Songs for the Struggling Artist


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.

 

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The Weird Perils of Surviving in the Arts

It WAS a magical show. It’s not that we didn’t have difficulties – it’s just that they were so minor in the face of the magic afoot. The cast was talented and smart and game. The design team was innovative and generous. The musicians were curious and supportive. The three of us who made it happen thought of ourselves as Charmed Ones – bringing forth good art magic. It was a charmed time, I think. And I don’t think I’m wrong about how good it actually was.

Anyway – that was 18 years ago. A baby who was born on the day we started rehearsals is probably preparing to go to college. Time has passed. But for me, it still feels quite fresh. It is part of my artistic continuum– the first step on a long road – and therefore a still significant card in my deck. For most of the other people involved, it is a pleasant memory. It is a show they did in that (perhaps) brief period of making a go of theatre in New York at the dawn of the century. It has become a bit of nostalgia – something to tell their kids about.

Since that show in 2002, at least 18 children have been born to people involved in it. A few of them have remained in theatre but have moved to other parts of the country. As far as I know, I am the only one left of that 22 person team doing theatre in New York. And even I have scaled way back.

It’s become clear what a young person’s game theatre can be. The large majority of that magical team were young artists. We were mostly in our late 20s and we were all on fire. But without sustaining support, without sufficient opportunities to keep working, most people made the quite sensible choice to leave theatre or New York or both. I did not make that sensible choice and while I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, done it any other way, I am running into some surprising new perils in sticking around this long.

For example, enough time has now passed that shows that I think of as contemporary are, for others, part of their crazy artistic long distant past. Shows that were and are the most important things I’ve ever done are now, to others, comparable to a fun party they went to a long time ago. It is a very weird feeling. I used to be surrounded by hordes of people who all seemed to believe that theatre was the most important thing in the world and over time, almost everyone has found other things that are the most important to them, while I remain.

I have so many conversations wherein people express surprise that I’m still at it. There is often a tone that sounds a little like, “You’re still playing with dolls?” If feels as if, to most people, theatre was a childish thing that they put away with all their other childhood toys and almost no one can believe I still have mine.

When I first started putting on shows, it was all fresh and new and I felt I had so much to learn and discover. I was pulling on so many threads and bits of training. I figured out how to work with our masks from books, learned Rasa Boxes from our Movement Director and threw in some training in Viewpoints I’d gotten a few years before. I didn’t have a method, per se, but I did know what I was after and tried anything and everything to get it.

Now – I am much clearer about my methods and techniques. All the things I’ve learned over the years have sort of coalesced into my own practice. I have acres more confidence in my ability to get a group of people where I want them to go. But all that hard won knowledge feels wasted due to the fact that I rarely have the will and/or energy to raise the necessary funds to make a show happen. I have had my theatrical heart broken a lot and it is hard to love again.

I can say, with a fair amount of confidence, that I would make an objectively better piece of theatre than I could 18 years ago. I know what I’m doing now in a way that I did not then. But what I had then was a kind of unbridled enthusiasm and positivity, as well as some delusional optimism. Turns out, that may be the more valuable commodity.

Let’s say you met a genie who told you he could give you either endless unbridled enthusiasm for your work OR highly evolved skill and knowledge – but you could not have both. Which would you choose?

In previous years, I’d have thought that skill and knowledge would be a better choice but having seen how things work, well…part of my hard won knowledge is the realization that unbridled enthusiasm tends to get people a lot further than skill. Take the genie’s first offer. With your enthusiasm, you can fundraise and hire someone with knowledge and skill.

In the not quite two decades since we put on that first magical show, I have made many things, taken many risks and put on a lot of shows. The company lost actors to other professions, other callings and other cities. Two of our regulars were lost to fatal illness. Things happen in 18 years. Births, deaths, art, all of it.

That first show eighteen years ago was connected to the cycles of the world. It was about Persephone and how she came to live in two places – the Underworld and the world above. Since we made it, there have been seven Spiderman movies and a couple of versions of a Spiderman musical. Given the way the world retreads the same stories again and again, it has not come as a surprise to me that a show based on the same mythical source material has become a hit show on Broadway. I’m sure there were many wonderful Persephone shows somewhere before ours ever came into being. It’s clear if you live long enough that you’ll see these sorts of things happen often. It’s probably never easy to watch the world embrace things that it ignored when you made them but maybe you get used to it the longer you keep at it.

There’s a chapter in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic where she talks about ideas sort of floating around in the atmosphere and then gifting themselves to the person that is ready to receive them and bring them forth into the world. I have found this concept comforting and motivating. It has helped me welcome the crazy ideas that occur to me and justify my work on them. I think, “Well, that idea chose me to come through. It must be a good one and I have to honor it.” The part I have yet to be able to reconcile is the bit that comes later – after I’ve made the thing and after I’ve fulfilled the promise to the best of my ability – and then the idea goes and flies off to someone else, to go do it for a bigger audience.

I don’t think anyone could have warned me about some of the more unexpected perils of sticking out a life in the arts. No one could have prepared this particular road for me. The only things I could say to my younger self if I could time travel and give her advice are: Grab hold of that unbridled enthusiasm and ride it for all its worth. Catch hold of the ideas flying by and ride those, too.

But everyone will tell you that sort of thing. And honestly, that’s pretty much what I did. So…I don’t know. Merde?

I suppose my real hope is to speak to those, like me, who have been at it for a long while to just say – Yep. Of course it’s unsustainable. Yep. It’s weird in so many unexpected ways. Yep. I’m here too. We’re here and it’s weird.

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“Believe in Yourself!”

In the bathroom at my local café, someone has written on the wall with chalk, in what I’m sure is meant to be an inspirational font: “Believe in Yourself!”

I hate this note. I know it’s meant to be uplifting but I cannot imagine that anyone could look at a note on the bathroom wall and change their belief or lack of belief in themselves. In response to this cheery message, I may have given a bathroom wall the finger. I’m not proud of it – but I think I’ve been pushed to my Believing in Myself limit.

My having reached Believe in Yourself capacity is probably coming from my time in acting where the main career strategy is to Believe in Yourself hard enough that good things will come to you with secret attractive magic. But then – ironically – if a director told an actor to believe in himself while acting in a scene – he would be at a loss. “But what do you want me to DO?” he’d ask in frustration. That’s always my question, too. But what should I actually DO?

The thing that’s dangerous about this Believe in Yourself business is that it often becomes a way to explain one’s success or lack thereof, particularly in fields where luck plays such an extreme factor. As people search for explanations for why we succeed or fail, it often tends to boil down to, “Well, he didn’t really believe in himself, did he? If he had – he’d be doing great!” Belief in self becomes this mysterious magic that can be dark or bright.

In my earlier years, I often took this sort of thing to heart. Someone would try to instill confidence in me by telling me that I just needed to believe in myself more and I believed them. I thought that the reason I hadn’t achieved whatever I was trying to achieve was because I hadn’t had enough confidence in it, that my belief in myself had been insufficient to achieve the goal. It strikes me now as insidiously destructive. The magical thinking that pervades the arts makes our success or failures hinge entirely on an unmeasurable metric of an ethereal thing when most of success is actually based on a series of systemic advantages or disadvantages. To transcend the disadvantages, one needs a champion or champions. I think we can all agree that the fabulous Billy Porter probably believes in himself. But he does not credit his self belief in the same way he pays tribute to the people who supported him. Here he is in an interview with Diep Tran for American Theatre talking about his relationship with Huntington Theatre:

Yeah, Peter DuBois and I were both working at the Public Theater under George C. Wolfe back in the early 2000s. Peter was a producer, and I had a writing/directing residency there. When he got the artistic directorship at the Huntington, he called and asked me to direct there. He believed in me. He has believed in me as a director from the very beginning. He’s one of the few who has given me the opportunity to exercise that muscle and become the best that I can be—because you can’t get better unless you have a space to practice. He’s given me a really safe theatrical home for me to expand my art and help everybody else understand what that expansion is.

I am so glad that Peter DuBois supported Billy Porter from the beginning and on through the years so that we could have him inspiring us now and only wish I’d had a Peter DuBois. I long for someone who might have provided me the same sort of support and encouragement and a safe theatrical home.

I have seen men do this for each other over and over again. It makes no difference if the mentee is as brilliant as Billy Porter or as mediocre as the most mediocre white bread man in the world – men escort other men into the circle. I have seen it happen over and over again. I have anecdotes. I have receipts. And I have never seen a man do this for a woman. At this point, I think there are not quite enough women in the inner circle for women to be able to do it for other women, either. The women I know who made it into the center did it by banding together and getting their crowd through. No one brought them in or made space for them.

Maybe we don’t need everyone believing in themselves more. Maybe it would be good to try believing in someone else, for a change. Choose someone and be their champion – be their best believer. That has a whole lot more value than believing in yourself.

This was not the message on the bathroom wall. This is far more arty and tasteful. (It is by HaseebPhotography via Pixabay.)

 

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In Which I Learn AGAIN that Popularity Does Not Equal Quality, or A Show Called “Bike”
September 15, 2019, 8:01 pm
Filed under: art, musicals, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

Hey girl. It’s me, yourself from a few minutes ago. I’m just writing you this little post from your past so that you can refer to it in your future the next time you’re feeling bad or insecure or despondent about how no one came to see your show or read your blog or listened to your podcast or your music or read your book. I’m going to need you to remember the nearly three hours you spent in the audience of a musical I’m going to call Bike. (It was not called Bike but I know someone who was in Bike and so I don’t want to name Bike’s actual title because the actors in Bike worked their butts off in a show that was awful and I don’t need to be a jerk about it.)

Bike is a genuinely terrible piece of theatre. By many objective measures, it is certifiably bad. If someone brought any component of this show to their class, be it in playwriting, stagecraft, directing, songwriting or choreography – they would be sent WAY back to the drawing board. No teacher of these crafts would stand for the shoddy workmanship I saw on that stage. I watched much of Bike with my mouth open in astonishment. It made no goddamn sense and was executed with a passionate sense of earnestness while somehow trying for camp and failing. Is earnest absurdity a thing? I feel that’s what I saw. But I don’t need to remind you, me, of all the ways Bike was terrible. You were there. You saw it. You survived. It was touch-and-go there round about hour two but you made it. And here you are on the other side.

What I do want to remind you of, future self, is that audience you watched Bike with. That audience LOVED Bike. They LOVED it. They leapt to their feet as soon as the curtain call began. They waited in droves outside the stage door for the performers. Many of them had flown from places very far away to see the show again. There were those who had come dozens of times. There were those who had followed the show from multiple countries and cities. These people loved Bike. They loved it SO MUCH.

And, future me, the show does not deserve this fan base. There is no good reason for its passionate popularity. Are there talented performers in it? Sure. They’re great but every single one of them deserved better songs to sing, better choreography to dance and most of all, a decent damn story to tell. I could understand if any of the individuals might have inspired individual fans but that’s not what happened here. The fans of Bike love Bike. They love it. They love the ham-fisted metaphors and the nonsensical non-story. They love the constricted dancing and the cardboard “characters.” They probably even love the shaky out-of-focus title card projected onto the opening curtain. And, future me, I need you to remember this the next time you think people aren’t showing up for your work because really, you think, your work is no good and no one wants to tell you. Listen and listen good, future me. Even your worst work is better than Bike. Not that it’s a competition. But where Bike has a passionate fan base and I have 15 people who show up for me – you might need that little reality check.

And, future me, if you’re so far in the future that you happen to have a hit, if you happen to make a show that people passionately show up for – remember this, then, too, that those numbers do not reflect quality. It could be that the worst thing you ever make will be the thing that hits. You have no control. Remember this lesson, future me. Wherever you fall on the popularity spectrum. Remember Bike. Try to forget the details – because you don’t need that brainstain – but remember Bike. And remember what your friend said to you as the actors milled about onstage in a listless pre-show wander before a blurry title projection. He said, “Never apologize for anything you put onstage again.” And now that I’ve seen Bike, I hope I never will. But if I do, and you catch me at it, future self or anyone else reading this, you need only say one word to me – and that word is Bike.

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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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.

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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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

*

You can help me make art

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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

 




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