Songs for the Struggling Artist


Americans Need Dario Fo

Thanks to my dad and the Friends of the Library, a parcel full of books by and about Dario Fo arrived at my door recently. It’s been years since I last looked at his work and suddenly I was up to my ankles in Fo plays and biographies.

If you’re American, you probably haven’t seen many, or any of his plays. I’ve never even seen a notice of a production here, not to mention an actual production. This work just isn’t done in the United States. The first time I read some of his plays, I could not understand why but now that I’m reading his work anew, I actually understand completely why there’s been no American embracement of his work.

First, he and Franca Rame, his wife and artistic partner, were not allowed to enter the US until the 80s. Our government would not let him in. Second, his work is funny and while the American Theatre lets an occasional comedy through the system, it is a rare occurrence. If an American Theatre institution is going to produce foreign work, it wants it to be arty and arty usually means moody. But also the odds of doing foreign work at all are very slim. Also…particularly in the 80s – artists who had some dealings with the communist party were not likely to be heartily embraced.

Third, and this is the bit I realized while reading, the American Theatre has been much too class unconscious to welcome particularly politically progressive work. For example, in Il Ratto di Diana (the Kidnapping of Diane) – there is a recurring joke about the ruling class. And the problem is, the only theatres that could have afforded to put this show on are all funded by the ruling classes, the kind of folks who really don’t find that sort of thing amusing. The way theatre gets made in this country is antithetical to the presentation of actual working class work that might be critical of the ruling class.

American Theatre is only possible because the ruling class has, historically, donated the funds or the buildings or the grants to keep the doors open. The reason there are parties for donors and velvet ropes is that the American Theatre depends on the ruling class continuing to write them big checks.

American Theatre thinks of itself as liberal but it is rarely actually progressive. Our radical progressive theatres like Bread and Puppet and San Francisco Mime Troupe have only managed to survive by the skin of their hippie teeth – instead of embraced as the brave American changemakers they are.

American Theatre puts on a lot of plays about upper middle class families. Like, a lot. This is because those are the people who write the majority of the checks and they like to see themselves on stage. Those audiences are not so interested in being implicated among the ruling classes and so, of course, no big budget theatre has interest in translating and producing Dario Fo’s work. Of course. Of course.

Translation is part of the issue, too. The English translations we have are English, as in from England, and they read very British. In order to do these plays in America, we need to commission American writers to translate in an American style. I suspect that the way American writers are seen and supported also plays a role in keeping Fo from our stages.

But I think we need Fo’s work. We need to talk about the ruling classes. We need to develop an awareness of class. We need to put on plays that challenge our system –not just sit comfortably within it. And not for nothing, anyone deciding to produce this giant of world theatre will pick up a whole lot of hungry theatre goers who have been waiting for it. That is, if I see someone – anyone producing a Fo play any time soon, I will be purchasing tickets. I will even pay full price to actually hear and see a play that challenges the ruling class.

Also – sidebar – my Italian is passable and I’ve already done a translation of one of Rame’s plays, so I’d be happy to give Fo’s a go if you need an American translation.

Photo by D Frohman

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

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 Velvet Rope

After the show, we went to the lobby to wait for the actor to emerge after her performance. The lobby was pretty busy. There seemed to be a little reception in progress, featuring sparkling wine and chocolate.

The party was cordoned off with a velvet rope.

We were on the other side of the velvet rope.

The party, we guessed and later had confirmed, was for donors to the theatre. We had been given to understand that the actor would be appearing here eventually. We had been told to look for her here. On our side of the rope.

As the theatre emptied out, only a handful of us stood on the peasant side of the velvet rope. Among us were the actor’s family and her friends.

You might wonder why we didn’t simply unhook the rope from the stanchion and go in. Well – this theatre had thought of this, too. It was so important to them to maintain this separation between the donor class and us plebeians that they had an intern on duty to police it. He dutifully unhooked the rope to allow donors out and did his best to look forbidding to those of us on the outside. He made it clear that this party wasn’t for us and we were not to be included.

For a good long while, this theatre’s lobby featured a small party of about 24 people drinking prosecco inside a velvet rope and seven people standing around outside it, policed by an intern and his boss.

The “party” proceeded like this for some time – that is, until I spotted and made complicitous eye contact with the actor – who, after all was the woman of the hour and finally I just unhooked the velvet rope and ran in, to give her a hug.

Seeing the actor showing me such warmth, the woman in charge of this party, who had clearly found our presence distasteful before, now invited us to eat and drink. We had all been brought inside the rope. There was no one left outside it.

I don’t know what happened to the actual velvet rope after that. It had been designed to keep the riff raff out and once the riff raff was inside, there was no purpose for it anymore. As someone now on the inside, the rope was no longer of any concern to me. I expect that to those who had been inside all along, the velvet rope barely registered their attention. Did they know it was there? Once I was inside it, it ceased to be important to me – but before I got inside, that velvet rope and the people policing it were my primary focus.

This exercise in absurdity seems to me to be the perfect allegory for the American Theatre and maybe for American Art in general.

The theatre where this happened states, in their mission statement, that they “seek to create broad public access and to bond the diverse New York community” and yet, with a simple velvet rope and a zealous gatekeeper, they created division and diminished access – right there in their very own lobby.

It’s not just them. This absurdity plays itself out through almost every arts organization in America. A few years before, just down the street from this theatre, at another arts organization I used to work for, a crowd of artists sat in the lobby while the party for us went on upstairs because the gatekeeper would not let us up. And that’s just a literal example.

The whole field seems to be arbitrarily divided up by absurd velvet ropes. Once you have been invited inside, you can enjoy the prosecco and chocolate and opportunities but when you’re outside, you just sort of stand there awkwardly trying to make eye contact with any friends you have inside. And woe to the person trying to get in to the party without any friends inside.

Trying to make art in this country is like trying to get inside the velvet ropes without any friends inside. There are multiple forces at work that are actively trying to keep you out. There are things like submission fees, onerous grant application processes and requirements for references from well-known persons (this is a way to prove you have a contact inside the party.)

There are ways to increase your chances of getting past the ropes – depending on your field. Getting an MFA might introduce you to an insider (that’s indirectly how I met my insider at this donor theatre party) or interning at the right spot might help you rise up the ranks but your best shot is being born into a social circle or with access to someone who knows someone.

And of course, just making it inside the ropes for one day, for one party won’t really help you in the long run. You need to be a regular insider, to become so used to the prosecco and the chocolate that you don’t even notice them at the party. In order to stand a chance of having your art produced, you need to be so far behind the barriers that you forget the velvet ropes entirely.

The difference between a struggling artist and one who has made it lives in those velvet ropes. The struggling artist is acutely aware of where the ropes are and who is guarding them. They are, after all, designed to keep us out. In a country that prides itself on its egalitarian values, this exclusion is particularly galling. That is made worse by how easily and quickly the barrier is lifted and also how entirely unnecessary the barrier is to begin with.

There was so much prosecco and so much food at this donor party that the staff had to take boxes of it home to prevent it being thrown away. That velvet rope made me feel that that this theatre would rather throw their chocolate away than let me have it. Then I got a nod of approval from an insider and suddenly I could have all the chocolate I could have wanted.

There was no difference in my quality on one side or the other of that rope. I was the same person on both sides of the barrier. Inside, I had approval. Outside, I was a nuisance. It is not nice to feel like a nuisance and yet, because I am outside the rope most of the time, I do feel it a LOT. I made myself go talk to a famous actor recently. While I was telling her how much I admired her work in the show she’d just done, I felt fine – like the metaphorical velvet rope between us didn’t matter at all. But as soon as I tried to hand her the play she’d inspired me to improve and keep going on, I felt the velvet rope pop up – whether on my side or on hers, it doesn’t really matter – the point is, it showed up. I felt like a nuisance and an idiot. The sense of humiliation was profound – even though there was no actual rope.

Part of what is so difficult about being a perpetual struggling artist is constantly bumping up against that rope. If you have a well-connected friend or two, you may on occasion find yourself on the other side for a moment but a well-connected friend will not protect you from all the other velvet ropes that arts organizations put up to keep out the riff raff.

At the heart of the velvet rope distinction it feels like those who are on the inside are just better people. If you’re a writer with an agent, then you must be a better writer than one without. If you know a famous person, you must be cooler than your average person. It is not so far from the American sense that money makes you better – that the rich are rich because they worked hard and deserve it. They’re just naturally inside.

What’s ironic is, I would wager you a bottle of prosecco that the donors inside the rope don’t care a bit about keeping out the riff raff. It is the gatekeepers that are concerned about it. And very concerned they are indeed. Also, ironically, riff raff-wise, everyone in that lobby with me had a degree of privilege already. The tickets at that theatre are quite expensive – so the separation is not between top-hatted monocled millionaires and fingerless gloved ragamuffins – it’s the difference between someone who can afford to donate a building and someone who can afford to enter it. The riff raff are people who can pay to see esoteric theatre for an average price of $75 a ticket.

In the case of this theatre, with its mission to bring people together, it was a literal velvet rope – but arts organizations put up metaphorical velvet ropes every day. If you run one, look at how and where you put up barriers to access. Anything you put in place to reduce your submissions, for example: that’s a velvet rope. Obviously, you can keep it there if you want to – but if you’re only including the agented, the recommended, the degreed or the submission fee’d, you’re sending a message that you are only interested in privileged artists, that you prefer your donors to your audience, that you only want insiders. Your velvet ropes say that you only want to give that prosecco to the people who have a case of prosecco at home. If, like this theatre, you aspire to create broad public access and to bond your community, you have to let your velvet ropes go.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can listen to this episode 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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Advice for Artists

If I could offer one piece of advice for artists, it would be to be skeptical of all advice for artists.

After so many years of dedication to making art, I think I’ve heard most of it. Some of it might be useful. A lot of it isn’t. I started to think about this after receiving my copy of New York magazine featuring a cover story of advice for artists. I found myself confused about what it was doing there on the cover. Why should advice for artists be a front page story? I read the advice – hoping to uncover some clues as to what made this front page material but there was very little in the thirty three tips that I haven’t read before.

I discussed this article with another lifelong artist and realized that its presence on the front page probably mostly was a result of the author’s recent Pulitzer prize win. He won a Pulitzer so he gave some advice so they took some funny arty photos of him and put him on the cover. And when I received this magazine, I felt weird about it. Not because his advice is bad – some of it does accurately reflect my experience of making art – but because I don’t understand who this advice is really for. On one hand, it seems to be for “the young who want to” – and on the other, it’s for the veteran and also the one about to have the New York Times come to their first gallery show in Soho. Who is that? An arty preteen with super fancy connections and an old soul?

That’s when I realized how bound by our own experience any advice is. Jerry Saltz, the guy who wrote this advice, is a critic who just won a Pulitzer prize for writing. He’s a hotshot. He may feel like he has his finger on the pulse of the art world – that he’s seen the range of the super star artists and the strugglers. But the fact is, Jerry Saltz only sees artists who are in the mix. For some artists, Saltz coming to their show is their one big shot. If he doesn’t respond positively to their work, it will become the story of the time they almost made it. But the art scene also includes artists who will not only never get Saltz at their art show but will also never get a show. They’re not in the mix. The artists Saltz is seeing, and therefore advising, are in the mix – which means they have already experienced a level of success or privilege. This doesn’t negate this particular critic’s advice – it’s just to contextualize it.

Likewise, any advice I’d have to offer anyone is going to come from my particular point of view. To me, the most salient bit of information in Saltz’s advice, was his perspective that it only takes 12 people to create a successful career. That’s something he’s seen happen a few times I’d wager and probably seems relatively easy to accomplish from where he’s sitting. Why, he knows at least 12 well connected people! And he knows a lot of people who know 12 well connected people. No problem.

But the good news about this guy is that he also understands that not everyone has access to well connected people. And that is one of the things that makes him a valuable voice for the arts. Sure, he may have used a photo of (notoriously terrible family-man) Pablo Picasso to demonstrate that being an artist parent is possible but his advocacy for museum space and artists is incredibly important for the cultural life of New York City so I’m glad he’s out here fighting.

But if you’re an artist looking for useful advice, I regret to inform you that no one has the answers. There isn’t a right way to do this. Living with that sort of ambiguity is sort of what it’s all about.

If you find little bursts of information inspiring for your art, yes, please read them and make your work. If Saltz’s article encouraged just one artist to dig deeper into her work, then it was worth it, in my view.

But if this sort of thing left you a little cold and confused as it did me, take my advice and forget all advice. When it comes to making art, yours is the only advice to follow. Not your teachers, not your parents, not some guy in a magazine and not some struggling artist on the internet either.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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“He just came with the building”

An artist has died. He got cancer and some other things and he died in the prime of his artistic life. I did not know him well but I knew of some of his struggle and I knew his artistic skill and promise. He was a composer (an art which is incredibly demanding and does not pay well – except for a very privileged few) and worked as a pianist for many years at a well-known arts institution.

After the artist had worked there for some time, that arts institution finally managed to provide some of its long-term artistic staff some health insurance. This was an important gesture and I can attest to the fact that it doesn’t happen everywhere. I think I know around about when this gesture happened. I was still working as a Teaching Artist when arts organizations all over the city suddenly started making its long term artistic staff actual employees. Apparently, they’d come under some scrutiny for getting away with paying all of us as freelancers for so many years. But even in that flush of sudden employment and a sheaf of W-2s where I once had 1099s, no one ever offered me health insurance I could afford. So this arts institution, where the artist worked, did something really good. And for a brief while, the artist experienced some actual security. He had health insurance and a bit of regular work.

Then, after they’d gotten used to it, the arts institution decided to withdraw the health insurance from those they’d previously provided it for. They didn’t fire those folks. They just took away their health insurance in order to save a little money. It was probably just a line item on a budget to them. The arts institution took away the artist’s health insurance and very soon thereafter, the artist got sick. He’d had health insurance and then it was gone and then he got ill. His friends set up a Go Fund Me – but healthcare is expensive and they did not reach the goal.

Maybe even if the artist’s Go Fund Me campaign had been fully funded or he’d still had health insurance, he would have died anyway. But also maybe not. I can’t help feeling like the arts institution has his blood on their hands. I feel like they killed him.

A few months later, the arts institution provided a free space for the artist’s memorial performance. The titular head of the arts institution took to the stage to welcome everyone to his building. He made a speech about the dearly departed artist and said he didn’t know dates or anything but he’d known the artist for ages. He said “He just came with the building. He’d just always been there.”

And I’d already been wishing I had a pile of rotten tomatoes to throw at this guy who was getting all kinds of praise for “generously donating the space” when his organization so egregiously contributed to his healthcare situation. But when he said this thing about the artist just coming with the building, I wanted a whole truck of rotten fruits and vegetable to throw at him. An arts institution decides to take away an artist’s health insurance, as a result he dies and then the arts institution gets to look like a hero for giving up their space for a day? And THEN “he just came with the building”?!?!?!? I mean. You couldn’t ask one of your assistants to tell you how long he’d worked there?

And of course you took his health insurance away. He’s just part of the building. Building fixtures don’t need health insurance.

Of course he’s just part of the building. That explains why, despite many years of knowing him, you never once listened to one of his compositions. Parts of buildings don’t have their own artistic work, they are just part of the landscape. And this is how artists are often regarded – not as human beings making art that have needs just like any other human being – but as part of the atmosphere. We’re like the furniture. You use it for a while and then when you get a new interior designer, you throw it out for the next set.

This Arts Institution Head managed to express, in one dumb joke that was clearly meant to be charming, the way so many artists are viewed in institutions. Not as the very reason for the institution. Not as vibrant participants in the artistic life of the place. Not as contributors. Not even as artists. Just – part of the building.

The building just comes with artists – whose lives are as inconsequential as the dust that gets swept up on Sunday nights.

And so the artist’s work will likely be lost to the ages. And the building will stand. And another artist will come to be seen as part of the building eventually.

 

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Anchor, click here.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

*

You can help be more than part of a building

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 




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