Songs for the Struggling Artist

What to wear to a meeting

Before I even sat down, I could feel a peculiar sense of being dismissed. For the people there, I did not register as someone of any interest, and certainly not as the expert I happen to be in this field. I walked away from the meeting wondering if it was time to get a style makeover. And then I got mad. Because while a style make-over would be fun (and expensive,) the need or thought of a need for one is a particularly female problem.

In Caitlin Moran’s book, How to Be a Woman, she talks about how what women wear signals so much to the people around us. When women get dressed, with each outfit we try on, we are essentially asking, “Is this the identity I want to be projecting today?”

If I want to look “professional,” Ann Pierce points out what an impossible challenge is before me as a woman. Her article on the pitfalls of dressing professionally shows how the vast majority of women’s photos are seen as unprofessional . That is, it’s POSSIBLE to hit upon some outfit that looks appropriately professional, but the odds are very small that it will look professional to everyone. (This is especially true for the busty among us, as she points out in the article.) See also, Grayson Perry’s discussion of the suit in his Default Man article.

And, working in the arts, there’s a kind of non-professional professionalism required. You can’t turn up at a theatre education event in a lady suit without looking a little bit like a tool.

Meanwhile, back at my meeting, one of the highest status dudes at this majority dude meeting was in shorts and a t-shirt. You can bet he wasn’t worried about what to wear to a meeting to be sure he’d be seen as a valuable contributor to it.

This all reminds me of the metric that Caitlin Moran uses for determining if something is sexist or not. It is: Are the boys worrying about this? Do the boys have to do this, too? And I think the answer is no. No, no, they are not. I can almost guarantee you that not one of the men at that meeting walked away from it wondering if maybe a new hairstyle would get him some more respect.

I’d forgotten what this sort of meeting could be like. Most of the education meetings I attend are gender imbalanced the other way, that is, mostly women with an occasional man. I don’t worry about whether my sweater was the wrong choice after those meetings because I am (usually) heard and recognized and given equal weight and status as the other educators. So it occurred to me, after my thought experiment in which I showed up with a different hairstyle and different clothes, the right sweater probably wouldn’t have made a stitch of difference. Probably, simply by showing up female, I would have had the same experience, no matter what I was wearing.

PS – If you haven’t seen this yet. . it definitely feels like a meeting. Famous Quotes, the Way a Woman Would Have to Say Them During a Meeting


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The Secret to Grant-writing
November 17, 2015, 12:44 am
Filed under: Non-Profit | Tags: , , , , ,

I just figured out the secret to grant-writing.
I’ve been writing grants for my theatre company for over a decade – sometimes with success, sometimes not. In the process of writing the most recent one, I suddenly had an epiphany. The more we can sound like we don’t need a grant, the more likely we are to get one.

It occurred to me that grantmakers are like popular kids. They’re only interested in you if you seem like you’re already popular. Even when grantmakers ask you what your challenges are, and what you need funding for, they still want to know why you’re awesome and why they need to get on your super cool wagon train.

Almost every grant, while theoretically a source of support, doesn’t want to be the first one to fund you. Like a popular kid, a grantmaker doesn’t want to be left out on a limb, taking a risk on someone who hasn’t gotten approval from someone else. He’s not going to be friends with the weirdo until the other kids have approved of him first.
I haven’t really understood this before. I was baffled by this question of why no one wanted to be the sole support of an artist or artistic project. I even wrote a post about it. But now, reframing all this like a high school cafeteria, I get it.

My job when applying for funding is not tell the truth of our struggles or challenges. My job is not to show how much I need the grant. My job is to show much I don’t need it. I’m supposed to demonstrate how great we’re doing and how, if the popular kids want to stay popular, they’re going to want to get on board my cool circus theatre wagon and throw in some cash.

As you may have worked out from reading the blog, this sort of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. I am much more able to tell the truth than create a popular fiction. However. Truthfully? I need the funding. So with a little coaching, I can pull a Sandy from Grease and throw on the metaphorical padded bra and lipstick for my next grant application. Watch out Grantmaker High, you’ll never recognize Sandy now!


You can help me with my grant-writing make-over by becoming my patron on Patreon.


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Two for One Rejection
November 13, 2015, 1:39 am
Filed under: Rejections | Tags: , , , ,

Rejection #1

That grant was a long shot but I figured I should take the shot anyway. Because my organization is so small, we aren’t actually eligible for a lot of funding. Most foundations are much more interested in more institutional theatre – more institutional arts. This makes sense – foundations and institutions being more like each other than not. But neither thing is particularly creative at its heart.

I apply for these things, though I doubt we’ll receive them, just in case. Because an extra grand could make the difference in our survival. Or, on a good year, could make a difference that would allow us to thrive.

Rejection # 2

I can feel the human behind the rejection letters from the Edward Albee foundation. Last year’s letter was somehow encouraging – as if they’d actually read the play – and almost – for a moment – like, they could have given me the residency but went another way at the last minute.

This year’s letter had a different tenor – but it was clearly a different letter than last year’s.

It feels like, perhaps, actual writers write these rejection letters. Humans, not apology machines.

They’re among the best of all the rejection letters I receive – not overly apologetic or defensive. Just the facts but in a compassionate way.

Of course, I’d rather receive an acceptance! But – these rejections aren’t so bad.



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

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Take Your Daughter to Your Last Day of Work Day

My mother retired from a company where she’d worked for over 30 years. For many of those years, she was the Executive Director. She was the leader. At her retirement party, I learned a lot – both about my mother and leadership.

As a child, I spent some time with my mom at work – not in any official “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” way – but in a “School’s Out and Childcare Is Hard to Come By” way. I thought I had a sense of what she got up to – both from what I saw while playing with the office supplies and from what she’d talk about when she came home. But as I discovered at her retirement, I had no idea.

The facts of her long and illustrious career are well documented (in proclamations and resolutions by the state, the city and various public boards) but what blew the doors off my perception was my mother’s style in the face of it all.

Here are some things I realized:
1) My mother doesn’t really have a work persona. She is herself whether she’s working with a board of directors or a birding group. She doesn’t turn off her humanity to be professional.
2) One of the things that was often mentioned by those inspired and trained by her was her compassion and kindness. I heard many iterations of the words, “compassionate leadership” spoken about my mom.
3) My mother laid all of her success at her career at the feet of her colleagues and employees. She seemed to have no ego about all that she’s done.

None of these aspects of my mother’s personality are a surprise to me. But now that I have spent some time out in the world, I can recognize how unusual these things can be in a leadership role. What I understand now is how rare a bird my mother is and how her style of leadership has inspired others. (Especially women who came up behind her in a field that was entirely dominated by men. When my mom began, she was often the only woman in the board rooms and conferences.)

I can count myself among those inspired now, but I have benefitted from growing up assuming that my mother’s way was how things were. Of course kind, compassionate women can become powerful leaders in their communities while retaining their humanity and verve. Of course, they can and should do, because that is what my mother has always done. It’s taken years out in the wilds of the working world for me to see how unique my mom’s career was, how much of a trailblazer she has been and what a difference she’s made to the people around her. There’s something remarkable about how unapologetically she’s a woman and a leader.

The conversations about women’s leadership in the press tend to fall in the “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” category. The descriptions of my mother’s leadership that I heard at her retirement party strike me as revolutionary now. I hesitate to label my mother’s style as feminine because femininity is so loaded an idea. But feminine or not, it is well outside of the model of the Big Man in Charge. In theatre (which is my field,) this ideal still holds tight. People LIKE tyrannical directors, particularly male ones.  They hire them, they promote them, they pay them to run their theatres. Some theatres will come right out and say that they won’t hire women to direct. Although no one said it out loud, most of my experience in directing school was being pushed to be more like a Big Man in Charge.  It’s why I quit directing for a while.

There’s now a leader closer to my own field that makes me think of this “feminine” leadership style. Film and TV director, Jill Soloway, is on a roll, shaking things up all over Hollywood and being unapologetically all the things we’ve been told we can’t be. For example:

You CAN cry at work—in fact, you must cry at work. In fact, if you’re going to make a movie, do me a favor and think of it as “bring your tears to work day.”

Every time Soloway gives a speech, I feel a surge of hope.

People like my mother and Jill Soloway have changed the landscape for the rest of us and I’m tremendously grateful. It is rare and wonderful.

My mother is living proof that you can achieve great things and still be the person you are, and the kind of human you want to be. So I’m proud of my mom as she leaves her career woman identity behind. And I hope to be able to honor the qualities that we share by using my own leadership to a good effect as time rattles on.


The writing started early, folks.

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In which we lose an old growth forest, hope and Marley’s ghost

The Board of Trustees of my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, just made a decision last week to dismantle its study abroad program in Florence. Alumni of the program (of which I am one) banded together, and over the weeks leading to the decision, wrote letters, set up a fundraising campaign and made every effort to save it. To no avail.

The plans are to fire the staff of the program in Florence (many of whom have worked there for decades,) let the lease expire on the Florence campus, set up a partnership with another college to keep it going in name only, or, failing that, to dismantle it altogether.

And a lot of us (over 600 members in the Facebook group) are FURIOUS (and heartbroken, distressed and baffled.)

Why? Why should we care about a program that some us haven’t been to in over 20 years?

And why should you care? You, who probably didn’t study with us in Florence or probably even at Sarah Lawrence?

I wasn’t sure why I cared about it at first, or why I thought you might – but the more I think about it, the more I see this decision as an example of a disturbing trend in our culture. I have seen this sort of thing happen many times before.  BAM dismantled its Shakespeare program, for which I’d taught for 14 years. Universities are relying on adjunct faculty for 70% of the teaching, without providing a living wage for its scholars. Over and over again, successful, rigorous educational programs, like big old growth trees with venerable root systems are chopped down and replaced with cheaper, younger forests created for quick profits. And this is happening in the arts, journalism and education.

I’ve previously written about my own confusion about what college is for. To train for a job? To make money? To transcend class? To learn? To grow a soul? I settled firmly on the “build a self” and “Grow a soul” side – even though, for me, that has meant a lifetime of poverty. And I stand by it. I was proud as hell to have gone to an institution that helps create more interesting, well-rounded people that want to make the world a better place. My fellow alumni are articulate, passionate and socially minded. We love learning things. At reunion this year, I failed to find out what most of my former classmates were up to because we were too busy talking about ideas, our teachers and things we learned in college. The ideal Sarah Lawrence experience deepens the intellect, expands one’s empathy and horizons and gives one tools for social change. I’m not trying to be an ad for Sarah Lawrence (SLC) here. Far from it – because this decision about Florence tells me that the Sarah Lawrence I knew is dead. The new SLC has nothing to do with who many of us alumni feel ourselves to be.

I keep thinking about William Deresiewicz’s article about what college should be for. (It showed up in my last post, as well.) And SLC can really do that self building stuff sometimes. Or it could. (On a good day, when it isn’t cutting out pieces of its soul like it’s doing right now.) And the program in Florence could REALLY do it. Here’s how:

1) While there may be a glut of American programs in Florence, (yes, there are a ton) the SLC program was particularly good at encouraging intellectual rigor and building on our natural curiosity, as so many of the letters written to the President of the college recounted. While other programs were the Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour version of studying abroad, our program was an embedded, immersive experience. While we experienced Italy, other programs were Epcot Italy. I went there looking for A Room With a View experience and came back with a whole new world of Machiavelli, Goldoni, Dante, Boccaccio, Calvino, Levi, Giacometti, Cherubini, Vivaldi, Caravaggio, Vasari and Giotto.

2) Self building doesn’t just happen in a classroom. So much of my learning happened off campus in Florence – in museums, streets, in the countryside. We traveled with support and context and I began to understand both the country I was in and how I might become a citizen of the world. Guided by compassionate, intelligent people, we learned how to feel at home in a foreign land. My experience there made me braver and stronger. I got my spine there.


If the program sucked, that would be one thing. I’ve seen any number of administrators who ought to be fired and programs that had no educational value whatsoever that I would not bemoan the loss of. But by all accounts (so many of them!) this program in Florence did an exemplary job of all the things we hope college will do for us. It was the highlight of most of our college careers.

I’ve worked in a great many schools, programs and colleges and it is exceptionally rare to find a program that is this beloved and respected. You will be hard pressed to find an administration so well regarded elsewhere. So to see this program that is highly successful, that does the job of building selves, that provides such important soul work to its students, be summarily dismissed because there are cheaper options available? It makes me want to throw things. Hard things. That break.

I mean – there are any number of cheaper options for going to college. Why not just dismantle SLC altogether? I mean, all it’s doing is a good job educating the people who choose to go there – it’s just too expensive. And there are so many other options for college. I mean, just in the tri-state area alone! So what if many of the faculty have been there for decades? So what that a lot of us loved the place? It just doesn’t make sense to spend money on education, apparently.

That’s what this decision says to me. It tells me that the values of an institution once known for its values have changed. It would seem that the college is more interested in the bottom line than in the extraordinary education of a small group of students. Which is all the college is.

SLC in Florence is SLC in micro. It starts here – with a diminishment and dumbing down of something valuable and where does it go from here? Will SLC eventually cut the entire humanities curriculum like colleges in Japan are considering? Are the arts no longer worth it? They’re expensive. Artist alumni don’t give back as much as hedge fund managers could. Old growth forests can’t make you cheap paper like a pulp forest can.

Is this where we’re headed? Is this where all culture is headed?

Good god. I hope not. Because I am running out of things I can throw.

Finally, I think a good education also features morals and social justice. We learn, from other people but also from books, from art, from teachers, how we ought to treat one another. Whether or not we do it is another question. But in college, we hopefully learn what we think the right thing to do is for the culture and for ourselves. We shape our sense of social responsibility.
That’s why the firing of an administrator (as well as her staff) who has given 29 years of her life to the betterment of this particular program,  (and thereby increased institutional reputation internationally) feels so fundamentally out of line with everything I thought my alma mater was about. We don’t behave that way, do we? We take care of people. We treat the guardians of our education, our intellect, our lives, with respect. We don’t toss them out on their ears when the lease on the classroom gets expensive. That’s Scrooge shit, right there. And we all learned that lesson way back in the Victorian age. Or has our world transformed so much that this cheap paper version is the new norm? In the gig economy, maybe everything and everyone is disposable.

And it’s not just SLC behaving like Scrooge here. All over the world, beloved institutions that have always done good work disappear because they don’t meet someone’s line item on the bottom line. We lose libraries, theatres, museums, schools – all of which do the good work of helping us deal with the mysteries of life and become better humans – not just humans who will fit appropriately into machines.

Is this who we want to become? Excellent sheep as Deresiewicz suggests? I’d like to believe not. I’d like to believe that there is still a place in the world for small groups of people learning, building themselves, experiencing edifying art and cultural touchstones and just becoming better people. Is that too corny for the current moment?
Are we all Scrooges now? And are we in a world with no Marley to come knock on our doors and remind us of who we dreamed we could be?

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business.”


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In Praise of Not Knowing

This whole Shakespeare controversy may be silly but it’s gotten me thinking a lot. My initial post on the “translations” looked at the news through my experience as a Shakespeare educator. My second one didn’t really have to do with Shakespeare so much as the power of money in the arts in America. All of which has led me here.

The more I think about it, the more this project seems to be about a discomfort with not understanding, with not knowing every word of Shakespeare. It is a discomfort with ambiguity and mystery. While this particular project might stem from one businessman’s need to understand everything, I think people around the world are struggling with a similar need to have all questions answered.

We live in a world now wherein most of the answers to our questions are a moment away. As comedian Pete Holmes has said, having the internet at our fingertips means that “the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not knowing.” (Watch this whole bit if you can. It pretty much sums up this entire blog post.)

Why do camels spit?  Where did Yoko Ono go to college? What answers are people searching for? I can know as fast as I can type (or speak to Siri/Google.) We don’t need to wonder, to try and resolve it on our own, we just look – and we know. Which is magnificent. I love knowing things.

However – there are fewer and fewer opportunities to really sit inside not knowing. Most film and TV is pretty straightforward. So is contemporary theatre generally. You don’t leave Mamma Mia or The Gin Game with a lot of questions. And even if the work is a little more abstract, like The Bald Soprano, you will likely still understand every word of a play performed in your native tongue. Shakespeare’s language requires a kind of surrender to not understanding everything. It is a chance to exercise the quiet muscle of taking words in without boxing them up in relentless meaning. It’s also an opportunity to not know, then find some answers and then discover how much there still is to discover.

This, I think, is one of the functions of art in general. To help us accept and appreciate what we can’t understand. Because as much as it feels like we now know everything (as long as we have access to the internet,) we cannot possibly grasp all the mysteries. I may feel I know my best friends but there are depths, dark corners and bright lights in them that I will never see, never know. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest that no matter how well you know someone, there is still an ocean of things about them outside of your knowledge. You can’t Google a soul.

In years previous, you might have gone to a certain kind of college to get access to knowing things. A professor had the information and then relayed it to you. This style of learning runs counter to a style of learning wherein the information isn’t the goal. It is, rather, the skill of learning, of engaging, of building a self or developing a soul. In other words, grappling with the mysteries. Arts and humanities are the technology for this. And making peace with ambiguity is one of the tools. A concerto doesn’t mean something. A dance isn’t necessarily “trying to say” anything. A painting doesn’t have to represent something. Sometimes that’s hard for people.

Sometimes it’s hard for me, I’m not going to lie. I am a meaning maker. I try to make meaning out of just about anything. But stretching my ability to sit in not knowing what something means is very good for me.

And of course, Shakespeare is made of words and those words do mean things. But some of those words can have two or three or sometimes even four meanings. How can we make peace with a quadruple entendre if we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity?

We’re at this funny moment culturally. On one hand, we are understanding more and more, only seconds away from knowing things we didn’t know before – and on the other hand understanding less – about what we’re supposed to do with all this knowledge. And all the institutions that would help us deal with that question are under threat. The Education Minister of Japan wants to cut all humanities programs in higher education there. Arts programs are on the chopping block all over the world. The Arts Council of England has been painfully defunded by the current government. Here, in America, we’re giving our playwrights words to translate instead of asking them to help us reconcile the mysteries of the current moment.

Not knowing things is very important. But I want to be clear that I’m not asking for ignorance. There are things to know, yes, lots of things, and there are things to Not Know. Real education teaches how to know the difference and make peace with the unknowable. Exceptional art helps us sit in the mystery.

Belinda He, choreographer, in the mystery

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Art as a Disease
October 19, 2015, 12:39 am
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , , ,

I was trudging through the snow, frustrated with all the many disappointments this artist’s life has to offer when I suddenly thought, “What if art-making were a disease? What if I’ve just got a bad case of artist-itis?” And I suddenly felt oddly liberated. Why this is, I’m not sure yet. That’s why I’m writing this now. Why should the idea that this part of my identity is a disease give me some peace?

In part, I think it’s the release of responsibility that I feel about choosing this path. I have so often felt that I somehow had to be a wildly successful artist in order to justify having made all the sacrifices I’ve made. If it’s a disease I have, those sacrifices are just part of my condition. I don’t have to put any undo pressure on my art to justify it. I just make it because I have to. And, of course, I want it to be great but I won’t need my whole life to depend on it. I’m just managing my art-making condition.

This helps me stop wondering if I’m going to somehow come to my senses and become a lawyer. I’ve been at this long enough to know that that is not going to happen. And while I do know many artists who have happily gone on to become lawyers, I’m not sure if they were cured completely or if the disease just didn’t have such a strong hold on them. I know, for me, that even if I could be convinced to become a lawyer, I’d still be managing my condition, I’d still be an artist. I’d just be an artist trapped in a lawyer’s life.

There’s an air of nobility that we artists like to cultivate – that the poverty and the struggles make us more moral or something. But only if it ends in mega success, otherwise, it’s just sad. So I’m interested in the idea that maybe art isn’t noble – but a thing we need to aim our compassion at instead.

And also I hate this idea as much as I love it. I love the idea that we could have walk-a-thons to provide support for artists, that we could wear multi-colored ribbons in support of those living with the art-making disease and maybe get us some funds. But I also hate it. A lot. I hate the idea of turning ourselves into victims, of making art-making a pitiable vocation, instead of one worthy of recognition and remuneration.

However – as a thought experiment there’s something invigorating to just surrendering to all the voices that say there’s something wrong with us for pursuing the things we do – it’s bracing to embrace the judgments people have about us and just dive deeper into them. To stand up and say, “Yes, I’ve got the condition. But I’m thriving. And also look at this great painting I made.”

I think, too, this re-framing feels interesting in terms of how we communicate with people who aren’t artists. For so long now, we’ve been trying to convince everyone that our work is important, that they should pay for it because it is important to the culture, – etc. All of which is true, of course, in the aggregate. But when we’re asking them to fund individual projects, over and over again, it can be hard to make a case for the 8 millionth production of Macbeth. (Yep, I’ve done this.) Very few people are going to get on that noble funding train. (This is why it’s so important to have state funded arts – they can fund the field, not just individuals.) So I wonder what would happen if our fundraising pitches switched from saying, “My work is important!” to “I just can’t help it. Please help me treat my art making condition.” Because if it got us some actual funds to make our work, I wouldn’t really care how it got framed.


This was the bit that came first when I thought of this idea:

DOCTOR: I’m sorry to inform you that your child is an artist. She’s got a bad case of the art-making condition. And while there is no cure, there are many ways to learn to live with it. Have no fear, your child can still have a productive, fulfilling life. The condition is manageable. It’s possible that she’ll never be able to work in the traditional avenues – but you should know that accommodations can be made for even the most severe case of Artistitis.
And you may be one of the lucky ones – some children can learn to pass so well, you’d never even know they were afflicted. I’ve seen artists go on to become lawyers and teachers and office managers and any number of reasonable professions. But I don’t want to give you false hope. Looking at this one here, I’d say she’s got a pretty serious case. She might never be able to do anything but art. And listen, maybe she’ll make something great – maybe she’ll make you proud with her drawings or her films or her plays or her music, whatever. . . maybe she’ll even win an award of some kind.
But I wouldn’t count on it. She may be struggling with this condition her whole life. There’s nothing you can really do for it – we’ve seen all kinds of tactics fail at a cure. We recommend kindness and compassion – as we might, for any incurable condition.


My ambivalence about this idea kept me from posting it for ages. (“It’s an interesting idea! It’s a terrible idea!”) Then I heard a podcast interview with Michael and Sarah Bennett (authors of a new Self Help book called F*ck Feelings) in which they talked about how to deal with difficulties and something clicked. They used the example of how to deal with illness as a model for how to deal with things generally. The idea being that you acknowledge that you have the thing and then just figure out how to deal with it. In other words, you don’t spend a lot of time and energy wishing you didn’t have it. You just go, “It’s not my fault. And, yes, it sucks.” And then you work out what to do about it. It’s not going away. You – just – accept it – and proceed.

And I think this is why seeing being an artist this way makes a little sense. It is an enormous waste of time trying to imagine how things could be different. Accepting how things are seems like a darn good idea. And it’s all just a way to frame things so that ultimately we can proceed, without pulling ourselves in a million opposite directions.


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