Songs for the Struggling Artist


Thinking About Respectability in Law and Theatre
August 27, 2022, 11:09 pm
Filed under: Acting, Justice, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Mostly I don’t worry about respectability. I’m aware that I work in fields that lack a certain respectability and that by operating at the margins, I do not rank high on a lot of people’s respectability scales. I notice it particularly in the comments on anything that proposes providing support for artists (for housing, basic income, anything – “Why should we help these people who don’t even do a regular job for a living?”). I have made a kind of peace with my lack of respectability and can sometimes even revel in it.

Recently, though, I found myself thinking about it – after wrapping up jury service on a civil trial, spending hours watching lawyers. Lawyers, despite all the jokes to the contrary, experience a high level of respectability. Often, immigrants want their children to grow up to be lawyers (and doctors!) so that they know the children have achieved something like respectability. No one shakes their head regretfully when they hear someone is going to law school. It’s a sign they are entering a respectable social class, a genteel profession. There may be a lot of jokes about how terrible lawyers are but no one will be disappointed if their kid becomes one.

After sitting through a week and a half of a personal injury lawyer trying to gaslight us into punishing a doctor for something he didn’t do, I really don’t think law is such a respectable profession anymore. I may not make a lot of money but I don’t try to convince people of lies. I may do things that a lot of people don’t understand but I don’t waste people’s time and attention on spurious situations. I don’t take advantage of vulnerable people and expose their innermost life details to groups of people for no good reason. I do not find the guy who does this kind of work respectable.

The other lawyer, the guy defending against this case didn’t strike me as all that much more respectable, honestly, even though he at least had truth and science on his side. But this man spends all his time pushing back on the specious claims. He’s participating in it, too. If this lawsuit had not been brought, he would not have had a case. None of it struck me as particularly respectable. And yet.

It made me feel my own lack of respectability keenly in a way. I do not usually pay much mind to such things but I thought of all the actors I know, tired of being asked “Oh, where do you wait tables?” when they tell someone they’re an actor so they just decide to go to law school, just to get some respect for a change.

I read a quote from Uta Hagen recently where she explained why she called her book Respect for Acting. Her sense was that there wasn’t enough respect for the work and she hoped to foster some. (I’ll put the whole quote below. It’s bracing and inspiring.) There’s even less respect now than there was when she wrote the book and I suppose I’m thinking about it because it is not easy to live in a culture that does not respect what you do. Being exposed, at length, to the work of a job that IS respected and find it, instead of respectable, somewhat reprehensible is a kind of an unpleasant turnaround. I know this particular kind of law isn’t the only one and there are many many lawyers whose work I admire and am grateful for. (I think of the heroes who showed up at JFK airport the day Trump implemented the Muslim ban.) But – as a whole? I don’t know. Maybe we could treat artists with a little MORE respect and the vast field of law with a little less. It’s not all respectable.

I called the book ‘Respect for Acting’ for a very clear reason. I did not call the book ‘Delight in Acting’ or ‘Love of Acting’ or ‘The Fun of Acting.’ I called that book what I called that book because of the shocking lack of respect that was creeping into both the teaching and the practicing of acting. Now? Forget it. We have allowed so much to recede or languish that I don’t know what I could call a book today. ‘Demand for Acting’ might work. …There was a time when people became bored and they took up bridge or golf; ladies had an affair or had their hair rinsed and joined a book club. Now they want to act. And there are fools with no standards who allow them into classes and theatre groups and tell them to live their dream. I don’t care about dreams. I care about work and responsibility and truth and commitment. You can see how old-fashioned I am. When you are bored or depressed, you might be advised to visit a museum, to look at the art. You are not, typically, advised to pick up a brush and become a painter. It is understood that this is a rare gift, and foolish to presume it might be yours. If your soul is crushed, it might be suggested that you listen to classical music or submit to opera. It is not suggested that you audition for the Metropolitan Opera, or even your local, provincial opera company. You haven’t had the training. But acting? All you need, it seems, is the dream, and there are doors–doors that once meant something and once housed some standards behind them–that fly open and embrace you. And it enrages me. If there is some small society that calls itself amateur or community or whatever, and they want to get up and do plays, that is fine. I’ll contribute money and I’ll support you in the joys of understanding plays, but do not call yourself an actor. Do not think that your dream is similar in weight or meaning to the years of training and commitment that I and all the many actors whose work I love and respect and envy have invested in this art. Respect what is an art. It is not a pastime, and it is not something to get you through a bad time, and it is not something that should be taught to everyone with a dream. The term seriousness of purpose comes to mind. Apparently, only mine.

 Uta Hagen/1996. 

Uta Hagen is doing some highly respectable work on that stage. (She’s Desdemona and look how she’s THIS close to dropping that hankie.) And this production featured Paul Robeson as Othello so it is respectable feast.

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Put Up Your Dukes
August 10, 2022, 12:21 am
Filed under: anger, Justice, masks | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In case it’s not completely obvious, I’m a fairly conflict averse person. I hate when people argue. I get anxious when tensions rise. I do not enjoy a debate. I would almost always prefer to exchange smiles then to exchange “words” with anyone. Sometimes, on-line, people will think I like heated “discussions” because I have strong opinions and I express them through this particular medium. Just for the record, I do not. I will do a LOT to avoid a heated “discussion.”

As the time for jury deliberation got closer for those of us sitting through the trial, this one juror seemed positively excited about it. She’d put up her hands and pretend to duke it out with an imaginary person. I gave her the gesture back on occasion because I like to be playful – and I hate to leave an acting offer on the table. She wants to play fight? I’m here for her. But once the deliberations started, this woman had a lot to say and not a lot of it made sense and I was not there to indulge anyone’s whims. I did my best to get us on track and stay on the question at hand and the facts. And this woman who’d seemed so excited about the fighting she was looking forward to doing (“the fun part” she’d said) declared to me, “You’re so aggressive. I feel like I need to get out my boxing gloves.”

And this may be the most bizarre thing anyone has ever said to me. I found it positively baffling, especially in this context. But – just in case – I apologized and said I would try and turn it down – though what I was trying to turn down was completely unclear to me. There was something about what she said that made it sound like she was responding to my being passionate or some word to that effect so in addition to the apology, I let them know I was an actor and that seemed to satisfy everyone – like, “Oh, that explains it.” But what was it exactly?

I suspected that it had to do with a level of animation I have, an expressiveness that is perfectly normal for me but among these mostly quiet reserved people somehow felt out place? We’re all wearing or masks so everyone is harder to read than they might usually be. I probably turn myself up a little bit to get past the obstacle on my face. But I have noticed that a lot of people don’t do that. They just aren’t heard as well or aren’t understood. I guess that’s okay with them? It’s not ok with me so I become more expressive in a mask, not less. I will not disappear behind a piece of cloth.

But I suppose it’s possible that this makes me seem more aggressive to people who don’t do this? I don’t know. The whole interaction confused me so much. I wondered if this woman, with her mimed boxing gloves, was so interested in sparring that she just turned me into a sparring partner or if she truly did see me as aggressive.

I mean, I’ve changed a lot in these last few years, maybe I’ve turned over into aggression without even knowing it, though I very much doubt it. Do I write aggressively sometimes? Sure. Am I more assertive than I used to be? Yes. Thank goodness. But I’d be surprised if I’ve actually had an entire personality change.

I think the masks are a factor. They make it a lot easier for us to project things on to each other that have very little to do with us. I think that’s probably the main thing that was happening here. But maybe I’m just too aggressive.

This pic is like me, kissing my new dukes.

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We Need Fiction in Schools

I don’t know why I think of this one classroom at a high school in Brooklyn – but every time I think of this bizarre turn that education took in which it decided that fiction no longer had a place in American schools, this moment when it leaned hard into non-fiction, I think of that classroom. It must have been where I heard that news, where I heard that this was a policy Obama supported and dropped my mouth open in shock. “Obama?! What is he thinking?”

This was a class for which I was doing workshops for the Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves, a work of dramatic fiction that the students went to see. When the student next to me gasped with recognition at something the character did and later told me it was like her family member – well, I wished Obama could have been there to see the power of fiction.

I was thinking about how important the study of fiction has been to me and to my peers and what a shame it is that these muscles have been un-exercised in many American schools. I was thinking about it because I was on a jury and the process of deliberation felt familiar somehow and it wasn’t just because I’ve had to teach 12 Angry Men a few times. One of the things that surprised me about my fellow jurors was how much they were inclined to just make things up. Several of them came up with “theories” about the case, adding events and possibilities that had nothing to do with the question at hand. Over and over again I found myself saying, “Let me read the actual question.”

If these folks had been my students, I’d have done exactly the same. I would have asked where they saw that idea or concept and what was the evidence. In literary circles, we call this practice Close Reading. When you write a paper, you need to point to the place in the text where you got this idea or information. You can’t just make stuff up. I’m so practiced in this I don’t even know that I’m doing it sometimes. I mean, I like to make stuff up more than most people but there are the things we make up and things we don’t and even fiction has rules this way.

I feel like, if we’re going to ask people to sit on juries and deliberate and evaluate the evidence, we really need to give them practice and we need to give them practice on fictional people. There are no consequences to a misinterpreted fictional character. You can’t ruin a fictional person’s life by charting out the series of events they go through in the course of a work. Your conclusions about a fictional person have no power to send them to jail or condemn them to death. Maybe you think Macbeth didn’t kill the king. You’d be wrong. But, hey, why not? Kick that idea down the road. Show me the evidence. That search through the play will be illustrative and, in exploring it, you (hopefully) will find all the evidence that he did, in fact, kill the king.

I’ve been in a lot of classrooms where some well-meaning teacher puts a character on trial. They’ll put Macbeth in the witness box and have some kids play lawyers and interrogate him. While this is fun, sure, it’s almost always a mess, pedagogically speaking, because the kids will inevitably make stuff up that’s not in the play and suddenly the whole case will hinge on what Macbeth had for dinner. (This is something that almost happened in the jury deliberations I was in, by the way, when a juror wanted to send a question down to the court to ask what the plaintiff had had for dinner one night. This was just as irrelevant to the case as what Macbeth might have eaten at any point in the play.)

As we deliberated, I found myself in a fairly active role, bringing us back to the question we had to answer over and over and, at first. I didn’t understand why I fell in to that position then. I have no interest in the law. I have no law training. I’m not even a big Law and Order watcher. (Night Court, though – big fan.) But what I DO know how to do is analyze a character and the sequence of events of a narrative. I know where to look for evidence and I know not to make things up. That’s the main thing.

Students need to study fiction as much, if not more than, non-fiction for a whole lot of reasons beyond this skill of analysis, close reading and finding evidence. (Such things as empathy, aesthetics and imagination.) But the skills of analyzing literature, in particular, are what I found particularly useful in that jury room. (In addition to the practice of working quickly in a group that I learned and practiced in theatre.) I’m still shocked that Obama couldn’t recognize this when this policy began. He studied law. I know he’d want people to learn skills to help them be better citizens, to be better jury members. Learning literature is actually vital for our democracy, I think. If we care about having careful jurors, we might want to teach some fiction again.

Is this a dinner which I see before me?
JK – it’s the banquet scene from Macbeth. But what is on the table? What are they eating? What do ghosts have for dinner?

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That Thing Playbill Said About Peter Brook
July 20, 2022, 12:30 am
Filed under: art, Creative Process, space, theatre | Tags: , , , , , ,

If you’re not a theatre nerd, you may not be aware of the stature that Peter Brook, theatre luminary who recently died at age 97, had with us theatre folk.  His book, The Empty Space, is the sort of text your theatre friends are likely to wax rhapsodic about. It has changed a lot people’s lives and inspired many a theatre maker to make more artful, high minded art. The Empty Space encourages us to both be simpler and more exacting in our work. He talked about how theatre is as simple as an empty space in which something happens and also, you better really think about what happens in there, especially for your audience.

It felt like Brook was always challenging the field to boil itself down to a more essential state. He was our theatrical philosopher. He held the ideals for the field. If you got distracted by all the nonsense of show business, you could always turn to Brook for a dose of idealism and aspiration. I know many a theatre maker who, when feeling despair about what to do next about their theatre career, would re-read The Empty Space to refresh their sense of purpose. He was a beacon for a theatre of art. I have often been surprised when people who I imagine to have sold out, who don’t seem to care about the art part, who seem to be just leaning hard into the business or entertainment, suddenly pull out their copy of The Empty Space and get dreamy looks on their faces. Brook was good for the theatre’s soul, I think.

All of this is why I found it kind of hilarious that, when he died, Playbill tweeted only one thing about Peter Brook, which was that he had three Tony Awards. Of all the things there are to say about Brook, his Tony awards seem to me to be the absolutely least consequential. Of all the many ways he mattered, the Tonys may have mattered least.

Now, it is a credit to the Tonys that they managed to honor an artist like Peter Brook at some point. But awards are almost always behind the curve. Like, the MacArthur Genius Grant went to Lin Manuel Miranda, not in his early days when he was lugging his keyboard around for his first musical, but years after Hamilton became a hit. Awards often miss the genius moment and I don’t even know what Brook’s Tony Awards are for and I don’t care. I have some guesses. And most of them are probably from his early career. Cool. Pat yourself on the back, Tony Awards! You chose well that year. Those years? I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. Not to most of us. Not to all the theatre geeks clutching their copies of The Empty Space to their chests.

Peter Brook made some exciting theatre. He made shows that people talk about decades after they happened. I’ve seen work of his that I loved and work that I thought really stank. And it’s not as simple as the early work is good and the late work is bad. I saw a fairly recent show of his a couple of times (because I know one of the actors) and it was so simple and full, all at once. Then in the same period, I saw a show of his that I just didn’t care for at all, so I just tried to forget it as soon as I saw it. I respect his failures somehow. Like any artist, Brook wasn’t a genius all the time. But his importance to us, as a field, is as someone who held the line for art, not just some guy who won three Tony awards one time. We don’t have many of those line holders left. We lost a beacon. We lost a lighthouse.

* My favorite piece about Brook in the wake of his death was THIS one by Helen Shaw. It really speaks to the complicated legacy a great theatre maker leaves behind.

Screenshot of Playbill’s Tweet. I mean…

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The Theatre of the Court
July 13, 2022, 10:49 pm
Filed under: American, Justice, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

In one of the videos they play for jurors, the narrator explains the Court as being a lot like Theatre. He explained the roles and the conflict, the set and the setting. I was intrigued by this explanation because, as a theatre maker, I would not assume people understood theatre any more than they do a court.

If court is a show, though, it is not necessarily a good one. One thing that surprised me, in serving on a jury, was how willing to bore the audience everyone seemed to be. There were multiple moments where I thought, “Are they trying to win this case by boring us to death?” The first time I thought this was when the Plaintiff’s lawyer interviewed his hired-gun medical witness and had him slowly answer medical questions and read medical records for over an hour – both of them speaking incredibly slowly with very little inflection. The second time I thought this was when the Defense read the plaintiff’s description interview onto the record. It went something like this:

QUESTION: Where did you live then?

ANSWER: I don’t remember.

QUESTION: You don’t remember?

ANSWER: I don’t remember.

It was the world’s  driest dialogue read dryly by one dry lawyer. And he read “Question” and “Answer” each time, too. I’m a professional actor and I feel like I could inject some zest in almost anything but I would shake in my boots if I was challenged to read this dialogue.

The third time I felt this way was during the plaintiff’s lawyer’s closing statements wherein he pulled out a stack of medical records, chose the one from the top, flipped to the back, slowly found the doctor’s name and then read it, followed by their description of the patient’s complaint. It was the same phrase over and over, the same procedure, over and over, one stack of papers after another, for maybe fifteen minutes? The reading I could handle. It was the minutes of searching for the page and then slowly pulling out the next one. My god. If it was a show I’d have left it.

The last time I felt this way was during the judge’s “charge to the jury.”  We were warned by the officer that it generally took 50 minutes for him to read this thing so we were prepared but wow. The judge did his best to zhuzh it up but the material is long and dull and I cannot imagine an actor who could make it work. Maybe Mr. T. Because every show would be improved by the presence of Mr. T.

But, of course, all these exceptionally dull and tedious hours are not for theatrical purposes. No theatre maker would DARE bore their audience like this. But then –  a theatrical audience is not compelled by law to sit there and listen. Maybe that’s the major difference.

The architecture of this particular courtroom was also really not effective theatrical space. I was Juror #2 so I was seated at this odd point of convergence of the space wherein absolutely everyone spoke directly to me. There were five other jurors in the box but almost every single person on “stage” looked almost exclusively at me while they spoke. I imagine that’s mostly to do with the way the space is arranged but I also know that I am a well trained audience member so I am easier to talk to than most. I am easy to read and incapable of cutting off the channel of a “performer” who needs it. This is why I prefer not to sit in the front row of a show if I can help it. It’s a lot of work for me to be that channel! I kept wanting to tell the folks in the courtroom to work the ROOM, not just me.

This was not a situation of being at a concert and being convinced that the singer is singing just for me, though I have certainly experienced that phenomenon.  At times the lawyers were directly in front of me, maybe a foot and a half away, looking directly into my eyes. It was EXHAUSTING.

If court is a show, it is an incredibly tedious one, with dull performances and awkward acting. It’s overly long. And you’re not even allowed to talk about it until it’s all over.

Was it dramatic? No.

Was it comedic? Briefly, for a moment or two. The way a joke at the DMV is a nice break in the atmosphere.

Was it romantic? Can’t imagine how. If there was ever a meet cute in the jury room. I’d like to hear about it because it is not a meet cute atmosphere, that is for sure.

Was it action packed? No. All events happened six years before. All drama was long past.

If courts are theatre, they’re very very bad theatre. Which came first? Courts or theatre? Or did they evolve alongside one another? I suspect courts have a different lineage. The first courts were part of the Court and it was mostly just going along to see the king and hoping he’d see things your way. It feels to me that the courtroom is designed more like a king’s court than a theatre. Our court system is certainly better than a king’s authoritarian rule (though it might not feel that great lately!) – but it is not good theatre, that much I can tell you.

Certainly if the judge came in dancing with some show girls, that might give it a little extra something.

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Men Most Macho in the Theatre

When I saw Ray Liotta had died, I was shocked and saddened. I was a fan of his work and he seemed like a good human. In his honor, I listened to an interview he did with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast a few years ago and enjoyed learning more about him and his journey. It did make me think, though. And it did make me wish for change in the way we do show biz. Apparently, Liotta had no real interest in acting when the opportunity to do it presented itself to him. He got talked into auditioning for a show because of a cute girl and stuck around because a teacher encouraged him. Nothing too crazy there. I’ve definitely heard this sort of story before.

But it’s the reason that Liotta theorized that his teacher encouraged him that got me thinking. Liotta had always been a jock and, it sounds like, a fairly macho guy. His teacher responded to him because they didn’t get a lot of guy’s guys there in the college theatre department. He saw a kindred male spirit and a kind of rare bird that they needed on the stage. Liotta really wasn’t that keen on acting in the beginning but he got to play some very juicy roles at his university and it’s not just because he was good. I’m guessing Liotta’s college decided to do A Streetcar Named Desire because they had a guy who could play Stanley Kowalski. They did Taming of the Shrew probably because they had a guy who could do a macho Petruchio. Liotta got to learn how to act by doing some of the best roles in the canon and the college got to do some shows on its list. All very reasonable. Many a school will choose their season based on who they have in casting pool. I get it on all levels.

But it also troubles me – because while I’m glad we had Liotta’s talents to enjoy on the screen – the way the path was smoothed for him (when he gave not two figs for it at the start) and the way it is not smoothed for so many others, just doesn’t feel FAIR to me. The way the American Theatre (and Cinema) fetishizes macho men is disturbing, really. There are endless roles for them, despite the fact that the theatre is largely populated by women and gay men. “Fellas, is it gay to be into theatre?” Maybe a little bit! Yet in spite of the inherent queerness in the form, or maybe because of it, the macho man is embraced, encouraged and given pride of place over and over again.

The American Theatre is dominated by macho plays and macho actors. How many revivals of American Buffalo do we need? A lot, apparently. I loved True West the first time I saw it. And even the second and third time. Then there was that time I assistant directed a production of it at a college of 75% women. Enough’s enough. Anyway, Liotta wasn’t in the theatre for long – because this pipeline between the theatre and film was built for men like him. Macho men from the theatre get snapped up into film, which also has a high demand for men who could be mobsters and so someone who had no interest in acting at first could be swept up into one of the most prestigious careers around. And I’m glad that it happened to Ray Liotta because I’m happy we had him while he was here but I can’t help feeling sad for all the people who LOVED the theatre, who ate, slept and drank it, who would have done anything to have a shot and no one ever took them under their wing and helped them to a wide range of opportunities. No one ever chose a season based on their presence in the casting pool. No one saw them in a play and put them in a soap opera. No one ever saw them in a soap opera and put them in a prestige film. I hate looking at a class full of actors and knowing that the person most likely to find success will be the man most macho, no matter how much more talented or dedicated or passionate his peers might be.  Sorry, ladies, non-binaries and gays, the theatre is dependent on there being thousands like you but it will always choose the macho fella who doesn’t care about it first. The theatre loves a cool disinterested man who can help it grapple with masculinity, I guess. Anyway – RIP Ray Liotta, even if I am a little mad about how your success came to you. One day I’d love to hear a story about a woman who just didn’t care that much about theatre but some teacher just had to have her in the show anyway and she became a big big star.

I mean, I get it. I’d cast this guy too – even if he wasn’t Ray Liotta yet.

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Confusing Art with Money

With a couple of decades in the indie theatre trenches behind me, I have some complicated feelings around money and art. I believe in paying artists. I think it’s important to give value in a monetary form to people who create. I fight hard to make it happen as often as I can. But I would much prefer to work with a group of people who aren’t doing it for the money. As soon as money gets involved, there’s always someone who starts treating me like I’m PepsiCo and makes demands, defines rigid terms and sets intense limitations. It feels lousy every single time. I find I usually have a more satisfying artistic experience with the people who signed up when they thought they were getting nothing and are happily surprised when I present them an actual check. They get paid either way but in one way the context is clear for everyone and the one with money involved makes things muddy. When I offer money from the start, some people are doing it for the money.

But this is so complicated because I really believe that it is okay to do things for money. Teaching, for example, is full of people declaring they love it, that they’d do it for free but they wouldn’t actually and when I do it, I’m not going to lie, I do it for the money. I’m good at it and I’m not doing it for love. I’ve done acting for the money, directing for the money and writing, too. So where do I get off wanting to have my artistic collaborators not do it for the money? You know? They’re allowed to only want to do my show because they want/need the $200 I have to offer them. That’s okay. Except for art is this delicate vulnerable creative sensitive endeavor and when I smell a mercenary, when someone starts to engage with me like I’m a Hollywood agent, I get a wave of anxiety and despair.

If I have $200 to give someone, it’s because I probably cobbled it together in $20 increments from my uncle, my college buddies and fellow artists. I don’t have more. I’m not out here trying to get something for nothing. I literally just want to make art and make sure folks get at least a little gesture of value for their work. That’s all it is. But almost every time there will be one or two people who make it clear that this art I think we’re making is a business transaction for them. It always confuses me and it makes me feel bad. I know it comes from their history of being taken advantage of or having to chase after payments from shady vendors but it feels so lousy to be lumped in with those people in an art context. It always gives me pause and makes me think, “Oh, I’m doing all of this wrong. They’ll know I’m not built for the business.” But it’s also possible to see it as this person doesn’t understand the context. This person doesn’t understand the world I come from. But even then it makes me question my own judgment in bringing them into my quiet little circle. It’s a real tornado of an experience. When it happened recently, I had a little meltdown and my friend talked me down off the “I can’t do this” ledge by pointing out that I really need an Executive Director for a business manager – someone who can talk the business talk with my collaborators and then send them to me for the art part. But when you’re a one person band like I am, there is no offloading these interactions. They are part of it and I am working very hard to not take them personally.

Most people I work with in the arts have mastered the context leap. They work with Network Executives and agents differently than they engage with tiny indie theatre producers. There are ways of engaging that are fundamentally different when you’re working for PepisCo or for a fellow artist. The folks who don’t work that out don’t last too long in the business. Or they don’t last too long in the art. Whichever one they’ve not nailed the special mores of. Or both.

For many artists, more important than actual currency is social currency and you start to damage that when you lean into the business side of things. It’s confusing for me, too – but it’s like, I want to pay artists but I don’t want to talk to artists about money (unless we’re doing a show about it, which I did) and if they’re doing it for the money please don’t let me know that as I need to believe my art is the best and only art and that you’d do it for free even though you wouldn’t, okay? It is a fragile relationship.

If you’re wondering whether the job you’re about to do is business or art, think about how vulnerable to flattery the creator is. Me? Totally vulnerable. Three of the five people I cast recently let me know how much they liked the show and I don’t think I cast them because they liked the show, or even because it was clear they did some research, but it did tell me that they understood what I was trying to do (it was apparent in their work really) and that all makes a difference. Let me just say a person writing ad copy probably isn’t too concerned whether or not you understand his artistic vision. He just wants to know you can read it correctly and on time.

The thing is, I’ve been at this art making business for decades and I still don’t know what to do when someone starts engaging with me in business mode instead of artistic mode. I get absolutely flummoxed. Their business concerns are fair, of course – but it always turns me around. No, you’re right, it isn’t a lot of money. No, my uncle doesn’t have another $20 for you, I’m sorry. If you need my uncle’s $20, this is probably not the gig for you. Please don’t do it for the money. Or if you are doing it for the money, can you just pretend you aren’t? Just for the illusion. This is theatre after all, we traffic in illusions. Please help me maintain mine!

Sometimes the way to do it is to make Art ABOUT Money. I’ve tried this too!

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

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Crowdfunding the Arts Doesn’t Work

My theatre company is over twenty years old. We started in 2001 and we’ve seen some things.

For our first show, we raised funds by writing a letter – yes, an actual paper letter – and we mailed it to anyone we thought might write us a check. This worked pretty well. I’d have to double check the numbers but it’s not impossible that it was the most effective fundraising we ever did. There are a couple of reasons for that, I imagine. One is the First Steps Toward a Dream Effect. This is the thing where people love to fund the FIRST something. They enjoy helping people take a first step toward a big dream. (They don’t love so much the slog of keeping something afloat.) But I think the other factor that helped this first show’s fundraising was just the moment we were in and the circles to which we had access.

It seems like it should have been harder in those days. The efforts that people had to make to donate were substantial. First, they had to open and read our letter. (Not a given!) If they wanted to donate, they had to get out their check books, write the check and then put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and put it in a mailbox. There are a lot of moments for this process to get derailed. It’s a lot. It was not like clicking on a link, letting your credit card info autofill some boxes and then hitting submit.

When donating through the internet started to be a thing, we were very excited. It seemed like, by eliminating all those steps for people, we’d get so many more donations. It didn’t really work out that way, though. We saw charity donation websites come and go. (Remember Charity Blossom?) The donations got smaller and smaller and people who’d written us big checks never made it to the digital mailing lists. We didn’t have their emails. I’m not sure a lot of them HAD emails.

Then crowdfunding kicked off and everyone was so excited about its potential. In some circles people talked about it as a democratizing fundraising source. We wouldn’t need to depend on rich people to fund things anymore! If we got enough tiny donations, we could make a big difference! What a win for democracy! Poor people could pay for the arts instead of rich people!

But here’s the thing. You need a LOT of people to give you $20 to make up a 10k budget. You need 500 people, in fact. (Actually, given that all these platforms take a cut, you’ll need MORE than 500 to get there.) And for people without much to spare, even that $20 is a huge deal. It’s a huge deal for me. Most folks, no matter how much they like you or believe in what you’re doing, are not going to bother or they just don’t have it to spare.

If you want to really depress yourself as a theatre fundraiser, take a tour of the theatre fundraisers on a platform like Indiegogo. You’ll see a lot of folks barely making a dent in their humble 3k ask. Theatre isn’t a good candidate for crowdfunding. It doesn’t scale well. We don’t have compelling prizes. But crowdfunding is sort of the only deal anymore. Even wealthy donors expect you to eke out a bunch of $20 donations before they’ll think about sending over a few hundred bucks.

It feels a bit like crowdfunding has killed our ability to actually raise sufficient funds because sometimes a wealthy donor looks at how a crowdfundraiser is doing and thinks it’s not worth the investment. They see that we didn’t get 10 people to give us 20 bucks and they reconsider the 2k check they were thinking of writing us. In having our struggles be so transparent, we lose leverage. We can’t sell someone on a dream because they can see how little others have put in to it.

Crowdfunding, like a lot of things, has turned out to work best for things that are going viral. Remember that potato salad? Or the Josh battle? Crowdfunding also does really well in a well publicized tragedy – but it is terrible for the day to day art making. It is a very blunt instrument. It may be the only instrument at the moment, so we pretty much have to use it but it’s not very effective. Like anything in this capitalist world, your ability to fundraise is dependent on the wealth to which you have access. Your crowdfunding campaign does not depend so much on the content of your work but on the wealth of the people in your circle who will open their wallets for you. We had more access to those people two decades ago than we do today. Today, most of my contacts are fellow artists. We have a joke in the indie theatre community about how we all just pass the same $20 around between us.

To make a 10k budget, you only need 10 people to give you a thousand dollars. Big deal! That’s only ten people! But you have to know ten people who might have a grand to spare first. That’s the real kicker and why crowdfunding the arts doesn’t work. Not unless you only want work by and for the wealthy, which is what you get when you don’t subsidize the arts, no matter which way you slice it.

Crowdfunding demands an extraction of wealth from the artist’s community. Every time I put on a show, I have to go to the crowdfunding mines and extract a little wealth from the people I know. I know some folks have found a way to perceive this as obtaining their community’s investment in their work. I appreciate that perspective but I find it particularly challenging to see it that way in this moment where most of my community is in the performing arts and most of my community lost their jobs or their big plans or their dreams or their support. Now is not the moment to extract wealth from the performing arts community – even if you call it an investment. Same goes for a lot of people right now.

I know someone is thinking, “Hey what about grants?! Grants exist. Can’t you just get a grant?” Oh darlings. Yes. We have gotten some grants. Most of them were about $500. Very nice! It’s helpful! Not as helpful as someone just writing you a check for $1000 that you didn’t have to write several essays for but helpful! $500 is a very nice start and other funders like to see that you got it but there is not a grant in America that will fund your whole project. They want to see that you can extract $10k of wealth before they will give you $10k. The best way to get an arts grant is to show how much you don’t need one.

In my experience, it takes around 10k to do just about any significant art project. That’s with a shoestring budget. Shoestrings cost about 10k. For some people, donating that 10k would make less impact than the $20 coming from a struggling artist – but an arts organization lives or dies based on where that $10k might come from. Crowdfunding seemed like an answer and it’s probably not going anywhere but you can tell that it’s not an effective tool because you’ll never catch one of the big arts institutions using it. No one suggests that The Metropolitan Opera do a Kickstarter. They extract their wealth in a much more efficient way.

And yes, of course, I’m in the middle of trying to crowdfund a project right now which is, of course, why I’m thinking a lot about this. I feel extraordinary gratitude to the people who gave us their $3 or their $1000 and I really wish I didn’t have to ask them for it, just to make a piece of art.  

I made this for the company for World Theatre Day. I figured I could extract a little more value out of my labor by putting it here, too.

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

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Should I Try to Work with Egotistical Douchebags?
April 8, 2022, 10:50 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, Shakespeare, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , , ,

* Note – I’m going to use the word douchebag a lot in this post. Get ready. But also – for context – I used to be really wary about the word douchebag. I thought the word might be connected to some thinly veiled misogyny that I didn’t want to be leaning into. Then I read this blog post and now I am a convert. If you have any hesitation at all about this word, I highly recommend the journey this guy will take you on. Go. Read it. Then come back here and enjoy me talking about d-bags a lot.

And now – the actual post:

The minute I met the artistic director of that Shakespeare company, I thought “Oh he’s an egotistical douchebag.” Then I saw his show. I did not want to like it but it wasn’t terrible. I mean, the thing with doing Shakespeare is, the text is always interesting so as long as you don’t get in the way too much, it’s possible to put on a decent show, even if you’re an egotistical douchebag.

And the theatre business is oversaturated with egotistical douchebags, especially in positions of power. When I was really trying to make acting work as a career, I discovered that the vast majority of employers in this arena were, in fact, egotistical douchebags. I think it was realizing that kissing up to this type was going to be the bulk of this job that made me start my own company. It seemed the only way to ensure that I wouldn’t have to suck up to an egotistical douchebag on the regular.

Anyway, at first meeting, this Artistic Director struck me as someone I would not even like to talk to at a party but the Shakespeare world is smaller than you’d think so I told myself he was nervous – talking to all those Shakespeare teachers and maybe not the egotistical douchebag he seemed to be. Maybe he’s fine. I didn’t think so but I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. I was still pretty sure, though. I have a highly tuned douche-meter.

When an opportunity to submit plays to his theatre came up, I thought, “Why not? I may not be crazy about that guy but their work isn’t bad and I just can’t produce my own work the way I used to. It’s time to expand my circle. Sometimes it takes an egotistical douchebag to bring plays to the world.” I submitted. The play was rejected. No big deal. And when I mentioned it, a much respected colleague let me know, in passing, that I probably would not have enjoyed my time there had I been accepted. My colleague had some experience with this guy and reported him to be… an egotistical douchebag. They recounted many nail biting stories of douchebaggery in the trenches with this fellow in days of yore.

It’s very nice to have my first impressions confirmed. That’s the good news here. I know an egotistical douchebag when I see one! But it has made me think; Isn’t practically every dude who runs a theatre company an egotistical douchebag? If I want to see my work get made (by someone besides me) do I have to learn how to suck up to egotistical douchebags? I don’t want to work with douchebags, period. But there are so many of them and they work all over the place and there are only the smallest cracks getting made in the walls that keep them there in the seats of power. Twenty plus years ago, I just thought, “No problem, I’ll just do it myself!” But I didn’t factor in all the ways the system is designed to support egotistical douchebags, young and old, and leave the others in the dark. The light shines on the egotistical douchebags and the more light shines on them, the brighter they get and the rest of us can never really make it out of the shadows. Sometimes the only way to catch a little light is to stand next to an egotistical douchebag.

This particular company run by this particular egotistical douchebag was founded ONE year before mine. Technically, this guy is my peer, along with numerous other guys who started their companies at the same time as I did and somehow found the light to thrive. I don’t know another woman who started a company around then that is still going. I guess the egotistical douchebag lane is the only one available? I mean, I hope not.

Running a theatre company is not an easy job. There’s very little money in it. It’s a whole lot of work for very little reward. It’s possible an inflated ego is the only thing that will keep you afloat in this world. Maybe you need to be a little douchey to get things done. I genuinely don’t know. I would very much like to see my work produced by someone that isn’t me. Would I like it to be produced by a douchebag? No. Do I have a choice about that? I’m not sure. That’s what I’m trying to work out.

You know who that light is shining on? You guessed it.

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

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In Praise of the Monologue

Despite having written and created an audio drama podcast made up entirely of monologues, before now, I’d have told you I hated monologues. When casting actors, I would never ask for a monologue for the audition. I felt sure they could tell me nothing about what an actor would do in a show. I know I have delivered a few rants on the subject before. I could not fathom why preparing one classical and one contemporary monologue became a norm. As a director, I found them useless. My feeling was a monologue performance could only tell me whether that actor could do that monologue performance and not much more. It told me nothing about what they were like with other people, what their choices might be like for my show. Why did training programs rely so heavily on them when most directors I know prefer to see sides of the work they’re casting?

Today, I finally get it. I find myself intensely grateful for the way theatre trains actors with monologues. I feel like I finally understand why everyone bothers.

Because I’m in the middle of casting the second season of my audio drama, I have gotten a fresh perspective on what theatre folk do and what it takes for us to do it. This didn’t happen with Season One because every single one of the actors was a theatre person (among other things, of course). But the main thing was, I could give them pages of text and they could read it back into a microphone in such a way as it all made sense, that had a rhythm and a music to it. Every single one of the actors gave their work a shape and an arc and a series of beats. You would not believe how little direction I gave these people. I did not need to. They all just did it naturally. I thought at the time that it was just because they’re all good actors, but I think now it is specifically because they are good theatre actors.

Because Season Two is set in another country, I have to draw from an unknown acting pool and I began to listen to a lot of acting reels from voice over actors. They are incredibly skilled. They can do animated character voices. They can make a bank ad sound like silk. They can stretch sound into moments you would not believe. I have found myself impressed. Believe me, I have tried reading ad copy before – it is a lot harder than I ever imagined. These folks have skills. But do they have the skills I need?

I’ve dipped my toes into the film world a little bit more this year and one thing I’ve noticed about the difference between film and theatre is the rhythm of the making. Most everything in film is in small bits. You do one line in a multitude of ways (or the same way over and over) and then you move on to another one. If you had a long passage of text (unlikely in a film, but, just for the sake of argument) you wouldn’t shoot the whole thing all at once, you’d get two lines here, two lines there, another from the other side and so on. The rhythm of the speech would happen in the edit. It only matters what each individual line is like, not the whole. The whole gets created later.

In the theatre, however, you have to say the whole thing, all at once. You need a plan of attack. You become a one person band, orchestrating the speed, the tone, the ups, the downs. When you’re giving a speech in the theatre, it’s all you. You’re it. It is a much more sustained experience.

It turns out that reading a monologue is more than just saying the words in a reasonably correct way. It is taking an audience on a journey and that is what we train actors for. That’s why we teach monologues. I apologize for every bad thing I ever said about monologues. It turns out that training actors to deal with large swaths of text is exactly the training I need as a creator right now. It may be one of the theatre’s defining characteristics actually.

Theatre educators – thank you for continuing to teach actors to do more monologues, even in the face of cranky people like me who didn’t understand the value before. Please keep doing it.

This isn’t actually a monologue. But it LOOKS like a monologue and that’s the important thing. And, like a monologue, if I gave it an actor to read, they could handle all that text without too much trouble.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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