Songs for the Struggling Artist


Tricksy Feminists

In college, we made a show called Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage! which I started thinking about after reading Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I was just going to write a quick little review of Fleishman Is in Trouble for Goodreads but then I started thinking of that show and what we were trying to do with it, which was going to need some explaining, and then I started thinking more about the novel, which began to make me mad and voila! – blog post.

I’ll start with this show. I made it during a guest semester I took at a state university. I’d spent three semesters at Sarah Lawrence College and while my education was aces, I was longing for a social life, so I decided to take a break from my progressive elite education and go to some parties (as well as classes, sure) in Virginia for a semester. That transition was a kind of a feminist wake up call. I’d gotten used to a place where feminism was a default position and I was absolutely shocked by the retrograde patriarchy still in place at this state college. I joined a rebel feminist group and we decided to make the show, to give the place a real consciousness raising because whooo boy, did it need one! We put “Live Girls On Stage” in the title because we were worried about preaching to the choir and we hoped we’d bring in a few frat bros by suggesting we were a burlesque show rather than a feminist collective. We thought we were pretty clever. We put paper dolls of Barbie dolls on our posters. We thought that we’d change the world with or little feminist variety show. I’m both very proud and very embarrassed by this venture now. I’m bringing it up because of this little Live Girls trick. Did it work? Of course not. Though we did sell out, which was better than most of my subsequent feminist work. But I’m thinking about it because I feel like there’s something similar at work in Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I read this book because it was advertised to me on the Guilty Feminist podcast. It was billed as an hilarious feminist novel. That’s catnip for me. Of course I was going to read an hilarious feminist novel.

You may, at this point, not be surprised to learn that I found this book to be neither hilarious nor particularly feminist. They Live Girls Onstaged me and I fell for it. I don’t blame the Guilty Feminist podcast. They need advertising dollars as much as anyone and I can imagine how this happened. Someone on the marketing team thought this book was kinda feminist and googled all the places they might be able to place some feminist ads and the job was done. But, oh, oh, did I feel like a frat boy who thought he’d come for burlesque and got a bunch of show tunes and sketches instead. I’m going to give you some spoilers now – or really a spoiler. One might call it the twist of the book. If you want to skip these next seven paragraphs to avoid this reveal, please feel free. I think knowing what’s coming might actually improve the experience of reading it but…it’s up to you.

The book begins with the story of a man who is in the process of divorcing, dating and doctoring. It is a bit how I imagine a Philip Roth or John Updike novel. (I’ve never read either as I am not at all interested.) It’s the story of a wealthy man on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who often feels he is not wealthy enough. He describes himself as a hero of a dad and his ex-wife as a useless soul-less social climber, who disappears on him. It’s all narrated by his female friend, who used to work at a men’s magazine so she’s practiced at getting into the heads of men.

Then, about three quarters of the way through, the narrator of the book runs into the ex-wife and we get a sense of the time-line we just experienced from her perspective. Surprise! She’s not the monster her husband made her out to be! The book finishes with a kind of alliance between the women and a little rant about how bad marriage and middle age can be for women and then the narrator takes a taxi back to her husband, from NYC to the suburbs of NJ.

I THINK this is being marketed as a feminist novel because it tricks us into thinking it’s a man’s story at the top and then TRICKSY! It turns out to be a woman’s. And the guy who seemed like a sort of good guy is kind of a dirtbag. SURPRISE! You’re NOT seeing Live Girls Onstage like you thought! It’s a consciousness raising instead! It’s Tricksy Feminism, trying to convert the unconvertable. If those frat boys only knew what it was really like to be a woman, they might not be such sexist pigs!

If we get men to read a story about a man, they’ll keep reading to learn about a woman’s perspective of the same stuff!  We’ll sneak some women’s issues into that Phillip Roth novel! We’ll raise their consciousness without them even knowing! Tricksy!

But the thing is – none of those issues that the woman face are dealt with in a particularly feminist way. None of them ever rallies together with other women to make a change. They deal with sexual harassment and discrimination. They deal with sexist and dehumanizing medical treatment and generally struggle with some old school Simone de Beauvoir Second Sex shit. But no one seems to know that feminism exists. It’s a weird world without any real social movements. It’s a world where someone experiences overt sexism and no one will name it. Feminism isn’t just women having lady problems. It’s a social movement in which people work together to make our world more equitable. This book had nothing to do with that as far as I could see.

For me, the book was mostly largely about rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan having a lot of privileged problems. Was it compelling? Sure! It’s very well written so you couldn’t ask for better fiction about the ennui of a particular kind of privileged life. If you want to know about the inner lives of women who choose their pilates classes based on maintaining social ties, look no further. You’ve found your book. Even the women in this book, in the middle of realizing all the betrayals of sexism and such, never get beyond themselves to even consider attempting to make a change. They don’t have a feminist awakening. They don’t decide to organize. They don’t start to examine their own privilege – not their racial privilege, their economic privilege, not their abled privilege, none of it. If there’s any feminism in the book at all (and I’m not convinced there is) it is not intersectional.

I keep thinking of the end of the book when the narrator takes a taxi back to her house in New Jersey from NYC. I think it’s supposed to be a romantic gesture? But all I can think of is how expensive that taxi ride would be and yet it’s not even a whisper of a thought for this character.

Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage was a sophomoric feminist show. I was literally a college sophomore when I made it. I’m fairly certain we didn’t change anyone’s mind and only expressed a bunch of things that were hard for us (mostly white) ladies. It was a little tricksy but mostly harmless and possibly a fun night out. I feel like Fleishman Is in Trouble is similar. A little tricksy, mostly harmless and a fun read. The trouble is in the marketing. There were live girls on stage but they really weren’t what I had in mind.

I’m about the same age as the characters in this book so I have a sense of the world they grew up in. I know there was feminism in that world, for example and it’s clear to me that characters that don’t have their feminist awakening until their 40s are characters who ignored or rejected feminism in their youth. If you’re not discovering sexism until your 40s, you’re late. You’ve very late. I mean, get to the party when you get to the party but you are very late.

But one thing I know about the party from our collective college years is that in some places, the party was already in full swing, had already evolved and was searching for ways to grow and the party at the other college was just getting into gear. It was in its sophomore stages and needing a jump start. When my friend and I would walk into our Sociology of Women class at that state college, our teacher would say, “Here come the radicals!” And let me just say, as much as I enjoyed that greeting, I was VERY FAR from being a radical then. (“Couldn’t we do it in a nice way? But I don’t want to upset anyone! I don’t want to take anything away from anyone! I just want a teeny tiny itsy bitsy bit of equality, please. If it’s not too much trouble.”) Anyway – what I’m saying is that it’s all relative. At Sarah Lawrence, I was a pretty run of the mill every day sort of feminist, at the state college, I was a radical. Maybe for the characters in Fleishman Is in Trouble, this sort of naming of women’s issues IS radical. It’s first stage feminism. It’s late to the party feminism but fine, I guess.

Yes. This is the poster. Yes I still have it.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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Paulina Forgot to Cancel the Mariachi

When I started watching the Mexican TV show, House of Flowers, I was immediately struck by this one character’s way of speaking. She spoke so slowly and strangely, I thought maybe the actor was a non-native speaker – which would have been odd for a show about a family. I was so curious about this actor’s voice, I looked her up and discovered that, no, in fact, she is Mexican – though she trained in the US and worked at Steppenwolf, no less.

I had no explanation for this voice but I was still intrigued. Then a few episodes in, I had another question about this show, so I looked it up on Wikipedia and suddenly discovered that this character’s voice was a phenomenon. It had captivated people around the world and even become a social media viral sensation.

I learned that Cecilia Suárez, the actor, brought a version of the voice to the show and the writer/director encouraged her to take it further. It is, apparently, modeled on the speech of some upper crust Mexicans they knew. So it traveled from a highly specific population to social media challenges around the world. (My favorite crossover is the actors from the Cable Girls in Spain doing this voice from Mexico.) Netflix based their advertising campaign for Season 2 of this show on the popularity of the character Paulina’s voice. It’s huge, apparently.

The thing that delights me about this story is that the center of it is an actor’s choice. An actor looked at this character on the page and felt like she had a take on it. She tried a bold choice and her writer/director didn’t just approve it, he asked her to take it further.

Another thing I love about this is that she’s about my age. So this celebration of an acting phenom is not of some fresh faced newcomer but an experienced veteran of the craft. She’s a Gen X phenom, not a kid. It is such a good example of why we train. A novice would never even consider such a thing.

And it’s not just a silly voice. It’s a style grounded in the given circumstances of the piece, in the guts of the character- in such a way that it reveals things about her we wouldn’t otherwise know.

I also love that this celebration of an acting choice is happening in a comedy. Usually, it is only drama that draws admiration from the outside world but this comedy performance is shaking up those norms.

I know there are likely many things I’m missing about it. I’m sure if my Spanish were better, I’d catch details upon details but as it stands, I can catch a lot – just from sound and tempo. To even be able to notice a vocal choice in a language I don’t really speak feels extraordinary.

It just feels like the perfect model for collaboration in the dramatic arts. When we teach acting, we are always talking about choices. When we praise an actor, we praise their choices. When we’re looking for someone with some spirit, we choose someone who makes bold choices. But it is very difficult to find an instance where we see this in practice so vividly. Part of the reason awards tend to go to actors who have crying scenes is that it is the most visible demonstration of someone acting. But there are choices happening all the time that are just not obvious.

Cecilia Suárez’s voice choice is clearly a choice and a choice that was developed and nurtured in a collaborative process. Both actor and director took a risk in going with it. It’s odd! A more skittish director would never have approved it and a less bold actor would never have proposed it. It’s a risk for both of them. But they went forward with it and it seems that everyone loved it. There are memes of this actor now. There are videos and tweets and TikToks and Instagrams. This voice is a hit. And I find myself delighted – not just by the voice itself (though it is a delight) but by the worldwide celebration of an acting choice. It’s something this actor is doing, on purpose. It is something she created. It’s not a famous person she’s imitating or a disability she’s pretending to have. It’s a bonafide acting choice. It has become one of those things that would help me explain what an actor does. So many times, acting seems like it’s just a person being themselves in front of a camera saying other things than what they usually say – but Cecilia Suárez is acting. She made a big choice and now we get to enjoy her acting her face off with that extraordinary voice.

This line has become so famous you can buy fan-designed t-shirts of it.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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They Locked Up the Toothpaste

While she attempted to scrape the anti-theft sticker off my shampoo, the cashier at my pharmacy told me that there’d been a big shampoo heist. She figured they were selling the expensive stuff for double the price out on the street. Got to watch out for that hot shampoo! But I get it – the expensive stuff is very expensive and worth it, unfortunately. I asked her if they’d also had a toothpaste heist because I’d noticed that they’d locked up all the toothpastes. “Oh yeah,” she said, “They hit it hard.”

I can’t stop thinking about this. Because toothpaste is expensive, sure – at least more expensive than it should be – but it’s not so expensive as to have a black-market value. Toothpaste is the kind of expensive you don’t notice at all if you have money; You just throw it in your basket and forget about it. But if you’re struggling, toothpaste is the kind of expensive where you kind of can’t believe it. You think about all the other things you could get for that $6 – like, lunch, for example. If people are stealing toothpaste, the most likely explanation is that they’re poor and they want to keep their teeth clean. It is a sign of people trying to retain some dignity in a difficult situation. A toothpaste heist strikes me as being a sign of a deteriorating economic state.

I’d be curious to know if toothpaste was a kind of economic indicator, like they talk about on the Planet Money podcast – a small thing that reveals a truth about the bigger picture. It feels like an indicator to me. Because I’ve worked with a fair number of economically disadvantaged people and there are some things folks end up scrimping on that you wouldn’t think of if it weren’t your struggle. I had a student who got teased all the time by his fellow middle school students about smelling bad. When his classroom teacher investigated, she discovered that his folks were trying to save money on laundry detergent. Laundry detergent might also be an indicator, come to think of it. But that kid’s teeth were brushed!

Having the toothpaste locked up feels almost apocalyptic, especially now, here at the other side of the first (metaphorical) pandemic earthquake. Like, we got through the last year and now we’re getting vaxxed and things are opening back up – but it’s still so bad for folks that they have to steal toothpaste. They’ve stolen so much toothpaste that the pharmacy has started treating it like expensive shampoo, but even worse than the shampoo because it’s behind glass, not just slapped with an alarm triggering sticker.

I don’t run a retail business, so clearly I don’t know but it seems like – if I ran a place and the people were stealing toothpaste, I might just accept that as the kind of loss that benefits the people of the neighborhood I have my store in and not worry too much about it. But, these folks decided to lock it up. Which strikes me as kind of dumb. I have bought toothpaste at this pharmacy before but now that it’s locked up: rather than go through the trouble of finding someone to get a key and open it for me, I’ll just grab some from one of the many other places nearby that don’t put their toothpaste behind glass. It’s just easier. AND, maybe even more importantly, I feel better about those places and their attitude toward the poor of our neighborhood. I feel the same about the stores that have racist practices like this. There are businesses that lock up their hair products for Black people and not their equally expensive products for white people. I don’t go to those businesses – because they make their racism plain, on their shelves. And this feels like a similar kind of vibe. We don’t really have a word for prejudice or discriminating against poor people – but it might be useful if we did. Maybe it’s just raging capitalist? Corporate tool? Cruel economic essentialist? I don’t know – but whatever the word is, my pharmacy has just revealed itself to be that by locking up the toothpaste. Hey capitalists! Don’t lock up the toothpaste! Honestly, I’d rather pay more for toothpaste to help get some for those who are struggling. It’s for the common good.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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

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Would I Go Back to the 20th Century?

There’s a Reddit question I can’t stop thinking about in which someone wanted to know what life was like in the 20th Century because they were born at the top of the 21st and couldn’t imagine it. They particularly couldn’t imagine life without the internet. They asked those of us who’d been around for the previous century if we would go back to the way things were before.

Would I? Would I give up the internet and my mobile phone? Would I surrender my laptop? Sometimes I think I would. I started writing this outdoors at my local coffee shop. Just as I was finding my groove, the woman nearby got on her phone and started talking about her family life very loudly. I would give that up. I really would. People have always talked to one another in coffee shops – but there’s something about the private phone calls in public spaces that I still find jarring, even though they’ve been around for a couple of decades. Would I give up my phone? My text messages? My personal voice mail? To just have a clearer distinction between public and private space? I might. I really might.

I don’t want to get all Grumpy Old Man here and start droning on about back in my day. But back in my day we didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t have the internet. We had to go to the library to look stuff up and we liked it! We loved it! Nah. I mean. We did go to the library – and we did love the library but being able to just look stuff up with a thing we keep in our pockets is amazing. I remember when I first got a computer that would allow me to dial up and use the internet. My grandmother asked me why I was so thrilled, why I found it so amazing. I remember explaining that it was like having the biggest library in the world in my apartment. I was a little overwhelmed by it, truth be told. What should I look up when I could look up anything?

I think this must have been RIGHT at the turn of the century. I’d just moved to NYC. It was an exciting moment. The future was in the air. But it also wasn’t really the future yet. I was still sending my friends and family letters then. In the mail. Receiving letters was unremarkable but it was also, in retrospect, special.

Sitting down to read a letter was a quiet moment, separate from the hum of life. It was an occasion. There are still letters I remember reading because I remember the rock I was sitting on, the chill in the air or the feel of the paper. No email has ever been as special as even the most banal letter.

When we first got email, it was a thrill. We got email my senior year of college, something I’d been wishing for since First Year. I had a hot email romance with a friend of a friend at another college that eventually taught me a swift and important lesson about chemistry and the massive power of projection over internet communication.

But even so, I was so so excited about email. I didn’t have it after graduation but two years later, I got a Hotmail account. I was on tour at the time and every so often we’d find ourselves in a place that had internet access and the only person I remember emailing was a Canadian improv guy I’d had a little romance with in Edinburgh during the festival. We were very excited to expand our communication beyond postcards and I remember finding a library with computers in some college town that could help me do that. The first few years of digital communication for me were very romantic. Mostly literally.

I find this hilarious now because email has become such an onerous burden. No one finds email romantic. I bought a book called The Tyranny of Email because it so aptly described how I felt about it by then. A few years ago, I turned off all visual and sound notifications for email because I noticed I was having a stress response every time I heard/saw it. (Actually, I turned off the sound when someone ELSE’S email dinged a notification like mine and I had a stress response.) There was a period in which I had to imagine putting on armor before opening my email, so stressed out it made me.

The same sort of journey happened with the phone, actually, now that I think about it. Back when there was nothing but a land line, I’d get excited when the phone rang. We’d race to answer it, sure it was some good news. At the sound of it, I’d think, “Finally! My big break!” Now, when my cell phone rings, I think, “Oh no. Who is that?” And yet there is rarely a mystery; their name is on my screen when I look at it. If it’s a friend or family, I feel relief – but generally, it’s just trepidation I get from my phone. Is this due to the technology? I have no idea. Maybe it’s just me becoming more anxious and cynical in my 40s. But I wonder. And yes, I would give up my smart little phone to be excited to answer a phone again.

That feels like the crux of the changes for me, the journey from cool fun romantic new technology to tool of anxiety and/or oppression. I signed up for Friendster and MySpace because they seemed fun. They were cool new ways to interact with people. I posted my music on MySpace which was a convenient way to share it without having to pay for the cost of CD duplication. Facebook was exciting and fun at first! Look at all these people I lost touch with, now back in my life! It’s like a high school reunion I didn’t have to pay for! It was all so much fun until it really wasn’t anymore. It all goes from fun to compulsion so fast. I remember a fellow theatre maker telling me she couldn’t sign up for Facebook because she didn’t have time for it. Then came a point where she had to join because everyone else was there, if only to promote her work. That’s why I’m still there – even though the days of sending each other digital flowers is long gone.

The thing I miss most about the previous century is just a fuller sense of being present with people. When we were together, we were just together. We were with the people we were with. If we wanted to be in touch with someone who wasn’t there, we had to find a telephone, or send them a letter, or just stop by their house. These days, whenever I sit with someone, I’m sitting with them and the thousand people they’re connected to by the device in their pocket.

I remember sitting on a rock on top of a hill that my friend and I had climbed and she was thinking about getting a cell phone (because it was starting to become necessary for the theatre biz) but she was worried about it. She was concerned about being on call everywhere, about being always available, that her life would be constantly interrupted. I said that was silly – she could always just turn it off if she didn’t want to hear from anyone. But she was right. She got a phone anyway at some point and at some point so did I – but she was right to have been worried about that. Just turning it off is not a solution for most people. Not in this ever connected world.

But we can’t, individually, just not have a phone or not be connected. This is how we live now. If you want to be a part of the community of humanity, this is how we’re doing it. I’m grateful for a lot of the benefits of this new world. I’m able to maintain relationships with people around the globe. I can share my work widely and without gatekeepers. I have developed all sorts of technical skills I never imagined possible. And all this has probably made important progressive social change possible. I wouldn’t want to give that up.

But – if someone came to me with a Time Machine and said I can take you back to the previous century and you can just live there if you want, I might do it. (I mean, I would like to see a lot of other times, too. Can we go traveling first? Also, I’d probably really miss my loved ones, so can I bring them? And…this fictional time machine fantasy may be getting out of hand at this point.) It would take me a long time to readjust to going to the library and writing letters and meeting people in person, but I think I was happier then. It might be worth the loss.

Our internet was out for about a week last year and it was a nightmare, of course. So much of our lives depend on it. When you’re not on it, you feel like you disappear. But that’s because everyone else is on it, and you’re left out. Back when there was no internet (or really, when the internet was only for the privileged few) it was just quieter. Everything was just quieter. You weren’t missing anything. You just did what was in front of you. The world was more local.

So, yes, I do miss it. But I know we can’t go back. We can only go forward. So I suppose I’m looking forward to the next development in technology – the one that will feel romantic and exciting before it becomes compulsive and oppressive. And then maybe, maybe, we’ll get past this sort of adolescent stage with our devices and find a way to really be present with each other again. I hope we can figure out how to be quieter, even with the whole world in our pockets.

This pocket watch is apparently from an Arctic expedition at the beginning of the 20th century.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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

*

Want to help me keep making stuff in this century?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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

Or buy me a coffee on Kofi – ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis



Should I Quit Acting Because of X?
May 23, 2021, 11:53 pm
Filed under: Acting, advice, art, business, movies, musicals, Quitting, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Since joining the acting subreddit, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts with a similar theme. They boil down to, “Will X prevent me from having an acting career?” or maybe more accurately, “I’m X or have X or did X. Should I quit acting?” In this equation, let X be a quality or physical attribute or life history.

I have such complicated feelings about these posts, mostly from young actors looking ahead at a possible professional life in acting. Because on one hand, yes. You should absolutely quit acting and do something else if that’s an option for you. Absolutely you should, if you’re looking for conventional success, run in the opposite direction of an actor’s life. No question.

But on the other hand, the reason to quit is not whatever you’re imagining. You shouldn’t quit because of your science degree or your scars or your background. It won’t be THOSE things that are obstacles to having an acting career. The obstacles to an acting career are everything. Everything is the problem. The problem is not whatever flaw you perceive yourself as having (or whatever some asshole teacher might have said to you.) The problem is that it is a very hard business that almost everyone struggles in, in one way or another. The obstacles to an acting career are being born to non-celebrities or not having access to a generous trust fund. The obstacles are a lopsided system that values money and connections more than talent. The obstacles are a commercially driven capitalistic theatre scene that is not accountable to the public in any way but the question of whether or not they will buy tickets.

One thing I did not understand as a young actor is what an ongoing hustle working in the theatre would be. I imagined that I would get one acting gig and it would lead to another and that would lead to the next and so on until I ended up on Broadway. And once I was on Broadway, that would be it! I would have made it and I would be on Broadway until I died.

I think the moment I fully understood this wasn’t so was when my friend (and acting colleague) closed her show on Broadway, the one featuring several movie stars, and the next day went back to her catering gig. It’s possible there were a few actors in that show who went straight to another acting gig. There may have even been one or two that were slated for another show on Broadway. But for most of them, they closed the show and then went home to hustle up the next job. Possibly even the movie stars had to do this. (Though they surely had a lot more help from their agents and their next job wasn’t food service.)

Any acting career is a cycle of working and not working and an acting career is full of dumb reasons for not getting a gig. Mostly, you will never know. Sure – you could lose a gig because of your hair. But you could also GET a gig because of your hair. You cannot know. And while casting directors or agents may tell you some opinion about your appearance or your background, it’s not actually the casting director or agent who gives you the job. They are gatekeepers. And they are not always right about what the people inside the gates actually want. They might tell you a person with glasses like yours will never be cast but then you meet the director and the glasses spark their imagination and you get a call back because you were that interesting one with the glasses. So much of casting talk is about making people more average, more like the conventional but in my experience of running auditions, I have much more often cast people because they were fully themselves or quirky in a way that captivated my attention. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Sure, there are those who have no imagination and just cast the person like the last person who played Juliet so they’ll fit in the costume from ten years ago. That’s a thing, sure. But the artists out there, the visionary directors and writers, are looking for something more. After a full day of looking at people who all look the same, you, with your X walk in and maybe you change the view.


On the subreddit, it feels important to be optimistic and supportive of these young people’s dreams and just answer the question they asked. Should they quit because of their appearance? No. Absolutely not. They should quit because it’s a heartbreaking business but not because of whatever their imagined obstacle is. Is it possible that their obstacle, their X, will make it even harder? Very possible. But, I know some people with all the advantages. They are Adonis-looking white dudes who have talent to burn and no obvious obstacle, who gave the business their all for decades and are hustling now just like they were at the start. There is no guarantee. Not even for the children of movie stars, who generally have the most legs up of anyone.

Should you quit if you’re not the child of a movie star? If you’re looking for security, then, yes, you should quit.

But will you? That’s the question. If you’re tenacious and determined, no cold water of reality will stop you – and that is what you really need in this business. Not the “right” hairstyle or the “right” body or the “right” background but just some talent and ability to keep showing up and giving it a go. But still – I will only say these things here. In conversation with these young aspirants, I will only give them all the examples of people who had “X” and did it anyway. This is partly because I feel that whatever X represents, it is always something we need more of in theatre. We need more people with X, whatever it is, because they don’t see that represented onstage or onscreen and think they would not be chosen because of that. That’s a sign that we’re failing in representing the diversity of humanity well. So, if that person – with X – can ride the roller coaster of life in the arts, then they should not quit. They should get in here and make things better. Are there possibly fewer opportunities for them? Yeah. Possibly. But there are few opportunities period. Get on in and ride the roller coaster and don’t let X stop you.

Each generation re-makes the business. Your colleagues now can, and will probably, be your colleagues later. If you all have X and you want to get together and make an X movie or an X play, that’s good work! No one with X will worry about X in the future because you kicked open the X door for yourself and made room for those with X behind you. That’s what I want you to do, instead of quitting.

Someone told these actors they should quit because of those Xs. That someone is very silly.

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South Park World, or, Learning to Like the Boy Stuff

In 1997, I was touring the country with a Shakespeare company. There were 8 men and 4 women in our troupe and because of that gender imbalance, it felt a little like living in a fraternity. For a life-long feminist like myself, it was a pretty big challenge. I mostly stayed quiet and kept my feminist killjoy thoughts to myself.

I’m thinking about this today after reading Lindy West’s essay about the South Park guys. She’s a bit younger than I am so South Park was a thing she grew up with and a show that had a particular kind of impact on her generation. I was introduced to South Park while I was on tour with the fellas in 1997. It was a video cassette of a short cartoon that somebody had gotten from somebody and we watched it on the company VCR. It was this underground, almost contraband, video.

I didn’t love it. It felt sort of mean spirited and homophobic and it was a world of boys. But I was living in a world of boys and they watched this video cassette so often, it became an oft quoted part of the culture. By the end of the year, I had a real affection for those potty mouth boys – the ones on South Park and the ones I was working with.

Then that little underground cassette got picked up by a network and become a TV show. I watched it sometimes, in part, because it reminded me of being on tour and it made me feel like an insider and also because I’d sort of come to like it. And I want to talk about my liking it because the liking isn’t uncomplicated. It wasn’t neutral. I think it says something about culture in general.

I was thinking about how a lot of things I like, I like because to like them made me part of the group. In this case, in this company, it was a bunch of fellas and a few women who knew how to hang with a bunch of fellas. They knew how to be cool with the dudes. That is not a skill I had picked up anywhere – being the feminist killjoy that I was – so it was something I had to learn on that tour. Laughing at the same jokes is a big part of it, I discovered. You learn to find things like South Park funny as a way to survive. But what I can’t stop wondering about is what it would have been like if that tour group’s gender numbers were reversed. What if there were 8 women and 4 men? Would the men have learned to laugh at the Kathy and Mo show? Would they have giggled at their dramatization of Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Got their Periods”? Would they have adapted to our jokes the way we adapted to theirs? I don’t know. And the reason I don’t know is that I was never IN the reverse position. I was never in an acting company that was mostly women. I directed a lot of shows that were like that but I’d have to ask my actors how that was. I don’t know.

I did go to a college with a 1:3 ratio in favor of women. I bemoaned it at the time but thinking about the South Park effect, actually makes me very grateful for that imbalance. It makes me curious about the experience of some of the men I know who went there with me. Are there things they like because they adapted to the environment that they wouldn’t have responded to in other circumstance? Like – did they all become big Ani DiFranco fans when their friends at others schools turned up their noses?

The thing of it is – most of culture in the 90s was men’s culture. Most things were for the fellas with a couple of rare exceptions. You could either get on board or be seen as the feminist killjoy. South Park was no exception to that. (Are there any girls on South Park? All I can think of are some moms and a pretty offensive take on Winona Ryder.) I was struck by the way Lindy West described South Park’s aesthetic; It sounded quintessentially Gen X. I hadn’t thought of South Park that way before – but the irreverence and nihilism is classic “whatever” energy. It’s also classic Gen X misogyny and in retrospect, I’m sorry I ever laughed at it. But I learned to laugh at it. Which in a weird way gives me a kind of hope in this world where people still debate if women are funny. It gives me hope because it’s clear people can adapt to the group. The group can change. We can laugh at more expansive things and things that AREN’T cruel. We can learn to laugh with an entirely new group.

I learned from West’s essay that South Park has been on for Twenty Years. TWENTY YEARS of Kenny getting killed. (I assume. I haven’t watched in maybe 18 years so I don’t know how things have changed.) When this show went on the air, we were having a pretty big cultural conversation about how we talked to each other. We were learning that there were kind and unkind ways to talk about one another’s identities. A lot of people hated this conversation and there was a lot of railing against political correctness. South Park showed up in the middle of that conversation and farted.

And now we’re in the middle of the same conversation twenty years later, though we use different words and South Park is still farting the place up.

Like, maybe it was funny in 1997 when we were all very serious about hyphenating our identities or whatever – but once you’ve farted in a serious room once, the joke is of over, guys, Now you’re just stinking up the place while the grown-ups are trying to solve things like violent insurrections at the capital. And speaking of violent insurrections supported by Republicans, it turns out the South Park guys are Republicans. Right now. Or at least as of Lindy’s publication date in 2019. Honestly, I was surprised – not because they said or did anything to suggest otherwise – it’s just that Republicans don’t tend to be funny.

But I guess the thing is – those guys haven’t really been that funny since I saw them on a VCR in 1997 surrounded by a bunch of fellas. So I guess it makes sense. I guess it makes sense.

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And Now I’m Mad About Curious George

I guess this is a series now.

As you may remember, a short while ago, I was real mad about Kiss Me, Kate when I found out it had been written by a woman but not credited to her as a sole author, even though she was the sole author. Then I learned about the authorship of Curious George. Curious freakin’ George, the kid’s book about the curious monkey. You know you read it as a child. It is one of the most popular children’s books in history. Classic! (Also, problematic and possibly racist – sorry!) And now tell me who wrote it. Your answers will vary according to when you read it. If you read it before or when I did then, like me, you will say, H.A. Rey. Were there photos of him on the back flap to suggest he was like the man in the yellow hat from the book? If there weren’t, I made some some up – because I definitely knew that the author of Curious George was a man.

Surprise! It was a couple. You might know this already if you read it after I did, but married couple Hans Augusto Rey, and Margret Rey fled the Nazis, smuggled out their cute book about George and changed the world of children’s publishing. And here is why they left Margret’s name off the book: because they had “too many women” writing children’s books around then. Gah! It’s infuriating. Hey – they just used H.A’s initials. They couldn’t have ALSO made hers initials? H.A. Rey and M. Rey? Come on. It’s so easy. All they had to do was obscure both their names and genders if they were so worried about it. And listen, I know this was a long time ago – like my experience of Kiss Me, Kate, this decision got made decades ago, in a different time and all that – but holy macaroni, Batman. I just found out that one of the iconic stories of my childhood was co-written by a woman. I found out from a silly Facebook post. Shouldn’t they have put out a bulletin at some point? Like maybe when she finally got her name back on the books? That would have been a good time to talk about the entire erasure of an artist/writer. But, by the way, I cannot find evidence of this moment anywhere. In every mention of her getting her name on the books added, it gets framed as if it was some magical thing that just happened “at some point.” Here’s how she described it, “As Margret told it, “When we first came to America, our publisher suggested we use my husband’s name because the children’s book field was so dominated by women. They thought it would sell better. After a time, I thought, ’Why the devil did I do that?’ so since then my name has appeared also.”” (“Since then” – when is then?!?!)

And, also – it’s not over. Just because they added her name whenever it happened to be, that change was not reflected everywhere. It still isn’t. I did a Google image search of Curious George and only a handful of the book covers I saw had the full “new” credit.

It’s not surprising really because Curious George is likely handed from one generation to the next. We remember the one that was read to us and the stories about it from our youth. There’s a nostalgia there – even for the arrangement of the typeface on the cover. I can picture the font and the placement of H.A. Rey’s name on the bottom of the page.

I’m glad they finally fixed this one but for me it’s too late. Margret Rey got erased and bringing her back takes effort. And I guess I need to be mad about it so I can use it as fuel for my fire to remember the accomplishments of our foremothers. Partly what burns me up about it is the way these erasures lead further generations to think women “didn’t do anything” in history. It makes it seem like we’re always starting from the bottom when it turns out women broke that glass ceiling generations ago – that Margret Rey was a best-selling children’s book author, that Bella Spewack was the author of a wildly successful Broadway show. Dawn Powell was a best selling author whose books went out of print and was forgotten for decades, despite being an absolutely glorious writer and even more successful than her peers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway in her lifetime. (She’s not one of these authors who were hidden by a husband like the other two; I just included her because I love her like crazy and she was a bit lost to time, probably BECAUSE she was the sole credit.)

This story has a happier ending than Bella Spewack’s as far as I’m concerned because Margret did, in the end, fight for credit and did manage to assure that her name was on the covers of future generations copies of Curious George. This hopefully means that kids encountering this classic story now grow up knowing that it was written by a woman and illustrated by a man. There is progress. And fight for your credit, ladies. Always fight for your credit. We need you to.

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The Stumbler, or, F**k Around Fridays

Listening to Laraine Newman talking about her pre-SNL days made me think about all the stars that had to align to give her the extraordinary life and career she’s had. The one that popped out for me was this quality in her youth of just messing around – just trying stuff out. She never took aim at something and strapped herself onto a rocket, she just tried stuff out, followed what she liked. Her sister was a folk singer. She followed her into the arts. Her sister did improv which Newman found that she liked so she stumbled into co-founding The Groundlings – a company that is now foundational for American comedy. Lorne Michaels came to see The Groundlings so then she stumbled into Lily Tomlin’s show, then Saturday Night Live Stuff just happened for her. And surely it still might work that way for some people but these days, for most – just stumbling into things is entirely beyond reach. This is because a) the bar is so high b) the competition is so fierce and c) everything is so expensive.

Let’s say you wanted to start a sketch troupe like The Groundlings today. First of all, you’re going to need a place to rehearse. If you’re in New York, a decent sized rehearsal room is going to cost you at least $30 an hour. If you’re not doing exclusively crowded elevator sketches, you’ve got to have some space. Then you’re going to need a place to perform. Sorry, buddy. We lost two comedy venues in this pandemic. You might need to rent a theatre. Well gee whiz. You can get this 23 seat black box for a cool $2500 a week! Hope you have a trust fund! But okay – your uncle left you some insurance money – so you rent the space. How are you going to get people to come to your show? You could make some postcards, hand ‘em out to your friends, make a Facebook event or whatever. Heck, you could even be a real pro and send out a press release. But I’m sorry to tell you – that without a huge group of friends who love to come see sketches or a professional publicist, you might be hard pressed to fill that 23 seat black box you paid $2500 a week for. There are probably 200 sketch groups in the city all competing for an audience. You’ll need some help cutting through the noise. At every step of the way, someone who’s a stumbler will have stumbled away from this experience. The more determination and drive it requires, the more obstacles that get thrown in the way, the less likely it will be that an artistic dabbler will stick around. What I’m saying is that a young Laraine Newman in these times would not start the Groundlings.

I think this is a big problem. Not because I’m a stumbler. I’m not. I have been a rocket-strapped-to-me aspirational theatre maker since the first day I stepped on a stage. I am the kind of dog who will not let go of the stick, for any reason. I rented that $2500 a week theatre. But the way arts get made now means that only the most privileged or most fiercely tenacious people are left and I don’t think that makes for good art. Some of my favorite people to work with are first timers. The product designer who made his first stage set. The software developer playing guitar in a play. The film producer turning to theatre. You don’t get many first timers in an art scene of attrition. You don’t get folks who just want to try stuff out. You don’t get the lightness of possibilities, of experimentation, of exploration. The more money you have to raise, the more pressure gets put on a project. People don’t want to fund your group to just fuck around on Fridays. They want to fund your trip to Edinburgh. They want to fund your development deal to Broadway.

Also, you shouldn’t have to fundraise to fuck around. You should be able to just fuck around somewhere, if you want. Let me tell you, fucking around is better for art than just about anything else but no one will ever pay you to do it. Just messing around in a place where it’s possible to mix it up and do whatever is so good for creative thinking. Someone could just stumble into your space where everyone is just fucking around and make the fucking around even more interesting.

Groups of artists are best when there is a healthy mix of people. If everyone in the group is a super tenacious ambitious striver, the group is going to be terrible. You need variety in a scene. You need someone who fiercely chases the dream, sure – but you also need the person who just stumbled in there. Maybe even a few of those folks would be nice.

It’s harder now – even than it was twenty years ago when I started my theatre company. It was bad then, sure. We had to raise money to rehearse, sure. But I happened to have a big living room then. And rehearsal space wasn’t QUITE as outrageous. But I’ve watched something that was hard, to start with, became nearly impossible. And I’ve watched all the lovely stumblers stumble into more welcoming fields. These days, I end up working a lot with people who ALSO have companies, who ALSO have hung on tightly through the storms. They are lovely and amazing – but we’re really missing the stumblers. I long for a lightness of process, of participants, of just letting a breeze blow through to make a thing. I definitely miss having a living room big enough to rehearse in. But really – one thing I’d love to see when theatre returns, is space for the stumbler.

These girls are ostensibly playing a ring toss game. But I prefer to think of them as just fucking around on a Friday.

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

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A Performance Once a Week

It started when A texted me to tell me about the National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre that was available on the internet for the week. “LOL,” I said, “I’m in the middle of watching it RIGHT NOW.” And we had a fun little text exchange about our favorite moments in the show. We decided to watch the next one “together” via text and before we knew it, we had a tradition of watching some kind of performance once a week. It has been one of the few things I’ve found genuinely sustaining in these Covid times.

We’ve been pretty omnivorous in our viewing and I feel as though I’ve actually had a bit of a survey course in the Performing Arts of the current moment. Or, really, it’s a course in the moment from the moment before this moment because most of these works were recorded in the before times. Sometimes I weep just seeing an audience.  

The survey is, of course, limited by the kind of companies that can afford to have their work well presented on video and then can afford the bandwidth to share them. The survey leans heavily on European dance and theatre partly because of that. And of course on our taste.

A small sampling of our list:

Works by Crystal Pite, Christian Spuck, Akram Kahn, StopGap Dance, Spymonkey, Wooster Group, National Theatre, Told by an Idiot, Nederlands Dans Theater, Le Patin Libre, Monica Bill Barnes, Graeae Theatre

Shows like: Emilia, Akhnaten, Titon et L’aurore, The Plastic Bag Store, Richard II (twice! two different productions), What the Constitution Means to Me, Latin History for Morons, Theatre of Blood, Revisor, Death of a Salesman, Oedipussy, Birth-Day, Giselle, Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival and Reasons to be Cheerful.  

I wanted to write about this because I’m really hoping I can continue this kind of omnivorous performing arts watching once the pandemic is over.

I mean, part of the reason I have not seen these works before is that they are so expensive. I know they’re worth the money when you’re dying to see them. Like, you know you love their work and you’ll spend $100 a ticket to go see them. But you have to usually, if money isn’t abundant, be judicious about what you see and you won’t take risks when tickets are a hundred dollars. In this digital world, with the barrier so low to entry – that is, mostly free with the very occasional ticket price under $15 – I’ll see anything. And at home, I’m not even stuck wasting the evening if something sucks. One night, A and I watched about ten minutes each of a random assortment of dances, puppet shows and plays because none of them were great. You can’t just watch 10 minutes of something in a theatre. Sometimes it’s not just the ticket price you’re out, it’s the whole night. But digital performance allows for big risk taking and big risks sometimes mean big rewards. It’s actually quite remarkable that I have become a fan of so many performers, choreographers and theatre makers this past year that I never even heard of before, in a moment where there are few performances happening.

None of us know what’s going to happen for the performing arts when this is all over but I hope for two things in particular. One – that digital performance will continue to be available. It may seem counter productive; Why would people pay to come to a show when they can watch it at home for free? But, I think there has been quite a bit of evidence that digital performances actually encourage ticket sales for live shows. My own experience is that I would, for sure, pay money to see QUITE a FEW shows I watched on-line, in person. Those are tickets I probably wouldn’t have thought would be worth it before. Now I’d be begging for them to take my money so I could sit in the actual room with those shows. When it’s safe, of course. (And when it is, I’m going to need an NYC presenter to pick up the slack and book Crystal Pite and Kidd Pivot as soon as possible. Please and Thank You.)

The second thing I hope for is that we can somehow lower the ticket prices for EVERYTHING. I would like to continue to see a show a week when this is over but I would like to see these shows in person, and I would like to be as omnivorous as we’ve been able to be on-line. That’s something I want for everyone. An omnivorous audience is an interesting audience. It’s an audience that cross pollinates and makes an exciting impact on artists.

Affordable arts make for accessible arts and this horrible pandemic time has opened my artistic mind to all sorts of work I never had access to before. It is a real gift to be able to go around the world through performance. I am lucky enough to live in a city where much of that sort of work comes to tour but I rarely have gotten to see the kinds of variety that I have seen over the last year. I would like to see these things in person, once a week, for an actually affordable price, please. I know that no venue, presenter or producing organization can afford to cut ticket prices at the moment but I am dreaming of a reshuffling of everything, where theatre, dance, puppetry, opera and beyond are as affordable as the digital world. Or maybe a Netflix for performance, where I pay a monthly fee and get to see whatever I want? Some new way of doing things would be glorious because I have seen extraordinary new works this year and I want to keep doing it. Hopefully performances will come back and A and I can see a show once a week in real life, no text messages required.

This performance was not on-line but if it were I would watch it.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

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Arts “Coming Back Strong”

Hey artists of New York! Have you had a rough year? Did the pandemic kick your ass all the way down the road? Well – have no fear, the city of New York tweeted out that the Arts Are Coming Back Strong so whatever you’re feeling about things, forget about it because the city of New York thinks we’re doing great!

This tweet also linked to an article about a Broadway vaccine center run by a stage manager so…I guess we’re supposed to think that having a theatre-specific vaccine center is supposed to mean the Arts are doing great? They’re not. The Arts are coming back limping, maimed, much diminished, ill and incredibly demoralized. To say The Arts are coming back strong is to say a thing we might wish were true but is not, by any stretch of the imagination. In order for the Arts to come back strong now, someone would have needed to have done something in the past. We would have needed a bit more support than a few ad hoc emergency fund grants.

We would have needed a full-on Arts Relief Package. We would have needed to cancel the rent of theatres and rehearsal spaces. We would have needed to cancel the rent of individual artists – or found funds to cover it.

You can’t do NOTHING for the artists of New York and then proclaim that the Arts Are Coming Back Strong. That’s a lie. The Arts are coming back, of course, but we’ll come back from the wars, having lost scores of our brethren and sistren – if not to illness, then to more hospitable locations or graduate programs in other fields.

Those of us who are still here are strong, sure – but it is a fantasy to declare the field as a whole to be strong. It is in the worst shape it has ever been in any of our lifetimes. But sure…we can go get our vaccines at a theatre-specific site. That’s nice, I guess. And it’s in Times Square? How nostalgic. Hardly any theatre folk live there – and since Broadway shut down over a year ago, there’s no reason for folks to put up with going there – unless they’re in subsidized housing of some kind. But thanks so much. I hope the six people who still live there get extra doses for their friends.

Meanwhile – what exactly do you think the arts are doing that indicates we’re coming back strong? A few brave souls are making shows for the out of doors. There are a few who are diving in to this Open Spaces program that is basically the only nod this city has made toward its formerly economically beneficial industry. Come on, guys. You can’t gaslight us into believing everything is great. I know it seems like you could Positive Think your way into a new vibrant art scene but even though theatre folk, for example, are some of the most positive thinking people around, you can’t fool us that hard.

I know there are some theatre folk who will protest, “No, no, I am coming back strong! The city’s right! Look at me, I made some zoom shows and a piece at a drive in!” And I mean no disrespect to those people who feel like theatre never went away – but also – look around you. Take stock. Who have we lost? Which spaces have closed or will close by the time we can safely open theatres again? Where can you no longer rent a rehearsal studio? I appreciate that technology has made International collaborations happen and that people’s “Let’s put on a show” enthusiasm continues –  even when there is no barn to put the show on in and neither is it safe to gather in the barn.
That’s all survival. That’s all folks stepping into the small cracks of possibility and making something anyway. I applaud you. And it’s not an example of coming back strong.

It feels like, here we are, trooping back from the wars, bleeding, our limbs in slings if we still have them, our friends left behind in the trenches and the city looks at us and says, ”You’re coming back strong!”

Go fuck yourself. We’re coming back, sure. We all saw Les Misérables, we know how to keep moving forward even after we’ve lost. I believe it involves barricades, flag waving and inspirational songs. But to say we’re coming back strong, after you did nothing to help us, is just enraging. We are coming back. We’re coming back tougher and angrier and hungrier and hopefully kinder and wiser. And I hope, we’re also coming back honest. The least the City of New York could do is to be honest as well.

Let’s start by acknowledging our losses, not trying to pretend everything is going great. It isn’t. It is still a disaster. We are strong and we are coming back but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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