Songs for the Struggling Artist

Brave and Practical
June 29, 2015, 11:12 pm
Filed under: art, business, dreams, TV | Tags: , , , ,

At a friend’s suggestion, I started watching Jane the Virgin. I enjoyed the show a lot (refreshingly frank discussions about things like abortion, bold aesthetics, a complex intergenerational Latina family of women and some stellar performances) but I found myself questioning one of the show’s recurring themes.

One character asks the lead what she wants to do with her life. She reports that she wants to be a teacher if she’s being practical and a writer if she’s being brave. The show returns to this multiple times.

This Practical/Brave thing a very clear dichotomy and also has a clear point of view. We all know it’s better to be brave in the cultural mythos. This is a classic American narrative that it’s better to be brave than practical. It’s always best to follow your dreams in movies and TV.

And I relate to it. Especially as a person who has followed her dreams, consistently, over and over. I think I watched this variety of story and deeply internalized it. I learned very early on that if I want to be the heroine of the story, I would have to follow my dreams.

And it occurs to me now that the people who write these narratives are, for the most part, people who followed their dreams and had great success with them. Their particular bravery paid off and the Be Brave narrative is personal for them. It also led to them being able to send their kids to college.

This is not true for everyone. And the Brave vs. Practical is a false dichotomy. Most of us have to be brave AND practical at some point. Most writers I know are also teachers. Even super successful ones. It’s not that easy, I know, to be practical and brave. Lord knows, I lean on Brave far too much and don’t give the Practical nearly the space that it requires/deserves.

As a struggling artist, I need stories that helps me choose the practical thing sometimes. I know so many stories about following the rainbow and I don’t need any more encouragement to chase it. I can’t STOP doing that. What I need is some powerful recurring stories to say – “Hey kid – you know you can be practical AND brave.”


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Now THAT’S a Rejection Letter
June 24, 2015, 12:06 am
Filed under: Rejections | Tags:

The foundation was created as a tribute to their daughter. The application was relatively simple and easily submitted. The rejection email I got was almost not even a rejection.

It was personal, warm and it suggested I reapply next season. The rejection was so soft, I almost feel like I got accepted. There was not even a hint of a sting in this rejection.

Partly why it’s so remarkable is that it clearly came from a human being who clearly read what I submitted and had a response to it. It was so human, I think even if it had been a straight up, “We’ll never fund you,” it would likely still have felt relatively painless.

Even though every single thing we ever apply to is full of humans and every rejection is actually from a person or people, it rarely feels that way. So many foundations work extra hard to appear business-like and formal – to obscure that a panel of people read the thing and those people said no. So I find it somewhat comical that for me, seeing the people behind the decisions actually makes it less painful.

It’s a funny old world of applying for things – full of funny old people – even if we never really see them.


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The Dude Who Faked His Way to the Top

One of my favorite authors got journalistic opportunities and started to become the successful writer he is when he lied about all the editors he had (not) written for. One of my directing teacher’s favorite stories was about how he got his big directing break by putting entirely fictional credits on his resume. I read a piece in the Hollywood Reporter about a movie exec who, as a young journalist, swiped his editor’s identity in order to get into big movie events and start making the connections he needed.

I have heard this narrative a lot. It is the Man Who Bluffed His Way in the Door, the Dude Who Faked His Way to the Top. Usually the story features a subject very proud of this clever fakery that paid off for him early in his life. Usually he chuckles about it in nostalgic tones.

The story I’ve Never Heard is the one where a woman managed the same sly tricks. I’m curious about this.

And I have some theories about it.

1) There aren’t that many super successful women at the top to get these stories from.
2) The schemes that involve stealing someone else’s identity are almost impossible due to #1. Whose identity do you steal? Do you mask both your identity and your gender?
3) Girls tend to succeed by following the rules. They do very well in school this way. But success outside of school would seem to be about Breaking the rules – so as Good Girls (which I’ve written about previously) girls have a harder time forging a path.
4) The girls who do transgress, who do break the rules are often punished more aggressively than boys. Boys will be boys but girls are taught lessons. Girls punish each other for transgressing and boys punish girls for transgressing. See also Slut Shaming, Body Shaming and a world of other behaviors that we’re meant to be policing women for all the time.

I’m sure there are more theories about this roadblock to women’s success. I notice in myself that I don’t find this particular narrative (about the Boy Who Broke the Rules to Get to the Top) charming anymore. I don’t think lying and cheating are cute. And I’m tired of all the origin stories that would seem to suggest that they are. Getting away with that stuff is a privilege.

But I also recognize that I am a biased Good Girl and that a part of me will always bristle at rule breaking, especially when the odds are already stacked so high. I can’t decide whether I need to access my own inner lying movie exec and start bluffing my way to the top or to Lean into the best Rule Following person I can be. Or maybe just let it all go and perhaps stop worrying about other people’s origin stories and get to work forging my own. In one or the other senses of the word “forge.”

If you want to see a lot of ladders, Google "Career Woman" and also enjoy this link:

If you want to see a lot of ladders, Google “Career Woman” and also enjoy this link:

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“It had been years since I really experienced fear.”

I write in cafes and while I mostly mind my own business, sometimes I can’t help but overhear my fellow coffee drinkers, especially when they’ve got their meetings turned up to CONFIDENT!

This particular meeting involved two men in super fashionable slick outfits. They were talking about buying businesses. I think. I wasn’t paying close attention. But then I heard the tall one in the leather jacket tell the other one a story about being in a shaking airplane and feeling afraid. It gave him an epiphany and he realized that it was the first time he’d experienced fear in years. He took this experience as a mandate to take more risks, to find ways to challenge himself. All very sensible. Of course.

I was struck, however, by the profound sense of privilege that there was in that statement about fear.

First, almost every woman I know experiences fear on a fairly regular basis, just walking home at night or riding the subway or walking down the street. I don’t know many women who could say they hadn’t experienced fear in years.

Second, if you’re a person of color in this country, your likelihood of being confronted by the police is so great, I cannot imagine how you could avoid experiencing fear often. Just walking home from work you could be shot for being black. You could be beat up in Alabama just for being Indian. That’s some fear.

Third, if you don’t have enough money, fear is an almost daily experience as well. “Will I make rent this month?” “What if that one gig falls through?” “What if I get sick? Will my family still be able to eat?”

In other words, the absence of fear is one of the great privileges, perhaps the greatest. And not one I’d considered before.

This tall, wealthy, white man in the café needs to FIND ways to experience fear. His life is so comfortable, he has to seek fear like a thrill. He has to court it because it is not ever-present in his daily life.

It occurs to me that maybe a guy like this is able to accomplish so much, not just due to the privileges afforded to him by wealth, race and gender, but due to the absence of fear. He can do a lot with the security that a life with nothing to fear in it gives him.

I thought, you know, it’s too bad this guy can’t step into the shoes of any of the people who regularly experience fear. It might save him some money in thrill seeking. Why pay for skydiving lessons when you can just walk down the street?



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Teaching: You Gotta Love It
May 17, 2015, 8:31 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , , ,

I can’t stop thinking about this blog post which I only half read the other day. (Sorry, I couldn’t bear to read it all the way through.) In it, the author railed against actors who moan about having to return to teaching after their acting gigs. She recommended stepping away from the kids and leaving the teaching to those who love it.

I hate this. That’s why I can’t stop thinking about it. (Voice in my head, sounding a lot like an angry Foghorn Leghorn: “Of all the. . .”) But I also don’t necessarily disagree. I mean, listen, if you can be dissuaded from teaching by a blog post, it’s probably not for you. But – I take issue with the idea that you have to LOVE teaching and LOVE kids in order to do it. You don’t. And if you’re a theatre-maker or an artist of any kind – of COURSE you’d rather be making your art and OF COURSE teaching, while better than ditch digging for day job work, is a pale comparison to the thrill of making art.

For most of us who are artists, there is literally nothing else we’d rather do than our art. Even if my day job was to read books on the beach (could this PLEASE be my day job?!) I would want to get back to art making eventually. So I take a little umbrage at the idea that we should leave the teaching only to those who love it like we love our art. Even career classroom teachers don’t tend to feel that way. My sense is that we need each and every one of you – those who love it, those who hate it and those who’d rather be art making or some combination of all of it.

When I first started teaching, I loved it almost as much as making art. I can imagine having written a post, like the one I read, 15 years ago. Teaching was exciting and thrilling and I LOVED the students I worked with. I was a Theatre Love Bomb in the classroom. But I’m a much better teacher now than I was then. I think this is, in part, due to not being concerned with love so much anymore.

There is a sense in some teaching circles that kids can sense how you feel about teaching – so that you must be projecting devotion at all times, or they’ll smell it, the way animals smell fear. This is nonsense. Kids don’t need my love. I give them my respect and my skill and I think it really and truly doesn’t matter to them how I feel about it.

I think there is often some confusion between resenting the work and resenting the people in the work and it is an important distinction. Yes, I would rather make art than teach – but there’s no money in art so I do the next most meaningful thing (for me,) I teach. And yes, sometimes I resent that. But even while I might resent that I have to return from the honeymoon of making a show to my day jobs – I don’t bring that resentment into the classroom. While I am teaching, I am entirely present to teaching. I like my students. I do my absolute best to give them all I can. I don’t blame them or resent them – even when I run into a classroom of total jerks (and I do.) But I’m allowed to wish I were doing a show instead. And classroom teachers are allowed to wish they were on a beach reading books.

Teaching is hard work. It only gets harder when there are also rules about how we’re supposed to feel about it. (see also my previous post on this subject.) And I get it, if you’re doing the thing you love passionately and someone turns up and treats that thing like it’s less than, then, of course that sucks.

But if you love teaching the way I love making art, I envy you. You have a good deal. The thing you love to do the most is the thing you get to do for a living. That is precious and fabulous and not entirely possible for most of us.

Most of the artists I know have a luminous quality – something in them is very alive – however they feel about day jobbing. I think that luminosity is a good thing to bring into a classroom. We need artists’ vibrance and drive. I think discouraging people from doing it just because it isn’t their first choice kind of sucks – but again, if a blog post (including and especially this one) is going to persuade or dissuade you one way or the other. . .ditch digging might, in fact, be a better choice. Now, ditch digging, there’s a job you better love.



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Return to the Land of Girlfriends

Not so long ago, I wrote a piece about a trip down the rabbit hole of casting. I was disturbed by how the vast majority of the women’s resumes I saw included pole-dancing and emphasized the various ways they might be objectified. Their reels were just as bad. The sense was that each woman was destined to play either the sexy girlfriend, the cute girlfriend or the pretty girlfriend and that’s pretty much all anyone was aiming for. I called it the Land of Girlfriends.

This landscape was awful when I was an actor looking for work and it is awful when I’m directing and looking for an actor. It does not cease to be awful.

It is not the fault of the women – the breakdowns for some of these things are horrifying but even the most benign jobs encourage this sort of thing. Casting notices value appearance over skill almost every time. I loved Kathryn Blume’s rant about a casting notice in her area. An excerpt is posted, below:

There are lots of juicy words used to describe Beatrice, including “frowzy, acid-tongued, alcoholic, intelligent.” Those are all incredibly useful to both actors and directors when thinking about characterization and/or whether or not a particular actor is right for the role.
But then for some reason, they also used the word “attractive.” Why is this necessary? It’s also vague. What kind of attractive and to whom? How is she both frowzy AND attractive? Attractive is subjective to the observer, and has absolutely no bearing on how an actor might play this role.
Then there are the descriptions of Beatrice’s daughters Ruth and Tillie. Ruth is described as “pretty, disturbed, high strung.” Tillie is described as “extremely shy and fascinated by science.”
Ok, for one, pretty according to whom? Also actors can’t play pretty. It’s not useful in the breakdown.
And why don’t we get a description, then of Tillie’s looks? Because shy girls interested in science can’t also be pretty? Again, who’s to say?
Mark posted about this on MAW’s page, and as he said,
“Listing “attractive” or “pretty” as a required attribute is, at best, unnecessary and almost meaningless, and at worst, cliche and sexist. Of course we want performers to be attractive in the sense of compelling. But if you’re talking about physical attractiveness, what does that mean, and what does it have to do with the role?
By regularly describing female characters this way, we are perpetuating the idea that they are there, at least on one level, as eye candy, and I think that does a disservice to both the playwright’s vision and women actors to put this arbitrary, generalized idea of attractiveness out there as a requirement. Actors *are* attractive in the sense of being compelling (at least the good ones) – it’s an inherent part of the craft. Why keep putting this additional requirement of physical attractiveness on female actors? What message does that send to women?”
This is all a heartfelt plea to be conscious of the messages we’re putting out there about the value of women, and the value of certain kinds of women, and the painful overemphasis on a very narrow cultural definition of women’s attractiveness – a definition which leads to mental and physical illness and a devaluation of a broad range of compelling and gifted artists who deserve to have their work seen.

That’s some heroic Facebook posting, there, from Kathryn and this Mark fellow. AND I discovered, while searching for the original casting notice, that the company responded immediately and edited it right away.

I was also heartened to see Cast and Loose call out this casting notice from TFANA (Who really should do better)

This was the character description:

THAISA: 20s She has to be dazzlingly beautiful (of course) but she ends the play as a woman of forty, after the ‘gap in time’ in the middle of the play.

“Of course” this character must be dazzling and OF COURSE the real tricky part will be that the character, GASP! – also has to “end up a woman of 40” – in other words – OLD. So you can’t just be a model, you also have to be able to play a crone. As a woman in my 40s, I should know. Why, none of my female peers are dazzling, no sir, just pack us all up and put us in intensive care, we’re old. We apparently can’t play Girlfriends anymore, so what good are we?

I am already so weary of so much sexist racist boring ass theatre. . things like this just make it harder to imagine seeing anything at all.

But this new trend of calling out those senselessly objectifying casting notices is heartening to me. It gives me the smallest sense of hope that we might one day get to see performers with SKILL and not just conventionally beautiful, attractive, dazzling people.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 12.56.36 AM

I did a Google Image Search for “Woman” and this is what came up.

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The Bunny Outfit

On a trip to the suburbs, I met a woman whose daughter had been a star of her high school drama department. She told me stories of her daughter’s triumphs and among them was a minor character in Legally Blonde, the Musical. She told me that her daughter’s teacher wanted her to play the lead but she and her husband had nixed it because of “modesty.” “Because of the bunny outfit,” she said. Apparently, the show requires that the lead dress as a Playboy bunny.

legally blonde And here’s where a radical liberal feminist like me starts to agree with the feelings of a conservative, religious set of parents. I mean, why in the world is a young teenage girl required to dress up like a Playboy bunny in order to be in her high school play? Is sexual objectification educationally necessary? I was horrified. And horrified that this dilemma is likely being played out in high schools all over the country.

I was ready to storm that drama department. Which is where this family and I diverge. The daughter and parents were all fine with the decision they made. It’s just how it is for them. Me, I think this kid should have been able to wear whatever the hell she wanted. Why not a full body pajama bunny suit if a bunny suit was required?


Playboy bunny? Fine – as long as it’s her choice and not some icky drama department compulsion. I say this as someone who put up with the nickname of “cleavage ” in high school, starting at age 14, due to a costume I wore in a musical. I didn’t object to the dress at the time and might not object to it now. But I wonder about further extremes on the scale, like the one in this play.  Every day girls are put in inappropriate costumes due to zealous drama teachers or the demands of a play that wasn’t written for their age group.

I know that once girls make their way into the professional world, there will be no stopping the extreme objectification but until then – can we please just let these girls be the kids they are? A kid shouldn’t have to wear a Playboy bunny outfit in school. Not if she doesn’t want to. And deciding she doesn’t want to shouldn’t prevent her from participating in the educational experience of playing a part in a play.



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