Songs for the Struggling Artist

Charging Application Fees
April 13, 2015, 11:14 pm
Filed under: business, class, Rejections, writing | Tags: , , ,

The day I published my blog about the math of rejection and patronage, I got a rejection notice from one of those very residencies I’d applied for. The cost of that application was $25.

In the rejection notice, they let me know that around 500 people applied. This is supposed to make me feel a little bit better, to indicate how competitive the program is. I think I’m supposed to take this news and go, “Oh well. It’s competitive then. Okay, I guess it sucks less.”

What I ACTUALLY did what that information was Math. Because what this means is that they made about $12,500 on those applications. On what this organization from aspiring writers, I could have lived for a year. This makes me feel a little funny.

I understand that the cost of running residency programs is probably a lot more than this – that someone, somewhere is very likely covering the actual cost of the program – and probably all the help they can get helps. However – collecting so much money from people who just want a shot, well, it makes me twitch a little bit.

I understand why people charge for applications. It takes time and effort to read and respond to those things. If I ran a residency program, I’d want to compensate my adjudicators for doing that work. But I’d want that money to come from somewhere besides the applicants.

I also know a lot of places charge an application fee, not because they need the money but because they’re trying to weed out applications. The idea is that you’ll lose the less serious applicants that way, that you’ll get a higher quality of writing by charging a fee. Very reasonable, of course.

But the unintended result is that you privilege the wealthy artists over the poor. By charging a fee, you’re effectively saying “Economically privileged artists only.” Which, you know, everyone’s doing that in some form or another, so, you’re in good company – but it is definitely something I find troubling in a notion that prides itself on giving everyone a fair shot.

It’s not a fair shot. Application fees make it so. I was only able to apply to this particular residency program due to the generosity of my Patreon Patrons – but other economically disadvantaged writers were not so lucky. $12,500 is a lot of money to collect from writers. I hope they do something awesome with it, like commission a writer to write something.


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The Benefits of (even small amounts of) Patronage
March 24, 2015, 10:48 pm
Filed under: art, business, Rejections | Tags: , , ,

Over on Patreon, a small but amazing group of people have pledged to donate a little bit of money each time I post a blog here on Songs for the Struggling Artist. The experience has been very moving to me and has made a difference in a number of ways.
1) It helps me to get closer to winning the rent game every month
2) It helps me feel like I’m not writing in vain – that there are people who support me in doing it, every single time, no matter what kind of crap I set down. (And the process of being any kind of artist means setting down some crap sometimes.)
3) Ever since one of my patrons suggested using the blog and Patreon to help solve my dilemma around the constant rejections I was receiving, I have found myself able to apply for a number of things I might otherwise have missed.

I’ll explain that last one. Every time I get a rejection notice, I write a blog. When I post each blog to Patreon, I get a little bit of money. Not a lot. But enough to make a difference. For example, there was a residency that sounded great but with an application fee of $25, it was cost prohibitive to apply. When you’re struggling to pay the rent, putting up $25 to probably be rejected by something just isn’t good math. But now that each of my rejection notices earns me a little bit above that (as long as I write a blog,) I will actually MAKE a little money on that rejection letter. The math gets a lot better and allows me to apply for things I could never have considered before.

Another example: Last year, I was rejected for a program that I really really wanted to get. That application came back around this year and I had nothing to propose but the same project that had previously been rejected. To apply again would be, sure, on one hand, a good idea, just in case – but almost certainly sure to yield me another rejection notice.

Before Patreon, I would have saved myself the time and trouble and pride swallowing and just let that application deadline slide on by. But because I knew my patrons were in my corner, I swallowed the hurt I’d felt from the previous rejection, polished up the play I was submitting and gave it another shot. Now, I could maybe afford to buy myself a martini when I get rejected again.


If I could find a way to progress in my artist career without this roller coaster of application and rejection, I would – but for the moment, the only way out of it is through it and the more help I have in the slog, the more likely other ways open up. I would never have thought of this solution but I’ve found it to be a profound one. And I wonder what other secret solutions for solving the arts crisis are waiting to be discovered.

Are there other secret Arts Supports hiding out there that we don’t yet see? If you’ve seen them, let know. It feels important to share.

I read this review of a book about what’s happening to the Arts and Journalism and creativity in this country. It is a terrible crisis. The review beautifully (and painfully) sums up something I feel at a gut level. Read it if you can. And as an antidote for the troubling news in it, keep your eyes open for other models of support – like the one that is currently making such a difference in this artist’s life.

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Artisanal Theatre
March 16, 2015, 12:09 am
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , , , , ,

When you’re a small organization, there’s often a push to look bigger than you are, to puff up to big institution size. With my theatre company, we often attempt to look like we have a staff of at least ten, doing things like stuffing envelopes and database management. (We don’t. Not even close.) A lot of organizational support programs will teach you how to appear more solid, bigger and stable than you actually are, You learn how to project a more corporate image. This is funny because, meanwhile, big corporations are attempting to look small, like they have the personal touch. I think I did a spit-take the first time I saw Dunkin Donuts advertising artisan bagels.

I was thinking about this during my company’s push to get fundraising letters out to our mailing list. I literally hand-stamped every envelope with our logo, printed out all the labels myself, folded every letter, stuffed every envelope and put the stamps on every one. Our mailing list is small, so I know most of the names on it. As I went through each of these steps, those name went by multiple times and each time, I thought of those people – how they were, what they were doing. I hoped that they’d receive the letter and read it with pleasure. Even though it was a request for funds, the letter was a little message in a bottle about what my company was doing, which is also really what I’d been up to, about the things that matter most to me.

Every time I do this, I want to write a little note on each one, but I have to get these out and if I stop to do that, I will miss my deadline. But even without the little notes, this engagement with my mailing list is intimate. If you’re on it, I think of you. If you ask to get off the email version of the mailing list, I feel a sting. It isn’t impersonal, even though I do my best to make it seem as if it were. That’s what I’ve been taught to do.

The push has always been to be more business like, more impersonal, more institutional but after watching how businesses are marketing themselves to be more personal – I’m thinking it may be time to go the other direction. It may be time to embrace the intimacy and smallness of my theatre company.

We’re not big institutional art. We’re hand-made. Artisanal. Made to Order. Local. Organic. Part of a small community. We’re personal. Which is a funny thing to learn from a big old business like Dunkin Donuts or Chase or any business that’s hoping to make you feel like they’re small. We actually ARE small and I’m starting to understand that it’s valuable.


If you’d like to support my Artisanal Theatre Company, you can go here where there are a variety of ways to support us. Artisanal companies need support, just like big ones. Maybe more!

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When One Door Closes. . .
March 3, 2015, 12:01 am
Filed under: Rejections | Tags: , ,

I’m not really a “when one door closes another door opens” sort of person. When you’ve seen as many closed doors as I have, experience says such a thing cannot possibly true. Although, perhaps “For every 35 closed doors, one door opens.” That could be true.

If you’ve been following my recent series on rejections, you’ll know that I’ve had a run of closed doors for the last six months or so – many of which are documented. And then, completely out of the blue, a door opened and from the same building where one had previously closed.

A couple of months ago I had a particularly surprising rejection notice for a program to work in a senior center – one I really expected to get. The senior center, choosing between two artists, chose the other one.

But then, two months later, I got a phone call from a different senior center who’d gotten ahold of my application and now want me to come do the program I proposed there. It turns out that this senior center will be a much better match for a lot of reasons – not the least of which is that they seem to understand the value of what I’m offering.

The details aren’t finalized yet so I’m not counting on this being a GO yet but I’m struck by the way suddenly seeing an open door FEELS after such a long run of closed ones. It’s like a dog who’s been in the house all day, waiting for something to open.

dog-in a window



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Next stop on the Rejection Train
February 9, 2015, 12:25 am
Filed under: Rejections | Tags:

As I was walking home in the frigid February wind, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t yet heard from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council about the two grants I applied for back in September. As I attempted to cover as much of my face as was possible, it occurred to me that if I were GETTING those grants I would have heard by now. (My company has gotten them before and those acceptance letters usually come in early to mid January.) I started to prepare for the rejection letters I was fairly certain I would receive (even if I half hoped I wouldn’t.)

Turns out I didn’t have long to wait. Both rejections were waiting in my inbox for me when got home.

I had a great deal to do for various other jobs, so I pushed the news aside and just got on with things – then periodically would notice that I felt really blue and had to cast around for why. Ah, the Rejections! That was it.

Fact is, these rejections were sucky, not just because they were rejections (that always sucks, of course) but because not getting these grants effectively kills a project that I’ve been fighting tooth and nail for for years. I have tried every avenue I can possibly think of to raise funds and while there are very small gains, it is mostly nothing but heartache. These grants were my last hope at getting this project, in which I already invested countless hours and dollars, really moving.

It’s like, I’ve laid the railroad tracks, built a train and trained the crew but there is no fuel to send the train to its destination. Those grants I didn’t get were my last hope for a coal shipment. And so I guess the train doesn’t go. There aren’t that many coal companies who ship to my kind of organization. Of course, I’m open to alternate fuels but it always takes a while for new tech to take hold. My train may be a museum by the time we’ve found another way to make it go.

Photo by FilipeOCastro

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The Perilous Economic Intersection of Arts and Education

The week before the teaching gig was due to start, I was told that I was going to be paid $200 less than I did last year for doing exactly the same job. This program, I was told, was too expensive – so they had to reduce everyone’s fees. In the end, I negotiated my payment back to where it was meant to be but it took a great deal of effort just to get paid what I was meant to be paid in the first place. Being underpaid is one thing, being paid less than underpaid is quite another.

This is par for the course in two arenas: the Arts and Education. The fact that I work on the intersection of both of them puts me in a double whammy of reduced status. The people making decisions about fee reductions have very real limitations. They work in a field that doesn’t make money. (So do I!) They have to figure out a way to keep the programs going without enough income. (also a problem I’m familiar with.) I’m sure they look at the budgets and the only thing they can see to cut is the rate of the artists, educators and scholars.

But I can’t help but notice that the people who make these decisions also have salaries (something I don’t have) and those salaries are never on the cutting block in these situations. I’ve never seen someone in this scenario looking at an underfunded program and saying, “Oh, I’ll just make $200 less that week to make up for it.” And of course, they shouldn’t. That’s absurd. But so is cutting the one really meaningful resource in a teaching program, which is the teachers. I’m worried about what this trend portends.

Reading Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier has made me think a lot about all of the jobs that are vanishing as we shift our world into the digital age. Lanier warns us that the artists are the canaries in the coal mines of our current moment. It might be something like: “First the digital economy came for the artists and we didn’t worry because we weren’t artists. Then it came for the journalists but we didn’t worry because we weren’t journalists. Then it came for the educators and what did we care? We weren’t educators.”

And so it goes through all sorts of surprising middle class jobs. Law. Medicine. There are very few things in the future that are safe from the changing landscape. Bit by bit, the current economic climate chips away at the arts and education – and I’m standing here at the intersection watching it fall apart.

I am deeply worried that so many of the things I love most are losing their value. That is, people still like those things, they still think art and education are great, they’re just not willing to pay for them anymore. And that means while I managed to keep my $200 payment this time, who knows how much less it will be next time. If there is a next time.


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“With an attitude like that. . .”
January 22, 2015, 1:00 am
Filed under: art, business, theatre | Tags: , ,

A performer told me a story about a status update he posted on his Facebook page. He said something like: “I love performing but the instability of the life is hard.” This is pretty much like saying the sun is hot and water is wet. It’s true and not terribly controversial.

Except, apparently, for a casting director who commented on his post, saying something like: “With an attitude like that, you might as well get out of the business.”
I was floored by this response. It is a) fucking insane and b) probably why the “business” is so screwed up.

Maybe this casting director is one lone wacko – but I rather think that the theatre culture here is full of people promoting blind optimism and a constant cheery outlook. There is no place for truth in that environment. The man who told me this story noted that he was always getting in trouble for telling the truth. He said his friends are always throwing up their hands saying, “There’s your problem. You can’t tell the TRUTH in this business!”

This is hugely problematic. First, art without truth tends to be pretty shitty. Second, any business in which you’re not allowed to acknowledge what the actual conditions are can become a hotbed for exploitation. Third, if everyone is walking around lying to themselves and each other about how things are, there’s very little hope for actual social change.

On my own Facebook page, one of my friends (and fellow theatre maker extraordinaire,) Amy Clare Tasker, commented on one of my blog posts about social injustice and optimism, saying:

I think many artists don’t want to admit that we are not making any money – and I know I want to keep thinking I’m about to make some money from my work (instead of office jobs). But I’ve been “about to” for years now. At what point do we start to engage with the reality in front of us, instead of our optimism?

This holds very true for me, too. And while I was holding out that hope for one day “making it big,” I was afraid to make any waves. I wouldn’t call out sexism or racism when I saw it (and boy did I ever see it!) Many actors, when they’re in some racist and sexist piece of work are the first to defend it. After all, their livelihood depends on saying only positive things so it helps to not think too deeply about what the work is really saying. But it’s an endless circle of yuck because when someone does get called on the racism or sexism of a piece, the producers will point to the actors involved and say, “Well, they don’t have a problem with it.“ Of course they don’t. Not when their jobs depend on being positive, no matter what.

Being positive no matter what is how we’re told we’re going to get to the top. But even when I was in my “I’m gonna MAKE IT “ phase, I was never really able to project the RADIOACTIVE positivity that seemed required to work where the money was. At the time, I didn’t understand why I felt so alienated from that kind of environment. Now I understand how much my interest in truth was a liability and how not being terribly fond of relentlessly positive veneer made things difficult for me.

Hearing this performer’s story made me see just how skewed the perspectives of the gatekeepers in the Business can be. I don’t run in those circles, so I don’t always know what really goes on. But it does explain for me why so much of the theatre I see that is made through those money-greased channels is as empty and wooden as it is. All of the truth has been smiled right out of most parties involved.


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