Songs for the Struggling Artist


We Need Fiction in Schools

I don’t know why I think of this one classroom at a high school in Brooklyn – but every time I think of this bizarre turn that education took in which it decided that fiction no longer had a place in American schools, this moment when it leaned hard into non-fiction, I think of that classroom. It must have been where I heard that news, where I heard that this was a policy Obama supported and dropped my mouth open in shock. “Obama?! What is he thinking?”

This was a class for which I was doing workshops for the Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves, a work of dramatic fiction that the students went to see. When the student next to me gasped with recognition at something the character did and later told me it was like her family member – well, I wished Obama could have been there to see the power of fiction.

I was thinking about how important the study of fiction has been to me and to my peers and what a shame it is that these muscles have been un-exercised in many American schools. I was thinking about it because I was on a jury and the process of deliberation felt familiar somehow and it wasn’t just because I’ve had to teach 12 Angry Men a few times. One of the things that surprised me about my fellow jurors was how much they were inclined to just make things up. Several of them came up with “theories” about the case, adding events and possibilities that had nothing to do with the question at hand. Over and over again I found myself saying, “Let me read the actual question.”

If these folks had been my students, I’d have done exactly the same. I would have asked where they saw that idea or concept and what was the evidence. In literary circles, we call this practice Close Reading. When you write a paper, you need to point to the place in the text where you got this idea or information. You can’t just make stuff up. I’m so practiced in this I don’t even know that I’m doing it sometimes. I mean, I like to make stuff up more than most people but there are the things we make up and things we don’t and even fiction has rules this way.

I feel like, if we’re going to ask people to sit on juries and deliberate and evaluate the evidence, we really need to give them practice and we need to give them practice on fictional people. There are no consequences to a misinterpreted fictional character. You can’t ruin a fictional person’s life by charting out the series of events they go through in the course of a work. Your conclusions about a fictional person have no power to send them to jail or condemn them to death. Maybe you think Macbeth didn’t kill the king. You’d be wrong. But, hey, why not? Kick that idea down the road. Show me the evidence. That search through the play will be illustrative and, in exploring it, you (hopefully) will find all the evidence that he did, in fact, kill the king.

I’ve been in a lot of classrooms where some well-meaning teacher puts a character on trial. They’ll put Macbeth in the witness box and have some kids play lawyers and interrogate him. While this is fun, sure, it’s almost always a mess, pedagogically speaking, because the kids will inevitably make stuff up that’s not in the play and suddenly the whole case will hinge on what Macbeth had for dinner. (This is something that almost happened in the jury deliberations I was in, by the way, when a juror wanted to send a question down to the court to ask what the plaintiff had had for dinner one night. This was just as irrelevant to the case as what Macbeth might have eaten at any point in the play.)

As we deliberated, I found myself in a fairly active role, bringing us back to the question we had to answer over and over and, at first. I didn’t understand why I fell in to that position then. I have no interest in the law. I have no law training. I’m not even a big Law and Order watcher. (Night Court, though – big fan.) But what I DO know how to do is analyze a character and the sequence of events of a narrative. I know where to look for evidence and I know not to make things up. That’s the main thing.

Students need to study fiction as much, if not more than, non-fiction for a whole lot of reasons beyond this skill of analysis, close reading and finding evidence. (Such things as empathy, aesthetics and imagination.) But the skills of analyzing literature, in particular, are what I found particularly useful in that jury room. (In addition to the practice of working quickly in a group that I learned and practiced in theatre.) I’m still shocked that Obama couldn’t recognize this when this policy began. He studied law. I know he’d want people to learn skills to help them be better citizens, to be better jury members. Learning literature is actually vital for our democracy, I think. If we care about having careful jurors, we might want to teach some fiction again.

Is this a dinner which I see before me?
JK – it’s the banquet scene from Macbeth. But what is on the table? What are they eating? What do ghosts have for dinner?

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

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It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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The Theatre of the Court
July 13, 2022, 10:49 pm
Filed under: American, Justice, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

In one of the videos they play for jurors, the narrator explains the Court as being a lot like Theatre. He explained the roles and the conflict, the set and the setting. I was intrigued by this explanation because, as a theatre maker, I would not assume people understood theatre any more than they do a court.

If court is a show, though, it is not necessarily a good one. One thing that surprised me, in serving on a jury, was how willing to bore the audience everyone seemed to be. There were multiple moments where I thought, “Are they trying to win this case by boring us to death?” The first time I thought this was when the Plaintiff’s lawyer interviewed his hired-gun medical witness and had him slowly answer medical questions and read medical records for over an hour – both of them speaking incredibly slowly with very little inflection. The second time I thought this was when the Defense read the plaintiff’s description interview onto the record. It went something like this:

QUESTION: Where did you live then?

ANSWER: I don’t remember.

QUESTION: You don’t remember?

ANSWER: I don’t remember.

It was the world’s  driest dialogue read dryly by one dry lawyer. And he read “Question” and “Answer” each time, too. I’m a professional actor and I feel like I could inject some zest in almost anything but I would shake in my boots if I was challenged to read this dialogue.

The third time I felt this way was during the plaintiff’s lawyer’s closing statements wherein he pulled out a stack of medical records, chose the one from the top, flipped to the back, slowly found the doctor’s name and then read it, followed by their description of the patient’s complaint. It was the same phrase over and over, the same procedure, over and over, one stack of papers after another, for maybe fifteen minutes? The reading I could handle. It was the minutes of searching for the page and then slowly pulling out the next one. My god. If it was a show I’d have left it.

The last time I felt this way was during the judge’s “charge to the jury.”  We were warned by the officer that it generally took 50 minutes for him to read this thing so we were prepared but wow. The judge did his best to zhuzh it up but the material is long and dull and I cannot imagine an actor who could make it work. Maybe Mr. T. Because every show would be improved by the presence of Mr. T.

But, of course, all these exceptionally dull and tedious hours are not for theatrical purposes. No theatre maker would DARE bore their audience like this. But then –  a theatrical audience is not compelled by law to sit there and listen. Maybe that’s the major difference.

The architecture of this particular courtroom was also really not effective theatrical space. I was Juror #2 so I was seated at this odd point of convergence of the space wherein absolutely everyone spoke directly to me. There were five other jurors in the box but almost every single person on “stage” looked almost exclusively at me while they spoke. I imagine that’s mostly to do with the way the space is arranged but I also know that I am a well trained audience member so I am easier to talk to than most. I am easy to read and incapable of cutting off the channel of a “performer” who needs it. This is why I prefer not to sit in the front row of a show if I can help it. It’s a lot of work for me to be that channel! I kept wanting to tell the folks in the courtroom to work the ROOM, not just me.

This was not a situation of being at a concert and being convinced that the singer is singing just for me, though I have certainly experienced that phenomenon.  At times the lawyers were directly in front of me, maybe a foot and a half away, looking directly into my eyes. It was EXHAUSTING.

If court is a show, it is an incredibly tedious one, with dull performances and awkward acting. It’s overly long. And you’re not even allowed to talk about it until it’s all over.

Was it dramatic? No.

Was it comedic? Briefly, for a moment or two. The way a joke at the DMV is a nice break in the atmosphere.

Was it romantic? Can’t imagine how. If there was ever a meet cute in the jury room. I’d like to hear about it because it is not a meet cute atmosphere, that is for sure.

Was it action packed? No. All events happened six years before. All drama was long past.

If courts are theatre, they’re very very bad theatre. Which came first? Courts or theatre? Or did they evolve alongside one another? I suspect courts have a different lineage. The first courts were part of the Court and it was mostly just going along to see the king and hoping he’d see things your way. It feels to me that the courtroom is designed more like a king’s court than a theatre. Our court system is certainly better than a king’s authoritarian rule (though it might not feel that great lately!) – but it is not good theatre, that much I can tell you.

Certainly if the judge came in dancing with some show girls, that might give it a little extra something.

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

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What I Was Supposed to Get Out of Jury Service and What I Got Instead

People like to tell you that being a part of a jury for a trial gave them a new sense of appreciation for the court system. The videos preparing you for jury service like to report that people say this as well. I might have thought this would happen to me, too, but in fact, it was something like the opposite. The whole experience made me incredibly sad. Now that it’s over, I can tell you why. Warning: there’s a lot about bowels in this case.

I was selected to serve in a civil suit brought by a patient who’d had to have bowel surgery on the heels of his colonoscopy. His lawyer claimed that the doctor had poked a hole in the man’s colon while performing the test. The man had had to use a colostomy bag for six months and had a miserable time. This man had been living with HIV since 1989 and at times lived in shelters. He is an incredibly vulnerable man, who also, it became clear through his testimony, just didn’t really understand what had happened to him. For him, events sort of blurred together so he felt that he went to sleep for a test and woke up the next day with a colostomy bag attached to him. He’s a man who has struggled enormously and the way our system works, rather than find a reasonable way to get this guy the care that he needs, he’s been seemingly pushed into bringing a malpractice suit against his doctor. He would not seem to have any real means of support and an absence of community to catch him when he falls. It sounds like, after his surgery, he just stayed in his apartment, unable to go anywhere for six months. And our government, rather than find a way to help this guy, somehow thinks it’s better to have him sue the doctor who gave him a test?

It was clear to me from the start that the doctor was actually exemplary in his care. The doctor’s office made sure the man was okay when he left their office and when the man went to the hospital the next day in pain, the doctor came to the hospital to see him again. Honestly, if I had a doctor who just gave me a test turn up to the hospital for me the next day, I’d be shocked but then, I’m used to pretty haphazard care. The doctor ordered a CAT scan to check for a bowel perforation and the radiologist reported “There is no evidence of a perforation.” Twelve hours later they did another CAT scan and he’d developed a perforation. Why? The gastroenterologists we heard from explained it was something called ileus, which is when your digestive system just quits moving. It’s pretty dangerous. I mean, I think of what Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Movement is Life,” and then he goes on to discuss that it is movement that is the way we know something is alive. So when things like the colon stop moving, there’s big trouble.

Anyway – I don’t need to tell you all the (incredibly tedious) details of this trial but what may already be obvious is that this poor guy, with all his troubles and cognitive issues to boot, was continually on display over the course of this trial. We saw CAT scans of his entire torso from lungs to rectum. We heard about his gas, his bowel movements, his fecal matter and more. For a man who could barely bring himself to say any bathroom words on the stand, it must have been brutal to be so exposed. I tried to make myself feel better by thinking, “Well, he brought the suit. I guess he asked for this.” But did he? A man this vulnerable?

The trial seemed to go on and on for no good reason. We’d hear an hour of testimony in the morning, after waiting an hour, and then be done for the day. It took a week and a half until we were finally put in a room to deliberate. The deliberation took us less than 45 minutes – mostly because the question we had to answer was so simple. It was something like, “Did the doctor deviate from standard medical practice and use too much force to push through the wall of the colon during the colonoscopy”? No. Obviously no. We were unanimous and we were not required to be.

Honestly, I resent that we had to be asked, that we had to sit in a courthouse for a week and a half to say so. A man had an unfortunate health event and rather than find a way to support him through it, to help him understand what happened and give him good resources to deal with it – our system thought it would be better to give him some false hope about getting a bunch of money from his doctor through the court system. The system is fine with putting out all these resources for this specious case instead of caring for a vulnerable man. Trials are expensive! If all the money spent on the trial had just been handed to this unfortunate guy that would have been money well spent. I would be happy with my tax dollars helping out a vulnerable person. They’re gonna pay me $240 for my week and a half of jury service. It’s not a lot but I bet this guy could use that even more than I could. How about DON’T call me in to listen to a lot of poop talk and just give the money to the man who needs it?

It’s just such an appalling mis-use of resources. And this how we do it. The doctor was compelled to hire a fancy malpractice defense lawyer. The jurors were compelled to disrupt their lives to come in and listen to this business. The plaintiff was compelled to listen to lawyers talk about his colon for a week and a half. What was the point of all of that? Is this justice? We rendered a just verdict, I think, but who benefitted from it? No one. It was just a colossal waste of time and resources. So, no, I have no new respect for our jury system. It was an impersonal, needlessly invasive sad state of affairs, that exposed not just the inner workings of the plaintiff’s guts but the ways our government fails the most vulnerable. Sorry, no. Especially with the Supreme Court becoming the travesty it is, I am not gaining new respect for our system. I have lost a lot of faith in a system I might have once had hope for.

We looked at an image like this for a week and a half.
I can tell you a few things about the Sigmoid Colon now and can’t believe they left out the Cecum on this diagram.

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Men Most Macho in the Theatre

When I saw Ray Liotta had died, I was shocked and saddened. I was a fan of his work and he seemed like a good human. In his honor, I listened to an interview he did with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast a few years ago and enjoyed learning more about him and his journey. It did make me think, though. And it did make me wish for change in the way we do show biz. Apparently, Liotta had no real interest in acting when the opportunity to do it presented itself to him. He got talked into auditioning for a show because of a cute girl and stuck around because a teacher encouraged him. Nothing too crazy there. I’ve definitely heard this sort of story before.

But it’s the reason that Liotta theorized that his teacher encouraged him that got me thinking. Liotta had always been a jock and, it sounds like, a fairly macho guy. His teacher responded to him because they didn’t get a lot of guy’s guys there in the college theatre department. He saw a kindred male spirit and a kind of rare bird that they needed on the stage. Liotta really wasn’t that keen on acting in the beginning but he got to play some very juicy roles at his university and it’s not just because he was good. I’m guessing Liotta’s college decided to do A Streetcar Named Desire because they had a guy who could play Stanley Kowalski. They did Taming of the Shrew probably because they had a guy who could do a macho Petruchio. Liotta got to learn how to act by doing some of the best roles in the canon and the college got to do some shows on its list. All very reasonable. Many a school will choose their season based on who they have in casting pool. I get it on all levels.

But it also troubles me – because while I’m glad we had Liotta’s talents to enjoy on the screen – the way the path was smoothed for him (when he gave not two figs for it at the start) and the way it is not smoothed for so many others, just doesn’t feel FAIR to me. The way the American Theatre (and Cinema) fetishizes macho men is disturbing, really. There are endless roles for them, despite the fact that the theatre is largely populated by women and gay men. “Fellas, is it gay to be into theatre?” Maybe a little bit! Yet in spite of the inherent queerness in the form, or maybe because of it, the macho man is embraced, encouraged and given pride of place over and over again.

The American Theatre is dominated by macho plays and macho actors. How many revivals of American Buffalo do we need? A lot, apparently. I loved True West the first time I saw it. And even the second and third time. Then there was that time I assistant directed a production of it at a college of 75% women. Enough’s enough. Anyway, Liotta wasn’t in the theatre for long – because this pipeline between the theatre and film was built for men like him. Macho men from the theatre get snapped up into film, which also has a high demand for men who could be mobsters and so someone who had no interest in acting at first could be swept up into one of the most prestigious careers around. And I’m glad that it happened to Ray Liotta because I’m happy we had him while he was here but I can’t help feeling sad for all the people who LOVED the theatre, who ate, slept and drank it, who would have done anything to have a shot and no one ever took them under their wing and helped them to a wide range of opportunities. No one ever chose a season based on their presence in the casting pool. No one saw them in a play and put them in a soap opera. No one ever saw them in a soap opera and put them in a prestige film. I hate looking at a class full of actors and knowing that the person most likely to find success will be the man most macho, no matter how much more talented or dedicated or passionate his peers might be.  Sorry, ladies, non-binaries and gays, the theatre is dependent on there being thousands like you but it will always choose the macho fella who doesn’t care about it first. The theatre loves a cool disinterested man who can help it grapple with masculinity, I guess. Anyway – RIP Ray Liotta, even if I am a little mad about how your success came to you. One day I’d love to hear a story about a woman who just didn’t care that much about theatre but some teacher just had to have her in the show anyway and she became a big big star.

I mean, I get it. I’d cast this guy too – even if he wasn’t Ray Liotta yet.

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 iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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Melt the Guns

Whenever I see a story about gun violence and it makes me feel sad and angry and helpless, I tweet a link to the XTC song, “Melt the Guns.” I don’t say what it’s for. I just tweet the song. It’s not a project. I don’t feel like I need to stay up to date with shootings so I can catch them all or anything. There are too many for that. If you tracked all the tweets, you could probably connect them to the news story fairly easily. Not that there’d be much point in doing that. It’s just, you’d be able to see what a lot of gun violence I have responded to since I started doing this.

I tweet this particular song because a) it’s a really great song and b) it’s a pretty clear directive. What should we do about all these tragic shootings? Melt the guns and never more to fire them. Clear enough. I know it would never work in this world where guns have more rights than women or children. I fear we’ll never find a way to tear the guns from the hands of killers – but as an aspiration, I feel pretty good about the idea of melting the guns. I do not give one solitary fuck about peoples’ guns. Melt them. Seriously.

We’re always trying to compromise. The NRA is always sending people into a panic that we are coming for their guns. A guy I went to high school with posted that he was stockpiling his guns when Obama was elected. Every time there is horrible tragic school shooting, gun sales go up. The NRA have made people absolutely paranoid that every liberal policy will involve taking their guns away. It has never been thus. But, fuck it. Let’s do it. It’s never been on the agenda before but if the gun nuts are so afraid of it, it must be what they secretly want us to do. Maybe they’re pulling a Brer Rabbit and crying out, “Please, oh, please, whatever you do, don’t take my guns away!” Okay. You got it. Time for melting. I don’t care anymore. I had to tweet “Melt the Guns” twice in one day when that asshole shot up the grocery store in Buffalo. Once for that nightmare and again when someone started shooting somewhere else. I can’t even remember where now. That’s how many of these there are. And folks, folks, I wrote this whole piece before Uvalde happened. When I retweeted “Melt the Guns” for that incident, it was still just an unconfirmed rumor that was breaking my heart.

Every other country in the world understands that having a lot of guns around is a problem. If you read a travel advisory for this country, it will warn you about the potential for gun violence here. There’s a Kids in the Hall sketch from decades ago that I’ve never forgotten. It features a tourist explaining he’s from Canada and defines a Canadian as “like an American without a gun” and the other person finally understands. It’s funny but horrifying, of course. The majority of Americans are not into guns. But the ones that are…oh boy. Well, they’re willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of children to keep buying them so….they have a different calculus than the rest of us. I mean – the average number of children shot per year in this country is a little under 8000. PER YEAR.

And, of course, I know, I know, not all gun-owners. The farmer who needs a gun to shoot wild feral hogs or whatever – that’s fine. I guess I won’t melt your gun since you’re going to save us from marauding porcine creatures.

But the culture that encourages young clueless men to buy guns and then go use them? That culture needs to be melted down. I keep thinking of the odd little explanation for the shooting in The Front Page/His Girl Friday. Have you seen these films? Or the play? The reporters work out that the odd little sweaty man ended up shooting the gun because he believed in “production for use.” That is, as a communist, he believed that things should be used for that they were built for and the gun, being built for shooting, must be shot. I think a lot of gun-owners are like that communist. They shoot their guns because guns are made to be shot. I bet all those gun-owners wouldn’t like to be called a bunch of communists for shooting their guns.

We have a lot of guns in this country and like Chekhov’s famous gun – if you show us a gun in the first act, it’s just got to be fired by the end of the show. The one surefire way to keep people from getting shot up is to not have guns around with which to shoot them.

Like, let’s go back to the feral hogs for a second. Let’s say there were a group of people who really wanted to have some around the town and every time someone suggested that maybe they were dangerous and attacking people left and right, they’d threaten to sic a feral hog on them. A country full of feral hogs is now Feral Hog Land just because some zealous hog lovers felt entitled to them. You can’t domesticate a feral hog, that’s the whole deal with them. They are feral. Same is true for an assault rifle. An assault rifle is an understatement for what it actually does. It is a mass murder rifle. They have to go. And the more folks threaten to use them against those who would seek to take them away, the more apparent it is that they have to go.

Melt the guns and never more to fire them.

I did a search for Melt the Guns and this was the only readily available image. It DOES melt things. And it IS a gun. In the future, our only guns will be the kind that melt glue for us, okay?

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 iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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Crowdfunding the Arts Doesn’t Work

My theatre company is over twenty years old. We started in 2001 and we’ve seen some things.

For our first show, we raised funds by writing a letter – yes, an actual paper letter – and we mailed it to anyone we thought might write us a check. This worked pretty well. I’d have to double check the numbers but it’s not impossible that it was the most effective fundraising we ever did. There are a couple of reasons for that, I imagine. One is the First Steps Toward a Dream Effect. This is the thing where people love to fund the FIRST something. They enjoy helping people take a first step toward a big dream. (They don’t love so much the slog of keeping something afloat.) But I think the other factor that helped this first show’s fundraising was just the moment we were in and the circles to which we had access.

It seems like it should have been harder in those days. The efforts that people had to make to donate were substantial. First, they had to open and read our letter. (Not a given!) If they wanted to donate, they had to get out their check books, write the check and then put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and put it in a mailbox. There are a lot of moments for this process to get derailed. It’s a lot. It was not like clicking on a link, letting your credit card info autofill some boxes and then hitting submit.

When donating through the internet started to be a thing, we were very excited. It seemed like, by eliminating all those steps for people, we’d get so many more donations. It didn’t really work out that way, though. We saw charity donation websites come and go. (Remember Charity Blossom?) The donations got smaller and smaller and people who’d written us big checks never made it to the digital mailing lists. We didn’t have their emails. I’m not sure a lot of them HAD emails.

Then crowdfunding kicked off and everyone was so excited about its potential. In some circles people talked about it as a democratizing fundraising source. We wouldn’t need to depend on rich people to fund things anymore! If we got enough tiny donations, we could make a big difference! What a win for democracy! Poor people could pay for the arts instead of rich people!

But here’s the thing. You need a LOT of people to give you $20 to make up a 10k budget. You need 500 people, in fact. (Actually, given that all these platforms take a cut, you’ll need MORE than 500 to get there.) And for people without much to spare, even that $20 is a huge deal. It’s a huge deal for me. Most folks, no matter how much they like you or believe in what you’re doing, are not going to bother or they just don’t have it to spare.

If you want to really depress yourself as a theatre fundraiser, take a tour of the theatre fundraisers on a platform like Indiegogo. You’ll see a lot of folks barely making a dent in their humble 3k ask. Theatre isn’t a good candidate for crowdfunding. It doesn’t scale well. We don’t have compelling prizes. But crowdfunding is sort of the only deal anymore. Even wealthy donors expect you to eke out a bunch of $20 donations before they’ll think about sending over a few hundred bucks.

It feels a bit like crowdfunding has killed our ability to actually raise sufficient funds because sometimes a wealthy donor looks at how a crowdfundraiser is doing and thinks it’s not worth the investment. They see that we didn’t get 10 people to give us 20 bucks and they reconsider the 2k check they were thinking of writing us. In having our struggles be so transparent, we lose leverage. We can’t sell someone on a dream because they can see how little others have put in to it.

Crowdfunding, like a lot of things, has turned out to work best for things that are going viral. Remember that potato salad? Or the Josh battle? Crowdfunding also does really well in a well publicized tragedy – but it is terrible for the day to day art making. It is a very blunt instrument. It may be the only instrument at the moment, so we pretty much have to use it but it’s not very effective. Like anything in this capitalist world, your ability to fundraise is dependent on the wealth to which you have access. Your crowdfunding campaign does not depend so much on the content of your work but on the wealth of the people in your circle who will open their wallets for you. We had more access to those people two decades ago than we do today. Today, most of my contacts are fellow artists. We have a joke in the indie theatre community about how we all just pass the same $20 around between us.

To make a 10k budget, you only need 10 people to give you a thousand dollars. Big deal! That’s only ten people! But you have to know ten people who might have a grand to spare first. That’s the real kicker and why crowdfunding the arts doesn’t work. Not unless you only want work by and for the wealthy, which is what you get when you don’t subsidize the arts, no matter which way you slice it.

Crowdfunding demands an extraction of wealth from the artist’s community. Every time I put on a show, I have to go to the crowdfunding mines and extract a little wealth from the people I know. I know some folks have found a way to perceive this as obtaining their community’s investment in their work. I appreciate that perspective but I find it particularly challenging to see it that way in this moment where most of my community is in the performing arts and most of my community lost their jobs or their big plans or their dreams or their support. Now is not the moment to extract wealth from the performing arts community – even if you call it an investment. Same goes for a lot of people right now.

I know someone is thinking, “Hey what about grants?! Grants exist. Can’t you just get a grant?” Oh darlings. Yes. We have gotten some grants. Most of them were about $500. Very nice! It’s helpful! Not as helpful as someone just writing you a check for $1000 that you didn’t have to write several essays for but helpful! $500 is a very nice start and other funders like to see that you got it but there is not a grant in America that will fund your whole project. They want to see that you can extract $10k of wealth before they will give you $10k. The best way to get an arts grant is to show how much you don’t need one.

In my experience, it takes around 10k to do just about any significant art project. That’s with a shoestring budget. Shoestrings cost about 10k. For some people, donating that 10k would make less impact than the $20 coming from a struggling artist – but an arts organization lives or dies based on where that $10k might come from. Crowdfunding seemed like an answer and it’s probably not going anywhere but you can tell that it’s not an effective tool because you’ll never catch one of the big arts institutions using it. No one suggests that The Metropolitan Opera do a Kickstarter. They extract their wealth in a much more efficient way.

And yes, of course, I’m in the middle of trying to crowdfund a project right now which is, of course, why I’m thinking a lot about this. I feel extraordinary gratitude to the people who gave us their $3 or their $1000 and I really wish I didn’t have to ask them for it, just to make a piece of art.  

I made this for the company for World Theatre Day. I figured I could extract a little more value out of my labor by putting it here, too.

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The Theatre Theater Problem and the Intermission

If it’s not entirely obvious, I’m a THEATRE person. I am not a THEATER person, not really. This is partly a silly distinction of spelling and partly a really serious long-standing American problem.

And before I go any further with this, let me acknowledge that I now think I’m on the wrong side of this divide. It’s a side I’ve fought for, one that I reinforce every time I spell my company’s name or website or email address, and one I somehow cannot seem to let go, no matter how on the wrong side of it I am.

I started to think about this when a European friend asked what we call the break, or pause, in a performance. I’d been thinking about all the ways that theatres are set up to make people feel like outsiders when they arrive and the simple fact that we call this break an intermission suddenly struck me as yet another way our theatres create this rarified atmosphere. We don’t take a break, no, no. We take – an intermission. So many things about going to the theatre are built to suggest that it is for the elites. We’ll have no groundlings here, please and thank you. This is why we have velvet ropes. And this is not an accident.

That’s the thing that hit me full force when thinking about our intermissions – just what a purposeful positioning all this is. American theatre was designed this way and we’ve been fighting about it for some time. The distinction between theatre and theater is not, as I’ve heard some people posit, that one is the art and the other the building. The distinction is mostly just a matter of preference. Technically, THEATER is the American spelling and THEATRE is the European spelling. Every spell check agrees.

But a lot of us in the THEATRE/THEATER – just prefer this RE version. We couldn’t tell you why necessarily. I’ve heard folks say they feel THEATER must be pronounced thee-ATE-r and so THEATRE wins the day. In my case, I guess it just looks better to me. I like it. It connects me to Europe. Given how embarrassing we Americans can be, that’s a nice benefit. And in my personal case, my aesthetic alignment tends to side with Europe so it just sort of stacked up in those early days when I was picking a side. THEATRE just sounded artier, somehow. THEATER is where they do that trashy stuff. Or something. And I know now that this is some elitist mularkey. This stacks up with the velvet ropes and the intermissions and the donors’ circles and the patron’s boxes and all the things that suggest this art is not for poor people.

Now, we imagine this was an accident but history suggests it was very much on purpose. If someone had taught me this history in my youth, I’d probably be a THEATER person instead of the THEATRE person I am.

I learned from James Shapiro’s book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, that in the first bit of the 19th century, there had been multiple riots at theatres. Theatres were one of the few places that the rich and poor encountered each other and as income inequality was getting worse and worse, they clashed about it often. The poor had power in numbers and they used those numbers in theatre audiences. Theatres were one of our most truly democratic spaces in those days. Imagine.

Then in 1849, the aristocrats of NYC got tired of being shouted at and so bought themselves an opera house and designed it in such a way so as to welcome the elites and keep the poor away. They invented a dress code that featured things like dress coats, white cravats and kid gloves. They transformed “the pit” (which once held the cheaper seats/standing area for the poor right up front) into the orchestra. They numbered the seats so they could assign them how they liked. They covered the seats in red damask and put the cheap seats upstairs, through their own separate entrance. They raised the prices. In 1849, this was all new. And the people did not like it.

It came to a head in 1849, when a feud between a British and an American Shakespearean culminated with the British actor performing Macbeth at this contentious elitist opera house and the American actor performing the same role across the street. Neither side came off well in this conflict. The Brit aligned with the elite, even though his own politics were more progressive and the American’s supporters aligned with anti-immigrant racist ideology – and both actors were part of a working creative class so the spark of this thing was not as simple as a class riot. BUT – there was an infiltration of the opera house and it got shouty in there. The next night, law enforcement was standing by for violence and violence arrived. At first it was just the building that suffered with broken windows and such. Then the militia started shooting protestors and bystanders and killed twenty of them before the night was through.

What strikes me about this now is how this battle is still simmering in the soul of American Theatre. So many of the adaptations that were designed to keep out the riff raff have remained. The elites may have ultimately lost that opera house but their innovations to shift the audience away from democracy stayed. There aren’t riots in theatre any more, not because we’ve worked out our class issues, but because the elites adjusted the theatres so that they were only talking to themselves.

What blows my mind about it all is how intentional it was at the time. And how something that was an intentional tool to keep the poor out of theatres just happens unconsciously. Or at least I HOPE it’s unconscious. I have to hope that all the education programs and diversity initiatives are an attempt to remedy the bias and are not just a cynical grab for grant money and foundation funds. I suppose it could be both – a desire to “give” to poor children while simultaneously creating conditions to keep their parents from ever coming in to see a show.

Those riots from 1849 are deep in our theatre history’s bones and so are the conditions that helped create them. We are still in this clash.

And by aligning myself with the European spelling for theatre, I am, unintentionally of course, aligning myself with the elite. In much the same way that William Macready didn’t necessarily mean to align himself with the elite when he chose to perform at the new opera house, I have connected myself to the privileged. The theatre is for red velvet ropes and lush curtains. It is for orderly seat assignments and respectful silence. I’m not gonna lie. I do like some of those things. But I respect and admire the theater which we lost – the one where an American Shakespearean like Edwin Forrest would hiss a performance he did not care for. He was an actor who hoped to “bring the American stage within the influence of a progressive movement.” I wish he’d managed it.

Anyway – according to Etymology on-line, “intermission” began to be used for the pause at performances around 1854. Notice anything about that timing? The rich set about trying to push the poor out of theatres in 1849. Their innovations in that arena began taking hold elsewhere and just five years later, this long French word is what we call a break and I insist on calling it all theatre.

If those chairs could talk, they might say “Rich people only, please!”

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This Reboot Sucks
February 13, 2022, 11:15 pm
Filed under: American, art, economics, pandemic, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I guess I never imagined a dystopia would be so dull. Dystopian novels are full of marauding bands and dramatic battles. This is like sitting in the waiting room of a corporate marketing agency, waiting to join a focus group you really don’t want to join but are hoping they’re going to pay you enough to make the trip worthwhile. Just sitting here. Waiting for someone boring to call your name. In a mask.

When the pandemic hit NYC in March of 2020 – and all of the performing arts shut down, when nearly everyone I know here lost work, when everyone fled to the country or back to their parents’ houses in other states, I imagined this decimated arts landscape might be radically reconfigured when we got back to it. I thought we might experience the good parts of the post-pandemic life, like in the novel, Station Eleven, with fewer horse drawn carts. I thought – oh – maybe the city will return to its kind of dirty, gritty, scrappy, sort of affordable form like in the 80s. Sure, there might be a parallel crime surge or something – but I did start imagining a future like in After Hours or Madonna’s life in Desperately Seeking Susan – but in theatre, of course. Downtown would rise again. We’d put on wild buffoon shows or cartoon craziness like we used to. It wouldn’t cost a year’s tuition to just put on a little something, so we’d get out there and make some old fashioned passionate cheap art.

It’s not like that. I mean, the pandemic is, for sure, not over – but even from here I can tell we’re not going back to a more artist friendly time. We’re already leaning harder into all the things that sucked before. Some shows came back but only the giant machine sort of shows can afford to run in this environment. So mostly that’s all there is. When and if I did get back in the game of producing shows, I would now have far fewer venues to choose from and the spaces for rehearsal would also be much diminished. Will they be cheaper to rent? I doubt it. Every single one of these places has had to endure total shut downs for nearly two years, without any significant support from government. They couldn’t possibly be cutting prices in that kind of environment.

It feels like everything that sucked about the performing arts world has not only remained – but gotten much worse.

And it’s not just theatre, of course. The wealth gap has widened enormously, not just because the poor have gotten poorer but because billionaires have gotten 62% richer. And we get a new billionaire every day. This was a problem before but now it is much much worse. I’m guessing this is true for most things.

Are the arts elitist and only for the most privileged to find success in? Now more than ever. Were there few opportunities to pry open the closed doors before? There were very few before and now those are even fewer. Was it hard for artists to make a living before? Yes! And now it’s ten times as hard! And might you need a day job, my sweet artists? Well – Teaching Artist jobs are almost non-existent. Food service is a highly risky dangerous environment. Many of the fantastic, affordable restaurants frequented by nice people have closed because it’s mostly assholes out there at the tables now. Your favorite little home away from home is probably gone but that asshole factory is doing great! Offices don’t tend to hire temps to work from home. I would imagine that dog walkers have lost business because their clients are home and happy to walk their pets themselves.

Our current mayor ran on beating back the crime wave he felt was happening and I guess others agreed with him because he won. Maybe this is naïve – but I wouldn’t mind this city getting some of its old school crime back. Everyone just seems too comfortable to me. I saw a guy put his computer in the back of his car, leave the hatchback OPEN and then walk way to get something in his apartment. He left a COMPUTER ON the STREET in New York City and you know what? It was fine! Nobody stole it. I was tempted to – just to prove a point, just because – you SHOULDN’T leave your shit out if you don’t want someone to take it. We apparently now live in a city where people don’t know that anymore and I don’t mean to be a cranky “back in my day” kind of person but I don’t really like this version of New York.

Because all this “safety” is of course, an illusion. And the people in need have been pushed by this city’s fucked up economics farther and farther to the margins of the place in more ways than one. The more divided our classes become, the more likely it becomes that actual violence will break out. The fact that someone could leave a computer on the street here without consequences suggests to me that we have too uniform a population where I live. No one would steal that computer because we all have our own at home, which is nice for us but terrible for those who can no longer afford to live here and who certainly don’t have a computer at home.

Is there more crime? Maybe? A little. I mean – the drugstore locked up the toothpaste (and the soap and the deodorant) the porch pirates are active and my local gourmet corner store now has a security guard peering over folks’ shoulders at all times – but these are all signs of economic strife, more than anything. People are mostly stealing hygienic items and food. Maybe if folks could get a little economic relief out there, those things would even out. But what do I know? I’m just an artist who hasn’t set foot in the place of my primary art in almost two years.

Back when I had a band – and this was 20 years ago so take this with a grain of salt – we sometimes rehearsed at one of our band members’ studio apartment in the East Village. We couldn’t imagine how he managed to afford to live there because the rents were so high. (I tremble to imagine what they are now.) But on the street were also the Hell’s Angels’ headquarters, numerous old school grandmas and grandpas and families that had grown up there. Our bandmate was the anomaly on that street. The street’s culture was old and established. I haven’t been on that particular street in a while but I know, as a whole, the atmosphere of the place has changed dramatically. A young person from elsewhere is the norm there now, not the families or the Hell’s Angels. Now the norm is for people with money to burn, now the culture is for the new arrivals, most of whom wouldn’t think twice about leaving their computer on the street. All I’m saying is, I’d trade the safety of that computer for a richer culture and more affordable living for everyone.

Could we have both? I don’t know. I guess that would be nice?

I guess I was hopeful for a minute that the crisis would lead to a beautiful rebirth and now I’m looking at a world that is putting itself back together with all its worst features. Not a horse drawn performance stage in sight.

No, this is totally fine. Just leave your computer anywhere. No one will take it. Perfectly safe apparently.

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My Pandemic Guide to International TV – Part One

My guess is that international TV got its hooks into me these last two years because there’s something about getting so far away from the world I live in, they don’t even speak my language. Or maybe the extra “labor” of reading subtitles kept my attention when it was inclined to wander? Or maybe it’s like traveling in a period where I mostly just saw the kitchen table? Whatever the reason, the various streaming platforms have afforded me the opportunity of diving into international TV shows galore. Just in case you’ve been wanting to branch out, I thought I should write up some of my favorites and bring you into my international orbit.

I’m going to do this in a Two Part series as there’s, um, a lot here and I think it might be too much to sort through in one sitting. This first part features: Spain, Italy and Turkey

As you may know if you’re a regular reader of the blog, this journey began with Spanish TV shows. I’ve talked already about Cable Girls, The Time Between, Gran Hotel, 45 rpm and Velvet. I believe I’ve also made mention of High Seas (a show on which there is the world’s fastest vaccine development). Missing from this list are:

The Cook of Castamar – which was an absolutely lush period drama set in an estate in the 18th Century. It features an upstairs/downstairs love story, a few Dangerous Liason-y sort of love affairs and some royal batshittery. The ending is really abrupt, like they ran out of film and just had to hurry up and wrap it up. But other than that, this was one of my favorite shows of the year. The cinematography was like a Vermeer painting sometimes and the performances were extraordinary.

Morroco: Love in the Time of War which takes place at a military hospital in Morocco in the 1920s. It is full of strong lady nurses in crisp white uniforms having complicated affairs with handsome doctors. It also features some really impressive racism – and I don’t mean it’s good, of course, just kind of fascinating in its awfulness. I get the sense that Spain hasn’t quite grappled with these things yet. My favorite part of this show is something I’ve nearly written about multiple times but just never found the way.  It’s this love affair one of the Spanish nurses has with the Moroccan handy man. Everyone on the show is baffled by it. They just cannot understand what she’s doing with the uneducated Moroccan guy! And they never mention the fact that he’s just preternaturally handsome. Like, the man is an Adonis and not one single character is like: “Listen, I get it. He’s nice to look at. But – you should keep in mind he can’t read your letters.” The whole scenario made me laugh a lot. I mean – look at this guy:

“What do you SEE in him?” they cry, incredulously!

Oh, and Jaguar – a period drama about a spy ring who are trying to bring down Nazis who are harboring each other and helping one another escape in Franco’s Spain. It features the stars from Cable Girls, Velvet and 45 rpm so of course I had to watch it, even though there aren’t enough women in it. It’s a rough ride. But spies! Fighting Nazis! In the middle of a fascist regime!

One of the few shows I’ve watched that ISN’T a period drama is The Neighbor, which is a very boring title for a very eccentric and fun show. It’s a superhero story – but the man given the superpowers is kind of a shithead and he cannot figure out how to use his powers appropriately. The show goes to some extremely unexpected places. Never once have I been able to predict where it was going. It’s also very funny in a delightfully wacky way. I can’t figure out how to tell you the best parts of it without spoiling it, so, you know, watch a trailer.

Other contemporary Spanish shows I’ve watched:

Valeria which is a sort of contemporary Spanish Sex and the City. Watch it if you want to watch Spanish millennials pretend to have sex with each other in colorful apartments and to get a glimpse of some good looking Spanish Tortillas.

Money Heist which features actors from many other shows I’ve watched so though I tried to resist it (as it seemed like it was going to have too many guns and explosions for me) ultimately I succumbed and joined the rest of the world in being mildly obsessed with this show for a while. If there’s a Spanish show you’ve heard of, it’s probably this one. It has a dumb name in English, but its Spanish title translates to The House of Paper, which is much better. I only just finished watching it so I’m still digesting. I may have more to say about it later.

I believe I’ve already told you everything about the Italian shows I’ve watched: Zero, Luna Park, Luna Nera and Generazione 56k. I also watched An Astrological Guide to Broken Hearts which was a charming contemporary love/work story.  

One of my favorite shows of anywhere has been The Club, a show from Turkey that Netflix sold me on almost as soon as it came out. Sometimes they really nail it. (Most times they don’t. I find it hilarious how often they suggest shows I have already watched. Like, you know I watched that already. I watched it HERE!) Anyway – The Club mostly takes place in and around a nightclub in Istanbul, so it’s a show biz show and you know I’m a sucker for a show biz show. But it’s also about this period in the 50s where Nationalism and racism were on the rise. The Turkish Business Council seems to be gaining in power and targeting anyone who isn’t Muslim. Living in a country where Muslims are often the targets as I do, I found it very interesting to see these power dynamics reversed. One thing I learned from reading about it that wasn’t obvious in watching it, is that there are several languages spoken in the series. To my ear, it all just blended together, so I had no ideas folks were identifying themselves by their language sometimes. There’s one moment where a character speaks Greek to another who isn’t actually Greek and it condemns him. I’d love to be able to understand at least one of the languages spoken to catch some of these distinctions (or to have it noted in the titles which language was being spoken) but it’s just as thrilling with the subtitles as they were. And the musical numbers are both good theatre and good music. The story is complicated and I didn’t always trust where they were going but it made for some really interesting questions about redemption and loss.

The Club was so good, I instantly searched for other Turkish shows or movies but failed to find anything yet.

We’ll leave it here with my new taste for Turkish TV simmering.

Part Two will feature shows from France, Germany, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and beyond.

Look! Somewhere that’s not my apartment!

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 

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The One Who Called 911
November 30, 2021, 9:36 pm
Filed under: American, community, Healthcare | Tags: , , , , ,

The one I can’t stop thinking about is the person who called 911, the person who witnessed the accident that killed my youngest brother. I feel enormous tenderness for that person, even though I know nothing about them. The only thing I know is that they saw the accident and called 911.

They will likely have the image of it in their brain forever. I have an imaginary version of it in my brain that will likely be with me for as long but the caller has the actual event there in their brain. I’m sure it is not a nice thing to have there and yet I am grateful that that person was present, that they called the emergency line and did something. It was too late for my brother, but they tried and I think of them, this person I know nothing of, with so much warmth. They were there for the last moments of Will’s life. They were witness to his exit. I’m not sure why it moves me but it does.

Maybe because of this grateful 911 “song” that keeps playing in my head, I also haven’t been able to stop thinking of a 911 call I had to make for a stranger a few weeks before Will’s accident. It was a much different situation but the events are somehow linked in my mind. I’ll tell you about it.

About halfway up my block as I walked from my apartment, I noticed a young man, who I thought was sitting on a stoop but turned out to be crouching. As I approached, he fell to the ground in front of me. Not quite at my feet but awfully close. I asked if he was okay and though he did not answer, it was clear he was not okay. I asked him a couple of questions and he seemed not to be able to speak. I asked him if I could call him an ambulance and while he couldn’t really say anything, the look in his eyes and the slight nod gave me the permission I felt I needed. (Note to my readers from other countries: Because of our outrageous health care system, people will often object to having emergency services called for them as ambulances are incredibly expensive and are not always covered by folks’ insurance. Many people will not thank you for calling an ambulance.)

When I called 911, they seemed unconcerned really – more interested in the scrape he’d gotten on his fall to the ground than anything else – but they asked me if he was male or female and I found myself unsure of how to proceed. He looked male but I did not want to presume when he couldn’t speak for himself. So I said “male?” while looking at him inquiringly and he nodded so we were clear there. (Side note: Is gender identity really necessary for this sort of thing? Like how important is it to know what gender someone in trouble is?) Then they asked me how old he was so I tried asking him and I THINK he said 22 and he did not object when I repeated it back. And then they were on their way.

The elderly woman who’d been standing nearby all this time asked me something and I told her the ambulance was on the way. I’d thought she was standing there because she was concerned for this fallen man’s welfare – but no, it turns out, she was asking for my assistance in walking her around him. She was very unsteady on her feet and was making her way down the block by holding on to fences and the 22 year old was on the ground in front of the fence she needed to get by.

So I gave her my arm and walked her as far as she would let me then came back to the young man on the sidewalk who was now passed out and entirely unresponsive to my voice. As we waited, a woman passed by and said dismissively, “Drunk.” I said, “I don’t think so.” And as we chatted, she revealed that her husband had had Parkinsons and people were always assuming he was drunk when he categorically was not. I was fascinated that someone who’d had such a painful experience of someone dear to her being misjudged in this way would do the same to a helpless stranger on the street. A group of young men passed by on the other side of the street and laughed and shouted about drugs. Several people passed by, ready to dismiss this guy because “drugs.” Was it drugs? Maybe. But people on drugs need help, too. Also, I’ve seen “drugs.” This did not look like drugs. I was stunned by how little compassion folks had.

This stranger on the sidewalk had just started to turn blue and I was just starting to panic when the ambulance arrived. The arrival of the paramedics brought him back around a bit and the paramedics seemed just as unconcerned as everyone else until they took an oxygen reading and then they swung into swift action, getting out the stretcher, putting him on oxygen and getting him into the ambulance. Meanwhile, cars behind the ambulance started honking. It was entirely obvious there was an emergency here and these assholes were honking. Come on, guys. Come on. The honking was clearly an annoyance to the paramedics but they also seemed entirely used to it. I could not believe how jerky these people in their cars were.

The stranger on the stretcher was sort of awake now but very disoriented and kept trying to pull the oxygen out of his nose. They told him they were going to the hospital and off they went. And I don’t know what happened to him from there. I don’t know anything. I haven’t seen him on my street again, but then, I’d never seen him on my street before. I hope he’s okay. I feel strangely tied to him, like, having been with him at this terrible moment, he’s now sewn into the fabric of my life and yet I’ll never know how the story will turn out. Nor do I know if that elderly lady tottering on her red pumps, holding onto fences, ever made it to her destination.

I sort of understand why people don’t stop to help, don’t stop to call 911 – because you do become tied together somehow, in tragedy or fate or something. When you start to care, you can’t unstitch yourself from that caring. Every time I pass the spot this guy fell, I think of him. This 22 year old, who could have been my brother, only seven years younger than my brother, really, ended up on the sidewalk in big trouble and very few people stopped to help. Not only that, a lot of them were real jerks about it.

But someone did stop to help my actual brother when he was struck by that motorcycle. Someone was there. Someone made the call and they were a witness. Even though it ended in tragedy – my family’s tragedy – it was a good deed that person did and I am so grateful to them for it. It can’t have been easy and probably continues to not be. But I am grateful. Also, I realize I’m not 100% certain this person exists. I got a lot of information in a highly concentrated and emotional moment. I’m not entirely certain I didn’t make up this person who called 911 at my brother’s accident. But I think I’ve got this right. Someone must have called emergency services because they came.

If the circumstance arises, make the call. Someone will be grateful, even if you never meet them. And please don’t honk at ambulances taking care of someone in an emergency. At the very least.

Poster by Alfredo Ponce

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