Songs for the Struggling Artist


Who Is This Arts Education Experience For?

Having spent a couple of decades in arts education, in a multitude of schools through a dozen or so arts organizations, I’ve had occasion to wonder who it’s all for. Maybe it seems obvious. It’s for the kids, of course! It’s for the students! Except when it’s really not.

I’ll give you some examples. This first one happened recently to a musician I know. A group of kids came in for a musical theatre workshop and their chaperones pulled out some high-end cameras and microphones and began weaving in and out of the students who were trying to learn a song. The musician suggested to the grown-ups that having a safe, camera-free space to make mistakes would be beneficial to the learning process. The chaperone said, “No, but I’m trying to get some footage of their growth so this is great for me” and kept filming. Who was this workshop really for?

Or this one: Let’s say you’re putting on a play. And you cast little Jimmy to play the lead. But Jimmy is very quiet. You can’t hear Jimmy when he says his lines. When you tell Jimmy to speak up, the “problem” does not improve. And Jimmy’s not the only one you can’t hear. So you get a sound system and a bunch of mics. Jimmy has his very own lavalier. And Jimmy, because he has a mic now, gets quieter – so the sound guy has to pump the system up all the way just so people can hear Jimmy. But then the kids can’t hear the band so they miss most of their cues. Who is this for? What has Jimmy learned? He certainly hasn’t learned to project his voice. Or even how to use a microphone.

The audience, sure, has a better chance of hearing Jimmy now, however out of sync with the band he is. And the administration can rest easier knowing they’ve invested some money in making the students heard. But none of that was for Jimmy’s education.

Over and over, I’ve watched adults twist themselves into knots trying to put on a good show. They invest their own artistic aspirations into the students’ work and do whatever it takes to get something polished onstage. This is never going to happen. Your students aren’t that good. They’re not going to put on a Broadway quality show no matter how much you yell at them. I’m sorry to break it to you but your students are probably not good. Yet.

And once you realize that student work is not there to be good, you can start to tune in to what it IS there to do. It’s there to give the students an opportunity to learn. They will learn something in the process of putting on a show – no matter how it happens. But if what they’re primarily learning is how to please their director, they are not having the richest possible learning experience.

Putting on a school play is valuable for so many reasons. The opportunities for learning and discovery are endless, really. But for me, to me, privileging the production over the students’ learning is getting in the way of the best opportunities. One of those opportunities is failing at it. If you, for example, don’t learn your lines as well you’re supposed to and then you go out onstage and forget them, that is an excellent lesson you just learned. For me, the most potent part of every theatrical experience in education is when the students unpack all the things they wish they’d done better. That’s learning in action.

But…in my experience, most people who put on plays in schools are much more concerned with how the play looks than how the students are learning in it. They are worried about how it will look or sound to administrators, to parents or to funders. School plays (and concerts and presentations and so on) are 9 times out of 10 – not really for the people putting them on but some authority that their teacher/director wants to impress.

And the reality is, you’re probably not going to be able to change that. But it can be helpful to name it as it’s happening – to be clear that you’re getting a sound system for the principal because she gets so cranky when she can’t hear students or to be clear with your students that you’re spending time on light cues that you could have spent rehearsing because the school board decides the funding based on these shows and they need all the bells and whistles. That’s who the show is for, then. It’s an audition for the school board budgetary committee, not a learning experience. And knowing that can sometimes make engaging in those parts a little easier. You can yell at the students to be louder for the principal and do some character exercises for their growth. Personally, I’d prefer a theatre program that allows for discovery and failure and learning but most programs aren’t built that way. Which is, frankly, one of the reasons why I moved away from arts education.

But before I go completely, I want to share a chapter of a book on Teaching Shakespeare that I’ve been working on. It speaks to this question of who it’s for and what exactly you’re doing when you work on Shakespeare through performance. It’s something I clarified while teaching graduate students in education and as far as I know it’s a distinction that no one’s making and a distinction I think is crucial at this point in the field’s development Shakespeare education.

The text is here on my Shakespeare website and there is a direct line between this post and that chapter. If this topic speaks to you, particularly if you are an arts educator, click on over. But meanwhile even if you are not an educator, this perspective on learning might be useful when you go and see student work. Parents, for example, can be important advocates for more student-centered work. Or, at the very least, you can avoid complaining about not being able to hear little Jimmy. Remember, the show is for Jimmy’s learning, not for you.

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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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In Which I Try to Defend My (Seemingly Terrible) Choice to Dedicate My Life to Theatre
January 28, 2019, 11:43 pm
Filed under: art, musicals, Quitting, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Theatre is part of me. It has been since I first learned about it in pre-school. My pre-school teachers were actors and there has never been anyone cooler – before or since. Even if I quit theatre making tomorrow, I’d still be a theatre person. It’s almost a physical characteristic at this point – Oh, she has blue eyes, curly hair and theatre.

Other people who have theatre in their bones know what I mean. They know how inevitable it feels, how compulsive, how deep.

The people without this quality cannot fathom why theatre has so much power over us. Why do we continue to do it, despite the heartbreaks, the inconsistency and the hopelessness of the whole enterprise?

Oh, how I wish I knew the answer. Theatre is not logical.

It may have been once – back in the old days when it was the only place a community could really gather, when it provided the only drama or comedy around. But now, when we can get our stories on screens of all sizes, it no longer has the urgency it once did. Why gather in person to watch something if we can gather virtually?

If you have theatre in your blood, as either a theatre-goer or maker or both, you know why. If you don’t, I’m not sure how to capture the magic spell the rest of us are under. Why do we go to it? Why do we sacrifice for it? Why do we dedicate years of our lives to its charms?

A few years ago, after a friend’s benefit for her theatre company, a few of us were out for dinner afterwards and a friend said to his wife, “Why does she still do this? Every year. She keeps going and going and it never gets anywhere.” Even though he was talking about our friend, not me, I still experienced the words with the heat of a white hot poker.

“Why does she still do this?” Fact is, this is a question I used to fear that people were asking about me all the time. Every time I sent out a fundraising letter I’d hear that voice saying, “Why does she still do this?” Every time I promoted another show “Why does she still do this?” Every time I’d have to ask a new round of people for assistance, “Why does she still do this?”

When we first started our theatre company, people responded with great enthusiasm. They were sure we’d be the next big thing. As were we. As a culture, we respond to the new. I’ve seen this happen to other fresh faced theatre companies when they first get started. Folks on Kickstarter love to fund that brand new project for someone to follow their dreams. But just the first dream. Maybe the 2nd. After that, everyone expects you to have MADE it by now and begins to resent your asking. But the truth is, in contemporary American Theatre, almost no one “makes it.” And even if you do “make it” (i.e. you’re produced on a nationally recognized stage and get publicity and stuff,) because we have no national arts funding to speak of, you will still be asking everyone for money. In fact, you’ll be asking for more and more money as your budgets will get bigger and bigger the more “making it” you are. Why do we still do this?

My worries about hearing “Why does she still do this?” have faded and the question has now become “Why do I still do this?” The longer I keep at it, the less I worry about what other people might be thinking. Now I ask myself – whenever I return to the theatre, to the work, to the heartbreak. Why do I still do this?

I know why I WANT to. I know how it starts. It starts with inspiration, with an idea I want to see realized. It’s this ridiculous thing called Art that calls to me, where I cannot help but do it, no matter how little encouragement I receive. Many of us cannot be talked out of our art by the forces pressing on it. The sheer numbers of painters, sculptures, writers and composers who died unrecognized, with no assurance from the outside world are staggering. We count among them many of our greatest. . . but no one wonders why Van Gogh still painted. Why Kafka still wrote. They made things because they had to make things. Not to make it but to make. I’m the same. So is my friend who “never gets anywhere.”

I started this essay a decade ago and I am still making theatre – no matter how much it breaks my heart and seems to not be worth it sometimes. As time goes by, the putting on of shows becomes harder and harder to do, more and more draining. It feels less and less sensible to keep at it. Is the satisfaction of seeing my inspiration realized enough? Is it worth the agony to get my ideas to the stage?

I’ll be honest with you. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it is not worth it. So I got my idea up on stage. So? So? A handful of people saw it, a small percentage of them were moved. So?

Grantmakers measure a company’s worth in how many people were present, that saw a piece of work. My company does not get those grants because we do not reach a lot of people. Maybe that means I should just quit. Sometimes I really think I’m going to. I can do so many other things, after all. Perhaps I could be satisfied with fiction, with music, with writing about art. But…

We could just go on, dreaming of our future audiences who will, one day, understand what we were trying to do, while they miss it today. The major difficulty is that because our medium is live and ethereal, as theatre makers, we don’t really stand much of a chance to be recognized when we’re gone. But it doesn’t matter. We still do it because it is what we do. Van Gogh painted because he painted. Kafka wrote because he wrote. We put on shows because we put on shows. And that is why she still does this.

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.

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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A Great Idea for a Musical! (or What is Art? And who gets to decide?)

A comment on my Art as Service post began this way: “I disagree with your theories about what is art and perhaps even what is service with art. I think the thing about art is that it has different meanings for different people.” And asked “Who gets to determine what is art and what is not? What is service and what is not?” which are good questions – even if it implies that it should definitely not be me who gets to determine such a thing.

The answer to these questions is that no one is determining anything. There is no line around art or service and just because I, a person on the internet said so, does not make it so. Unfortunately, I have not yet developed such an enviable super power.

In the absence of strong boundaries in the world, I attempted to make some distinction between entertainment and art, not because I want to be mean to entertainers but because I’m weary of watching artists suffer over the confusion. Since no one makes distinctions, the market also makes no distinction and capitalism just chews up art and entertainment and service all in one messy mouthful. Of course art means different things to different people but without a common distinction, artists suffer and diminish while corporate execs thrive. Without a line drawn, commercial art thrives while more esoteric art starves. Which is not to say that commercial theatre, for example, sucks. Some of it is very entertaining and artfully done. Just because I don’t think something is art doesn’t mean I think it’s bad or badly done or unprofessional or that I don’t want to see it. I love being entertained as much as anyone.

Art does not mean good. Entertainment does not mean bad. Entertainment can be great. Art can be terrible. Drawing a line between the two does not mean drawing a line between good and bad. It just means, for me, that we use different metrics for success in those two approaches. And listen, debate about this stuff has raged for centuries over wine, beer, cocktails, coffees and college cafeterias so I get that the “What is Art?” question can be controversial.

However, I’m very curious about why everything wants to be art. Why should we need SpongeBob SquarePants to be art? Why are we not satisfied to simply have it be an entertaining piece of theatre? If you’re making tons of money, entertaining people, having a great time, I don’t really understand why being an entertainment isn’t enough.

I have as much admiration for great entertainers as I do for artists. They’re just different flavors. One is strawberry ice cream, the other is coffee gelato. Both delicious. But I wouldn’t want one to be the other.

Part of the problem, I think is the word “art.” There are, problematically, two definitions. Etymologically speaking, art began as a way to say “skill.” The Greek word for art basically means craft, or skill. Commedia dell’ Arte was a popular entertainment of skill. They were skilled comedians. If someone used their art, they used their skills.

Round about the 19th century this other sense of art began to evolve – the sense of an artist as a person creating new and challenging work, as a sort of romantic expression of self and the universe and such. Art became an expression of something – a creation – an invention where once had been a blank page, stage or space. When I talk about art and artists, this is the sort of stuff I mean. I mean people who take what they are given to create something that challenges the status quo, that makes important inquiries into the human condition, that expresses something unique and untold where once there had been nothing.

The other form of art, the one that is skill and practice and rigor and craft and form is, of course, incredibly important – but I think of the person who crafts that as more of an artisan than artist.

Our American culture is profoundly confused by all these words. Take, for example, the way advertising and marketing have co-opted the word artisanal to now be entirely meaningless. What once meant something crafted by hand by a skilled practitioner with care and attention is now readily applied to mass produced food products. You could get an “artisanal” bagel at Duncan Donuts not long ago. I don’t know what that means. So what I’m trying to do in making distinctions is to point to the Dunkin Donutifying of art – that by making EVERYTHING art, then NOTHING is art and words lose meaning and poof, there is no funding for the expressive artist anymore.

It might help to keep these strands of art in mind – the art of skill and the art of expression/creation. Perhaps we need new words entirely – and the art that means skill – as in (Zen and) the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as in foam art in coffees, as in balloon art and so on could be called one thing and the art that means invention and creation, as in what we hang in art museums and fund for the public good…that could have another name.

Having it all be the same thing is what prevents people with no experience of the arts from understanding why in the world we should support it, donate to it, give it public funding. They think, “I wouldn’t pay my barista extra for putting a swan on top of my coffee – I mean, maybe I’d tip her a dollar or something – but why should my taxes support the arts if anything could be art? After all, I just spent over a thousand dollars to take my family to see that show on Broadway. I did my bit.” (See also my post on We Support the Arts. Buying tickets for Broadway shows is not support.)

Anyway – I tend to think of entertainers as being particularly incredible artisans. The Broadway chorus boy may not be an artist (in my definition) but his skill at doing complex jumps and turns is remarkable. He is an artist in the same sense that the barista who has spent decades perfecting the perfect foam swan is. It’s arte. He’s an entertainer with incredible arte.

And if an artist, say, a choreographer, created a show that required a chorus of such artisans, they would be participating in the manifestation of that artistic experience. Likewise – if the artist, the choreographer, required a chorus of swan-making baristas, they too would be part of the manifestation of that artwork.

And I suppose this is where the service component comes in. So let’s back this up. Let’s say this artist, this choreographer wants to make a dance featuring a chorus of Broadway dancers and a flock of skilled baristas for his piece. He intends to make a piece of art. Why he wants to do it is what I was trying to point to in my art as service blog. He could want to simply get an idea in his head out in the world. He could want to see his thoughts reflected onstage. He could want a good review in the New York Times so his father will finally love him. And/or he could want to be of service to an audience in some way – to change the way they see the world, to shift some dynamic in the world, to simply be a voice for the unheard baristas of the world.

That’s what I mean by service.

What’s tricky, I think, especially for performers, in terms of understanding this, is that performers are often really in service to everything they do. A singer is in service to the song. An actor is in service to the play, a dancer is in service to the dance. They are artisans in service to the art, so of course this notion of there being art without a service component is actually baffling to a performer. They are in constant service.

And I expect it doesn’t help a performer to make distinctions between art and entertainment. In fact, it could be a hindrance. I remember once helping one of my actor friends run her lines for a terrible film. I mean, the dialogue was appalling and absolutely nothing of interest happened in it. I was deeply impressed by how much respect and attention my friend gave this wretched dialogue. It’s part of how I came to realize that I didn’t have it in me to really chase after an acting career. I loved/love to perform but I didn’t have the capacity to ignore terrible content. I could not put myself in service to anything or anyone that I did not believe in 100%. This is kind of a big liability for a performer.

For me, because I am creative in a number of different ways, I will often make distinctions between the part of art I’m practicing. When I’m creating something from scratch, beginning from a blank page, blank canvas, blank stage, I am a generative artist. When I am performing something someone else created, I am an interpretive artisan. The two impulses feel very different for me and there are times when I can only manage one and not the other. After the 2016 elections, for example, I had no capacity for creating anything new and could really only sing other people’s songs. Sometimes there is blurriness, sure. If I invent a whole new way of performing a song, that feels like I’m blurring the lines between generating and interpreting but still, I tend to make a distinction.

Fundamentally, I am talking about that blank page – about how a piece begins. That is where I am hoping to make the distinction between art and entertainment especially clear. That is – if a piece begins in a corporate boardroom, it is very likely not art. If, say, at Microsoft’s headquarters a bunch of execs sit around and say, “Hey, what if we got in on this Broadway market? I’ve been thinking Clippy the Musical would really make us a lot of money and give us some ironic legitimacy.”


The subsequent Clippy the Musical will not be art. Not even if they hire Tony Kushner to write the book, Bjork to write the music and Laurie Anderson to write the lyrics. Not even if they get Taylor Mac to direct it. Not that I’d begrudge any of those artists making a little bit of corporate money – but Clippy the Musical would still be a corporate property cashing in on a possibly lucrative market.

Now Clippy the Musical may sound silly but that is essentially how 9 out of 10 musicals are born. SpongeBob SquarePants is owned by Nickelodeon, which is owned by Viacom. Viacom is the real winner here. Most Broadway musicals don’t come from a writer or composer sitting in a room struck by inspiration. Most musicals begin at the corporate level. Whomever owns the rights to Pretty Woman hired an agent to hire them a team of writers and a director and they all got paid to give us Pretty Woman, the Musical. (Lord help us!)

There are those who will find this corporate exercise entertaining and I do not begrudge any writer, dancer, actor or singer the opportunity to make a bit of money for a change. I’m not saying it shouldn’t exist or that we shouldn’t enjoy it. Clippy the Musical might be delightful with the right people making it.

Let’s just not call it art, okay? That’s all I’m asking. But of course, the choice is up to you. You can call it whatever you want. I don’t “get to” decide anything more than anyone else does – but I’m hoping that being a little more circumspect about what we call art might lead to the culture beginning to value work outside of the corporate purview a little bit more. About the only thing art, as I define it, has going for it, is a kind of romanticism and a hint of respectability. I’d love to see the people who create something from nothing in their rooms (or studios or wherever), those who get inspiration from the world or the gods or whatever and not the corporate paycheck, get just a little something for their trouble.

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.

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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 and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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You can help me make art

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

 



Art, Entertainment and SpongeBob SquarePants

My friend told me about some friends of hers who came to see her dance performance and were clearly pretty baffled by it. She didn’t take this personally because she understood that these friends of hers had no experience of contemporary dance or art in general.

What was ironic about these folks with no art experience was that they were convinced they were dedicated arts supporters. They went to tons of Broadway shows after all; They thought themselves very artistically literate. My friend tried to explain to them that Broadway wasn’t so much art as entertainment but they had no idea what she was talking about.

I think most Americans would have no idea what she was talking about. We conflate art and entertainment so dramatically that it is sometimes very hard to distinguish between the two. I have spent my entire life in the arts and am only now starting to work out the distinction. Art can be entertaining and entertainment can be artful but art and entertainment are not the same thing.

I suspect that if you come from a country with funding and support for the arts, this distinction is obvious. The national theatres, state granted and council funded work iare more likely to be art and the shows in commercial houses are entertainment. Done and dusted. Sometimes there’s crossover but it’s mostly clear. Here, where we have no state theatre, no national arts, there is little to no distinction. Maybe at the margins you can find consensus. We might be able to agree that amusement park shows and cruise ships are entertainment and avant-garde performance in a gallery space is art – but as those two things approach one another, things start to get muddy.

The distinction can be muddy for people who work in Arts and Entertainment as well. When you think of yourself as working in The Business (as in Show Business) and The Industry (as in The Entertainment Industry) you approach your work in one way. If you think of yourself as working in The Arts, you are likely to approach it another way. Even if what you are doing is fundamentally the same. Context is everything. If I sing a song on a cruise ship, it is Entertainment. Even if I sing it artfully, it is still entertainment. If I sing that very same song in a contemporary dance performance, it’s art. Same material, same artist, different genre entirely. For many performers, there is no distinction and no need to make one. And perhaps that’s true for audiences, too.

But asking these categories to do one another’s jobs makes for an anemic art climate. In a capitalist culture, entertainment consumes art, like giant multi-national banks gobbling up local ones. Entertainment grows and expands while art starves and diminishes. People start to expect art to make money, to boost the economy, to create an insatiable demand for tickets. And while that may work for Broadway, for entertainment – it will never work for art. Art is not motivated by money. Art is after something else. Art is concerned with a dramatically different range of values. It won’t be a good return on your investment. If it IS a good return on your investment, odds are good, it’s probably not art, really. There are exceptions, of course. But very few.

I am pretty clear that I am pursuing art. I enjoy entertainment as much as the next person but art is my goal, my purpose, my raison d’etre. I mean, true, there is no business like show business, like no business I know. I agree that you can nowhere get that special feeling as when you’re stealing that extra bow. Applause is exhilarating and intoxicating and I am delighted to receive it any chance I get. But – for me, applause without art feels hollow. I’d rather do without applause than reckon with that emptiness.

And so we need to talk about SpongeBob SquarePants, the Musical. When I heard it was opening, I laugh/cried so hard at the absurdity of the world. SpongeBob SquarePants is not art. It’s on Broadway. It is theatre. But it’s not art, y’all. Not even close. No matter how much the Creative Team tries to convince us otherwise.

Tina Landau, former director of Steppenwolf Theatre (art,) writer of multiple theatrical works (art,) directed SpongeBob SquarePants and in a promotional video declares that this show is what we need now. America needs SpongeBob SquarePants The Musical, she suggests. Everyone on the creative team seemed to echo this sentiment of significance and importance in this video. Everyone was on message and seemed to be trying to convince us that this was a great artistic triumph.

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And maybe SpongeBob SquarePants, The Musical is amazing. The cartoon is very entertaining, I concede. Critics seem to love the musical (“It’s not that bad!” read one review I read) but even if it is artfully done, it is not art, it is not important, it is not what America needs now. It may be what Tina Landau, formerly a director of art, needs right now – like she needs a summer house, so she’s directing a mega show based on a lucrative licensed cartoon figure affiliated with a multi-national corporation. And that is fine. I do not begrudge Tina Landau being able to buy a house – not many theatre directors can do that, especially female ones. But I do begrudge her trying to convince us that SpongeBob is important, that SpongeBob is art. It’s not. It’s just not. I’m not saying it’s not entertaining or not well done – I’m saying it’s not art and I resent every single piece of media that equates it with things that are actually art. I saw multiple Best of New York Theatre 2017 lists and most of them featured SpongeBob and I didn’t see any with Indecent on them – which was the single most relevant piece of theatrical art I’ve seen in decades. SpongeBob is selling well and Indecent closed – twice. Entertainment sells like hotcakes. And Art is food for the soul and awfully hard to sell in mass quantities.

As an antidote to the entertainment-heavy world I live in, I’ve been reading the writings of Tadeusz Kantor, painter and theatremaker from Poland. He sits firmly in the art camp. He rails against the stultification that can come from theatre buildings. He bemoans the theatre’s move toward professionalism – toward codification and art strangulation. He would not be confused about the landscape we have here in America. He would not let the existence of SpongeBob SquarePants make him feel despair about his own work. His work has nothing to do with SpongeBob. And mine doesn’t either.

For me the distinction between art and entertainment comes down to a simple question. That question is related to Kantor’s history. During World War II, it was illegal to make theatre in Poland. He did it anyway, in a basement – risking death for his art.

The question I ask myself if I’m wondering if something is art or not is. “Would someone perform this in a basement in the middle of a war?” “Would someone put this on in their attic at great personal risk?”

I have a long list of shows I cannot imagine in a secret war torn basement and SpongeBob is right at the top of that list.

So why is this important? Am I just splitting linguistic and categorical hairs here? The American Theatrical landscape has always been thus. Let’s look at 1922. Alongside the premiers of Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Hairy Ape and The God of Vengeance were also plays called: Hunky Dory and Hitchy-Koo of 1922. There’s nothing new in the crass work presented alongside the sublime. It is perhaps our national impulse to sit entertainment side by side with art.

We once had national organizations to help foster and develop art. The Federal Theatre Project in the 30s and the development of regional theatres in the 60s. But now, due to the eliding of categories and things like enhancement deals, a regional theatre is much more likely to produce an entertainment than some art. There are very few places that foster the growth of art, independent from the rules of the entertainment business.

With no distinction made between art and entertainment, the Boards of theatre companies continue to make choices that privilege entertainment and the theatre’s bottom line. And there’s absolutely nothing in place to stop them doing that. On a smaller, more personal scale, artists who make ART are often made to feel that what they do has no value because it does not make a lot of money. Look at the concept of “making it.” “Making It” is a Show Business concept – not really an artistic one. But that doesn’t stop every artist I know from feeling bad about how much or little they have “made it.” Without a distinction between The Business and The Art, artists will relentlessly beat themselves up for failing to meet criteria that has nothing to do with their actual raison d’etre.

Artists can start to feel bad that they can’t make a piece of work that “America needs right now” because they can’t bring themselves to make something like SpongeBob. This could be mortally wounding to American art if we don’t start to make some distinctions and some adjustments to the field. SpongeBob and Kantor’s The Dead Class are technically the same medium. Naked Boys Singing and The Bald Soprano are both theatre. Is it any wonder people don’t want to support the arts? They think because they spent $150 a head to see School of Rock or Kinky Boots that they’ve done their bit. But they haven’t. They’ve paid $150 a ticket to be entertained. And the arts continue to languish unrecognized and underfunded.

There is a sort of Venn Diagram of Art and Entertainment. They overlap, for certain – but some things are clearly one or the other, while others sit squarely in the middle, as both. We fund and support the entertainment circle, including the bit that overlaps with art, while the Art circle is only supported where it overlaps with entertainment. This is not good for art, obviously. But is also not good for entertainment which benefits profoundly from that overlap. For the sake of our cultural health, we need to start making distinction so we don’t let art get left behind.

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Hello Little Girl Culture and #MeAt14

The horrifying Roy Moore stuff has sparked a campaign of people posting photos of #MeAt14 to bring home, for those who are dismissing the severity of the charges, how young 14 really is.

When I was 14, I saw the Broadway production of Into the Woods and I heavily identified with the child in the show, Little Red Riding Hood. I was very interested in the other women but I saw myself as Little Red. And in seeing a production of the show recently, I started to think about how my 14 year old brain processed the play.

See, I thought I’d seen this show when I was 17 because of how clearly I understood that the wolf was as sexual predator and that getting eaten by the wolf was a sexual awakening for the little girl. But I was not 17, I was 14. And I got it. Totally. And it “made me feel excited, well, excited and scared.” (*This is a lyric from Little Red’s song “I know things now.”)

And while I still love this show, my adult feminist brain sees this storyline, as well as many others, as particularly problematic for my developing brain.

The thing is – the wolf is a bad guy. He is seductive and charming and he eats a grandmother and child whole. He is a literal predator. He sings “Hello, Little Girl” and the lyrics are not vague on the subject. “Think of that flesh, pink and plump,” he sings. And this show makes the confusing overlap between sex and predation. Like – the wolf has stolen Little Red’s innocence but she likes it a little bit. She knows things now, things like “scary is exciting” and “nice is different than good.”

But meanwhile, the audience has also been seduced by the wolf. We laugh at the double entendre of wolf’s sense of her as “tender and fresh.” And that crosses our wires. We learn to be attracted to predators through stories like this. Which, I know, I know, wasn’t the intention. The work is complex and Sondheim points us toward something that does, in fact, happen in the world. But –

In thinking about #MeAt14 – I find it disturbing that at 14, I had already worked out the feeling of being prey for predators when I saw this show. I knew how that felt and had known for some time. But I was also interested in a sexual awakening and every story I saw about this seemed to suggest that the way to an awakening was to get seduced by a predator. You couldn’t have your own sexual awakening, you had to be overpowered by some dark force.

I keep thinking about a tweet I saw from Anna Paquin about growing up in a victim grooming business. And the movie business isn’t the only one doing that grooming. Sometimes it feels as though most of the culture is a victim grooming business.

As I grew up, I kept listening to the soundtrack from Into the Woods and I moved from identifying with Little Red to Cinderella. I really understood Cinderella’s indecision about whether to be caught by her stalker or keep running. The Prince has a lot in common with the wolf – especially when he’s played by the same actor – and his relationships are similarly predatory. And similarly attractive. What I learned was that it was a predatory “prince” who will awaken your sleeping sexuality – not a man who is your peer.

I understood that these princes were ridiculous but also that they were the only way forward for a sexual life, not just for Cinderella but also for the Baker’s Wife – who I also learned to identify with as I got older. The Baker’s Wife gets her post-baby sexuality awakened by this predatory prince and then promptly gets killed for it. (She also technically gets fridged.)

I mean, it’s like, from this plot point, I learned that sex you enjoy is punishable by death. The Baker’s Wife is set free sexually and then she dies. (Also she has no identity of her own. She belongs to the Baker.) Little Red is seduced by the wolf and then consumed by him. Cinderella is transformed/rescued by the prince but ultimately betrayed by him. The only man who isn’t a predator in Into the Woods is bossy as hell and is always telling his wife to go home.

And I’m not trying to be a jerk about Into the Woods. This show has meant something to me since I was 14. The women in this show are complex and multi-dimensional and that is nothing to sneeze at in this world. But I am troubled by the messages I took in from this show and troubled by the way they continue to fly through the culture.

Stephen Sondheim’s complex and poignant work points to something that can be real. But then that realness goes on to perpetuate itself as the work becomes canon and every young musical theatre fan goes to see it. The wolves of the world, the Roy Moores of the world, not to mention so many others, continue to think they’re doing young girls a favor by pursuing them and then young girls convince themselves that being overcome, being doggedly pursued, being seduced, consumed, betrayed are an inevitable part of a sexual awakening. Most of us found the wolf singing “Hello Little Girl” funny and charming and not deeply disturbing the first time we heard it. But I find myself deeply disturbed by it now, every time I think about it.

And I try to imagine a production of Into the Woods where a fourteen year old me wouldn’t be charmed by the wolf, where #MeAt14 wouldn’t start dreaming of being stalked or hunted like prey after watching it, where I didn’t learn to be attracted to predators. If you are a person who finds men attractive, this is a thing you have to reckon with. (See also, Kevin Spacey’s predation on a 14 year old boy.)

The production I saw most recently tried to deal with some of the tricky gender dynamics of the show with some feminist flair. The director tried to make the Baker’s Wife the hero (hard, because she gets fridged.) The costume designer gave Jack’s mom a hammer and made her a kind of Rosie the Riveter single mom. But it takes more than a hammer to solve this problem at the heart of the piece. You can’t solve a “Hello, Little Girl” culture with a sexy wolf. I think you may actually perpetuate it.

And, of course, I got these messages long before I ever saw Into the Woods. This programming is not the fault of this show. I couldn’t have understood it if I hadn’t seen it multiple times before. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do about this sort of thing. Never do Into the Woods again? Only do dark expressionistic productions? I don’t know. My hope is that we find a way to tell stories that eventually drown out these predatory stories, to let these stories of predation become the outliers and watch other stories take center stage.

We have to take a hard look at the way our culture grooms men to be predators and women to be victimized, even in our most beloved stories and shows. We have to address this stuff in the senate and in our theatres. It’s time. I don’t want the next generation of girls to grow up as prey for the wolves and Roy Moores of the world. I want them to find their awakenings on their own, with their own agency, with people who are their peers, not their predators.

Also, people of Alabama, please, please, please vote for Doug Jones on Tuesday. For all of us.

#MeAt14, in my Rizzo costume, trying to look grown-up

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Another Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

Previously, I wrote about a show that inspired me to make a list of stories I never want to see onstage again. I have now seen another show and discovered another story I have had my definitive fill of. Can we please call a moratorium on the fallen woman plot?

You get a pass if your name is Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and you were writing social commentary about this shit in the 1800s but if you are a writer in 2017, do us all a favor and leave this tired old horse alone.

I mean, I know a lot of you loved this Great Comet situation. And I agree that the design was very cool and there’s some accomplished performances in it. I give it a lot of points for its hodge-podge red curtain, fishnet, Russian tchotcke from any old period, aesthetic. But goddamn it, please, my dear writers and creators, please never ever again make me watch a story about a girl who wants to kill herself because she felt desire one time. I mean – sure, I get it, 19th Century source material and all that but can someone please explain to me why a story that hinges on the purity of some ingénue is worth adapting in 2017? (Actually, don’t. I don’t want to hear it.) If you like the old dusty classics (and I do, too! Lots!) you’d better give us something besides the old patterns of the patriarchy to grapple with. And making this story cool doesn’t do it. By making it cool, you’re reinforcing that shit. You’re saying, “Isn’t the patriarchy cool? Look how fun the patriarchy can be! It’s like 19th century patriarchy dressed up with twentieth century fishnets. This story is Dusty and Sexy!”

Now, all over goddamn America, little theatre girls are going to be singing about how they should take poison because they fell in love with the wrong guy for a minute. All over America, little theatre boys will be singing about how ennobling loving a fallen woman can be. This goddamn story. I can’t.

Updating the classics is dodgy business, y’all, because the classics are full of stuff that tells women that our only value is our beauty and if we sell beauty to the wrong bidder, we are lost forever. If you update the classics and you don’t update the gender politics, you are essentially putting a 21st century stamp of approval on 19th century ideas.

If you’re simply staging the classics maybe you can get away with telling these stories. I would happily watch a production of Sense and Sensibility onstage. But I’d need some Regency costumes and some damn harpsichords or something to make that okay. If you set Sense and Sensibility in a disco, with your own contemporary dialogue, I’m gonna be skipping that shit. And I love me some Jane Austen but I’m pretty sure that if Jane Austen were alive today, she would not write this kind of story. She was a social satirist. She showed us what was ticking away under the Regency veneer. I think she would show us something true and cutting about ourselves now if she were still kicking. If Tolstoy were alive, I don’t think he’d be writing this marriage plot shit either. Given that he was essentially writing about rich Russians who owned people, I’m gonna guess he’d have a lot to say about the current moment. I don’t think he’d be wasting his time with more fallen women.

I mean, we don’t know, obviously, what our old writers would do. But romanticizing these old stories is doing women in 2017 no favors. I don’t want to see one more woman punished for having desire. Not one more time. I’m hungry for stories about woman’s desire, about embracing it, about celebrating it. (See also the awesomeness of Indecent. Or a stage production of I Love Dick? Could we have that? Can Jill Soloway start a theatre wing of Topple?) I declare a personal moratorium on any story that celebrates a dude for transcending a sullied woman. I henceforth will avoid any and all shows that hinge on the purity of some beautiful girl. Fuck purity. Fuck congratulating men for being able to get over the “obstacle” of an “impure” woman. I am done with this story for now and forever.

Again, unless your name is Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Then, I’m good. Do what you got to do.

 

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Theatre’s Loss: Janelle Monaé

From the first time I heard “Tightrope,” I was a fan of Janelle Monaé. I was head over heels for her music and her aesthetic, as well. She was musically exciting and theatrical in her style. Seeing her in concert was an incredible ride. She took the audience on a journey, the likes of which I have rarely experienced at a concert. She is a consummate showwoman and a brilliant connector. I’ve heard her described her as a contemporary female James Brown.

This year, Monaé went from making exciting, surprising music to making exciting movies. I thought she was just trying something different, building on her music career with some film exploration – but in an interview, I discovered what was news to me. Monaé trained as an actor. She started in theatre. In acting, she is returning to her roots – not doing something new. I’d been thinking about this since I learned it. Then I saw a short biography of her on Pandora. It said she trained at AMDA, did some off-Broadway theatre but then moved to Atlanta when she realized that there weren’t roles for her in musical theatre. This blew my mind. It shouldn’t have. But it did.

I mean, of course, there weren’t roles for her. For a whole host of reasons I have surely written about before. BUT. What strikes me, now that I know this information, is how Theatre Lost. We Lost. One of the most brilliant artists of our lifetime and Theatre didn’t have a place for her. I mean, I can’t help but imagine a Cindi Mayweather Musical full of androids and tuxedoed dancers – a Black Lady Ziggy Stardust for the stage. I mourn for what we could have had – how Monaé could have invigorated the entire medium given half a chance. But she wasn’t given half a chance. Her creativity was too much for the American Theatre and there was no place in it for her. This does not speak well of our art.

Unlike Office Depot, which also famously had no place for Monaé, the American Theatre could really have benefited from her perspective, skill and artistry. But we failed her.

Now – I’m not entirely sorry that theatre failed her. If theatre failing her meant that she turned to music, then I’m grateful. I’d rather have “Electric Lady” than Monaé stuck in some production of Wicked forever. But…I think it is entirely Theatre’s Loss. We had this brilliant performer, writer and creator in our midst and no one saw it. No one made space for her to create. This is a problem. Because I know for a fact that Monaé isn’t the only artist that this has happened to. The Doing Things the Way We Have Always Done Them means true innovation is always happening elsewhere. In music, in film, in technology. We have to find a better way to nurture theatrical minds. We just have to. We lost Janelle Monaé. But maybe she’ll come back to us. I will definitely go to an Android Musical and I’m gonna drag you all there with me.

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