the results I’m looking for.

The National Theatre produced a fantastic podcast about the Female Voice and in it, one of the participants mentioned that she noticed her voice getting higher whenever she talked to customer service. I do something similar. And it is what I try to do in life as well, I think. I think I’m going to win by charming the person, by seducing them with my niceness and if all that fails, I’ll attempt to have them empathize with my plight. I try to get what I want by smiling. These can be feminine strategies for survival in life in general. But they just don’t work for me in this context of calling customer service. They almost never yield results.

One of the things that my boyfriend does with customer service is to immediately establish his own authority, to see the phone call as HIS and not the operator’s. This seems to me to be a key aspect of the success of his call. He controls the conversation rather than letting the conversation happen to him. He never feels helpless while talking through endless circles of bureaucracy because it’s always his space and he’s just patiently waiting for other people to behave appropriately.

This sense of ownership of space feels like the key missing ingredient for me. I’ve been socialized to defer. The world belongs to men and I’m usually just asking for what I want from that world, even if I’m asking a woman. When I come in to a space, I wait to see where and how the space will make room for me, I do not come into a space and posses it.

I recently watched a Ted talk by Soraya Chemaly called the Credibility Gap.  She talked about the various ways the world is built for men and not for women. Her thesis was that (aside from the home) all spaces were men’s spaces – even women’s restrooms. She points out that our understanding of this starts very early – that socialization teaches all of us that women are not to be trusted or listened to. We (teachers, parents, everyone) interrupt girls and let boys talk. We affirm boys who take up space and shame girls who do. Chemaly wrote an article called 10 words every girl should learn  which gives us concrete ways to be heard, just by saying “Stop Interrupting Me,” “I just said that” and “No explanation needed.”

I have found ways to be heard in a lot of areas of my life – but sometimes when I get on the phone with customer service, all the ways I have been dismissed over the years rise up and the circular logic and bureaucratic red tape add up to make me vibrate with fury. Explaining what I need for the 10th time to the 10th person is all too familiar in this heightened concentrated form. It is concentrated helplessness.

I think I could use some of the tips my customer service whisperer uses the next time I have to make a call like that but I know, because of the way the world has always been, that I will never be able to put it to use in quite the way someone with a male voice could. It just goes that way. For now.


You can help reinforce my authority by supporting me on Patreon.


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How to Get Inspired
September 17, 2015, 10:34 pm
Filed under: art, dreams, music, theatre, writing | Tags: , , ,

It may seem like artists just walk through the world waiting for inspiration to hit us – like it’s something that just comes upon you, like a lightning strike out of nowhere. And while this sort of thing CAN happen, it is pretty rare. If you want to get struck by lightning, it makes sense to search out the appropriate conditions and locations. It makes sense to go where it’s raining, for example – and to stand where lightning might be more likely to strike.

I started to think about inspiration while on a trip to Greece. I didn’t go expecting to be particularly inspired. I knew I’d be stimulated and edified and that the experience would enrich and enliven my work in lots of ways but inspiration was pretty much off the table.

And perhaps here would be a good place to pause and talk about what inspiration feels like to me – what I think of as real inspiration. For me, it is a rush of feeling. The closest comparison I have is the feeling of being in love. There’s a tremendous receptivity, an open-ness, a widening of the field – as if I were normally looking at the world through a keyhole and with inspiration, I suddenly see things in 360. Ideas rush in – some of them fully formed, some just little seeds – and I feel like I vibrate at a different frequency for a while. The feeling of this state is so powerful, an idea born from it will often sustain me for years afterward.

It’s different than just having an idea. I have those all the time. Inspiration is being lit up by ideas. If an idea is a lightbulb, inspiration is 25 strings of them.

So it was that a few days into my trip to Greece that the lightning struck and turned on all those bulbs in me. The ideas rushed in – there wasn’t time to write them all down – and it felt marvelous to be in the throes of receiving such gifts from what I was experiencing.

It had been so long since I’d felt this way, I had forgotten what it felt like – forgotten that it was possible. And I wondered about the conditions that created it. I wondered how I could court that muse, so to speak.

First, I couldn’t expect the muse to arrive. She has to show up when she wants, how she wants.

Second, I went to a place that held some power for me. My work has always been influenced by Greek mythology so there was a probable potency to Greece for me that might not have been present elsewhere. Even in Greece, there were cities and places that were beautiful and thrilling and engaging and edifying but that did not pull the trigger on the inspiration gun nor sustain it.
I have had similar experiences in other places that held power for me. Certain locations in London, for example – or Italy.

Third, I had several quiet moments with which to just soak in what I was seeing. Long car rides through beautiful scenery, for example, or writing by the water. It would have been hard for the muse to show her face if I’d been on a crowded tour bus cramming in the sites.

Fourth, and this is probably obvious but – Novelty is powerful. Just going somewhere new and foreign is a key ingredient.

It was an extraordinary privilege to get to go to a place that could give me this kind of inspiration. And in thinking about it, I realize that there are ways to court inspiration in more economically possible ways than traveling halfway around the world. I was struck with a small scale inspiration wave when I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. for example.

But even in this small scale example – I didn’t go to that museum cold. I knew there was some work by my favorite painter there (I’d discovered her there!) and I went to pay homage. When I saw a painting I’d never seen before however, quite a few strands of light went on and the play that came from it is now finished and ready for a reading. I didn’t go there to get inspired. I just went to see my favorite painter’s work. I didn’t go to Greece to get inspired. I just went to see the site and culture that has given me so much material in the past. And I think this is how you catch the muse. You come at it sideways, armed with a little bit of love for something and when inspiration comes, it pries you open to love even more.

Inspiration hadn't kicked in yet when my mom took this photo. . .but space was clearing for it.

Inspiration hadn’t kicked in yet when my mom took this photo. . .but space was clearing for it.


You can help me stoke the fires of inspiration by becoming my patron on Patreon.


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Theatre and Democracy: An Origin Story.
September 12, 2015, 5:30 pm
Filed under: art, class, theatre | Tags: , , ,

We were sitting on a bench under tall trees, pine needles under our feet and our guide was explaining some facts about the theatre in front of us. The theatre was all stone and an active theatre over 2000 years after it was built. We were at Epidaurus and our guide said: “Theatre and Democracy were born at the same moment.”

I felt my heart push against my ribs and my eyes welled up.
I have loved theatre for as long as I can remember and have studied my fair share of theatre history but I have never heard this put quite this way before.
It moved me. To place theatre next to democracy and call them sisters gives theatre some weight that is often missing in my culture. But while democracy has thrived and continues to expand, theatre has not enjoyed nearly the same proliferation.

I come from a culture that cannot really understand theatre. It does not know what it can do, what it’s for or why any of us would do it anymore when there is such a thing as film and TV. So to think of theatre as something as important as democracy, nay, not just as important as, but instrumental, to democracy – well, even now, while writing about it, I get choked up again.

The next thing our guide told us was that the rulers at the time felt theatre was so important – everyone from all ends of the economic spectrum was expected to attend. Those who could afford tickets paid, those who could not had tickets bought for them. And each seat cost the same amount of money. There were no more expensive seats in a theatre then – everyone was equal. In other words, there was an extraordinary equality and democracy in theatre-going at theatre’s inception.

This gets me in the heart parts as well. I can’t think about it without crying. We have so profoundly lost this aspect of a foundational pillar of our art. Theatre has become something that only the moneyed can afford – and more and more – only the moneyed can create as well. We have moved profoundly away from this very CORE foundational principle. I have seen the “discount” tickets for a Broadway show be more than $100. To see a show in the NY Fringe will cost you $18 – which, while much cheaper than a Broadway extravaganza is still very unaffordable for anyone really struggling with money. Someone working for minimum wage will (very likely) not spend over an hour’s wages to see Theatre. Why would they? In the world I live in, it can seem pointless to go on making theatre when so few people can or want to see it. I think about giving up theatre almost every day – just because it seems like theatre doesn’t MATTER. But it does. And it always has. From the moment it was born.

I had to go to Greece to see one of the first theatres to know it and feel it and cry about it and come home to tell you, my fellow theatre makers, theatre lovers, audience, etc – Theatre is Important. It has always been a tool of democracy and we must, somehow or another, wrest it back from the shadows and recognize its rightful place – side by side with democracy – as an important a tool, as important a concept, as contagious an idea. And, we must find a way to make it more democratic again, to find a way to make it affordable for everyone, just as it was at the beginning.

I’d like to make a monument – with a personification of Democracy on one throne and a personification of Theatre on another – side by side, hand in hand. Twins. The sister concepts: Theatre and Democracy, learning from one another at every turn.


You can help me advocate for a more democratic theatre by becoming my patron on Patreon.


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You know what I don’t need?
August 19, 2015, 11:09 pm
Filed under: art, business, Non-Profit | Tags: , , , ,


There was a stage in my artist development when I soaked up all advice like a sponge. It was a period when I’d take everyone’s suggestions. And the great thing about that period was that people love to give advice.

But after so many years of running a non-profit arts organization, I’ve grown so incredibly weary of hearing, “Here’s what you should do – “
Because I have plenty of things to do.

What would I like to hear instead?
“Here’s what I can do. . .” or “Here’s how I can help. . .”
Instead of “Have you tried. . .?” I’d love to hear: “I can try this. Would that help?”

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful to those who would like to assist with their ideas. This desire to assist is probably coming from a good place. But there comes a point wherein unsolicited advice ceases to be helpful.

Fourteen years in, I can say that I have tried just about everything I can think of and just about everything everyone else could think of, too. I have no shortage of ideas – what I don’t have are extra hands. I’m a one woman show with a whole lot of ambition, ideas and the wherewithal to chase down only a handful of them. Other people’s ideas just add to my list. Odds are that I have tried whatever it is that’s been suggested or that it is well out of the realm of possibility. (Like, when folks tell me I should just get my show on Broadway or people suggest to my composer boyfriend that he should just write for films, like John Williams.)

Also, I’ve gotten some advice over the years that was really just criticism in an advice jacket. It has usually sounded like: “You’re going to have to. . .” and “If you want to do X, you need to do Y”. And there’s often a strange aggressive tone under it.

For years, I’ve struggled to understand this response to me and my work, especially from people who know me. But I think I’ve got a handle on it now. Generally, it comes from people who know me and have seen my work. They like me. They see an intelligent, ambitious person who they would have placed a bet on for succeeding. They saw work that was good and full of potential. They’re confused by my lack of success. It creates a kind of cognitive dissonance for them. They want to believe that good work will find a place in the marketplace. They want to believe that the world is fair and just and that success comes to those with talent, intelligence and rigor. And when they see me not fitting in to that belief system, they start throwing shade. I would like to believe in a world like that, too. But we’re not there yet.

I think people look at me and my trajectory and try to explain for themselves why my career doesn’t look like they imagined. They search for flaws in me. They make things up if they have to. And once they feel like they have an answer. (“She’s not aggressive enough.” “She didn’t focus on the right thing” etc.) That’s when they start giving “advice.” Which is actually just criticism and feels lousy to receive.

I get it. I would like to believe it was just some simple thing I’m not doing, too. Then I would do that thing and pull myself out of the artistic ghetto. But it’s just not that simple.

And it’s not just me, either. The many many extraordinary intelligent, talented, rigorous artists I know who are all just as unacknowledged as I am, show me just what a crapshoot an artist’s life is.

I once believed artistic success was a meritocracy and the good and committed rose to the top while the lousy and lazy sunk to the bottom. It is not so. I know a brilliant unacknowledged artist in almost every art form. What I’ve come to understand is that the system is flawed, and rigged and unjust. And I know it causes cognitive dissonance to deal with that. Believe me, I’ve been readjusting for years to take it in. It’s troubling, I know. But – you want my advice? Don’t give advice unless you’re asked for it.

If you want to help, I thank you. Really and truly. I appreciate the impulse to be of assistance. And I have gotten some amazing advice over the years for which I am very grateful. But what I could use most is action and support, not criticism or more things to add to my very long list.



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What I Learned from an Old Train
August 12, 2015, 3:13 pm
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Riding on the Holiday Nostalgia train (which runs every December) is an opportunity to step into the past a bit, to ride on an old train, read old subway ads, feel the breezes of open subway windows and the whir of the open blades of the fans in the ceiling. It is full of train aficionados and retro wardrobes. The inside of the train is a delightful confluence of diverse geekery.

My favorite part happens outside the train, however. I sit by the windows so I can watch the faces of the people on the platform as the train comes into the station. Almost no one expects this magical retro train to appear. I love to see people surprised by this mysterious arrival. What astounds me, however, are the vast variety of responses.

To me, the appearance of this train is a little miracle. I imagine that if I were on the platform and this train from the past just appeared out of nowhere, I’d be so delighted. I’d probably clap my hands with glee. To me, the proper response to this train is something in that territory. But very few people actually respond that way. More common is suspicion and confusion. I’ve seen people scowl at it or give the train the evil eye. The train is unexpected and many people are seemingly troubled by its arrival.

This tells me something about how people respond to art, too. I strive to create work that has the potential to be as delightful and unexpected as a nostalgia train and occasionally, I’ve gotten reactions that I haven’t understood. I have taken some of those reactions personally in the past. But the train shows me that that variety of responses is normal when exploring the world outside of the very day.

When I see something that is unexpected and delightful, I’m often surprised to find that everyone does not experience it that way. I think, as a theatre maker, I have, at times, really believed that an audience could have a uniform response to something. The nostalgia train shows me that they do not. Something that makes some people slack jawed with wonder will make others pulse with fury.

I have always thought that all people crave the wondrous, the unexpected, the extra-daily but the train has taught me that some people find it very disconcerting. I take this to heart and it helps me make the things I want to make, to not be dependent on the reaction of the audience but to just create the wonder I want to see, even if it makes people uncomfortable.


You can help me create things of wonder by becoming a patron on Patreon.


Click HERE  to Check out my Patreon Page


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