Songs for the Struggling Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by FilipeOCastro

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The Perilous Economic Intersection of Arts and Education

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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A Feminist Theatre Identity Crisis
January 18, 2015, 10:10 pm
Filed under: art, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , ,

Opinion Poll: Should I use the word “feminist” to describe my work? Let it be known that I am a feminist and my theatre company’s work is made through a feminist lens.
It has always been thus and will always be thus. It was in the beginning and will be until the end. Until recently, however, I have not publicized this fact. It has been an unwritten, but deeply held value.

In the climate we began in, it felt appropriate to hold our feminism close to the chests. Our thought was that people would hear “feminist” and immediately think “political.” They’d think signs and speeches and our work is none of these things. The work is mythic and classical and narrative. We’re not a sign-waving company. We figured those who thought like us would see the feminist ley lines and those who didn’t might have their perspective shifted without even knowing it had happened. Not to mention that feminist and theatre artist seemed to be mutually exclusive labels in that climate.

There’s been a general coming out party for us feminists in recent years and it is heady and thrilling to be a part of that party. Caitlin Moran’s book How to Be a Woman, lit a fire under a lot of us with her fierce advocating of the word. I love her instructions for finding out if you’re a feminist:

But, of course, you might be asking yourself, ‘Am I a feminist? I might not be. I don’t know! I still don’t know what it is! I’m too knackered and confused to work it out. That curtain pole really still isn’t up! I don’t have time to work out if I am a women’s libber! There seems to be a lot to it. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?’
I understand.
So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.

a) Do you have a vagina? and
b) Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

I have been experimenting with how I talk about my company’s work. It sometimes feels like declaring a company’s feminism draws exactly the right people to our orbit. Some people light right up and get excited when I say it. But you may be feeling the “but” waiting in the wings of this. . .

But – I met with someone who coaches women in business. In describing my company’s work, I mentioned our feminist lens and she made a face that was either extreme horror or extreme excitement. It wasn’t clear to me which one it was until she exclaimed, “That word! Do you realize how much stuff comes with that word?” (I do, actually.)

And she tells me about the difference between “feminist” and “feminine” and the way feminist sounds like militant, because it ends in “T.” (This is the same argument I hear as related to its ending in “ist” – people don’t like it because it’s like “racist” and “communist,” etc. I wonder why no one ever mentions the positive things that end in “ist” like Impressionist, Surrealist or even the benign, “tourist.”)

I know she’s picturing bra-burning and shouting (nothing can be further from the actual images of my work) and the more we talk, the more I tell her about my work, the more alternate phrases she offers, (“Woman-centered” or “empowers women” or “Expanding women’s roles”) And all those things are true but it reminds of the same thing Moran talks about, that the best word for this thing we’re talking about is still feminist.

…for all that people have tried to abuse it and disown it. “feminism” is still the word we need. No other word will do. And let’s face it, there has been no other word, save “Girl Power” — which makes you sound like you’re into some branch of Scientology owned by Geri Halliwell. That “Girl Power” has been the sole rival to the word “feminism” in the last 50 years is a cause for much sorrow on behalf of the women. After all, P. Diddy has had four different names, and he’s just one man.

It feels clear that feminist is the most accurate description of my theatre company’s point of view. But I acknowledge that this accurate word is loaded with a whole world of things for a whole lot of people that have nothing to do with my work. I want to share my work with those people, too.

When I described one of our shows to this women’s business consultant, she got very excited and pulled out a photo of her daughter and herself to show me. She’s an advocate for women. Her job is to help women succeed in a field that has been traditionally closed to us. Yet she cringes at “feminist” despite clearly being engaged in the task of expanding women’s possibilities. This woman and I have a lot to say to each other and this one word is the only thing blocking our understanding of each other. Where she pictures screaming and chanting, I’m performing gentility. I have a marketing problem.

Some people encourage leaning into this thing that makes my company unique while the business woman encourages avoiding the word that describes that thing. I gain some supporters by using the word and alienate others.

What I have been doing is an experiment. Sometimes when I explain our work, I say feminist and sometimes I don’t. So far, it’s not in our marketing or advertising but I’ve been thinking of shifting that. I’m just thoroughly on the fence about it. Tell me what you think. Should we advertise our feminism or hold it close?

I’d really value your thoughts. Maybe I’ll just tally the votes and go with the majority on this question. To publicize or not to publicize.
Let me know.

(If the poll below doesn’t appear clickable – just go to the link HERE.)

Should my theatre company advertise our feminist mission?
Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No
Please Specify:

Poll Maker

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“The work must be really good, mustn’t it? Since so many people are doing it for love?”
January 12, 2015, 1:22 am
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

My friend was over from the UK doing a show here in New York City. In a chat over coffee, I mentioned to him that the bulk of the theatre work here in NYC was unpaid, that most of us were just laboring for love. He wondered if this made the work exceptionally good.

I believe it’s the opposite. Love doesn’t make good theatre. It can help, sure. But making theatre without resources doesn’t make it good. In fact, resources can shine up all kinds of things to look like good art – even when it isn’t. Resources can be art-making magic. If you have resources, you can take the time you need to make something good. You can rehearse in a space that contributes to the atmosphere you’re attempting to create. You can store your stuff somewhere. With resources, you can spend your time working on the piece and then work on another one. Art gets better the more opportunities you have to do it.

When you’re making work on the fumes of love, much of your focus is on finding ways around the lack of resources. So many underfunded theatres spend more effort on their crowdfunding campaigns than they do on their shows. And while crowdfunding was supposed to be the panacea for small indie theatres  it rarely functions that way.

I took a brief tour of the IndieGoGo Theatre section while doing some research for a crowdfunding campaign. The website was littered with tiny companies asking for between $2000 to $5000 and almost none of them were anywhere close to funded. ($5000 is nowhere near enough to money to produce a show in New York City, by the way, which makes it even more heartbreaking.) Meanwhile, I saw that a highly funded Regional Non-Profit Theatre had successfully raised over a hundred grand on IndieGoGo for its production.

Will that $100,000 show be better than those shows only asking for $3000? The odds are good, actually, that it will be. Not because those working at the $100K theatre are better artists but because they have 100 grand to make it. (By the way, I’m well aware that $100K was probably nowhere near what that Regional company needed to make their show either. Probably $100K for them is like $3k for me.)

When you’re making your work with nothing but love, everyone involved comes to the table overbooked and underpaid. Almost everything you do is a compromise. And while this happens in funded theatres, the size of the compromise is different. A funded theatre may compromise the size of the set, the unfunded may compromise in having one at all.

Think of it like cooking. If you’re skilled, you can make a delicious meal out of ketchup and ramen noodles – but most cooks will make a better meal with better ingredients. In fact, I think the more opportunities you have to cook with good ingredients, the more your cooking will improve, and perhaps only then can you really work a miracle with ketchup and ramen.

But more than the material things, I think underfunded work suffers the most from time and space scarcities. Doing it for love means doing it around the things that will make everyone a living and very often the work suffers from that diffusion of attention.

Is everything made for no money terrible? Of course not. Occasionally, an artist can overcome the obstacles and make something tremendous, against the odds. (All my theatremaking friends, I’m looking at you.) But it is very difficult. The mainstream media loves the story of an artist who had nothing and rose to an exalted position but if you scratch the surface of these stories – the artist is NOT someone who had nothing. He (and it is almost always a “he”) usually had a privileged upbringing, is the child of a successful parent in the field or married into financial security. Most of the time “the struggle” was really just a couple of years after college when the artist had a roommate and ate some ramen noodles. The story is usually how the love of his art form kept him going until he arrived at the point where we read about him in the New York Times. So I can see how people start to get the idea that love makes good work. That’s what the media reinforces.

And personally, even though I definitely don’t do this for the money (there isn’t any,) I also can’t say I’m doing it for love. At least not in the way most people mean it. I am devoted to the theatre. I throw my whole heart and self into it. But I hate that my work is not as good as it might be if I had money for artists, space and development. I hate working in the theatre as much, if not more than, I love it. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Love is a powerful, wonderful thing. It helps with EVERYTHING, I’m sure. But it needs resources to turn it into really excellent theatre.


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A Sort of, Kind of, Lesson

After I finished my novel, I put it aside for a year, as Zadie Smith advised. When I got the opportunity to pick it back up, I was stunned by the sheer volume of qualifiers I found in my work. It was full of sort ofs and kinds ofs, with a smattering of prettys, as in, it was pretty hot or sort of yellow and kind of thrilling.

I started to get frustrated with myself as I crossed out qualifier after qualifier. It made my protagonist sound extremely unsure of herself and it was hard to read. I think as I was writing it, I felt all these sort of kind ofs added to her humanity. I thought it made me feel closer to her as a woman: but it doesn’t read like that now.

Luckily, I have the opportunity to edit this stuff out, so the problem is easily remedied. But I do wonder if this writing tick might also be a vocal tic. Do I speak like this too?

I attended a workshop at which the instructor seemed to have almost no experience in either teaching or in talking about her work. I don’t know if that was really the case or it if was simply that she had the same vocal tic that I had in writing. Every other phrase was “sort of” or “kind of.” I found myself frustrated as I listen to her – but also sympathetic. There is cultural conditioning behind all the qualifiers in her speech. As a female choreographer, this instructor is in the minority in the dance world. It can be threatening when a woman is in charge and many times women will take on a persona of extremely soft leadership in order to bend around that threat. I have done it myself. And it drives me bonkers. Probably because it is something that I do.

Usually when we talk about these speech patterns, the solution comes down to something like that Bob Newhart Mad TV sketch, where, for every psychological problem he’s presented with, he just screams, “Stop it.” There a world of “Women need to be more confident” articles out there – the Confidence Gap, the Lean In, etc. But all of that fails to address why we feel it necessary to qualify our words in the first place. I think Soraya Chemaly comes close to it in her article  “10 Words That Every Girl Should Learn” that is, that we likely developed this habit of qualifying in order to find a way to be heard.

For example, if I say, “That was sexist,” I can be instantly pegged as a man-eating feminist, ready to burn my bra in the public square. If I say, “That was SORT OF sexist,” I might get away with it, especially if I say it with a cute quiet voice and a beguiling head tilt.

We are sort of kind of getting people to listen to us while we sort of kind of backpedal simultaneously. I’m trying to quit doing it but it does feel like surrendering a part of my femininity. Short declarative sentences are macho. Long qualified sentences are girly. I sometimes still want people to kind of sort of like me and to sort of kind of think of me as a nice woman.

But I’m at a time in my life in which I care less and less about fitting into a gender role and am now qualified to unqualify my shit. I’m getting to a place where I don’t care if people like it.  Sort of, Kind of, Pretty Much.


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‘Tis the Season for Rejections
December 28, 2014, 2:54 pm
Filed under: Rejections | Tags: ,

Sorry folks. I told you I’d post a less depressing blog next and I fully planned on sharing something more uplifting after the great rejection deluge earlier this month. However, the fates intervened and saw fit to go ahead and deliver me another rejection notice. And this one really got me.

I totally thought I had this one. I was one out of two artists up for a residency in a senior center. The folks at the center told me they loved my project proposal. I’m ridiculously experienced in working both with the subject and with the population. They were going to get me to do something I usually do for at least twice the money. I really couldn’t’ imagine how anyone could say no this time. But they did.

I don’t know what to say about it except, “What the?!?” and remind myself of my previous post about being a dissident. The program is city government supported. It’s right at the center of cultural approval and while I’d like the finding and to be able to do the project, I suppose I can comfort myself with the idea that this keeps me a free agent. I think of John Clancy’s post about embracing being an Independent Artist. So I’m still safely on the margins of independence.

But whatever I tell myself to feel better about it, I was pretty upset about it when it came through. I don’t fill out all these tedious applications to NOT get them. But – at least I have a cheering section. And I know my cheering section would totally have given me the grant/residency if you guys ran a senior center. Happy Holidays to everyone. You’re better than all the acceptance letters.

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