Songs for the Struggling Artist


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.

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

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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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Have You Ever Used This Before?

There’s a great Thai restaurant in my neighborhood where we would always get the same thing – the Sukhothai soup with wide ribbon noodles. They used to, before they brought the soup, bring out a little caddie with various toppings, a bottle of fish sauce and a container of peanuts and every time, they’d say, with exactly the same tone and phrasing, “Have you ever used this before?” We’d say yes and proceeded to enjoy the soup with the confidence that we were approaching the condiments appropriately.

That restaurant was built for newcomers. While we found it amusing to be asked the same question every time we went, it was somehow a comforting tradition. Anyone new there would feel just as welcome as those of us who’d been going for years. The Have You Ever Used This Before framework ensures that everyone is welcome. I can’t remember the moment really, but I know the first time we went there, we HADN’T used it before and so got some useful instruction on what choices were before us. That restaurant made us feel welcome and cared for from the start.

I was thinking about this because I donated blood for the first time at a local blood drive recently. I knew absolutely nothing about what was going to happen, how it worked, what the place was, where I was supposed to go and it was clear that this team of people were not accustomed to welcoming newcomers. The experience seemed to run smoothly for those in the know but for me, despite reporting to absolutely everyone I saw that it was my first time, no one took the extra time to – well, explain the fish sauce, as it were. I could feel how unusual it was for a newcomer to find their way into this atmosphere – a fact I found strange, given that blood drives need an ever-renewing crop of donors to keep supplies up.

And the thing is, they’re NOT keeping supplies up. The reason I decided to donate was that I heard a podcast about how dangerously low NYC’s blood supplies were and how that danger was magnified by how low supplies were nationwide. There is an urgent need for donors. But of course, if it’s not easy to find a place to donate in a convenient spot (it took me a month) and then when you arrive, you’re made to feel awkward and burdensome because you’re new, then, yeah, it’s going to be hard to get new donors. Also, the only thank you for donating that I received was on the placemat in the snack area and an automated email the next day. I certainly didn’t do this for the thank yous but I’m sure a direct thank you from a fellow human being would go a long way toward making someone feel good about making the effort to donate again. When it comes to emotional stuff, humans are just better at that sort of thing than pieces of paper or robo-emails. Places like Blood Centers need to actively make room for newcomers and make them feel amazing when they show. Increasing the blood supply depends on it.

Obviously, extracting blood is a job for these folks and no one who’s just busy trying to get home to their kids or whatever has the emotional energy to also make a newcomer feel welcome. There has to be some thought about it, I think. Someone whose job it is, perhaps, to just guide newcomers or some system that helps make a positive event of it for the staff. Maybe it’s as simple as asking a new donor if they’ve ever donated before. I don’t know the answer but I do know that they ought to be thinking about it because the crisis suggests that what they’re doing isn’t working well enough.

It makes me think of my friend’s teacher’s union which does nothing to welcome its new members. When you get a job there, your union dues automatically come out of your paycheck but no one sends you a letter or a postcard or even an email to welcome you to your union. No one tells you what the union is working on or what you can do to be a part of it. I know this, not just because of my friend’s stories but because, on the occasions when I’ve been briefly contracted to teach a class in this system, I’ve paid those union dues, too but never had a stitch of contact with the union itself.  

A union is also an organization that would benefit from making newcomers feel welcome. The more people are invested in a union, the more powerful that union becomes. Leaving it up to folks to find out on their own when the meetings are and motivate themselves to attend or be a part of union actions means the union never achieves its full power. There is no one to ask them if they’ve ever used this before and as result, they don’t use any of the tools/flavors available to them.

This is important for the arts, as well. There are theatres or concert halls or museums that you can go to that welcome newcomers and ones that make you feel like an outsider until you’ve gone there enough to feel like an insider. There are places that may not explicitly ask you if you’ve ever been there before but the process of going inside is such that you know everyone is welcome. Those are the places with staff to greet you or signs to guide you or even architecture to help direct you to the right place. Some arts institutions work to welcome new visitors and some institutions design their venues (and experiences) to feel exclusive. Most do the latter. But even though I’ve been going to cultural events all of my life, I am always grateful to be welcomed as if I’d never gone inside such a building before. In feeling cared for myself, I know others are being cared for and welcomed and that makes me feel more welcome as well.

Having facilitated the process of a lot of young people’s first trip to a theatre, I have seen what an impact those opening moments can have. And kids will report back, not so much about the show they saw, but how they were treated when they arrived. Many have told me that they felt like everyone was worried they were going to rob the place when they came inside. It is a far cry from feeling cared for and welcomed.

I would love for arts organizations to learn to be as good as my local Thai restaurant at making everyone feel welcome. It can be as simple as asking, “Have you ever been here before? Have you ever used this before?”

That’s the caddie, though not the Sukhothai. (I lifted this photo from the Wall Street Journal. Normally I’d feel bad about it. But I figure I’m linking back to their weirdo paper and Cassandra Giraldo took this photo for them and I hope she got paid handsomely for it already. And I figured you needed to see this caddie.)

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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Maybe I Should Go into Business

Creativity is incredibly important to me. That’s why I read Jonah Lehrer’s book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, even though he’s been disgraced for being a little too “creative” with his Bob Dylan quotes.

Before he got himself disgraced, he made all the podcast rounds so not much of the book was a particular surprise to me. I’ve heard the story of the invention of the Swiffer. I know all about Pixar’s architecture. I am familiar with 3M’s post-it note development. However, the cumulative effect of reading the whole book made me feel like the people who really care about creativity are in business, not the arts. Businesses like 3M, Pixar and Wieden+Kennedy are in the business of innovating, so they do the studies. They run the experiments. They actually value creativity, it would seem.

What strikes me the hardest about this is how arts organizations are NOT particularly interested in creativity and innovation. Arts organizations do not run experiments to see what will make its makers most creative. They’re not working hard to innovate. They out their hardest work into seeming stable, secure, unshakeable. Theatres, museums and such are some of the most conservative of businesses.

It’s a real drag. And ironic that it is the creative arts where creativity is so taken for granted, so devalued, so bottom of the pile of priorities, as to be almost never talked about. Creativity is not a big value in the creative arts.

This is why I’m thinking of getting into Business. Not any business. I know MOST businesses don’t have the interest in innovation that places like 3M or Google do but I am ready to sign up for a businessy day job with benefits if I could be valued for my creativity. Maybe it would be great to bring my outsider creative brain to the task of inventing new kinds of tape or a crazy new mop or whatever. I’d love to try and solve some kind of business problem with my theatre brain. I’m tired of trying to solve theatre problems with my theatre brain. No one wants those things solved. I will go where I’m wanted!

The thing is, as much as outsider perspectives do stimulate creativity (the way the computer programmer invented the Bacon-Infused Old Fashioned or the scientists at InnoCentive tackle problems outside their fields for prizes)  it would be extremely unlikely that I would ever be hired at any of these creativity loving businesses, except as a receptionist or something. And I know from experience that no one ever asks the receptionist what they think about a creative problem.

So even though I might be willing to jump over to Business just to be valued for my creativity, it is extremely unlikely that they’d want my particular brand of creativity. Even innovating businesses are suspicious of willful rebellious artists.

We may not talk about creativity in the arts (to our detriment) but creativity is, at least, usually implied. Probably I need to stick with the people who drink the same sort of creativity water. Maybe it’s just so common we don’t need to talk about it. I’d like to stay in the arts, actually, and just experience more creativity and innovation there.

(Also, I discovered after I wrote this piece that I’d read this book before, back in 2012, before Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace. Hilarious. So memorable! No wonder I recognized so much of the material!)

I did a search for “business” over on Pixabay and this was on the first page of results. Look at this very businessy lady wanting some innovation. I will note that this image was made by an artist named Michal Jarmoluk so it’s not all business over here.

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

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Inclusive Gatekeeping

The application form asked my age, so I answered the question and submitted my application. But after I did, I started to worry. Should I have skipped that question? Should I have submitted it to Honor Roll, the group of women playwrights over 40 that works to combat ageism and sexism in American theatre? Had I just set myself up for being rejected by revealing that I am 48? The form asked. I answered. I’m not yet used to being vigilant on this topic. I tried to be attentive to ageism before it was relevant to me but I wasn’t prepared for it to come for me so soon – or at least before I had anything impressive under my belt.

It was one of the first things I’ve submitted to in a long while and the whole exercise sent me into a bit of a funk. In the year and a half that theatre was been shut down, I’ve aged into ageism and now all the doors that have been closed to me are extra closed. I read a book on creativity that suggested that the science says we are most creative in our first few years with our art and after that it’s just a steady downward trajectory.

What is that ageist science nonsense? It’s possible I was more creative in my youth. I’d say my songs were full of some naïve innovations – but I am a much better writer now than I was in my 20s. And also, the American theatre is not very keen on innovation – so it may be an asset if I have, indeed, lost creativity over the years.

Anyway – this whole spiral was brought to you by the series of questions on the application that tend to happen around demographics and attempts to be more inclusive. I suspect this questionnaire asked my age, not so they could be ageist at me, but so they could make sure to include some young playwrights. However – one does privilege the other. You want to get more young writers, you’re discriminating against the old. You want to combat ageism and pull in the older writers, you’re discriminating against the young.

When we apply for things, we have no idea whether we are helping the organization discriminate against us, or give us an extra boost. Somehow arts organizations think that they can solve their racist, sexist, ableist biases with tools like this.

As my friend put it, “Right now across the nation, arts administrators are sitting around tables trying to figure out how to do more inclusive gatekeeping.” I have not been able to stop thinking about this phrase since he said it.

Because that’s the thing. American Arts institutions are built on gatekeeping. They are spaces designed to keep people out. The velvet rope was invented in NYC by someone in the hospitality business but Arts institutions are the ones who’ve really taken the idea and run with it. Sometimes with literal velvet ropes and sometimes internal ones. Having people in or out is the whole deal. The people who have salaries in the arts are not the artists but the gatekeepers.

As a culture, we clearly value keeping people out more than the actual art. But the gatekeepers have been challenged to shift the demographics of who they let get past the door of their clubs. Most of the clubs have been chock full of white guys with a handful of white women and some token people of color. But ultimately, after all these years of hanging out in those clubs, those clubs are really white guy clubs. And mostly they’re clubs full of white guys who went to Yale and occasionally some other people who also went to Yale. They’ve congregated there for so long and they want to keep hanging out there and they want to keep doing things the way they’ve always done them; They just don’t want to be accused of racism or sexism. So they ask the bouncer to let in enough “others” to not get in trouble about it anymore. So the bouncer tries this new inclusive gatekeeping. He’s trying to keep the club the same as it always was but include enough of the RIGHT new faces to keep this club out of the news.

Actually, they think they just need to approach this problem at the ground floor and make sure to send more diverse people to Yale, so they can make their gatekeeping more inclusive because you get in the club immediately that way. So – they rename Yale Drama School after David Geffen so he’ll give a bunch of money to Yale so they can make it tuition free in the hopes of making it more inclusive and voila! Problem solved, right? Must be!

I can’t wait for all these super inclusive shows that will tell us all about what it’s like to have studied at Yale. Oh, the fresh perspective we’re going to get! Oh, the extraordinary inclusivity that awaits us from all the different people who might have gotten in to Yale.

The thing is we’re sort of in this mess because the gatekeepers get their power from choosing, from who they select – which is, significantly also about their power to say no, to refuse people entry to the club. To have an actual equitable club, there would be no bouncer and our gatekeepers would have no power. We might get to stop guessing whether our demographics will hinder us or help us and just, say, hope for a good lottery number. Honestly, could we do worse?

I mean, I don’t want to be cranky about it, but I haven’t seen a really innovative piece of work in maybe a decade. Choosing the same sort of people all the time, whether it’s their race or gender or grad program, does not innovative art make. Maybe we could give up trying to do inclusive gatekeeping and try to just do away with gatekeeping altogether. What if we tried that?

We might have locked you out but we LOVE you! Look at that! It’s a heart on the lock we locked you out with! Isn’t that so sweet and inclusive?

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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A Grant Ain’t One

You may not be shocked to learn that the City did not give me one of its 5k City Artist Corps Grants. I did end up applying for it, after all that sturm und drang – and two days after my birthday – I got a rejection email from them. Happy Birthday to me!

Well, I guess I got 99 problems but a grant ain’t one.

You may be saying to yourself – “Well, Emily, perhaps if you hadn’t publicly complained about this grant in two previous blog posts, maybe they would have given it to you! Maybe badmouthing grantmakers is not a great strategy for receiving their bounty.” And you would be absolutely right about that. I know I’m saying stuff that does not endear me to people who give those things out. This is why most artists don’t say anything. This is why they can be pathologically POSITIVE! OPTIMISTIC! Because, yes, it’s true, talking about our challenges with these things is probably not a great way to get these grants.

The thing is, though, I have a kind of freedom, as a marginal artist, to say whatever I want. I know that very few people are listening and that the odds of my grant panel actually reading a single word of this blog are very very slim. After all these years of doing this, I feel even more comfortable in my relative anonymity than I did when I started. I’ve had only a very small handful of blog posts land in front of arts folk with power and if they do end up there, it’s because I said whatever I said in such a way that it spoke to those folks and got passed around between them.

I can almost guarantee you that no one from that City Corps committee read either of my posts about their grant. I doubt, very highly, that it was a factor in my rejection. It’s much more likely that my project just didn’t sound like what they had in mind for this thing. Or that they were turned off by the fact that I have a company when they’re trying to help individual artists. But – of course, despite the odds, I still wonder if these posts somehow tanked my chances. It’s hard not to guess at things when you know nothing. It won’t stop me telling these sorts of truths in the future, though.

In fact, the only way I can see myself stopping talking about these uncomfortable nitty gritty arts realities is if they gave me one of the big grants. That is the most reliable way to shut up a troublesome artist – just give them your resources and the criticism will likely dry right up. It’s the artists with something to lose who will keep quiet, blow smoke or do whatever they have to do to remain within the good graces of the goods givers. I’d like to believe I would continue to speak my truths no matter what resources were given to me – but I also recognize that part of the reason I can do it is that I have absolutely nothing to lose. I can see how easy it would become to say nothing when to say something might actually register with the people I was receiving grants or funding from. I know this is true because I’ve already done it. If a hand is feeding me, I do not bite it. Grants like these, however, are not hands that feed me – just hands that might feed me one day if I got extremely lucky. God willing and the creek don’t rise, which the creek always does, so, you know, it’s unlikely to happen. This blog, on the other hand, is a hand that actually feeds me (through Patreon) and so the choice feels very clear. I write for the hand that actually feeds me, not the one that MIGHT.

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Here Comes the Wave

When I was in grad school, I brought the guest director from England to see a Moliere piece made by Theatre de la Jeune Lune, on tour from Minneapolis. I’d seen Jeune Lune’s work in their home when I was on tour and fell in love with their production of The Kitchen. If you saw this production you’ll know why. (Plates!) So I knew this visiting director would find something of interest in their Moliere piece. She was very impressed and we talked about that production a lot, even later that year, when I came to assist her on a production in London.

Not long after that, Jeune Lune, after thirty years of innovative work, had to close. Word on the street was that financial troubles had sunk them and they had to disband. Every time I saw this director I’d brought to the show after that, she’d ask me, “Darling, how could this happen? How could they let this wonderful company die? What is wrong in your country that they don’t know they need to take care of extraordinary artists like that?” She was greatly troubled by the loss. I was too – though a lot less surprised, as I’ve come to expect a terrible survival-of-the-financially-fittest in the arts in this country. It’s not the best art that survives – just the stuff that generates the most financially stable footprint.

I think this is backwards, of course. Personally, I don’t need my great artists to be financial wizards. If they’re not great at managing their money, I don’t think that should be a death sentence for a theatre company. I want a company to make great theatre; I don’t need it to make great investments. Anyway – Jeune Lune died and it was a tragedy for their community not to mention theatre in general, and its reverberations were felt everywhere, even across the ocean to a director who’d seen their Moliere once.

Now, here in 2021, a beloved and cherished English company has died. It is one with a similarly storied history, aesthetic chops and full touring schedule. If you saw Kneehigh Theatre, you know you saw something special. And they survived through the pandemic! They made it through the eye of the hurricane! But they could go no further. It’s heartbreaking. I want to call up that director who used to bemoan the loss of Jeune Lune and say, “Darling, how could you let this happen?”

But of course – this is only the first of many beloved companies hitting the rocks, I expect. I expect this is about to happen around the world. There will be companies that quietly folded while we were all at home. There will be companies that held on throughout but could not pick up the pieces here at the end of the road. It’s about to get very sad around here for the performing arts and it’s been sad for some time now but it’s somehow going to be a whole new wave of closures and sadness. Darling how could we let this happen? There are a lot of positive developments in process. Broadway will be back in the fall. The Public is doing some Shakespeare in the Park this summer (featuring one of the actors from the Dragoning! Go see him!) But Jeune Lune is long gone. Kneehigh is shutting down.

As things start to open up, many other companies we love will discover that their futures are unsustainable. Darlings, do we have to let this happen?

It’s probably too late for most of them but if you have a company you love – maybe let them know now, maybe drop them a donation, before they’re gone forever.

This is from Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter. Waves feature quite prominently in this production. That might be one coming up behind them in that boat. Also, I don’t have the rights for this photo but I hope as it’s in tribute to the great loss of this great company, they might not object to my using it.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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

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

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The Stumbler, or, F**k Around Fridays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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

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

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Arts “Coming Back Strong”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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

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

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WTF with Jake Gyllenhaal

Granted, I’m a little wound up. Theatre’s been on (really stinky) mothballs for a year and I’m really tired of my tiny apartment. So. Forgive me if this response to a little podcast episode I listened to is a little overblown. But – WTF! Actually the name of the podcast is WTF and that is also literally how I felt after listening to the episode with Jake Gyllenhaal.

It’s not Gyllenhaal’s fault – or Maron’s fault. (Marc Maron is the host. It’s his podcast.) It’s just that their talk about theatre made me feel a lot of things and most of them weren’t good.

First, a couple of people who spend most of their time in the Film and TV worlds waxing rhapsodic about theatre is always a little triggering. Like – Yes. You’re right. There is magic in a theatre with an audience. It is the greatest. Damn it. Ouch. Now go back to making your money.

Second, and this is the bit that is getting me all itchy and twisted, Gyllenhaal was describing how the show Sea Wall/A Life came about – and on one hand, it is a super sweet story about how a collaboration became a show that a lot of people really liked. (I did not see it.) On the other hand, it is an infuriating journey through the fame-hungry annals of American theatre. I mean. Listen, Gyllenhaal is a movie star. I like a lot of things he’s done. I got no beef with him. He seems nice and he’s fun to look at on a screen. It’s charming that people fall asleep next to him on the subway.

But lord have mercy. This movie star loved a little personal piece by a writer he worked with and wanted to perform it, even though it was not written to be performed. But the movie star wanted to do it so he eventually persuaded the writer to let him do it and that writer was buddies with another writer who also had a short monologue that wasn’t really for the stage and so they put the two pieces together and voila! Play! Which – you know – cool! That’s cool. Put on whatever you want!

But. Then there’s the part where the movie star gets a year’s worth of development of this piece at the Public Theater. He got to fuck around for a YEAR at the Public, with all its resources at his disposal, discovering what this piece could be.

And FLAMES. FLAMES on the side of my face!

Why, Emily? Do you not WANT to go see Jake Gyllenhaal on the stage? I mean, I’d go if someone gave me a ticket. I can’t afford those prices! But that’s not it. I don’t object to a movie star getting to put on a play. I don’t object to him taking all the time he needs to make something he loves. But what I DO object to are our non-profit institutions giving time and space to movie stars when there are so many worthy, unsupported theatre folk out there who would take a year residency at the Public and absolutely murder it. I know that’s not how the Pubic works. I know that it will give space to celebrities because they’ll bring in audiences later and it’s all very logical.

But it does rather feel like if a movie star read a cereal box that they thought might be a fun show, the Public would give over all its resources so we could all see the story of Honey Nut Cheerios or whatever. Maybe we got lucky and Jake Gyllenhaal’s buddy’s piece was really the best thing seen on a stage and so yay! (Again, I don’t know. I did not see Sea Wall/A Life.) But it is indicative of how stuff goes on. Or went on. I don’t know what sort of theatre we’ll get back when we get back.

I don’t expect the Public to let me come develop a show there. It’s not about me. (Though, give me space in a major institution with their resources behind me and watch the fuck out!) But what it IS about are all the resources that artists need to be able to get a leg up in this theatre world being given over to celebrities and corporate interests and more and more narrow pipelines. The Public wants to be seen as an inclusive diverse bastion of creativity – but when it comes down to it, their choicest reserves are for a group of a white movie star guys. Also, the guy who runs the place is a white guy whose compensation adds up to a million dollars a year. He gets paid that money to give space to movie stars.

And it’s not even about the Public. Any theatre in the country would have given Jake Gyllenhaal space to develop his little idea. But anyone who’s not a movie star will probably have to go to Yale Drama School first and even then no one will give them a year to develop something.

And listen – I know Gyllenhaal is not unaware of his privilege. He knows theatre is elitist. He explains that that’s why he became a Broadway producer and produced Jeremy O Harris’ Slave Play. And that is a good thing. It is good to see a play by a Black playwright featuring Black people on Broadway. And congrats to Yale grad, Jeremy O Harris for breaking a barrier. But this barrier breaking play took a Yale grad AND a movie star to get there. Also – I was struck by the fact that in the WTF conversation about elitism on Broadway, the extremely unaffordable ticket prices never came up.

Anyway – whatever. It’s fine. It’s really just a silly little reaction to a podcast I listened to and then couldn’t stop thinking about and feeling things about. There might not even be any theatre when this is all over. There’s no reason to get all worked up right now.

But after listening to that podcast, I worry it’s going to be JUST movie stars in our theatre from here on out. They’ll be the only ones who can afford to do it at a certain point. And all the theatres will line up to give them space.

Usually WTF stands for What the F**k and it does here, too – but maybe also Well, Theatre’s F**ked

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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

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

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