Songs for the Struggling Artist


Another Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

Previously, I wrote about a show that inspired me to make a list of stories I never want to see onstage again. I have now seen another show and discovered another story I have had my definitive fill of. Can we please call a moratorium on the fallen woman plot?

You get a pass if your name is Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and you were writing social commentary about this shit in the 1800s but if you are a writer in 2017, do us all a favor and leave this tired old horse alone.

I mean, I know a lot of you loved this Great Comet situation. And I agree that the design was very cool and there’s some accomplished performances in it. I give it a lot of points for its hodge-podge red curtain, fishnet, Russian tchotcke from any old period, aesthetic. But goddamn it, please, my dear writers and creators, please never ever again make me watch a story about a girl who wants to kill herself because she felt desire one time. I mean – sure, I get it, 19th Century source material and all that but can someone please explain to me why a story that hinges on the purity of some ingénue is worth adapting in 2017? (Actually, don’t. I don’t want to hear it.) If you like the old dusty classics (and I do, too! Lots!) you’d better give us something besides the old patterns of the patriarchy to grapple with. And making this story cool doesn’t do it. By making it cool, you’re reinforcing that shit. You’re saying, “Isn’t the patriarchy cool? Look how fun the patriarchy can be! It’s like 19th century patriarchy dressed up with twentieth century fishnets. This story is Dusty and Sexy!”

Now, all over goddamn America, little theatre girls are going to be singing about how they should take poison because they fell in love with the wrong guy for a minute. All over America, little theatre boys will be singing about how ennobling loving a fallen woman can be. This goddamn story. I can’t.

Updating the classics is dodgy business, y’all, because the classics are full of stuff that tells women that our only value is our beauty and if we sell beauty to the wrong bidder, we are lost forever. If you update the classics and you don’t update the gender politics, you are essentially putting a 21st century stamp of approval on 19th century ideas.

If you’re simply staging the classics maybe you can get away with telling these stories. I would happily watch a production of Sense and Sensibility onstage. But I’d need some Regency costumes and some damn harpsichords or something to make that okay. If you set Sense and Sensibility in a disco, with your own contemporary dialogue, I’m gonna be skipping that shit. And I love me some Jane Austen but I’m pretty sure that if Jane Austen were alive today, she would not write this kind of story. She was a social satirist. She showed us what was ticking away under the Regency veneer. I think she would show us something true and cutting about ourselves now if she were still kicking. If Tolstoy were alive, I don’t think he’d be writing this marriage plot shit either. Given that he was essentially writing about rich Russians who owned people, I’m gonna guess he’d have a lot to say about the current moment. I don’t think he’d be wasting his time with more fallen women.

I mean, we don’t know, obviously, what our old writers would do. But romanticizing these old stories is doing women in 2017 no favors. I don’t want to see one more woman punished for having desire. Not one more time. I’m hungry for stories about woman’s desire, about embracing it, about celebrating it. (See also the awesomeness of Indecent. Or a stage production of I Love Dick? Could we have that? Can Jill Soloway start a theatre wing of Topple?) I declare a personal moratorium on any story that celebrates a dude for transcending a sullied woman. I henceforth will avoid any and all shows that hinge on the purity of some beautiful girl. Fuck purity. Fuck congratulating men for being able to get over the “obstacle” of an “impure” woman. I am done with this story for now and forever.

Again, unless your name is Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Then, I’m good. Do what you got to do.

 

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Generation X: Stuck in the Middle With You

While visiting a small town, I found myself at a local restaurant, where a band was playing their Saturday night gig. The band’s leader sang about being a kid in 1992 which helped me place him as a member of the Millennial generation. The audience was mostly represented by the Baby Boomer Generation, with a handful of the band’s Millennial friends in the mix. When the band played a cover of a hit song from the Baby Boomer’s youth, they filled the room with exuberant dance. And the Millennial men in the audience turned red from containing their laughter.

There was an atmosphere of these two generations trying to communicate with one another and find some kind of balance between them. There were pleading songs of a young man to an older one. A white haired man came up onstage while the band played to adjust their levels. These two generations were simultaneously at odds and in cahoots. And, as far as I know, I was the lone representative of my generation, Generation X. In fact, I realized then that I had spent my entire week in this small town as the lone Gen X representative. Where was the rest of Gen X in this town? Were they all home with their kids or had the town been vacated by Gen X years ago? If this party was for Boomers and Millennials, where was the Gen X party? And nationwide, maybe even worldwide, where IS the Gen X party? Where is Gen X hanging out? And why wasn’t I invited?

Until this moment in the restaurant/bar, I had not given my generation much thought. In fact, like 59% of Gen X, I didn’t really identify with the category at the time. But that has changed in recent years, ever since I started to read articles like “Why Generation X Are Just the Coolest“, “Generation X: America’s Neglected Middle Child”and excerpts of a book called X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking and I found myself suddenly feeling an incredible kinship with my Generation. I’d read these things and think, “Yeah! I AM like that! Yes we WILL save the world! Why DO people underestimate us?!”

Like the atmosphere in the small town bar, the big generational stories in the press tend to be about the more populous generations – the Boomers and the Millennials. The thrust of the Gen X narrative boils down to “What about us?” The underlying soundtrack to every Gen X article is the Simple Minds’ song from The Breakfast Club soundtrack “Don’t You Forget About Me.”

Simultaneously, the comments on all of these stories tended to boil down to decrying making generational distinctions as bullshit. Gen X-ers would appear to call bullshit the most. But Gen X calling bullshit may be the epitome of Gen X-ness. (Contradiction? Yes. But wrestling with contradictions is apparently also a Gen X trait.) Generations (generally) are probably bullshit. But they are somehow meaningful bullshit.

When we were kids, magazines used to write about us too. We were pretty fascinating when we were the subjects of teen movies and post college romances. The older generations worried about us and the lyrics of our music. (What was this new rap music all about? You call it hip hop? What is this stuff? Grunge? What is wrong with these kids today?) We were worried over, got called slackers and malcontents. Time magazine’s cover story in 1990 wondered if we were “Laid back, Late Blooming or Just Lost?”

But decades later, as a generation, the press don’t much talk about us anymore. We have to talk about ourselves.  And while we may not have embraced the label of Gen X at the time (it was 1991 before we had a label, coined by a guy who was born in ’61 and therefore not even Gen X by most measurements) but in this moment it is a convenience. Would we be more recognized if some of our other names had stuck? What if we were still called The Baby Busters? Or The Latchkey Generation? Or the Video Generation? Gen X is pretty neutral as nicknames go and accepting our Gen X identity seems to make us our more visible.

But we are technically middle aged now. Perhaps middle-aged people are always invisible? Maybe the Silent Generation turned forty and thought, “Hey what about us?”

The other sticky bit is that “middle-aged” is generally used as a pejorative. Say “middle-aged” and I picture a paunchy guy in clashing plaids sitting on a couch. It strikes me that maybe we don’t really know what 40 and 50 looks like. I saw a comment about the amazing Michaela Watkins (Gen X) in Casual. The comment said something like, “This character is turning 40? She looks like she’s 60!” And I realized how few 40 year old women this person has probably seen. The commenter had no sense of what 40 might look like, or, for that matter, what 60 might look like. Some Gen X-ers look like the generation behind us and some look like the generation ahead. I was recently mistaken for a college student. At the gig that kicked off this whole Gen X exploration, I got carded. A couple of years ago, I was asked for my hall pass at a high school. Meanwhile, Michaela Watkins who is 2 years older than me somehow looks like she’s twenty years older? We stand in this very odd middle space.

I now feel about Gen X the way David Rackoff discusses being Canadian in that This American Life story – you know the one – where whenever someone mentions a famous Canadian, a Canadian feels compelled to chime in to say, “You know they’re Canadian.” I feel like I do that for Gen X now. Tina Fey? She’s Gen X. Amy Poehler? Gen X. Ava Duvernay? Gen X. Tupac Shakur? Gen X. Melissa McCarthy? Gen X. Samantha Bee? Gen X. Jennifer Lopez? Gen X. Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace and the Brat Pack are maybe more closely identified with Gen X but Gen X is everywhere. Ever since I started researching Gen X, I have found myself compulsively looking up people’s birthdays to check their Gen X status.

I may have resisted the blanket identification before but as I watch my generation ignored, treated like the “middle child” and generally dismissed – I feel a responsibility, particularly as a woman (at an age when women start to become invisible) to be vocal and highly visible and to be unapologetically Gen X.

End of Part 1
Coming in future installments: Gen X lenses on sexism, technology, conformity, group-think, music and more.

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Why Giving Up Art Is Not an Option

The actors stood up and I started crying. The house lights went down to start the show and moments later I was moved. It took a moment to shake me out of my familiar world.

But it wasn’t just the moment, of course. There was a world of history behind the moment. It was the skill and finesse of a lifetime of theatrical practice that knew how to bring that world into a moment. It took extraordinary expertise and sensitivity to make something so simple so powerful. It took mastery.

After giving me such a powerful moment right out of the gate, I thought, “There might be nothing else as good as this in the rest of this show but if this is all it has to offer, it would be enough.” But it was definitely NOT all it had to offer. I saw a play that exquisitely resurrected the past while shining light on our present. It made me weep so often I wished I’d brought a box of tissues with me. And I almost never cry in the theatre. All around me, I heard the quiet sound of other people taken over by their emotions.

When it was over, the audience did not leap to its feet. On Broadway, a standing ovation is practically a reflex. But this Broadway audience was too moved to leap to its feet. Many of us were too moved to move at all. An usher had to ask us to vacate our seats. A transformative art experience is not always met with cheers.

In fact, if you’ve really struck an audience to the soul, they will likely not be able to hoot and holler. A transformative art experience is usually so personal to an audience that they may not be keen to talk about it, they may not tell all their friends, they may just want to keep it to themselves. A transformative art experience may not draw a crowd, it may not generate a profit for its producers, it may not make a big noise. It may shine briefly in the firmament before winking into memory. But it will continue to do its transformative work for a long time after it has faded. The magic of Indecent is that it both shows us that story of continuation and is likely to be that story as well.

The marketing department for the show seems to be trying to boost sales to this show by talking about why #ArtMatters and while this is perfectly in line with what I took from the show, a hashtag feels like such a diminishment of what is actually at stake. This is not a hashtag sort of experience. It’s not an instagram moment. It’s not suited for 140 characters.

But certainly art matters. And this show helps remind us how much it can matter. And aside from all the mattering it does, it also made me want to keep working at being a better artist. Indecent helped me see how a lifetime in the theatre could refine and invigorate the form. There are so many moments in my theatre life that make me want to give up, that make me question whether I’ve dedicated my life to the wrong art. Over the years, I’ve seen so much crap, so much compromise, so much ego, so much selling out, so much shady dealing, so much sexism, so much racism, so much shouting, so much soullessness. There have been so many times that I’ve wondered why I continue to let theatre break my heart. Because theatre breaks my heart pretty much every time I put on another show and each time I do, I ask myself again, “Why do I do this? Why do I put myself through this agony? Why do I think I love theatre when it clearly doesn’t love me?” And then I saw this show and I remembered why.

If I write plays that no one but me wants to produce with any regularity, if I direct plays that I can’t convince many people to see, if I devise work that only touches a handful of people, that doesn’t make me a failure, that makes me an artist on a journey. The experience of seeing this show reminded me of a truth that I find I have to return to again and again, that worth is not equivalent to popularity.

This show moved me not because it is on Broadway, but because it is the collaboration of artists working at the height of their powers. It shows me that I could make the best work of my life over twenty years from now. That even though I have often felt that my prime has passed (I have, to my regret, internalized that only young women are valuable) my prime is much more likely to be in the future. I learned, from my seat in the balcony, that a lifetime in the theatre could distill an artist into the clearest, most concise expression of theatricality. I see that time, rather than just battering me and graying my hair, might distill this cluster of longings and ideas and furies and hopes into something transformative – not just for me but for an audience.

In a world wherein I often feel that I’ve seen all the tricks, that I’ve had all the glitter fall from my eyes to reveal the familiar old men behind all the curtains, this show gave me hope and surprise.

It reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Protest and Persist: Why Giving Up Hope Is Not an Option” which explores how change really happens. In it, Solnit unpacks how an initial movement for change may fail in its immediate goals – but that the change achieved by future generations is built directly on the work of our predecessors. It is the same in art. The God of Vengeance (which Indecent invokes) was on Broadway for a blink in time but that blink was a pebble in a pond that echoed to create something new and potent in a time when we needed it.

I don’t know if Indecent will get a long run (I hope so though I worry about those empty seats behind me on a Friday) but even if it closes tomorrow, it will have dropped a mighty art pebble into the art pond and the ripples will be rippling for years after the artists are gone.

This show gave me the long view at a time it feels like we are in an ever-alarming, ever-panicked present moment. And it showed me that though we very well might be forgotten when we are gone (or even forgotten while we are here) someone somewhere in the future, might resurrect us for their transformative art. We keep creating in the darkest hours. We make because we must, because something captivates us, even if it breaks our hearts.

Photo of Indecent by Carol Rosegg 

 

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Health Care and the Struggling Artist

American Health Care Horror Stories are all so abstract until it happens to you. Every time I heard about another failure of American health care, I was horrified anew – but because I was healthy, it was like reading about an atrocity on another continent – terrible but distant. I spent most of my 20s and 30s so healthy that I went without health insurance for the better part of both of those decades and got away with it. A couple of ankle turns and an X-ray or two and I got away with spending a whole mess of a lot less than I would have if I’d been paying for health insurance. Like, a LOT. When you’re a struggling artist, gambles like this make sense for a while. (If you’re lucky.)

But, luckily, the ACA happened before I got unlucky and it was finally possible for me to afford insurance. Through the NY Health Exchange in the last few years, I have been insured through three different insurance companies as well as the expanded Medicaid program. I am a direct beneficiary of Obamacare. And I am grateful. And, for the first time in my life, I really need the insurance as I started dealing with my first real health crisis. What’s funny about having insurance after not having it for so long is how shockingly unjust it can be. When you are without, you think – ah, well, if I had insurance, it would be better. Ah ha ha ha!! Not so fast!

I have been stunned to see how little of my healthcare has been paid for. When I learned that the one medicine that halts my migraines was denied by my health insurance company as “not medically necessary,” I was shocked. And I was shocked again to learn that if I bought it myself, it would cost me $600. For NINE doses. The drug company offers coupons for it but because my insurance is tied to Medicaid, I am not eligible. In other words, because I don’t make much money, I am not eligible to save money and my access to a truly beneficial medicine was denied. At every stage of this process, I was surprised anew at the madness. But my situation is not unique. So many Americans face obstacles of this kind (and usually much much much worse) that these stories are the norm. We become immune to each others’ health woes because they are so normal.

The ACA isn’t great. But it’s better than the nothing I had before. And with health insurance companies in the mix. I don’t know how it could ever be better. Obviously, Universal Health Care is the much better option but it is not yet an option in these baffling United States. My state keeps passing a Single Payer bill in the State Assembly but every year it gets rejected by the more conservative Senate. Fingers crossed for this year. (Call your Senator, New Yorkers!)

Being sick in America is incredibly expensive. The majority of bankruptcies are health care related. It’s ridiculous of course. But denying coverage for 23 to 24 million people is not the answer. Returning to the Wild West with denials for pre-existing conditions, like being a woman, for example, is not the way. My most recent insurance company was terrible. But it was better than having no insurance at all. If I were un-insured I could not have even seen the doctor who gave me the samples of the medicine that works. My insurance meant I only had to pay $330 for the hour with my doctor instead of $550. It’s still terrible. But not AS terrible with insurance. And luckily, I was already in the process of switching insurance companies when this craziness with my medicine went down and not only did my new insurance company approve my prescription on the first day of my coverage, my amazing pharmacist brought the medicine to me because we live in the same neighborhood. There are extraordinary heroes in this very flawed system.

As for those who would deny coverage to those who are suffering, I found myself fantasizing about giving them that Virtual Reality migraine simulation headset, of which my friend sent me a video. It appears to give a replication of the visual migraine experience (minus the pain.) In the video, you see people quickly requesting the removal of the headset. But in my fantasy, when the health care deniers ask to take it off, I refuse, because it is not strictly medically necessary. In real life, I know I would cave pretty quickly but in my fantasy, I get them to sign approvals for all migraine relief meds for everyone before I let them take that thing off.

 

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Rejections of May, like sweet flowers, Bloom
May 31, 2017, 12:36 am
Filed under: Rejections | Tags: , , , ,

The nice thing about NOT applying to places like the Millay Colony (which is reported to be a place of artistic magic and wonder) is that you can imagine how great it might be if you ever got it together to apply. That’s how it used to be for me.

However, I have now applied so many times, I could buy a couple of weeks worth of groceries with my application fees.

Luckily, my patrons at Patreon make that outlay of cash worth the price of rejection as I now get paid more to get rejected than I pay to apply. Is it discouraging to be so often rejected? Absolutely. Every time.

But on the bright side, if I’d gotten accepted, I’d not be writing this post now. I’d be suiting up to go write at a residency, where I can promise you, I would not be blogging until I returned because I’d be head first into my creative writing. It’s May. It’s Millay Rejection Month.

*Wondering why I’m telling you about all these rejections? Read my initial post about this here and my patron’s idea about that here.

 

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



No One’s Asking for Your Art

Probably, there is no one who can’t wait to read your next play. Probably, no one is itching to read your novel. No one is clamoring for your new album or begging for your next dance piece. Probably you have some loved ones who are very supportive and tell you how excited they are to read your latest writing but 9 out of 10 people really don’t care and even the most supportive person you have on your side won’t see or read EVERYTHING. Your friends might feel obligated to go see your show or listen to your album but they probably won’t come every single time or listen more than a few times. Probably when you tell them about your latest creative venture, they’ll tell you they’re excited about it but they probably won’t come. (Life happens. To everyone. Everyone can’t see everything.) I’m not saying your people are not glad that you make art but the odds are they’re not clamoring for your latest thing. Especially if you make a lot of things.

This is why you have to untie yourself from your potential audience. If you have the instinct to create, you have to do it for yourself first because no one wants whatever you have in mind more than you.

I think this is true even if you’re a popular artist who people want to hear from. Let’s look at J.K. Rowling. Her fans wanted Harry Potter, now and forever. No one wanted her to write a book about a small-time English Village council election. No one was asking for that. But she wrote it anyway. If Rowling was completely tied to what people wanted from her, she’d have been writing only Harry Potter for the rest of her life. But no, not only did she write a novel about an election, she also went and wrote a whole crime series under a pseudonym. I bet you no one was asking for her to do that when she started.

If you’re not J.K. Rowling, your audience might not want anything at all from you. The most likely response you will get to your art is indifference. And you cannot let this stop you. Just because no one particularly wants you to do it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

If you’re called to create, you have to do it. For you. No one else. Or maybe one other person. It could even be an imaginary person. I have one dedicated fan of the podcast. I record it for him. And even he doesn’t listen to every single one. A more logical person might leave such an enterprise aside. But I don’t make a podcast for logical reasons – I make it for artistic ones. My reasons understand that not every artistic expression is for every one. And that as long as I feel inclined to create, that’s how long I should do it.

No one wants it. But if you DON’T express that unique sparkling thing in your soul, it will fester. Or at the very least, wink out of existence.

If you need people to want your work, you might just want to go ahead and work in advertising. You can go be “a creative” in marketing or some form of industry. They’re going to want your words, your ideas, your drawings, etc. They’ll give you assignments, structures and feedback. They’ll ask you for all you have. They will read everything you write for them. They will listen to all you record. They will look at all that you draw. And you will get payment, one way or another.

But if you feel called to be an artist, you’ll need to be prepared to go where no one is calling to you, where there is no encouragement but your own creative spark. The practice of a life in the arts is learning how to nurture your own spark, how to stoke your own creative fire and encourage it to blaze so it becomes harder and harder to ignore. Learn how to be your own match, your own oxygen, your own kindling, your own log and you have a practice for life.

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Single Gender on a Train

On the Politically Reactive podcast, the guest, Michael Skolnik, described being on the train coming home from the Women’s March in DC. He said he’d never been on a train “where there’s such a disproportionate amount of one gender.” And I said, out loud, in response, “I’m sure that’s not true.” That is, I’m sure he’s been on the train with a single gender before, it just wasn’t women and so he didn’t notice.

Why do I feel so sure he’s been on a train or in public somewhere with only men? Because most public space is male space. Because I have been the only woman on a train more times than I can even begin to count. Any woman who spends time in public has had this experience – and when it happens to us – we get very alert, very quickly. Being the only woman on a train full of men is normal – especially after a game or late at night and most of us will do a fairly quick complex assessment of the danger levels of being in a car full of men. We know we’re surrounded in just the same way Skolnik felt very attuned to being surrounded by women. The thing is – that happens very rarely. And there are a lot of good (and by good, I mean legitimate and clear, not good) reasons for that.

First, it’s historical. There have been any number of diatribes against women ever showing their faces in public. In some places, if you were “public women” you were prostitutes. That is, any woman in public is suspect.

As soon as women start gathering, the wheels of patriarchy start really grinding. It’s how we get witch trials and hysteria epidemics and such. Oppressive movements almost always rely on the idea of women staying out of the public eye, being at home, where she “belongs.” From Rousseau to Phyllis Schlafly, the retiring, natural home-maker is encouraged to remain by the hearth, to never gather with other women in public places, to never venture forth without her husband or father. Soraya Chemaly’s talk on space illuminates the sense that the world is designed by and for men, even women’s restrooms.

And there is another factor, there’s the safety factor – that women in public face harassment, or worse, when they venture forth. Danielle Muscato recently asked women what they’d do if men had a 9 o’clock curfew and the answers revealed how unsafe many women feel in public and how much the world would change if men were safely home in bed by 9. It’s an interesting thought experiment.

For myself, my life wouldn’t change too dramatically if men had a curfew. A lot of the things woman said they’d do I do already. But – I live in a city and cities have always provided a safer haven for women, especially in public. (see Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies) I notice, when I travel, that I am a lot more unusual as a woman traveling on my own. In smaller cities and towns, when I go to coffee shops, I often find myself the only woman. That almost never happens in New York. I wonder if one of the major divides between urban and rural is actually how much space women can occupy in public. I wonder if some of the hatred of Hillary Clinton was related to folks coming from places where women are more rarely seen in public. For me, I feel a very stark contrast when I travel from cities, where I am completely inconspicuous as a woman in public, to places where I am suddenly required to have a heightened sense of my femininity. There are endless public spaces that are de facto male only.

So, yes, it is powerful to see only a single gender on a train – but it is a very different experience for a man to be on a train car full of women than it would be for a woman to be on a train in a car full of men. Part of the power of things like the Women’s March is that it brings women into public space and it makes it possible for the world to be re-imagined as a place where women really can do anything, like ride on a train without any fear at all.

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist




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