Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Guys
January 31, 2017, 12:54 am
Filed under: art, comedy, feminism, podcasting | Tags: , , , ,

In addition to making my own, I listen to a lot of podcasts. In my feed consistently for the last 7 or 8 years has been Marc Maron’s WTF, wherein he talks with people – mostly from the entertainment biz. I’ve learned a lot- but one major thing that I don’t think I would have known without this medium, is the way male entertainers talk to each other.

In most of these conversations, at some point Maron will ask his guest “Who were your guys?” He’s asking who inspired his guest…who they idolized, who they looked up to. And there is a mutual understanding about this long line of guys – which guy inspired the current guy in the guest chair. I have never once heard a woman come up on one of these guys’ list of guys. No male comedian will credit Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball with forming his comedic sensibility. No male musician will credit Bonnie Raitt or Billie Holiday.

We live in a “My Guys and Your Guys” world. It’s not just comedy. It’s music. It’s movies. It’s the whole culture. Guys and guys and guys. Guys talking about guys.
I’m starting to think that one of the most radical things a male artist could do would be to credit a woman as one of his guys.

And this is reinforced everywhere. American Theatre Wing made a video about clowns in their Working in the Theatre series and every single clown was a white guy. I guess to work in the American Theatre as a clown, the first thing you have to do is be born a white dude. I don’t blame the clowns. They’re just The Guys and they probably asked the guys who their guys were and so we ended up with this long line of clown guys. But surely American Theatre Wing could have found ONE female clown. Or a clown of color. I know at least ten personally that I would have been happy to recommend. But they didn’t ask me. Because I’m not one of the guys. And the guys sent the team from one set of guys to the next set of guys. It’s a legacy of guyness, passed from one generation to the next.

It’s not just the institutional sexism that perpetuates the current structures, it’s all the guys idolizing the guys before them and hoping to inspire the guys after them and there are the girls who try to be one of the guys in order to be on the list of guys that will be remembered for all time.

But there is no real solid legacy of Ladies. And we definitely need such a legacy. Of course, what might be better are less monolithic lists of “guys” – for men to be as inspired by women and trans artists as they are by their fellow men – and vice versa. Meanwhile, I’m cultivating a legacy of ladies for myself so I can be prepared in case anyone asks me about my guys.

And, as is happening so often in this current moment, the world has shifted rather dramatically since I first wrote this piece. I’m writing this now a few hours after Sally Yates was fired from the Trump administration for refusing to violate the constitution. In the last couple of days, there have been several judges who have similarly been incredibly inspiring in their standing up for what is right. So, as Kamala Harris said over on Twitter, “It is clear that the resistance to Trump’s radical agenda will be led by courageous women fighting for our future.”

My new hope is that these women will inspire more women and in future podcasts, they will be named on everyone’s list of “guys.” I know that throughout our country’s history, women have been at the forefront for social change. I’m reading Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies right now, about how women drove the abolitionist movement, drove the labor movement and much more. Many of those historical women are lost to the common conversation but I hope the new ones will help us create ever stronger lists of “guys” who are also women.

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“You Should Do Stand-Up!”
February 29, 2016, 11:07 pm
Filed under: advice, art, comedy, education | Tags: , , ,

A woman in my Feldenkrais class asked me where she should go to learn how to do comedy. She’d been told at various job conferences that she was funny and she said everyone told her, “You should do stand up!”

People SAY these things without realizing what they’re doing. People who say, “You should be a stand up comedian!” don’t actually go and see stand up. They have no real sense of what it is or what the life entails. I’m not a stand up comedian but I know what it takes and I can tell you that this woman should NOT be a stand up comedian. She doesn’t even like stand up comedy. But she was considering it anyway because so many people said it.

But people say things like this. If they see a kid who is cute and talented in a school play they say, “You should be on Broadway!” Which, again, is not something I have done but I do know what it takes and 999 out of one thousand kids should NOT be on Broadway.

I wish that people could be a little less ambitious for one another…that we could just let a funny person at a business conference be a funny person at her job or let a talented kid be a talented kid at his or her school. That’s enough most of the time.

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Going into the Arts is like Playing the Lottery
April 21, 2015, 10:19 pm
Filed under: advice, art, comedy, Creative Process, music, puppets, theatre, writing | Tags: , ,

The odds are maybe not quite as bad. Maybe. But the chances for an actual sustainable life in the Arts in this country are very slim. When we begin, we’re all convinced we will be the one to beat the odds but only a lucky few will actually manage it. When you play the lottery, you can incrementally improve the odds of winning by buying more tickets. It stands to reason that the more tickets you’re able to afford, the more opportunity you have to win.

This is how privilege works in the arts, in a sense. Being white, for example, gives you some extra metaphorical lottery tickets. Being male will do the same. If you’re both those things, you’ll get an additional handful of tickets. And if you have some economic privilege – i.e. you can afford to do internships or not pay rent while you do a residency or whatever – that’s an even bigger handful of tickets.

But it’s still not guarantee of winning. This is why it’s hard to see one’s own privilege. It’s hard to feel like you’re winning when you’re losing most of the time. Winners of the Arts Career Lottery will tell you that all it takes to win is to work really hard at your craft and be the best you can be at what you do. The winners are experiencing something known as survivorship bias (to read more about this see: You Are Not So Smart.) Someone with Survivorship Bias attributes anything that they experienced as the reason for their success, that is, they worked hard, so it must be hard work that makes success!

But for every person who won the sustainable career Arts Career Lottery by working hard, there are probably hundreds upon hundreds who worked just as hard, are just as good and yet didn’t win. And there are also the ones who didn’t work very hard and just got lucky. You can do everything right and fail. You can have a fistful of tickets and still not win the lottery. You can have a fistful of privilege and still not win the arts lottery.

And like the actual lottery, sometimes a little win in the Arts will keep you playing. In the lottery, you play enough, you will win $25 or $50 and those small gains can encourage you to stay in the game, giving you hope that you could win. This happens in the arts, where a small bit of progress feels like a signal that you could win. You got that audition. You got that grant. You won that jury prize. So you keep playing. For better or for worse.

Should you play the Arts Lottery? Entirely up to you. The odds are terrible and you can lose a lot of money as well as piece of mind. I can really only recommend it for those who feel that they have no choice – that a life in the arts is the only available path. If that’s you: Welcome to the Lottery. Your odds are pretty slim but if you’re like me, you keep playing, simply because you cannot help it. Just be prepared for the moment when some asshole who’s never bought a ticket before, who’s barely trained and has not paid any dues suddenly hits the jackpot. I’ve seen it happen many times and it does not stop sucking.

But if you can let go of the idea that there might be order or justice or merit in the way the arts magic gets distributed, you might be able to enjoy the game.

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Thinking about JK Rowling and also Marge Piercy, with special appearances by Aisha Tyler and Marc Maron

I’ve been thinking a lot about JK Rowling. And not just because I’m broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing a children’s novel – oh, wait, maybe it IS because I’m broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing a children’s novel – but in any case, I’m thinking of her and how she began.

When she was broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing Harry Potter, no one would have predicted that she’d be a gajillionaire years later. No one. And while she was broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing, I’m sure all around her, people shook their heads and wondered when she was going to get her act together. Now, in retrospect, JK Rowling’s poverty is a funny origin story but I’m sure, at the time, it was as difficult as anyone’s poverty can be.

JK Rowling has made me think about all the other broke people who wrote in coffee shops and didn’t end up with mega-book & movie deals. Her story has made me think about how all of them, those with deals and those without, were all just driven to do it, results or not.

And that is the beautiful thing and the horrible thing about those of us who just can’t help ourselves.

In an episode of the Girl On Guy podcast, Aisha Tyler and Marc Maron were talking about drive and failure. Tyler talked about how much mediocre work artists have to make before creating a great thing. For example, a furniture maker has to make nine mediocre chairs before the tenth one can be great. It’s a way to explain and get through those difficult failing times. And Maron took some umbrage. He told stories about failing and how awful it felt and then said this: “If you’re not driven by something you can’t even understand that’s within you, good luck with creativity.” (It happens at 1:08:15 in the podcast, in case you want to listen. It sounds better than it reads.)

I found myself refreshed by this point of view. There is a sense of liberation from releasing myself from trying to imagine some bright light at the end of this tunnel. No, there might not be a reward. If experience tells me anything it’s that there probably won’t be. It makes me think of Marge Piercy’s poem “For the Young Who Want To.”

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Read the rest of it here: Marge Piercy’s For the Young Who Want To

The last line is:

Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

I’ve had this poem pasted on my guitar case ever since I was a baby artist but I understand it differently now than I did when I mod-podged it there decades ago. It actually means more now than it did then. I think it is because I actually live it now.  When I first encountered the poem, I was one of the ones who wanted to. Now I am the one whose “hobby” gets more tedious to others the older I get. Embracing this thing in me that makes me make things, in the face of impossible odds, that causes people to worry about me, that is not socially acceptable (except in retrospect with a success story) feels like the next phase of the journey. I am not the Young one who wants to. I am the one who does.

For the post part, I’m not into the stereotype of the damaged artist. Usually, I steer myself clear of the suffering artist trope but maybe seeing that thing inside me that I don’t understand as a thing that won’t quit, seeing it as a fierce little demon, could actually give me some strength when all around me the world seems to be clucking its tongue and waiting for me to get it together.

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A Highly Sensitive Person in the Arts
October 28, 2014, 11:11 pm
Filed under: art, comedy, music, theatre | Tags: , , , , , ,

A copy of The Highly Sensitive Person fell into my hands recently. I read it with interest – as I assumed that if there was such a thing as a Highly Sensitive Person, I was probably it. I’ve heard “You’re just too sensitive” so many times, it’s like the soundtrack of my youth. A colleague once said, “You’re like an eyeball. You make me feel like sandpaper.” I felt that metaphor was apt. Like an eyeball, I leak tears easily and will turn red under stress.

After reading Dr. Elaine N. Aron’s book on Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) I can affirm that yes, I am one and apparently there are lots of us. (15-20 % of the population in fact.) I knew I was sensitive (I was always fighting it) what I didn’t realize was what a hand biology has in that sensitivity. HSPs have nervous systems that respond quickly and dramatically. Our systems go into high alert – what Aron calls overarousal – in response to things that have no effect on less sensitive people. This means, yes, that we blush easily – but also that the levels of cortisol in our blood get higher in these moments.

Overarousal isn’t all bad. Think about falling in love – all your senses go on overdrive. On one hand, it feels great and on another, you might lose some control of yourself.

According to Aron, HSPs tend to become overaroused when they are being observed or judged and this can have a radical impact on performance. For me? True, true and true. For years, whenever I would audition or compete, my chest would get bright red and splotchy. Evening gowns were an embarrassing costume choice for me. My teaching would turn to shit as soon as someone came in to give me an evaluation. Overarousal causes all these PHYSICAL responses, which explains why so many songs that sounded fantastic in my living room suddenly become strained in performance. My voice can become restricted, my fingers less facile.

For the most part, I learned to adapt to these little quirks. When I played with the band, we would often plan our set list in a way that would allow me to ease into performance. In other words, the first songs we played couldn’t feature my most challenging guitar parts (my fingers wouldn’t behave appropriately at the start) nor could the first songs feature my biggest wide-open singing. I had to begin with songs that sat comfortably in the easiest parts of my range and then move on to more challenging material once my system had calmed down a bit.

I’m thinking this whole HSP thing was probably a factor in my choice to skip the auditioning part of the performing business and focus on making my own work. In my own work, I can be completely at ease. Auditioning for me was always unpredictable. It felt like I had no control over my own system. Sometimes I was on fire, fantastic, blowing people away and other times I’d trip over my own tongue, have trouble breathing, turn red. Now that I understand this HSP thing, I feel like I could find some work-arounds for those quirks if I were starting all over again. (I’m not – there are a whole host of other reasons I make my own work.) I just wish I’d known then, what I know now.

It does feel somewhat liberating to recognize that I am not alone in this sensitivity, that there are others like me and that there is actual value in the the things that cluster around high sensitivity. Many of those things have not been of great value to me in the gladhanding theatre business (it is a loud “Everything is Great!” world.) Nor have these HSP qualities been particularly useful in my work in the loud landscape of the Education Business. However, I am finding that this sensitivity thing is an extremely important asset in my new career as a Feldenkrais practitioner. In fact, long before I’d heard of HSPs as a category, I was coming to appreciate the value of heightening my kinesthetic sensitivity. When I began to study the Feldenkrais Method, I encountered, for the first time in my life, a place where I could not only give my sensitivity free reign but found that I wanted to increase it. Suddenly, my ability to sense subtle differences allowed me to be of service, gave me opportunities to make a difference.

I find, too, that I’m interested in the possibilities of re-framing the benefits of being highly sensitive in the Arts. Sensitivity has always felt like a disadvantage in the marketing stage, the getting it out there stage, the publicity stage but it feels important to honor its benefits in the actual art-making stage.

Most of the work I like best has been keenly observed. I prefer highly sensitive art and highly sensitive artists are my favorite sort. I would like to see more sensitive work, to somehow develop a channel for HSPs to make HSP art and not have to dull their high sensitivity just to have it seen.

And still, even as I write this, I can feel my own internal skeptic sneak in and laugh at the sensitive artist in search of more sensitivity. “Sensitive” has been a criticism for so long that it is very challenging to reclaim it. In fact, what I think that laughing skeptic is responding to is vulnerability. It feels like a great risk to broadcast where I am so tender.

But to SENSE is of great value, especially to an artist. To be sensitive is to have greater access to those senses. And, yes, sometimes they can cause me to over-respond to things (there is no earthly reason that a person yelling NEAR me should cause such a dramatic startle response in my body) but those are the same senses with which I am able to take in the world. The finer tuned my sensitivity, the greater my ability to make something with it.

I would love to hear from other HSPs, I would love to hear about your work-arounds and understand your methods for proceeding through this loud and challenging world.

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And here’s a little 30 second song that I wrote many years ago about being too sensitive.

Just in case you feel like making a mash-up or something, you can download it there, too.

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Also, this XTC song reflects some of my HSP feelings.

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Learning Funny from the SNL Ladies
September 25, 2014, 9:30 am
Filed under: comedy | Tags: , , , ,

The Women of SNL was a Special featuring the ladies from Saturday Night Live over the show’s history. While watching it, I was suddenly reminded of when my friend and I started an improv group in college. We wanted to practice some of the skills we were learning in our comedy class, so we booked the student run space and gathered a small group of interested improvisers. We tried things we’d only read about in books and explored things we’d done in class.

We went to a college where the male to female ratio was 1 to 3 but somehow in our little group, we had more men than women. We all improvised enthusiastically for a few sessions and then someone pointed out that my co-founder and created almost exclusively male characters. At the time, I was mystified by this habit. We were feminists at a (mostly) women’s college, why did every character come out that way?

Watching the Women of SNL, I had an insight into the why of that pattern. We grew up with very few funny female character models. Funny defaulted to male. I was a dedicated SNL watcher in my youth and at the time, there were very few signature female characters – aside from the ones in drag. (a la “The Church Lady” or Terry Sweeny’s Nancy Reagan)

The women that were on during my formative years were funny in relationship to men. They weren’t the stars of their sketches. They were written into the roles of bimbos, prudes and nags. You can see how they could have been so much funnier if anyone had known how to write actual women for them.

Watching the survey of the women of SNL all pressed up next to one another revealed how much of a difference there was in the newer generations of women on the show. Tina Fey’s position as head writer surely has to be credited with some of the monumental change between those seasons. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Kristen Wiig all took on female characters in a way that no one had been able to before them. Particularly radical to me, was how often these female characters are in relationship to one another. They were in sketches with other women. SNL started to pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors in their era. There are whole worlds of women that had never been on-screen before and it was inspiring to see them.

Watching the SNL special made me wish I had grown up watching women like Wiig, Fey, Poehler, Dratch and Rudolph for inspiration. I envy the young women who have grown up with them to look toward. I think they must have a much clearer sense of what’s possible, of roles they could play and how to be funny and still be a woman.

I heard a film critic talk about the definition of good satire as something that should always punch up. He said that the best satire targets the guy at the top. I think for me, in college, taking on male characters of any kind felt like punching up. There weren’t enough women in power to feel like I could punch up to a female character, I guess. Funny defaulted to male then, even as a woman and I’m so grateful to see that it doesn’t have to anymore.

SNL ladies

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