Songs for the Struggling Artist


In Which I Attempt to Reflect on the 20th Anniversary of the Things
September 12, 2021, 8:28 pm
Filed under: American, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

Y’all know me. I love to reflect. Reflecting on stuff is my favorite thing and I do it on the regular. But I’m having some trouble reflecting on this 20th anniversary of 9-11. I want to. It seems important to, especially as this is also the 20th anniversary of the birth of my theatre company, but –  like, my brain just sort of dances around it and will not settle.

I’m much more interested in the three young women next to me at this outdoor patio of this café. They were recently college students so they are unlikely to have any real memory of 9-11. Today is more or less meaningless to them. That’s how long it’s been. It’s been long enough for these young women to grow up.

I want to send out an email to my company mailing list and celebrate two decades of making theatre in New York. That seems like a thing people do on a theatre birthday. But I don’t know what to say.

I was 28 on 9/11/01 and I knew that the world had changed forever and I knew there was no time to waste. We were all vulnerable. Our lives could be cut short at any moment by anything – just out of the clear blue sky. Literally. With my one wild and precious life, I knew I had to make theatre. No question. What to do when destruction rains down? Create. It’s the only answer as far as I was concerned. It still is.

I read a post on Humans of New York today about the woman who ended up curating the 9-11 Tribute Museum. She says that in talking to people who went through it, near and far, that over the years everyone leaned in to focus on their children and grandchildren. Their pain began to take a back seat to enjoying their descendants.

I don’t have any descendants. But I do have a theatre. It was born 20 years ago, with three mothers. Then the other mothers had actual children so care of this theatre “child” has largely been mine. And now it’s twenty somehow. I guess kids are like that.

These young women next to me are not concerned about what day this is. They’re happily debating over an on-line menu, planning what they’ll have when they go to dinner later. They are all very excited about the steak fries. They are likely not triggered by the blue of the sky today or the sound of the planes over head. Their primary relationship to this date is the older people around them memorializing and marking the day. It’s history for them. I envy them that distance from the event itself. But I’m also sorry that they’ve never known the time before.

It was a terrible day but it lit a fire under me. And those first few years after it were the most creatively fulfilling of all. That year – even before 9-11 – was a potent one for me. The timeline is all blurry but it looks like the release date for my band’s album was September 10th, 2001. I mean. Come on.

I have no memory of our album release. I know we played some shows and that we made some postcards. But I don’t remember thinking that 9-11 had a particular impact on the band. But it must have. It MUST have. Or maybe my starting a theatre company tanked our musical ambitions. I don’t think that’s it though.

I was also in a production of Twelfth Night at the time and we missed a rehearsal or two and worried over our Andrew Aguecheek who worked downtown, but thankfully had managed to just miss his own tragedy but not the survivor’s guilt. We talked about canceling the show, which was due to open later that month, but the majority of people involved felt that the show going on was the best thing we could do under the circumstances.

I mean, thinking about it now – National tragedy aside – I was in the middle of a very artistically fruitful moment in September of 2001. I was a lead in a Shakespeare play. My band’s album, featuring songs I’d written came out on September 10th and on September 11th, we decided to start a theatre company and put on my play. How do I have a month like that again? (Again, without the death and destruction please.)

In the last two decades, I have learned about myself that when things get hard, I get determined and I make art happen. I don’t necessarily write things but I do start producing. It happened in 2020, too, when I pushed The Dragoning off the back burner and right up to the front of the line.

But suddenly it all sounds so rosy and it absolutely was not. I was horrified by the hate that bubbled up and cried through so many workshops and planning meetings for the arts education I was doing. I was frightened for my Muslim students. I remember being really afraid I wouldn’t be able to get through teaching an Anne Frank workshop without crying because I was so worried we, as a nation, were about to get Nazi-like with this “patriot” act. Now, I wish I’d done a lot more than cry and also, the Nazis really were coming. We had no idea.

I get stuck here in thinking about this because, emotionally speaking, for me, 2001 was not nearly as bad as election night 2016 or the last year and a half. It was far more dangerous for me to walk to the grocery store in the spring of 2020 than anything I experienced in September of 2001. Every two days, we lose a 9-11’s worth of people. Right now. The loss is relentless these days as we lose friends, theatres, dance companies, bands, restaurants and hope.

I started writing this on the 11th and now it’s the 12th of September, 2021. September 12th, 2001 was actually one of the most hopeful days to live in NYC. The kindness was palpable. New Yorkers are really beautifully generous in crisis and that was a big crisis so everyone pulled out their best selves and as much as I wish we could have missed 9-11, I’m so grateful I was here for 9-12 and 9-13 and at least a week after.

This isn’t true for everyone, of course and it’s also possible that the twenty years between then and now has dimmed the bad memories and amplified the hopeful ones. I was safe across the water in Brooklyn, after all, on the phone with my friend in California, starting a theatre company.

One of the trickiest things about this anniversary for me is that it’s not the just that the bad thing happened 20 years ago – it’s the way it points out that that defining event was 20 years ago. It is such a loud fixed point in all of our lives. And twenty is such a round number.

I don’t think I can write that official 2oth birthday email for my company. This year, I can’t extract my own responses to twenty years having passed, to the events of twenty years ago, to all that’s happened since.

I think, instead, come spring, I’ll mark the 20th anniversary of our first show that came to fruition after this complicated birthday. Or I’ll celebrate our 21st birthday and invoke Dionysus and Bacchus in honor of the legal drinking age this theatre will have reached.

Reflecting may not, in fact, be so necessary on this occasion but I hope, one day this pandemic will be actually over and we can have the equivalent of the week after the events.

Probably we should all just go enjoy some steak fries like those young women and leave the reflecting alone.

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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The Time Machine of Music

Music can be a time machine. Play Duran Duran’s “Rio” and I am instantly transported to a carpeted spot in front of the Barbie doll mansion I’d created in my closet in the mid 80s. Put on Primus’ “Nature Boy” and I’m in a cargo van in 1997 with several Shakespeare dudes who are wildly flinging themselves around, while the Shakespeare dude driver nods his head in time. I did not like this song at the time but now I do, not just because I’m angrier these days, but because of how quickly it can return me to the past.

Music can evoke a time and place more directly and precisely than just about anything. (Smell can be a direct line to the past. It’s maybe more immediate but, it’s also often less specific about time.) Music is an incredibly powerful tool – which is why I’m entirely flabbergasted at a trend I’m noticing on television. Why would you use music from a different era than the one you’re trying to evoke?

The otherwise delightful Pursuit of Love mini-series used 80s and 90s tunes throughout, despite the fact that this show takes place in the 30s and 40s. I enjoyed hearing that Joan Armatrading song after so many years but I couldn’t tell you what happened in the show during it as I was pulled into the late 80s for its duration. (It’s from 1977 but it was much later that I discovered it.)

Then there’s the show that got me all fired up about this. 45 Revoluciones or 45 rpm. It’s a Spanish show (surprise!) about a pop music business in 1962. I enjoy a lot of things about it, like the way the woman music producer and her assistant deal with some overt sexism from her tech crew or the way it models a male boss fighting for his female “mano derecho.” But…the music is a disaster. The pop star’s hit song, the one we hear over and over again, is not a song from 1962, nor is it a contemporary song written to sound like it’s from 1962. It is, instead a song from 2012 that went to number one in 24 countries. It is a hit song from 7 years before this show was aired and 50 years after the show is meant to take place. Where exactly do they want to take us in that music time machine?

I hate this song choice so hard. I think they’re trying to say “This artist is so ahead of his time he sings songs from the future!” Or they’re trying to connect contemporary music listeners with this period drama? Or they’re trying to evoke some kind of blend of time periods? I don’t know. But the story of the show is a singer who nobody’s seen the likes of before playing fresh new music that blows everyone’s minds. Then to represent him, the creators choose some of the most middle of the road music from the last couple of decades. “Let her go” may have gone number one around the world (Number 3 in Spain) but it is a song so banal that I only recognized it from hearing it in the grocery store on occasion and found it entirely unremarkable. No disrespect to lovers of this song but it does not represent a stunning innovation in pop music.

Similarly, Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” which also makes an appearance on this fictional Spanish rock star’s album from 1962 is not a pop revolution in any way. Lady Gaga is glorious but she’s not out here busting up pop norms. She IS pop norms, albeit with wild costume and style innovations.

As I continued to watch 45 rpm, it got even more ridiculous with its music, careening wildly through time, moving from “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to “Shiny Happy People.” I shouted at the screen more than once.

I’ve learned that this show had the lowest viewer ratings EVER on that channel – and I don’t know if the music was what tanked it but I feel pretty confident it didn’t help.

Here’s the thing. All of that music featured in the show must have been VERY EXPENSIVE. With the money they spent to clear several worldwide hit songs, they could have hired multiple songwriters and composers who could have written them songs that evoked the period and ALSO felt a little modern. They could have had a soundtrack of new and exciting music that might have been a hit and might have drawn people to their show. Look at “That Thing You Do” which is a movie about a hit song from a similar period. The title song that Adam Schlesinger wrote for it became a hit and was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. Hit movie. Hit song. Could have been you, 45 Revoluciones!

Or alternatively, they could have used actual music from 1962. They name checked Los Pekenikes – which is such a great band name, I had to look them up and listen to them and apparently, a band called Los Brincos was an inspiration for the story. They’re really fun to listen to! Is there some belief that the youth won’t respond to old music? I’d like to direct you to the soundtrack of Stand By Me (which I played relentlessly as a teen) which came out in the mid 80s and was filled with mostly old 50s tunes. Because of that film, the title song (from 1961) made another journey to the top ten in 1986. All that music placed that film firmly in its period and it was a giant hit. It’s happened before that contemporary youth get super into music of the past.

But maybe the youth of today are different from the youth of yesteryear and somehow can only tolerate banal contemporary pop? Somehow I don’t think so. I do think they’re being fed an unusually dull music diet, though. There is a flattening of sound, of genre, of time that has been happening over the last 20 years and it can’t be good for us. As Jaron Lanier has pointed out, there hasn’t been an innovation in pop music since Hip Hop and Grunge  – several decades ago. Can you distinguish the sound of something from the first decade of this century from this last decade? I sure can’t. It has a timelessness in its consistency and conformity. This is weird, folks. Can you imagine not being able to distinguish music from the 70s from music of the 60s? Or the 40s from the 50s? There’s a little crossover, sure, but you can make a kind of generalization about pop sound decade by decade until you get to this century. I suspect that one of the reasons this weird time bleed is happening on TV has to do with that strange sameiness of music: Who cares when music is from, when you have no way to tell any of it apart?

I start to wonder if this is connected to the conglomeration of the music business. There are currently really only three music companies. Warner, Sony and Universal own pretty much everything. Things like the Grammys are company celebrations of those three corporations. With a distinct lack of diversity in the business end, is it any wonder the music has had all its edges smoothed over? (The same thing is happening in publishing, btw. There are three major players who just eat up the little guys.) I suspect all this leads to an ahistorical music business which bleeds into an ahistorical film and TV business and now we have TV shows where the music time machine takes us to all the wrong places. You set it for 1962 and half of you ends up in 2012. That is a problematic time machine.

And it may extend beyond just the music in the shows. 45 Revoluciones, which, I’ll remind you, is set in 1962, made casual references to both The Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the dialogue. Now – I was not yet born in 1962 but even I know that neither of these bands was a worldwide sensation yet in 1962. You know how long it took me to confirm that fact? Less than a minute. I didn’t even have to go to the library. The Rolling Stones hadn’t even heard of the Rolling Stones until July of 1962 so there’s just no way a Spanish rocker would be excited to open for a band that did not yet even have a single recorded. (This sort of error, btw, is a great example of why it’s important to have age diversity on a team. I cannot believe NO ONE on this show flagged this highly irritating detail.)

I think being cavalier about music’s role in time is a huge mistake. It’s a mistake for broken time machine purposes in that you might take your audience to a different place than you were aiming and it’s also a huge mistake in making it harder for all the other elements in a scene to establish the era. The costumes can’t do all the work. Neither can the props or the production design.

If you want to pull the audience in two directions time-wise, okay, but if you choose only really popular songs, then your audience will inevitably have prior associations with that music. The odds that something bad has happened while listening to that song for any of the millions of people who have heard it many times before are very strong. Just…you know – triggering someone’s memories of their assault is one reason why you might not want to use super popular songs in your TV show. Hire a composer! The average song on Spotify has 8 listens. Maybe use one of those?

I don’t mean to pick on 45 rpm – everyone is doing this dumb music flattening – but there’s something particularly ironic about a show that has the word revolution in its title that shows us music neither historical nor revolutionary. The show takes place in a moment in Spain where pop music was creating some interesting cracks in the regime of the fascist dictator. The show gives us glimpses of what the collision of rock n roll and Franco’s Spain was like. It shows us the big dilemma of being obliged to sell out to a dictator and how people resisted, either directly or covertly. (Ironically, this show has literally sold out to an entirely different sort of regime by virtue of the flagrant Coca Cola product placement.)  The regime creates real problems in the lives of artists and record execs alike. Apparently, instrumental music, as well as music in French and English, escaped the censors in those early years or rock n roll just because the regime didn’t take any of it seriously. I’ve been listening to the actual music from that era in Spain and sure, it doesn’t sound revolutionary now, because we’ve had 50+ years with things that sound like it.

But since no one’s invented a new genre in decades, since we can’t experience a current music revolution, why can’t we take a trip in a musical time machine and discover, at least, what a revolution sounded like in the past? When The Rite of Spring was first performed, it was so new, so revolutionary, people rioted. We’ve lived in a world with that music in it for over a century, so it’s not a revolution for us, but if you make a show set in the early 20th century about modernism and you don’t use The Rite of Spring, you better play us something that sounds like a modern riot. Maybe you’ll even find us our modern Stravinsky. But why not take us on a trip in your music time machine? It’s a mellifluous way to travel.

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I reference a lot of music in this post so I made a playlist of it so if you’re curious to hear any of it, it’s here.

Concert à la vapeur by J. J. Granville
It’s not technically a time machine but wouldn’t it be cool if it was?

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 make more time machines?

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

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Every Word I Wrote
August 29, 2021, 6:32 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, writing | Tags: , , ,

After the death of an old friend, I went on an excavation of old writings in my computer. I went back 24 years to find a poem I’d written about this friend and waded through so much writing I hadn’t thought about in decades. The thing that stood out to me about this process and encountering the self that made it all was how much I used to believe that what I made would eventually be read or seen. I didn’t necessarily think all those poems would be published – certainly I didn’t feel that poetry was my best medium – but I did think, oh, one day I’ll have a partner who’ll want to read everything I ever wrote or some writerly soul friend who’ll comb through my entire oeuvre and help me bring things to light. I used to imagine that everyone would want to hear every detail of my trip abroad, as well. People used to give slideshows of their journeys overseas!

Now I can’t imagine burdening anyone with all of that. There is no one who wants to read every word I ever wrote. It’s too much reading!

I think I used to think that my true friends would be the ones who listened to every song, read every poem or play or essay or novel I might write. But I have several very dear friends who have never done most those things. Most of my closest friends don’t listen to my podcasts or read this blog. Twenty-four years ago, I would have taken that very personally. Now I know that everyone is very busy and I am very prolific and no one has time for all that.

I used to imagine that theatre companies were sitting around wishing for the perfect play to fall in their laps so they could produce something new and undiscovered. Now I know too much about how the sausage is made to imagine that such a thing could happen. I’d have a better shot of having my work performed somewhere if I were a reality TV star than if I had all the best playwriting credentials. (I also do not have all the best playwriting credentials.) Almost all places that take submissions for plays do whatever they can to limit the numbers of plays that come to them. Folks in powerful positions in the American theatre for the most part do their very best to avoid having to read new plays by undiscovered writers. Everywhere that counts would 100% prefer to NOT have to read my plays than read them. In the old days, I thought someone would read something I’d written, say, “I LOVE this! Where can I read more?” This has never happened. In fact – the numbers of times someone has asked me to send them a play they could read and then after I sent it, never mentioned it again, far out numbers any other count. Do they hate it and just not want to say anything? Possibly. But I think it’s more likely they just never read it. Because even people whose job it is to read plays for a living don’t have time for all that.

I wonder if this sense of perspective is a sign of artistic maturity. I shudder to think about all the things I shared with people, expecting something, hopeful for some words of confirmation of my genius or whatever. But I also know that that young artist made a lot of things with the passionate belief that she was making gold and that belief really kept her going. I know no one needs me to make the things I make and only a handful of people want to see/read/listen to/experience a handful of the things I create. It’s not nearly so hopeful and gimlet-eyed as my younger self’s experience but it’s also a lot less raw. I’m a lot harder to devastate than I used to be. I am so accustomed to indifference; I can walk forward in the face of it and it will not stop me. I don’t take it personally any more. People are busy. Most will never read, experience or listen to my work. Doesn’t stop me. Won’t stop me. Just ever forward like a shark.

I suspect that mature artists mostly don’t thrust their work in the arms of those who do not want it. We’ve all seen the looks of terror on someone’s face when we ask if they’ll read a play or our novel or screenplay or whatever it is. I’m sure I have made that same face. There is no terror like the terror of having to give someone feedback on a terrible piece of writing. But – if you want to get into a writer’s good graces, you could ask to read something and then actually read it and then say, “I LOVED this! Can I read something else?”

Actual image of me keeping going. Ever forward.

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 make things people want to read?

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



A Body of Work

One thing I’ve always been mildly obsessed with has been creating a body of work. It’s an odd thing for a theatre person – given that the art form is so deeply enmeshed in the present and is mostly ephemeral – but I’ve been concerned with it for as long as I can remember.

I think I only started to understand how unusual it was in recent years, while looking at other theatre company’s websites. They will often only feature their current show – with no information or photos or descriptions of shows past. This is usually what I’m interested in seeing so I notice its absence – but I think I may be alone in this interest in a theatre’s (or artist’s) history.

On my company’s website, I feature every show we’ve ever done. It feels like having a bookshelf of our works, somehow. But the website’s analytics tell me that people don’t tend to click around in there. As important as that body of work is to me – it’s not particularly important to the general public.

But I’m starting to understand why I do this and why I’m not going to stop. I listened to an episode of the Decoder Ring podcast about visual artist Ilona Granet. I kind of hated this episode and kind of loved it all at the same time. It’s about success and lack thereof. I was particularly struck by the part where Granet is talking about her moment of fame, when her work was recognized internationally and shown in places like the MOMA and the Whitney.

“If this would have ended earlier, I would have been happy with my life. I would have been happy where I would have been proud of what I’d done. I would have enjoyed I would have thought I did a, you know, a good enough job, you know, and I should count my lucky stars that I was fortunate. And now I don’t feel that way.”

Ilona Granet on Decoder Ring

And even though I’ve never even come close to achieving the kind of success Granet tasted, I completely understand what she’s talking about.

There have been several moments in my career that I was so proud of, so in my experience, so satisfied, I thought, “I could die now. This accomplishment is the top.” If it had ended there, I would have been satisfied. BUT I am supremely grateful it did not end at any of those points. I, like Granet, have a lot more to do.

I think about Jonathan Larson, who famously died before Rent could become the worldwide hit it became. He must have felt like he’d really achieved something after watching that first Off-Broadway preview performance and could be at peace. But imagine if he’d lived. Would he have created a dozen more hit musicals or would he have felt like he was always starting from the ground up? Or, even more cynically – would Rent have been the hit that it was if Larson hadn’t died and there hadn’t been the sad story full of irony to go alongside it? We’d like to think of shows succeeding off their own merit but I happen to know that that is not the world we live in.

But what does any of this have to do with this Body of Work business? Well, I think working toward having a body of work is how we keep going in this world where we’re only as successful as our current project.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how theatre folk are always starting over, always starting from square one. It is not like a normal profession where you start somewhere and work your way up and that experience leads to your next and you stay in one job for a while, unless you find a better one and it all just sort of builds on itself. I’ll give you an example. When I got my first acting job with a Shakespeare company, I thought I was set for life, even though it was only a six month contract. But I was very much surprised when I did not get another contract. And though I did return to that company a year later, not one of the people I worked with there ever got me another job somewhere else. We were collegial and some of them are very dear friends but that first job was one first job followed by another first job and then another and then another. None of those jobs ever led to another. Not one of them. 

In theatre, or any gigging field probably, each time you start, you start anew. Your skills may grow and occasionally your relationships will follow you but it is almost always a new world, each time you do a show. There are a few people who manage to join rep companies and thereby have more consistent careers but most of us hop around like little migrant birds.

Starting over again over and over again can really do a number on your self esteem. And Granet’s experience sounds like a painful example of a similar relentless re-start. Her street signs were enormously successful. She went on to make Wedgewood-like pieces. They sound amazing – but apparently no one was interested in them and all the fame and success and credibility she’d gotten with her street signs just sort of dissipated. If a person were concerned only with the current project, it might be hard to go on. And this is where working toward a body of work really comes in to help – because a body of work doesn’t care about one project’s “failure” or “success.” It’s concerned with your work as a whole. It’s the long view of an arts career and for whatever reason, the long view has kept me going, even from the beginning.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen so many art shows that were retrospectives, that give the viewer a long view of an artist’s life. Maybe I’m always doing the curator’s job of showing the whole picture on the regular – but Granet’s career reminds me of my own concern with a body of work and creating a body of work can become its own reward in a culture of few rewards. Having a body of work I’m proud of is actually even more meaningful than a moment that I might have been happy to end on in the past.

This is a Body of my m***erf***ing work, alright?!

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 grow my Body of Work?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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



Making “Something”
August 15, 2021, 10:38 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, Imagination | Tags: , , , , , ,

In response to my post about the $5k arts grant, several sweet well-meaning people offered some suggestions for stuff I could do to take advantage of it. There were project suggestions and ideas for ways to game the system. But the parts I can’t stop thinking about are the suggestions that featured “making something” because that “something” is exactly the thing that’s at issue. The art happens in the “something.” That’s the place where the idea happens. Deciding what the “something” will be is the hard part. If you have a good something – a lot of things can start to fall into place. But finding a good “something” is not easy.

Generally, I don’t have much trouble coming up with ideas. Ideas have, historically, come pretty cheap for me. I foster the environment for them to turn up and they do, often in numbers too big to execute. But an idea is not a “something.” An idea is not necessarily a thing I can make. I had an idea about a Butoh barista once but that little nugget had nowhere to go. It wasn’t anywhere close to a something. Let’s say this little nugget of an idea were to grow up into a play. Then I could imagine the places it needed to develop and it becomes a show in my imagination. That’s still not really a something. It could be somebody’s something but if I don’t have an idea about how to produce it, it’s just a full idea in my computer. I have bushels of those. They only become something I can make when either the conditions are possible OR I feel so fired about it, I’ll find a way to make it even without the right conditions. It is a long journey from an idea to SOMETHING and that journey is often a whole lot of work. But because it’s the kind of work no one sees it seems like the something just emerged fully formed out of my head, like Athena being born to Zeus. But you get a something the way you birth an actual baby – with a lot of pushing and crying.

I don’t know if maybe artists have somehow made what we do look too easy? Is this why people think we can make things by just wishing for them? Most art takes a ton of work. You want a swank artistic mural on your public square’s wall? That’s awesome. But settle in because it’s going to take a while. It’s not just the time it’s going to take to paint it. In a way, that’s the easy part. Your muralist is going to have to come look at the site, measure the wall, get a sense of the environment it’s in and maybe then, they can start playing with some ideas. They’ll have to draw the idea they settle on, figure out how it will work in the space and THEN get the approval of the person who commissioned it. That’s a lot of work before the visible work of standing in front of a wall with a paintbrush happens. Most of the public will think of the something as that time with the paintbrush but most artists think of that part as the easier bit. It’s the performance that people see, not the months of prep and rehearsal. The something appears to be the show but, in fact, it’s the whole process, even from that first nugget of an idea.

When you make something, context matters. You make a different mural on a door than you would on the walls of the National Palace. If you’re putting on a show, you put on a different something on a Broadway stage than you would on a street corner.

It’s not that I have no ideas. If someone said, “Hey – I’ll give you a Broadway stage and a Broadway budget,” – I’ve got six shows ready to go. What I don’t have in my back pocket are the ideas for no budget, no fuss, quickie street performances. I have had those ideas but I’m fresh out at the moment.

But let’s say you make stuff out of popsicle sticks. Maybe it’s not so hard to just make something because all you do is just sit down with your single material and see what happens. But even for a singular popsicle stick artist, with a grant like this, you’re going to have to make up a context for it. Figure out where to have your popsicle stick show or figure out how to involve an audience. You’ll need a whole something that isn’t just the making of your something.

Is there something I could make for this grant? Actually. Turns out there is. I applied for it a week ago. But do you know how that something came to me? Three weeks in a quiet place with access to a swimming pool. That’s how it came to me. My brain needed that kind of quiet and pleasurable movement before it could put any water in my well of inspiration. So this story had a happy ending but only because I happen to be lucky enough to be gifted such time and space. I don’t like the chances of the rest of New York’s artists to get the same sort of opportunities. Not everyone gets the chance to replenish depleted creativity wells and see a something emerge.

I feel like the thing to hold on to here is that somethings come out of resources. If someone said, here’s $5000, go make something; that would be a whole different world of inspiration. I would have $5000 to make something and something would emerge. If a Broadway producer gave me a theatre and a Broadway size budget, I would make a Broadway sized something. As it happens, I had a different sort of resource that allowed me to come up with something for $5000 but I needed those resources first. That’s why all arts funding is backwards. They ask us to tell us what we’d make with next to nothing when really, if we had the resources, we wouldn’t need to invent anything. The well would be full and ideas and somethings would pour out of it.

Oh look – Something hasn’t magically appeared on this page! How odd.

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

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A Night at the Wet Opera
August 8, 2021, 1:23 pm
Filed under: art, community | Tags: , , , , , ,

All day, it had been threatening to rain but we decided to risk it and go to the park to see the opera performance. Neither of us had seen a show in person since the shut down so it felt like a big event.

We showed our vaccine passports at the vaccine entrance of the Bryant Park lawn and were directed to the folding chairs and tables we could take and place anywhere in the area. There was a cordoned off section way at the back for the socially distanced chairs set up for the non-vaccinated. (This event, btw, was the first time I got to show my vaccine passport. I was so excited.) We found a table and settled in. Almost immediately, we were reminded of what New York audiences for free stuff are like. (Very annoying – there’s always some intense rule enforcer who’ll enforce rules that don’t even exist.) Several people asked if we were using our table and were miffed when we said yes, despite the fact that were many freely available scattered around the edges of the lawn. There was a family in a line in front of us who seemed to be playing musical chairs and they were taking non-stop selfies with one another. And then it started to rain. Only a little bit at first. The selfie family started trading umbrellas around instead of just chairs. And almost no one left the park. The show was about to start after all!

It rained. The show started. If the response to its starting was muted, it’s only because everyone had umbrellas in their hands. By the time Carmen finished her aria, the audience had figured out how to cheer in the absence of clapping and there was some very cathartic cheering.

Because, of course, we weren’t just cheering for Carmen; We were also cheering for ourselves, this audience that would not be pushed around by some rain. A lot of rain by this point, btw. We are sitting in the rain in a park watching a fair to middling opera performance and I was weeping my face off. To hear a performer singing after so long, just cracked me open. A lot of it was not very good but I honestly did not care at all. I was so grateful for their cheeseball narration and hokey costumes, for their two person choruses attempting to stand in for the usual giant choruses.

Next to us, the young women in their sun dresses who’d been sharing some crackers and cheese at the start, huddled together under a clear plastic tarp. They eventually just dispensed with their tarp and let the rain pummel them while the toreador sang his song. They happily drank their hard seltzers, soaking wet.

The older man in a sweatshirt, his cane leaning against his leg, let the rain soak through his hood for a while but he finally surrendered and left his single chair.

Then the thunder started and so, before the toreador could conclude his number, the Artistic Director appeared ruefully onstage, clearly there to end the performance, and so the toreador made his own impromptu conclusion with a flourish.

The singers took their bows. The audience cheered and then flooded out of the park. Almost literally. The puddles were ankle deep.

On the subway steps before us, the little boy was joking with his family about his remarkable experience at Wet Opera.

Wet Opera was really quite beautiful. I was so moved by this crowd that would not move. We were told we were at the first opera performance in NYC since covid and it felt like that really meant something to this crowd. This crowd did not strike me as a particularly opera opera crowd. They didn’t seem to be particular fans of any of the singers or have a relationship with this company. They just felt like it was important to sit in a park together and see a show. Rain or no rain.

During one of the arias, a few tables away from us, someone popped a champagne cork. They all started giggling from the embarrassment of having made a big noise in the middle of a show and the giggles were contagious. We’re all so unused to being together like this – a simple thing like a cork pop just reminded us we’re all here together. We’re all hearing this music. We’re all feeling this rain. We see the rivulets streaming on the backdrop. We definitely all heard that cork and the giggles around us. Whatever happens, we’re all feeling it together.

Even the thunder, which sends us home.

In the moments before the Wet Opera began and became really wet.

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

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The Arts Save the Children

We had a hopeful politician come to our door, campaigning, and so we asked her about what she’d do for the arts. She said she understood the value of the arts, that they kept kids out of trouble, the way sports had for her as a kid so she supports them. It’s a sweet story, really.

I enjoyed that story and I like this politician a lot but I hate this reasoning. First, supporting arts programs for kids is not supporting the Arts. It’s great and I spent many years in those trenches but Arts Education is not the entirely of The Arts. This is a common conflation, though – and artists do it as much as anyone, usually when they’re trying to raise money for an arts program.

The other part of it I hate is the way it sets up art as just a method of keeping kids busy. It’s like an after-school job or a club or something. This framing also tends to travel hand in hand with setting art up as a savior for troubled children. I’m particularly sensitive to this one because I used to believe it. I used to be in classrooms trying to SAVE THE CHILDREN with Shakespeare or music or whatever. In some cases, the people who sent me into these classrooms also wanted me to SAVE THE CHILDREN with my theatrical magic.

Nope. Nope. Nope.

I’m not saying it’s not possible for a child to discover an art and find their way to a new future that might be seen as saving them. That sort of thing DOES happen. I have seen it happen myself. But it does not happen often. And it can’t be planned for.

But it’s also not unique to the Arts. Anything could save a wayward child. It could be sports. It could be cooking. It could be knitting. It could be watching Wheel of Fortune. Basically, anything that lights a person up and gets them going can “save” a person. The arts are perhaps more likely than Wheel of Fortune to engage a child but it’s all really up to chance.

Why should we support the arts if not to save wayward children? What are they good for besides keeping kids out of trouble?

The arts are good for our souls, okay? Maybe we’re not supposed to use words like that when it comes to finding funds and government support – but that is fundamentally what is at stake. When the going gets tough, people turn to the arts. During this last year of trauma and lockdown – when so much became inaccessible – many people turned to music, turned to stories in multiple formats. It’s not a hug from your mom but it’ll do you good.

A culture is judged by its arts and a culture that doesn’t support its artists is going to lose them. They’ll emigrate or cease to be artists or their wells will dry up and the faucet that pours out stories and meaning might not deliver like it needs to at some point.

What do we need to say to our politicians so they understand? How do we help them see artists as more than an after-school program? For years, our arts leaders have been attempting to make the economic argument about how much the arts contribute to the economy and if, after this year of artistic devastation and all the economic devastation that surrounds that, they still don’t get it, I don’t know that they ever will. I think we have to just talk about the source. That arts are good for our culture, our souls and our social identity. The politician who came to our door was elected while the more Arts forward candidate lost – so now the task becomes how to help her do more than just say she supports the arts. Now we have to help her learn how to actually support them.

The Arts can do a lot but I don’t think they’ll save these boys from those bees!

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The Intersection of Capitalism and Patriarchy Is a Killer
July 25, 2021, 9:40 pm
Filed under: art, Gen X, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , , , ,

TW: Suicide

You know how certain roads just seem to be extra dangerous? At some intersections, you see heaps of flowers and other tributes to people who were lost there. Governments attempt to put up traffic lights or stop signs but some of those intersections are just relentlessly dangerous.

The places where patriarchy meets capitalism are like that, metaphorically speaking and they seem particularly dangerous for Gen X men.

The day I watched the memorial service for my Gen X actor friend, I also saw an obituary for a Gen X visual artist. Both of these tributes paid homage to the generosity of their artistry, the dedication to their crafts and both seemed to suggest that these men just never really figured out a way to effectively make decent money.

To say I relate to this problem is an understatement. I also have never cared much for material things and also have never really solved the problem of capital. And yet I have not even been tempted to throw myself into a river as those men did. I’m not saying this is why both of those Gen X men ended up this way. We can’t know that. In at least one case, severe mental illness was also a factor but I was struck by this commonality between us all and was reminded of the year when I devised a show about money. In having conversations with my peers about money and all the baggage that came with it, I learned that a lot of the men felt an intense pressure to provide, even as they were following their dreams. There was a different quality to their ambitions to make money. Their manhood depended on making a substantial amount of it. They had a little patriarchal demon on their shoulders at all times demanding that they provide. Or maybe there were two demons – one a patriarch and the other a capitalist and they just goaded one another along, degrading a man’s self-worth until he ended up at that treacherous intersection.

The thing is, even though I have a similar relationship to money and success as these guys, I feel fairly certain that no one would mention it in my obituary or in a eulogy. As a woman, it’s not that big a deal, I think. If I’d managed it, the world might be impressed but not managing it is weirdly expected. (That may be one of the reasons it’s not working so well for me.) That men have to suffer so profoundly if they don’t somehow make capitalism work for them is the intersection with patriarchy. Patriarchy defines manhood and success and it uses capitalism to keep its men in line.

The visual artist we lost sounded like a kind man. He drew hearts in chalk all over the city. There are testaments to how his drawings gave people hope in a dark time. This is a beautiful thing to do. He ought to have been rewarded, honored for his service, given a grant to continue it. But no ones gives grants for stuff like that. A grants committee would have laughed such a project out of the room.

But he couldn’t figure out the unsolvable problem of how to capitalize on a work of service and perhaps saw no way to go on. A project like that is not a commodity. It’s not for sale. It shouldn’t be. And an artist shouldn’t have to starve while he creates things that are truly for the greater good. The thing is, I’ve known quite a few artists who died at the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism. Some leaned into capitalism and some ran from it – but the result was the same. It’s heartbreaking every time.

I don’t know whether this is a peculiarly Gen X problem or if we ought to start keeping an eye on Millennial men now just in case. Maybe it’s just part of middle age? It feels like our generational antipathy to selling out and/or working for the man, as well as our propensity for questioning authority might make this intersection especially dangerous for our generation – but I can’t know for sure.

But I do know that smashing the patriarchy would do a lot of men as much good as it would women. When I fight for the end of patriarchy, I really am fighting for men, too. For some of them, it is a life or death situation.

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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I’m Going to Have to Ask You to Not Silver Lining This
July 21, 2021, 12:16 am
Filed under: American, pandemic | Tags: , , ,

During my first post-vaccine trip away, I heard a few people talking about their positive experiences of the pandemic. One said, joyously, “There’s really a silver lining to all this!” I think she was talking about having time in her garden or space to be with her family but I can’t remember because my brain melted down in that moment. I don’t mean to imply that someone couldn’t have positive experiences of the pandemic or experience things as a silver lining. I don’t even mean to suggest that one can’t talk about the positive aspects one might have enjoyed.

But it might be important to keep in mind that everyone has had every different pandemics and there are a lot of people for whom there was no silver lining or there is no silver lining and there is unlikely to be a silver lining before this is over over over. 

As things start opening back up and people start to touch back in with one another, it might be worth being a little careful when talking about the great times you’ve had this last year and a half.

I’m super glad that not everyone was traumatized by the traumatizing event we all just went through. I’m glad folks had gardens and space to stretch out in. I’m glad people enjoyed Zoom cocktail hours and on-line exercise classes. I’m glad that for some folks this whole thing was mostly just a little inconvenient and not that big a deal.

But that’s not the case for a lot of people. For people who got sick or lost someone to COVID, for people who lost their jobs or their field or their hope, for people confined to small spaces or in unsafe conditions, a silver lining is just not in the cards, particularly when they’re still dealing with the repercussions of the storm clouds. This thing sucked for me. And it sucked much more for a whole lot of other people. The silver lining is that we survived. I honestly don’t want to hear about any other silver linings. I don’t want to hear the positive spins and I categorically do not want to be asked to make a positive spin.

No one here in NYC is really doing that. I think, as a city, we’ve still got after-images of those morgue trucks parked outside our hospitals burned into our neurons so we’re just not inclined to try and put a positive spin on anything. With the possible exception of the city administration. They’re trying to do that hard. But for the people who live here? It feels like everyone just assumes that we’ve been through hell and we’re not really going to talk about it for a while.

But elsewhere, where maybe the realities of this pandemic weren’t quite as up close and personal, there’s a classic American attempt at turning of that frown upside down happening. And smiling is a good idea! For sure! But I beg of you, please, unless you know for a fact someone had a really easy time of it this last year or so, don’t go looking for the silver lining. There may not really be one for the person you’re talking to.

Most people who have a yacht have at least a cursory awareness that not everyone has access to a yacht and so the nicest ones don’t tend to go on about it. The clueless, of course, will not shut up about the yacht’s amenities but the nice ones will not bother non-yacht people with their yacht stories. Think about your silver lining like a yacht. If you find another person you know for a fact has a yacht, please enjoy all the yacht talk you want – but if you’re talking with a non-yacht owner, maybe talk about the weather instead. And maybe just start with the assumption that the person you’re talking to does not own a yacht.

Look at all these silver linings! Right over my yacht!

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

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“Trying to Help Women is Exhausting”
July 15, 2021, 12:24 am
Filed under: feminism, TV | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Look – I know I’m the kind of person that the guys who make Mythic Quest like to piss off. They’re out here making things, hoping they’ll do something to make me angry. I don’t know if they’ve ever said this out loud but it feels like their ethos is, “If I’m not making feminists mad, I’m not doing my job.” I know the type. I can tell when I’m being baited. So good job, dudes. You did it. Bait taken.

I started watching Mythic Quest after I read several heartfelt reviews of it and I realized that my complimentary subscription to Apple TV was about to expire. I figured I’d see what all the fuss was about, having been assured that one needn’t be a hard core gamer to enjoy it. Season One was a delight. The quarantine episode was touching. The stand alone episode about an entirely different game than the one the series about was innovative and like a short story in the middle of a wacky TV novel. They got me to like these people in Season 1 and then they started throwing punches.

There were some little digs at first and then the big punch was when the lead woman was asked to give a speech at a Women in Gaming conference. She did not want to do it but the men she worked for insisted and so she shows up in fancy hair and make-up (dictated by her male boss) and gives a mess of a speech about how she’s such a mess and not a good boss and always fucks up and the audience gives her a standing ovation. Then the joke of the episode is revealed – this speech that appears to have been her impromptu experience of falling apart on stage (“Oh, I can’t see the teleprompter. Ooops I farted.” Etc) was entirely scripted by her boss. He’s written her whole experience. Her success is really his. It’s pitched as her success because she manipulated him into writing it – but really – it’s clear, the writer is so good, he knew her so well and knows what women want so much, he would be an even better woman than a woman is. When I watched this episode, Season One had given me such good will, I decided that these guys made this choice because of the joke. It makes for a big pay-off comedy-wise to reveal that the boss is the author of the speech. It is funny. So, while what it implies is that women are not even capable of speaking for themselves on the subject of women, you can sort of forget the message, because of the joke. I mean, I couldn’t. I was pissed. But I think the average person could.

But then there was the episode where another woman – the “shrill” feminist character – drives the boss somewhere. She’s going on and on about her relationship with her partner and the boss explains to her that she’s missing her chance to get him to help her with her career. He tells her this is her moment to give her elevator pitch. He asks her what she wants.

She cannot answer. She doesn’t know what she wants. She doesn’t even know what an elevator pitch is! The boss is frustrated! He says something like, “Trying to help women is so exhausting!” This scene infuriated me. It’s still infuriating me. Because it seems to simply that all us ladies out here complaining, nay, whining, about wanting a seat at the table wouldn’t know what to do with it if we were given one! We don’t even know what an elevator pitch is! How is a white guy boss supposed to help these people who don’t even know what they WANT?!

I realize I’m meant to be the butt of the joke here – as one of those women advocating for social change but I don’t think that’s why I don’t find it funny. I can love a good joke at my own expense. I enjoy the women’s studies major in the Legally Blonde movie petitioning for an ovester, for example. But this joke on Mythic Quest just feels mean spirited – especially on TV (a place where 80% of shows have more male characters than female ones) representing an industry (gaming) that not only has trouble with their small numbers of women (women who, once they are there, are confronted with an incredibly toxic culture) but also an industry that has been the center of some of the most heinous harassment there is. (I’m talking about GamerGate and the harassment of Anita Sarkeesian here.)

Some say that GamerGate was the beginning of the irredeemably toxic direction of social media that may have led to the intense polarization of our populace and political mess we’ve had to deal with ever since. When Anita Sarkeesian started working on a video about Women in Videogames, she became the target of an unholy amount of horrific death threats and much much worse.

So – in THAT environment, to minimize one of the few women characters like this is just cruel. This character HAS a job in videogames, has already endured sexism, only some of which we’ve seen – and now when she’s given an opportunity, she balks because girls don’t even know what they want?

I’m not saying this couldn’t happen. I’m sure it does. Probably many a woman has choked when confronted with an opportunity a man feels he’s so generously doling out. But in this moment, when women’s work across ALL fields has been struck such a blow that it may take decades to recover, does THIS seem like a good time to laugh about a woman not knowing how to seize an opportunity or not knowing what she wants? When many women have lost the jobs they worked so hard to secure or had to give up their life’s work because there was no other option for childcare, does THIS seem like a good time to laugh at a woman who advocates for other women? Read the room, guys.

If women not knowing what they want was really a thing that happens, I have a suspicion about why. If this character in this episode was ambitious, she’d be less likely to be hired. Ambition is not (sociologically speaking) a desirable trait in women. Men who are like the boss in this show don’t tend to hire ambitious women. They hire women who will help them forward their own genius. The only reason this boss is hanging around with this “shrill” woman is because he wants someone to fight with, for his creative juices.

A woman who is overtly ambitious for herself would never make it past the front door.

But sure. Yes. Trying to help women is so exhausting.

And yet I DID notice that this episode was written by a woman (apparently the creator’s/lead’s sister) and that she also wrote the best episode last season – so..I don’t know what’s going on there, except that even smart talented ladies can throw out some anti-feminist garbage on occasion.

I ALSO noticed that this second season is missing comic genius Aparna Nancherla, both in the writer’s room and the cast, and I have to wonder if this downward slide into misogyny is partly due to her absence. I’m not trying to start a conspiracy theory here but this show does not get a mention on her Wikipedia page and I have to wonder if maybe fighting for women in such a world might have gotten a little bit too much to bear at a certain point. I know I wouldn’t want to do it.

The show does better at inclusivity than might be expected. There are five women in significant roles and four of them are BIPOC. So, that’s something. It’s just…such a drag to watch them pushed into such bummers of stories.

When I started writing this, the season wasn’t over yet and I had a small hope that this show would find a way to redeem itself but I gotta say, it didn’t quite. Sure, some of the women got some big wins but almost every one of them was more or less gifted to them, by a man. And while that’s not a terrible idea for men in power to start to take on (you know, being more generous to women in doling out opportunities is a good idea) it’s just kind of a drag for ambitious women to watch. (“Ok, so if I just find a nice powerful man to give me something, THAT will help me achieve my goals.”) If I were a woman in gaming, I might just try to use my own ambition to start something rather than try to get anything done with these bozos.

And if this show results in a glut of women-created games in response, then it will have been a good thing but I don’t know, man, I don’t know. Then are plenty of things in the world that make me mad, I’m not sure I need a silly show about a video game to be one of them.

This woman character just doesn’t know what she wants, ok? She’s just not clear! She just doesn’t know!

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It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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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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