Songs for the Struggling Artist


No Right to Be Disappointed in Me
June 2, 2022, 11:15 pm
Filed under: Acting, art, Art Scenes, dreams, education | Tags: , , , ,

An artist friend told me about a dream they had in which one of their artistic teachers asked what they’d been up to in such a way that suggested great disappointment in this artist’s achievements. The artist was stunned and speechless. For a lot of artists, this is a highly relatable dream. Many of us had teachers or colleagues that felt we had a lot of potential in our youth and while most of them don’t come right out and say, “What happened?,” we can feel their disappointment. They thought we were going to make it and we didn’t. How disappointing for them!

I can tolerate this sort of thinking from bystanders. For all the people in my high school classes who told me to thank them in my Oscar speech, I do not carry your expectations heavily. I never thought I’d get an Oscar. I am not sorry I don’t have an Oscar and I’m not worried about my old classmates’ possible disappointment that they never saw me make an Oscar speech. My teachers, though – those responses have always carried more weight. They wanted me to succeed. I wanted to make them proud. It’s a bummer to feel I’ve disappointed anyone.

But the thing – when I look at this from the outside – at other artists’ feelings of disappointing their mentors, I just get angry at those mentors. Do you know how people succeed in the arts? (I mean, aside from being born to celebrities.) They succeed because someone helped them. No one, not even the children of famous people, gets anywhere without help from someone further up the ladder. Success in the Arts is not the wizardry it seems to be. It’s not like a young artist has some kind of magic that will lead them to make it. There is no enchanted sparkle teachers can spot or not spot. A teacher cannot wish a young artist out of obscurity. You can’t just hope your student will make it. If you’re invested in them, you have to actively help them. That’s how they do at Yale and Juilliard and that’s how those places maintain their hold on the American Theatre. Teachers introduce their students to people who can help them. They give them opportunities. I’ve been a teacher. I’ve done this to the best of my meager ability for the students I really believed in. There weren’t a lot of those – but the others, I have no right to be disappointed about. If I didn’t try to help, I get no say.

I had some amazing teachers. Some of them really continued to show up for me long after most people would have given up. They did what they could but when you don’t have a lot of power in a field, there’s not much to do. But if you DO have power in a field and you don’t try and help the students you were invested in? You lose your right to disappointment. It’s hard out there and you know it. If you gave someone an opportunity and they tanked it, okay – you can be disappointed, that’s fair. But you can’t be disappointed in your student for failing to get lucky.

We all hope the magic star will hover over the heads of people we believe in but magic stars are rare. They’re so rare they don’t even exist. People who end up with success end up with those successes because someone helped them. If you’re a teacher, you can be one of those people. Go ahead and help an artist out. You can feel proud of both the artist and yourself! If you’re not one of those people, you better rein your disappointment in, that’s not fair.

Oh wow. Look at that! That tree is going to be the next big thing. I hope it has its Oscar speech ready as it is clearly marked for greatness!

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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Circles of Gen X Friends

Someone in the Gen X subreddit proposed a “dating” app for making Gen X friends. I expressed my enthusiasm for it, saying it appealed to me because most of my Gen X friends have moved out of NYC. Someone replied that they still had a lot of Gen X friends in NYC and I did not respond to that person with a hearty sarcastic, “Well good for you! Aren’t you a lucky one?” Though I wanted to.

I did not say, “I guess most of your friends didn’t move to NYC to chase their theatre dreams or their art dreams or their music dreams or their poetry dreams or their film dreams or their dance dreams and I guess everything worked out for your people, huh?”

Now I don’t mean to imply that stuff didn’t work out for my friends. They moved here to follow their dreams and then they followed them to other places. They run theatres in their hometowns or their adopted cities. They have poetry programs and dance companies around the world. They make movies in their native mountains. They make paintings and sculptures of their new neighborhoods. They bring their big city dream-following perspective to young people in far flung spots. It’s working out for them.

But the fact of those folks leaving does mean that any community that formed when we all moved here has been scattered and lost. I imagine that this happens to every generation at some point. Everyone moves to NYC like they’re going to be here forever and then they leave after a handful of years. I guess that’s the norm. Contrarian that I am, I moved here like I was only going to stay a year and here I still am, over two decades later. I miss the leavers and need to find (or reconnect to) more stayers.

That’s why a Gen X “dating” app for friends sounded really good to me. That’s why (prior to the pandemic) I wanted to be invited to your party. That’s why I joined multiple book clubs. That’s why I joined a knitting/crochet group, even though I am VERY BAD at crochet. I will tell you – in every single instance of attempting to make friends in this city – I was always the lone Gen X-er. Every single time. So, sure, this random person on Reddit may still know a lot of Gen X-ers who live here but they probably travel in much different circles than I do. Maybe they’re high-powered lawyers or over-committed doctors. Maybe they belong to the Yale Club or Soho House and hang out drinking martinis with fancy people. That’s nice. Sounds like fun. I used to hang out at Dojo where you could get a whole carrot-ginger dressing-covered dinner for less than $5.  It’s harder to find Gen X-ers here, in general, and even more challenging to find some who would have felt at home on the St. Mark’s Place of yore.

It’s not like I don’t have any Gen X friends here. I still have quite a few. It’s just that I used to have a community of Gen X friends, or rather, communities. Two decades ago, I had circles of friends. I had theatre friends, music friends, circus friends, education friends, college friends, Shakespeare friends, random friends, friends from my home state. There were circles that intersected and some that never would. I have lone friends now. The communities have gone off to more hospitable climates but one lone friend usually remains. Often, I am that lone friend.

Also, the friends I still have here are New Yorkers and therefore usually impossibly busy. Most of them are also parents so they don’t have acres of time for galavanting around NYC with the childfree likes of me. It’s not that no Gen X-ers are here. It’s just that they are busy and the social nets of our communities have vanished and so we stand a vanishing chance of just happening to be in the same places together at the same time.

So maybe I don’t need a Gen X friend app. I need a Gen X circle creating app. It’s not that all the dream followers have followed their dreams elsewhere – some of us are still here – it’s that the communities that formed around those dreams have dissipated and there’s no good way for those of us whose circles have vanished to build new circles.

Frankly, I think it’s a problem that this city spits out as many artists and dream chasers as it does. It may be good for the places it spits people back into, but it is terrible for the artistic life of this city.

We lost artists from multiple generations this last year and a half. The city failed to support most of them in their darkest hours and now we’ve lost them, probably forever.

Most Gen X artists already left when they were in their 30s and now most Millennials are in their 30s (the eldest ones are turning 40 this year) and what with the abysmal way this city supported its artists recently and the inevitable waves of NYC spitting out its dream followers, I think there’s bound to be an exodus in the next decade. Maybe I’ll be in it, who knows? (Unlikely, where would I go?)

Will Gen Z artists and dream-followers even bother coming here? If they do, I hope this circle dispersal doesn’t happen to them, too. I read recently that we know a city is dying when young people stop moving there to chase their dreams. I’m not loving the prognosis for NYC that way right now. Maybe let’s get that circle app going, pronto.

****

In case you’re new here, I wrote a whole series about Gen X a few years ago. It starts here and expands in many thematic directions. Or you could search the whole range of Gen X writing here.

Just a circle of Gen X childfree friends galavanting around the city like we used to. We’re going to go get a soy burger at Dojo after.

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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Want to help me make some Gen X circles?

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A $5000 Grant Would Be a $5000 Problem
July 5, 2021, 6:24 pm
Filed under: art, Art Scenes, Creative Process, dance, music, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , , , , ,

A day after applications opened, the email notifications of the grant’s existence came out. After a lot of hype, the City Corp Arts Grants applications were live! I waited until midnight to look at the tab I’d left open all day. I confess I didn’t have high hopes for it. But around midnight, I finally got the will to check it out. When I finally understood what its parameters were, I cursed and shut it all down again. There was no way I could do what it was asking. Another opportunity that I was just too uninspired to take on. Sigh. I’ve been here before. Ah well.

But then we started talking about this “opportunity” and I started to realize what a mess it was. It’s not that I’m uninspired. It’s that this grant is ridiculous. First – it’s been billed as a way to support artists after a devastating year with no support and, for performing artists, having our entire field shut down. It’s been pitched as a parcel of funds to help counteract the losses we endured. It is $5000 for 3000 individual artists. That’s nice! It’s a lovely idea. If I had $5000 to give to 3000 individual artists, I absolutely would do it. What a boon for those 3000 artists! But the catch is – they’re not just giving 3000 artists 5K. It’s not a gift. For 5K, they expect a return. They want live performances. They want murals. They want workshops and celebrations.

They’re trying to buy a summer full of art with a last minute investment. Because it’s not just that they want a show of some kind; They want it starting immediately. These performances have to happen between July and October. This timeline and this budget are impossible. I can’t make a show for $5k in NYC. I don’t know anyone who can.

If I were to sign up to try and get this grant, I’d be signing up for a $5000 problem. First this $5000 would not go to me, the artist (though this is the stated goal of this grant). The first place it would need to go would be a rehearsal space. And if we need to rent a performance venue, that’s it. The grant money is already spent. But let’s say we’re going to do this outdoors, guerrilla style – maybe on one of these Open Streets they set up this year – then maybe there’s enough money to pay some of the performers. If we want it to look good in the photos we’re required to provide for the city, we’ll need to hire some good costume and scenic designers, not to mention a photographer to document this street performance. I, personally, the artist who applied for this thing that is meant to help me, will likely not see a dime. Not to mention that I’ll have had absolutely zero time to prepare. I’d be expected to find a venue, cast a show, find a place to rehearse it, and put it all on, at warp speed. On top of that, I’d, for sure, need to raise more money to get anything really done. It’s not a great deal for me.

Now – if this grant gave me 5K and a free rehearsal space and just wanted a couple of photos of whatever I came up with, that might be something. That would be a grant that encouraged the creation of art rather than demanding some kind of product. A city that gave its artists funds to just do whatever would yield some really exciting interesting art. I fear the opposite is about to happen with this grant.

One of the requirements for this grant is to provide evidence of sustained art making here in NYC. This seems very reasonable. But it would be much better for the state of the arts here in general if instead of the asking those NYC artists with a track record to come up with a product with no real budget in a hurry, they just had a lottery for those artists and checked in with the winners after a little while to see what they came up with.

I’m sure everyone involved in this grant has the best of intentions – but it does feel a little bit like, after a brutal year, we emerge from our caves, our entire field blunted by dis-use and tears, and the city of NYC says, from the audience, “Showtime!” and we’re just pushed out on stage with no preparation. I don’t know how to say, “I’m sorry but I’m depleted and discouraged and I’ve got nothing for you.”

I would like to receive $5000 from the city of New York. I have been making art here for over two decades. It would be nice to receive a little something in honor of those years of contributing to the culture. But I just don’t have an idea for how to pull off this impossible task, for not enough money.

It’s not me, it’s this grant. This grant wants to see us dance and we are still limping back from the wars. Do we want to be dancing? Of course! There are just certain realities that we have to acknowledge. Dance costs money and it takes time to create. I feel quite sure the grantmakers imagined a summer of dozens of dancers, leaping through the streets, actors staging epics on corners, murals being painted everywhere. It is a beautiful fantasy.

I think it’s more likely that there will be a lot of solo artists, doing whatever they can in random corners. There are going to be poets and magicians and lone cellists in the streets and if we have an abundance of poets and cellos this summer, that’s cool. But I feel fairly certain that’s that this grant was not meant to be exclusively poets and cellists. And as mad as this “Dance, Artist, Dance” grant makes me, I’d still apply for it if I had even the barest semblance of an idea. I try to imagine it. I picture getting sparked by something – but then I have to find a rehearsal space and I can imagine making those calls, discovering who is still here and who has lost their space. I picture trying to find a venue and confronting the same difficult reality. None of it gives me any joy or hope, really.

I’m sure there are artists among us for whom this will be very helpful and I am very glad for them and look forward to seeing their work. But for those, like me, who might feel demoralized by these grants that were theoretically created to help us, it just feels important to acknowledge that these are not helpful for everyone.

In thinking about this, I found myself weeping harder than I have in months. And while I appreciate a good cry, I’m not sure I appreciate a grant whose very existence makes artists feel inadequate and uninspired. Intellectually, I know that I’m not artistically dead. I know that not being able to come up with a show for an impossible grant for not enough money does not mean I’m empty forever. But – it sure feels like that. I just can’t seem to stop crying whenever I try and access the inspiration well. I know that the inspiration well depends on my feeling safe and secure and stimulated and after this year I am none of those things. It is not the job of the City of New York to be concerned with my inspiration well. But – the safety and security of thousands of artists here have been compromised and I would wager that lots of artists might be in tears about their inspiration wells today. The City of New York missed a big opportunity to actually help artists, to give us a sense of safety and security that might actually make space for inspiration and instead it just wants us to smile and put on a show.

This is one empty inspirational well.
Too bad the city of NYC won’t be giving me $5000 to help fill 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.

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

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.

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

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

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Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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A Performance Once a Week

It started when A texted me to tell me about the National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre that was available on the internet for the week. “LOL,” I said, “I’m in the middle of watching it RIGHT NOW.” And we had a fun little text exchange about our favorite moments in the show. We decided to watch the next one “together” via text and before we knew it, we had a tradition of watching some kind of performance once a week. It has been one of the few things I’ve found genuinely sustaining in these Covid times.

We’ve been pretty omnivorous in our viewing and I feel as though I’ve actually had a bit of a survey course in the Performing Arts of the current moment. Or, really, it’s a course in the moment from the moment before this moment because most of these works were recorded in the before times. Sometimes I weep just seeing an audience.  

The survey is, of course, limited by the kind of companies that can afford to have their work well presented on video and then can afford the bandwidth to share them. The survey leans heavily on European dance and theatre partly because of that. And of course on our taste.

A small sampling of our list:

Works by Crystal Pite, Christian Spuck, Akram Kahn, StopGap Dance, Spymonkey, Wooster Group, National Theatre, Told by an Idiot, Nederlands Dans Theater, Le Patin Libre, Monica Bill Barnes, Graeae Theatre

Shows like: Emilia, Akhnaten, Titon et L’aurore, The Plastic Bag Store, Richard II (twice! two different productions), What the Constitution Means to Me, Latin History for Morons, Theatre of Blood, Revisor, Death of a Salesman, Oedipussy, Birth-Day, Giselle, Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival and Reasons to be Cheerful.  

I wanted to write about this because I’m really hoping I can continue this kind of omnivorous performing arts watching once the pandemic is over.

I mean, part of the reason I have not seen these works before is that they are so expensive. I know they’re worth the money when you’re dying to see them. Like, you know you love their work and you’ll spend $100 a ticket to go see them. But you have to usually, if money isn’t abundant, be judicious about what you see and you won’t take risks when tickets are a hundred dollars. In this digital world, with the barrier so low to entry – that is, mostly free with the very occasional ticket price under $15 – I’ll see anything. And at home, I’m not even stuck wasting the evening if something sucks. One night, A and I watched about ten minutes each of a random assortment of dances, puppet shows and plays because none of them were great. You can’t just watch 10 minutes of something in a theatre. Sometimes it’s not just the ticket price you’re out, it’s the whole night. But digital performance allows for big risk taking and big risks sometimes mean big rewards. It’s actually quite remarkable that I have become a fan of so many performers, choreographers and theatre makers this past year that I never even heard of before, in a moment where there are few performances happening.

None of us know what’s going to happen for the performing arts when this is all over but I hope for two things in particular. One – that digital performance will continue to be available. It may seem counter productive; Why would people pay to come to a show when they can watch it at home for free? But, I think there has been quite a bit of evidence that digital performances actually encourage ticket sales for live shows. My own experience is that I would, for sure, pay money to see QUITE a FEW shows I watched on-line, in person. Those are tickets I probably wouldn’t have thought would be worth it before. Now I’d be begging for them to take my money so I could sit in the actual room with those shows. When it’s safe, of course. (And when it is, I’m going to need an NYC presenter to pick up the slack and book Crystal Pite and Kidd Pivot as soon as possible. Please and Thank You.)

The second thing I hope for is that we can somehow lower the ticket prices for EVERYTHING. I would like to continue to see a show a week when this is over but I would like to see these shows in person, and I would like to be as omnivorous as we’ve been able to be on-line. That’s something I want for everyone. An omnivorous audience is an interesting audience. It’s an audience that cross pollinates and makes an exciting impact on artists.

Affordable arts make for accessible arts and this horrible pandemic time has opened my artistic mind to all sorts of work I never had access to before. It is a real gift to be able to go around the world through performance. I am lucky enough to live in a city where much of that sort of work comes to tour but I rarely have gotten to see the kinds of variety that I have seen over the last year. I would like to see these things in person, once a week, for an actually affordable price, please. I know that no venue, presenter or producing organization can afford to cut ticket prices at the moment but I am dreaming of a reshuffling of everything, where theatre, dance, puppetry, opera and beyond are as affordable as the digital world. Or maybe a Netflix for performance, where I pay a monthly fee and get to see whatever I want? Some new way of doing things would be glorious because I have seen extraordinary new works this year and I want to keep doing it. Hopefully performances will come back and A and I can see a show once a week in real life, no text messages required.

This performance was not on-line but if it were I would watch 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.

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

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

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Want to help me afford to go to more live performances?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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If you liked the blog 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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A Highly Competitive Mystery Solved
January 28, 2021, 8:41 pm
Filed under: art, art institutions, Art Scenes, Non-Profit | Tags: , , , , ,

A mystery just cleared up before my very eyes. I was reading the alumni magazine from my grad school and there was an article about a brand new artist residency set up by some funders. The story was really about the funders and this generous thing they’re doing. It sounds nice enough – but what popped out at me was the description of the application process as highly competitive. This explained many things for me.

As someone who applies for this sort of thing, I have often wondered why the process is so onerous. Why do they make us write multiple essays? Why do I have to upload my resume again? Or, in some cases, type it out into their format? Why do I need to fill in a box for Awards and Recognitions? What is this for?

It’s not because the people reading these applications have a shortage of reading material and have a bizarre taste for reading Artist mission statements. It’s because, like in the press release they put out about the thing, they want to be able to say it’s “highly competitive.”

It does not matter that EVERY SINGLE THING that artists can apply for is highly competitive by nature of the scarcity of opportunities and the numbers of applicants. It matters that they feel confident in saying that their residency (or grant or opportunity) is a highly competitive process.

By almost every measure, a lottery would be more equitable, inclusive and democratic, as well as the least onerous for artists. It would very probably yield better results in the quality of the work produced, as well. If we had a lottery, the hours saved that artists would have spent on time-wasting applications could be used to actually make art.

But almost no one ever doles out their opportunities this way because seeing their opportunity as highly competitive is part of the appeal in funding such a thing. People who fund artist opportunities want to be seen funding the artists they think are the best based on what they perceive as a highly competitive process. And all of those processes are onerous in their own way because each funder imagines “competitive” differently.

What is best for the artist is an easy lottery. But no one will choose the way that is best for the artist because it doesn’t sound as good in the press release. It all makes sense now.


It sucks, of course. For the artists.

And this is a symptom of a capitalist system that somehow thinks that this bizarre system of individual donors funding opportunities for small numbers of people is the best way to get a vibrant arts culture. It’s not.

The best way to get a vibrant arts culture is to fund one, on a national scale, in the most democratic and inclusive way. It would still be highly competitive, of course. The numbers mean that it always is in this field – but privileging the artists’ experience over the funders’ would really flip the whole thing on its head in a way that I would love to see.

I’m accepting applications for funders. It is a highly competitive process. Very selective.

Super Sexy Competitive Paperwork

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Brilliant Theatre and the Pit

If you don’t work in the arts, it might be hard to understand why a really brilliant piece of work might make someone more depressed than a bad one. Sometimes, I find it baffling, as well. I mean, bad theatre can be instructive and liberating, if also infuriating, when you realize that it is not the quality of something that brings all the funders to the yard. And good theatre usually checks a box for me. I see something that was good and I say to myself, “That was good. What excellent work everyone did. I might steal that bit they did with the plates one day.” But a brilliant theatre piece has the power to move me, to make me weep and/or laugh and then, not long after it’s over, drop me in the pit of despair. This is particularly likely to happen when the brilliant piece in question is close to my interests or skillset or aesthetic. The more it feels like something I might have made if I had the resources, the more likely I am to end up in a deep hole that I have to write things like this to dig my way out of.

This doesn’t happen very often. There are not a lot of shows that have the proximity to my aesthetic to trigger a trip to the pit but lately, due to the on-line access to work I’d not have otherwise seen, there have been a few. The most recent one was Emilia. It was available to watch on-line and I leaped at the chance to finally see a show I’d heard a lot about. And it was all that the hype suggested. It was expertly crafted, written, staged, performed, designed – all of it. It was created by a team of extraordinary women and flawlessly executed by a cast of women. It was a feminist theatre maker’s dream come true.

As a feminist Shakespearean, I have been waiting for this show all of my life. It’s so aligned with my values and aesthetics, I could have written it. And that, my friends, is where the pit starts to slide open. Because I have written in this weird feminist classical theatre lane my whole writing life. Like, my WHOLE WRITING LIFE. I started writing my first play while working for a Shakespeare festival and it was inspired by one of the plays I was performing in. This is my lane. I veer out of it occasionally but I started as a classical actor and it is always in there somewhere.

I don’t want to diminish what the writer of Emilia has done by saying I could have done it but I have come somewhat close and given the chance, I think I could have made something quite similar in spirit, energy and focus. But I wasn’t given the chance and I could not have conceived even anything near it on my own. And this writer didn’t have to create this piece on her own. She was commissioned by The Globe. She was given a team and a production. Circumstances placed her in their awareness and moved them to select her for this idea about the poet Emilia Bassano Lanier. And they were right to select her. She did an amazing job. It is a truly glorious piece of work. There are some parts of it where I thought, “That shouldn’t work” but then it absolutely did, even when I could have given you ten reasons it shouldn’t have. It was expertly done. I say this to you from the bottom of my pit.

This morning I was listening to the podcast made by some theatre makers I have long admired. It is a series of interviews with the Artistic Directors of Cheek by Jowl and today it was a moment with Declan Donnellan that kindly reached me down at the bottom of my pit. He was talking about ways to harm an artist. The first was to “absolutely criticize and rubbish the artist’s work.” The more harmful method was “to totally ignore the artist’s work. It’s more passive aggressive and it’s more silent and deadly.” For the most part, the world has been entirely indifferent to my feminist classical theatre. Like, entirely.

Some days I feel that indifference more than most and ironically, the play Emilia is actually about that very thing. It is the story of a woman more or less forgotten by history. (Though not entirely, of course, otherwise there’d be no one’s history to imagine!) It is a story of battling to be heard, acknowledged, respected and recognized. It is a story I saw myself in in a way I have never seen before and I wept through it in really weird places because of that strange recognition.

The play’s marketing features many famous women proclaiming their identification with the title character. There are videos of them all saying, “I am Emilia.” And they are. They are, more than me, because these famous women have some name recognition. They have achieved some kind of notoriety in the public eye. Will history remember them? Only time will tell. But for now – certainly a lot more people know Caitlin Moran’s name than know mine. And I don’t want to be Caitlin Moran. I admire her work but I wouldn’t want to be anyone but myself. I am not Emilia either, grateful though I am for her story.

I am wrestling with myself, in my pit, over the joy I felt watching the show and the abject misery I feel at the unlikelihood of ever receiving the kind of opportunities that would allow me to make something like it.

The difference between watching an amazing show I wish I’d made in my 20s, and watching an amazing show now, is that in my 20s, I could imagine a future in which I could make or be a part of the inspiring thing I saw. Here in my 40s, I understand more about how things work and once again reckon with the unlikelihood of such resources becoming suddenly available for me. And in to the pit I go.

It’s not just that I’ve become more cynical over the years (though that has certainly happened) it’s that I have a pretty thorough understanding of how the theatre has worked in the past and will likely work again when we get it back. Which is why, intellectually, I know, that despite my time in the pit, this show is nothing but good news for me. I know that it opens up a space and a pattern that will make space for so many women in the future, including me. The fact that Emilia was a giant hit and had a successful popular run at a West End Theatre is very good news for any future feminist plays, for any future modern classical works. If that way becomes more open now, it is good news for a woman who has been busy writing such things for years. My brain knows that very well. But it is not just my rational optimistic brain here in the pit with me.

The less optimistic part of my brain is overwhelmed by the obstacles that stand in the way of my ever receiving such an opportunity. They are things like: the country I live in, the country I was trained in, the accidents of mentorship, the relationships that place one in the right place at the right time, the development of one’s work in a context wherein it can grow, one’s proximity to the pipeline.

There’s been a lot of talk of the pipeline ever since that panel discussion where an artistic director defended not producing women’s work because women were not in the pipeline. The pipeline sounds like it’s just a supply line that women need to find their way into but it’s so much more than a stream that leads to production. The pipeline is where you went to school and when. It is the internships you could afford to do and the debt you could afford to take on. The pipeline is who you happened to room with at summer camp.

But the pipeline is also much more subtle stuff than just who you know. It can go as for back as a childhood. I watched the TED talk of a much-admired choreographer, and he mentioned how his childhood dance teacher told him, when he was goofing around, that he was really a choreographer. And so he became one, one who was encouraged and affirmed at every stage, one who likely walked into his first rehearsal of his first piece with no question of his right to be there. If you’re not busy defending your right to do what you do at every turn, you sure can get a lot more art made. That’s when the way is paved for you, so you can travel with confidence without running into lots of bumps. That’s the real pipeline.

One of the things that feels complex about being an artist in a marginalized group of any kind is that it can be really easy to blame any lack of success on the prejudice that limits so many. It is better to blame sexism and economic prejudice than to blame myself. I can always assume it was sexism that closed the door for me. With a show like Emilia in the mix, I can celebrate that sexism does not always win – but it also complicates my narrative about why so few people care about my theatrical work.

I got an extraordinary thrill from feeling represented in Emilia but I fear that I am not Emilia like all those famous women. I’m not the character who stormed the stage to take her rightful place. I’m not the one who had her poems published, before becoming a footnote in men’s history books. Not yet anyway.

But I will try to access my twenty something self who still had hope of making brilliant things on stages like that and listen to my more optimistic brain and I will pull myself out of the pit to write another something, even if those somethings are never seen by anyone. A world with Emilia in it is more likely to have space for me in it than the world without it ever did. And, of course, if I have to, I am fully prepared to, as Emilia says to startling effect at the end of the show, “burn the whole fucking house down.”

possibly an image of Emilia Bassano Lanier

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

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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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Favorite Sons and Unicorns

This is another one of these “written before” posts. The world is moving so fast, it is hard to keep up! It’s not quite of this moment. But it’s probably still worth talking about. 

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Over the last few years, I have leaned into making work for young people – both as a theatre maker and as a writer. I dove head first into Theatre for Youth and then, later, into middle-grade fiction. I went to conferences for both and found that they shared something I didn’t expect. They were both fields that were largely run by women. Women were the decision makers and the middle (wo)men. Women dominated – which was very nice to see. There aren’t a lot of fields where that is true.

But work for young people is, like education, a kind of feminized subset of the greater whole. The rest of theatre and the rest of literature are dominated by men. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. Even more interesting to me is how this domination does not extend to the artists. There are the odd exceptions but the artists that these women choose to grace their stages or their publishing houses are mostly men. If there’s a commission to be handed out, I can almost guarantee that it will be handed to a man, and in all probability, he will be a white man. At the several theatre for youth conferences I attended, I saw many all male performances and not one single all female show. The ratios were staggering. I saw male writers hailed as geniuses and male directors applauded for their mastery. I did not see one single woman so honored. I saw artistic director panels without one single woman. Similarly, at the children’s book writer’s conference, men in artistic positions of outnumbered women two to one, while the membership of the organization had women outnumbering men by 10 to 1.

In both places, I saw men being coddled and catered to. I saw them lionized and adored. I did not see the same for women. Ever.

There’s a quality that reminds me of the stereotypical Italian mother from fiction. This bella mama adores her sons. She’ll do anything for them. She pinches their cheeks and calls them heroes. She treats them like kings. In women’s spaces, like work for children, men who go there become the favorite sons.

It makes me think of a phenomenon that Deborah Frances White talks about on her podcast, The Guilty Feminist. The podcast is a distinctly womany feminist space and whenever a man shows up, he tends to be very interesting to the audience. Deborah Frances White has lately been inclined to talk about how much credit male feminists get for just showing up. “The bar is so low,” she’ll say. And it is. All a male feminist had to do to get a whole bunch of credit is show up at a feminist event and he’s a hero. She compares it to the applause men will get for caring for their own children.

“Look at him holding his own baby,” people say. “What an amazing man.”

I think this happens in other feminized spaces to varying degrees. Men get handed goodies just because they showed up in a place men don’t always go. They get all the privileges associated with maleness and then get an extra layer of laudatory attention for being unusual. But the fact is, men in these spaces are NOT unusual. They are the norm. They are the norm over and over again. The favorite sons are chosen over and over again. They seem like unicorns to the women who are choosing them but it’s a 98% unicorn world so unicorns just aren’t that special in it. And the horses are left kind of wandering around the paddock going “I thought horses belonged here. There are so many in charge.”

Does it have to be this way? Of course it does not. I know at least one presenter who brings in women’s work much more often than her colleagues do. She’ll do the occasional unicorn show but she makes special room for horses. While her colleagues are pinching the cheeks of the latest It Boy unicorn, she is giving space to a group of horses to try a new idea. The bar is high for women feminist heroes and to my mind, she meets it.

I’m not saying we should never do another unicorn show. Unicorns are great. But I would like for their bar to be a little bit higher and I would like for the bar for horses to be a lot lower because at this point, only the occasional magic horse can get over it. And usually, it’s because someone’s favorite son is riding on her back.

And don’t think I haven’t noticed that most of the favorite sons are white. The majority of the women in charge are white and they choose their boy geniuses to be as like them as they can. On a rare occasion there is a son of color but he is usually treated as a kind of pet project. The white boys are geniuses; the boys of color have “so much potential” that needs to be cultivated and shaped and pruned. In these spaces, men of color can be called inspiring but they’re rarely called brilliant. In some rare moments in these spaces, you’ll find a woman of color but she somehow has to lean into a culturally specific lane. A Black woman can make some inroads with Anansi tales; Agents can sell her show for Black History Month. A book about Chinese lanterns can be sold around Chinese New Year lessons in school, so that means there might be space for a Chinese woman. I mean, I love Anansi tales and Chinese lanterns as much as the next person – probably more than the next person – but what if our artists of color could just make cool stuff that they felt like making? Like we could have a South Asian company make a show about trains. Or an Iraqi writer could just publish a cute story about a frog. Or maybe, as a temporary remedy, white artists should only be allowed to make culturally specific work for a while. Like, no more cute frog stories for us white folks. It’s just Betsy Ross myths, muskets and tea cozies in our repertory now. See how we like it. (We wouldn’t like it.)

In any case, I’m no longer attempting to make any inroads in these spaces. I gave them my best shot but I didn’t see a path toward success. I was no one’s favorite daughter there and there is no such thing, really. The favorite daughter of folktales is the one who does all the chores and sacrifices herself for the good of her loved ones, not one who strides out into the world to make her fortune. I’m keen on striding out into the world to make my fortune the way the boys do in those stories. And one day I hope to encounter someone who can actually champion me the way the boys get championed by their arts mothers and arts fathers. And I hope all the bella mamas, of all the feminized spaces, find a way to make favorites of more than just the white boys one day.

This post was brought to you by my generous 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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Performing Arts Going Dark

Have you all read Station Eleven? I mean, don’t, if you haven’t. Even the author recommends waiting a few months to read it. It’s a little too relevant right now. It hits a little too close to home. It begins with a pandemic that leads to the radical upending of civilization. You can see why you might want to wait a minute to get into it. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week – not just because of the pandemic – but because of what happens after the pandemic. The heart of the story is a traveling Shakespeare company that tours the devastated country. When nothing is left, we have the arts.

At the moment, with all the performing arts cancelled, it can feel like our work is unimportant or inessential. Suddenly, it is, technically, palpably dangerous to do what we do. Suddenly, it has become reckless to gather people in a room and share things with them. Suddenly, the very thing that makes the performing arts so magical is the thing that makes them dangerous. Almost everyone I know in New York works in the performing arts in some capacity and almost everyone I know is in a state of absolute disarray. As show people, we are built with an intense drive for the show going on. We are used to pushing through any numbers of difficulties in order to make it to the stage. To have the stage pulled out from under us is counter to everything we feel in the very fiber of our beings. The show must go on! It can’t be cancelled! It goes on! Isn’t it better to do a show? Isn’t it always better to do a show than not do a show? Won’t the arts save us all? Not in this case, no. Not in the way we’re used to.

What’s happening for us is not just a crisis of economics (though it is that and quite a serious one at that) but also a crisis of faith. If the shows don’t go on, who are we? What is all this for? How can it not be good to gather a group of people together and share art with them? To laugh? To cry? To tap our toes to the beat together? To have our heartbeats sync up as we watch? How? How? How?

But, of course, in a pandemic, it is very bad for us all to be in a room together. I am interested in the connections we share with other things that have had to shut down recently. Sports and religious gatherings are experiencing the same unilateral canceling. We are all shut down together – all the things that bring people together, that unite us, are dangerous.

But this does not mean they are inessential. Things that bring people together, like the performing arts, like sports, like religion, are key to our survival, to our thriving as a species. It feels to me that in losing that ability of being all together in a unified state, I’ve come to appreciate it anew.

Sometimes, you may have noticed, I get a little cranky about theatre. I see shows and they make me angry and sometimes I tell you about it. I get mad – partly because I want shows to be better and partly because my ability to make shows has been hampered over the years so I get mad about shows that have a lot of resources and squander them.

But here we are in the middle of a pandemic and almost all theatres have been shut down. And it becomes instantly clear that I would rather watch the worst show there is (It’s Bike. You know it’s Bike.) over and over and over again than have no theatre at all.

For all my ranting, I do love the stuff and I’m sad for even the worst show that has closed. It suddenly feels very important to me to know that shows are running, even ones I’ll never see, even ones I hate.

I hope that when this is all over, there will be a renewed appreciation for the performing arts and their important place in our culture. We were all shaken by how quickly the entire theatre business was shut down here in New York. It was as if someone flicked a switch and thousands of people lost their jobs and thousands more lost their dreams. Like that. In an instant. But this doesn’t mean the arts are a frill that get dropped in a time of crisis. It’s just that being with people is what the performing arts are all about and suddenly being with people is dangerous and so the performing arts become the most dangerous. And not because theatre people are some of the most touchy feely people out here, either. It’s because a bunch of people breathing the same air is the heart and soul of the work – and right now that air is treacherous. So we have to stop.

But maybe, once this has passed, we can come to appreciate what we lost when the theatres went dark.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be as extreme as Station Eleven – where survivors form a community building Shakespeare company. Maybe we don’t have to wait for the destruction of civilization as we know it to support the performing arts. Maybe we can support them right now so that theatre spaces will be able to open again, that shows can continue their runs, that freelancers can survive this terrifying downturn. As this article in Vulture says, “As concert halls, theaters, and museums around the world go dark, we all need to move quickly to ensure that when it’s finally safe to emerge from our lairs, we still have a cultural life left to go back to.”

Personally, I’ve come up with a project to keep some theatre folk creatively engaged with a project that we can do from our homes. I was working on it prior to this disaster in another form and it just happens to be possible this way. So I’m just rolling forward on that and it’s already delighting me.

The skills that help us bring people together in real life are stepping up to help keep us together while we are separated. Here are two that I know about – The Social Distancing Festival and Musicals from Home. Many many theatre folk are going to find this social distance thing very very difficult (as I’m sure most people will – but I think it hits our community driven community especially hard.) I feel quite certain this will drive a lot of them to become very inventive to create distance community and whatever those inventions are will benefit us all in the long run.

There will be theatre when this is all over. And concerts. And dances. And hopefully we will all appreciate them and being with each other all the more.

Look at all these theatre kids touching each other. We can’t do this right now. And it sort of made me tear up just looking at them. Photo by Mauricio Kell via Pixabay

This post was brought to you by my generous 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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Put Me in Your Show

Dear Fellow NYC Theatre Makers,

Please put me in a show. You may know me more as a writer or director but I’m also a performer. I can act, sing, puppeteer, play guitar and ukulele or whatever you need. I would carry a spear like nobody’s business. I could also be a movement coach or dramaturg. Just. You know….ask me.

I know that’s not how these things usually work. I’m usually on your side of the desk. But – I’m not wanting to get back onstage because I’m trying to be a professional actor again. I don’t want to get headshots taken. (The last time I got acting headshots done they were in black and white and mine was literally just my head. I was also 21.) I’m not trying to get an agent or be seen by Mr. Guffman. I know Guffman isn’t coming and I know what the market for 40 something women who specialize in classical theatre is like.

I literally just want to do a show because I am longing for community and doing shows is literally the only way I know how to get it. The bummer of NYC theatre is that we’re all taking this stuff so seriously, we can never just do a show. And I think I need to just do a show.

I need to be in a room with a group of people all trying to create something. I need to go somewhere regularly where people would notice if I didn’t show up. (This was Johann Hari’s definition of home which I heard on the Your Undivided Attention Podcast – the place where they’ll miss you when you’re not there.)

The reason I want to do YOUR show and not my own is that, as you may have noticed, the community that forms during a show does not tend to form around the leader. The leader holds the space for the rest of the community but often isn’t a full part of it. At least that’s how it goes when I make something. When I’m in charge, I’m both inside and outside the group. I just want to be inside for a minute and I don’t want to be in charge.

I’m writing this so you’ll think of me when you’re looking for someone to hold a spear or make plunking sounds on a ukulele while the actors cavort. I’m a pretty good performer – but I don’t need to play Hamlet right now. Bring me in to be your messenger. I just want to be invited to the cast party. There is literally nothing like the instant community that theatre can create and I am thirsty for it at the moment. I have tried book clubs and cultural societies. I learned how to crochet so I could go to knitting meet-ups but what I really need is theatre. Not because I need the applause (though if you read this post you know I love applause) but because I need the community.

We don’t do a great job of creating a citywide theatre community here in NYC. Literally the only time I felt a part of it was during Devoted & Disgruntled NYC – an event organized by an English company. But almost all theatre folk are great at creating quick communities within shows. So – put me in one, if you’ve got a slot.

And while you’re at it, I bet you could find a bunch of others like me. They are practiced professionals that don’t comb Backstage looking for their next big break because they’ve got lives and responsibilities, like jobs and kids and such. But they’d probably just like to do a show every once in a while without too much hassle. You probably aren’t thinking of them when you’re casting your thing because you haven’t seen them in a while. They’ve been writing their novel or taking care of their kids or grading papers or recording their audio book – not submitting their stuff through Actors Access. Ask them. You might get lucky.

And heck – I’m not really into starting a whole new thing or anything – but if you’re a theatre person and you feel like me, drop me a line and let me know. (Comment below if you want, or message me.) I feel like I could be a keeper of a list of people who just want to do a show or at the very least get together for some pretend cast parties. (Oh my god. I would totally do this. We could all pretend we just opened some show we didn’t do and celebrate as if we had. I’m seeing name tags given out at the door so you get given your role and then you can play at being the ASM all night long.) Jeez – there I go again, compulsively making up things I’d have to lead. Save me from myself! Put me in your show!

This headshot is literally the only one I have and it is older than most of the people auditioning in NYC right now. It was taken by the wondrous Caverly Morgan. I’m not taking another one. Just put me in your show, already.

 

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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