Songs for the Struggling Artist


Theatre Is Not a Training Ground or a Compost Bin
September 10, 2018, 9:28 pm
Filed under: art, theatre, TV | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A few months ago, this filmmaker told me that someone had told him his screenplay would work better on stage, that he should turn it into a play. I thought that was ridiculous and I told him so, too. Why would you want to produce something designed for the screen on stage? The other way around, I understand. But in probing the question further – it sounded as if his screenplay was very wordy and they were trying to dismiss his work by sending it to the theatre, where they thought dialogue would be more welcome. This made me mad.

Theatre is not here to take your shitty film cast offs. We value words, sure, but if there’s not a reason to put those words on a stage, live, in front of people, in the moment, it doesn’t need to be there. If the piece is just a couple of people talking, make a radio show or something. Podcast that shit. It just felt like some film folks thought of the theatre as their compost bin, where they could throw their scraps and maybe have something to spread on their garden.

And this guy, with his dialogue heavy screenplay, had thought, “Maybe I should turn this into a play.” But he had literally no idea what went into producing a play. He thought it must be easier than producing a film. Don’t worry; I dissuaded him from that idea pretty quickly. His screenplay was a two person kitchen table type scenario. He could easily shoot it with a couple of actors and an iPhone if he wanted to. He could do it for almost nothing. To produce those same two people at a table in a reputable theatre in NYC would cost thousands upon thousands of dollars. AND – there’d be no particular reason to see it onstage. It wasn’t meant for the stage. It would bring nothing to the medium. The medium wouldn’t improve it.

I tend to believe that theatre should have a reason to be live, to be theatrical in some way. If it’s not necessary that an audience be in the room with it, I don’t really care about whatever is onstage. That’s my particular taste, of course. But yeah, film dudes wanting to offload their dialogue on our stages don’t make me happy.

Not long after this conversation, I met a student who wanted to work in animation. She had been advised to take some theatre classes to help her with this goal. She had no interest in theatre. She did not particularly want to do it – but she was open to exploration. And you know, that’s fine. Explore away. But I found myself irritated by the teacher who’d advised her to study theatre. I felt similarly about this as Mr. Screenplay. Like, if you want to do animation, do animation! Draw! Make silly voices! Put voices to your drawings. Put drawings to your voices. And sure, theatre can help all kinds of people with all kinds of stuff but it feels a bit, I don’t know, condescending. No one sends people to film or animation classes to improve their theatrical skills. Like, if the training in your medium is insufficient, work on that! That’s the issue, not some strange sideline investigation into an entirely different art form.

And I don’t mean to sound snobby about this. I am so happy to have people explore whatever kind of art they want. If you’re a banker who wants to study theatre, I welcome you! If you’re a nurse who wants to learn to be a clown, come on over! Join the theatrical party! But I’m not so keen on this using theatre to substitute for training in other art forms.

Theatre is an art all by itself. It is not training wheels for film or TV or animation or video. It’s just not. And it’s not the place to send cast offs from those arts either. There is, of course, great value in experimenting with other forms to improve your work in your own. In college, I studied a little printmaking and drawing and I think it gave me some perspective on my work in theatre. But broadening your horizons in other forms is very different than trying to use a form as a stepping stone either toward or away from your own. Explore, by all means. Experiment! Discover! I just hope that everyone who dips their toes in a new form gives that form the respect it deserves, in and of itself.

Does this sound a little defensive? Maybe it’s a little defensive. As someone with a lifetime commitment to theatre, I have a lifetime of people assuming I’m aspiring to film or TV. I have hundreds of experiences of telling people I work in theatre and instantly being asked, “Have you ever been on TV?” It’s not the same. It is not the same. Some people, yes, go back and forth and more power to them. TV will make you a whole lot more money than theatre ever can. But theatre is theatre. It’s not practice. It’s not training. It’s not a stepping stone. It’s not a compost bin. It’s not here to try and be something else. Theatre is theatre.

 

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.

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

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

*

Like theatre? Want to support someone who makes it?

Become 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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Art by the Numbers (or Six Ways to Really Support Artists)

When I stepped away from my acting career, the first arts project I got into was my alterna-folk-pop band, Bright Red Boots. It was the first time I’d had to ask for people’s attention, the first time I had to gather an audience. It wasn’t easy, but between the four of us, we managed to pull in enough people to keep getting booked at a handful of venues. Handing out and sending postcards made me uncomfortable but that’s the way we did it, really. There were a lot of venues we couldn’t play because we couldn’t draw a big enough crowd and that has been the story of my life as a generative artist ever since.

When I started a theatre company, the problem of bringing in an audience wasn’t at the forefront of my mind at first and also, at first, it wasn’t that hard. With a fairly large company of actors and creative team, we managed to fill up our first small Brooklyn house most of the time and didn’t do badly at filling up a big theatre in an out of the way venue during the Fringe. But as time has gone by, pulling audiences in to see anything has become more and more challenging.

Around about the time we had to cancel two shows in Edinburgh because no one showed up, I started to dream of not having to worry about bringing in an audience. I wanted to just make things and not worry about who received them. I tried posting things on the internet, thinking this is just how we do things now, thinking that it’s all just clicks and likes and maybe the digital realm will be less concerned with popularity than the time-based live performing arts can be.

And, well…I discovered a kind of indifference I never thought possible. Despite the vastness of my POTENTIAL audience on the internet, I generally draw just about the same numbers that I used to draw in person. Very few people give a damn about what I get up to.

How few? I have two podcasts. One averages 13 listens per episode. The other averages 15. This is almost exactly the number of people I can manage to get into a theatre these days if I put on a show. This blog is definitely the most popular thing that I do because, occasionally, when some post is a hit, the numbers rise into triple digits briefly. (Once, they went up to 4 digits. Once.) But then it goes back down to my usual 6-16 readers. Music? Hmmm. I put out 4 albums this year and sold 5. Not 5 per album. 5 total. I would probably have sold a few more but my main supporters (my 16 Patreon patrons) got them for free as a thank you gift for their support. Songs on Spotify average 15 plays. I’ve written around twenty plays and probably 15 people have seen more than one of them. And I want you to know how much I appreciate those 15 people who have viewed or listened or bought or come to see shows. Those people are my heroes. Those people know how to support the arts. They know how to support me. (If you’re one of the 15, I thank you!) And truthfully, I know it’s more than 15 altogether. It’s more like 15 people at a time. The total is probably more like – I don’t know – 50? 60?

But I’m not going to lie – sometimes I get very discouraged that generally only 15 people at a time care about what I do. This is why I had to write a post for myself called No One’s Asking for Your Art.

So much of the artistic world these days is valued by the numbers. The box office numbers of movies are reported like important news stories. We measure if a movie is good by how many people go to see it on opening weekend. (Which is absurd, by the way. The only thing those numbers are an accurate reflection of is how effective the marketing plan was.) We have a 1% problem in the arts, just as we do in greater economics. There are a small handful of artists at the top, with big numbers (millions of downloads, books sold, tickets sold, etc.) and the rest of us limp by with our 15.

Here in America, we treat popularity as if it’s quality. (And of course this is a factor in our politics as well.) We assume that if lots of people like a thing then it must be good. (All over NYC, taxis advertising the musical Frozen proclaim it “a serious megahit” – which tells us nothing except that a lot of tickets were sold.) And we ALSO assume that if very few people like a thing then it must NOT be good. And if you think we artists don’t internalize that metric and make ourselves miserable, you probably don’t know a lot of us artists.

I have to constantly check myself on this point. When I’m disappointed that only 15 people looked at some thing I made, I remind myself that numbers are not a sign of quality. I remind myself that there are hundreds of thousands of white supremacist assholes. Those guys are very popular. Before his account was suspended, Milo Yannopolis had 300,000 followers on Twitter. Popularity has NOTHING to do with quality. NOTHING. Not one thing.

I always think about this episode of This American Life where they interviewed these conceptual artists who hired a market research firm and then made art by the numbers they received. I’m sure I’ve talked about this before (I am obsessed) but the deal is that they polled people about what they liked most in music and in visual art and then made pieces that were the MOST popular things and the LEAST. And the most popular song is bland and unmemorable. It’s about love and features a saxophone. It sounded like everything else on the radio at the time. The least popular song is a tour de force. I think about it all the time. I get parts of it stuck in my head. The opera singer rapping cowboy lyrics over a tuba is extraordinary. (It’s here if you need to hear it.)

It feels as though so many aspects of our lives have just been reduced to numbers, to how many clicks something gets or units sold or whatever. Even our journalism is caught up in it. Have you wondered why the New York Times has been posting so many kooky opinion pieces the way I have? Well, as Michelle Woolf pointed out – a share is a share is a share. (Seriously watch her video about this – it’s illuminating and funny.)

We make no distinction of quality – is this a good piece of work? A good show? A good movie? A good song?

If lots of people clicked on it – it must be, right? It’s the free market, right? Don’t we live in a meritocracy where the cream rises to the top? We don’t. Sorry. And it’s not even a free market. Let’s take music, for example. Watching this video made it crystal clear to me why songs became popular. (Short version – it’s extreme exposure coupled with audio manipulated for maximum loudness.) They became popular, not because people liked them but because executives decided to make them popular and so they are.

Which, you know, that would all be fine with me if the folks making work at the other end of the spectrum weren’t limping along with only 15 views or whatever. I feel like there should be room for all of us but somehow there isn’t.

I have no idea what’s to be done about it but if you’re wondering how to make the most difference to those who continue to make work in the face of impossible odds, I do have some suggestions.

1) Read, Listen to, Watch, Go to people’s work. Even if you don’t love it. The support you give now to an artist may lead to work you do love in the future. Or it may not. But your view, your click, your ticket sale, your presence will make a huge difference to someone who is used to indifference. Subscribe to their email lists, click on their links, like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter and Instagram.

2) Respond to what you see with love, kindness and support. Even if you don’t love every aspect of what you see. Just some acknowledgement that the work’s message was received means a lot.

3) Boost these folks as much as you’re able. I know it’s exhausting sharing stuff all the time. But know that your cheerleading for a struggling artist has a much bigger impact than cheerleading for something everyone is already talking about. Example: You loving a Marvel movie is great. But everyone’s already going to superhero movies. They really don’t need the boost. You’re one of millions. You loving your friend’s short film? You’re one of 15. Be that person. That’s impact. I’m not saying you shouldn’t post about how much you loved Wonder Woman but maybe complement it with another post about an actual wonder woman you know.

4) If you hate something, you don’t need to say anything. Obscurity will take care of it, believe me. It’ll take care of the good stuff, too, unfortunately but —a share is a share is a share. You’ll actually boost the thing you hate if you talk about it.

5) If you can afford to: buy their book, buy their album, buy tickets to their show, even if you don’t particularly want to read the book or listen to the album or see the show. As I learned form this article – even super well established published authors have trouble selling their books to their loved ones. If someone you know wrote a book – buy it. And give it to someone if you don’t want it. Impress your friends by giving them a copy of your other friend’s book!

6) If you have some extra cash, you can go to the top level of support with something like Patreon. Helping an artist pay their rent is one of the most supportive acts of kindness. Patronage doesn’t have to be big. Someone giving a dollar a month to an artist gives not only the $12 a year but also a gesture of faith – of belief in the value of whatever that artist does. My Patreon patrons have made the things I’ve made in the last couple of years possible. They are why I can write these words now.

 

If you can only do one thing – start with number one. Just watch, show up, go, listen, view. (I heard about someone who sets their Spotify account on their friends’ albums and sets them to repeat all night while they’re asleep.) It’s exponentially more valuable to an artist like me to see that someone clicked on my work than it is to Taylor Swift. She deals in millions. I deal in multiples of 5. By the numbers, your share is more valuable to me. And a share is a share is a share.

Am I great at this? Nope. I’m not. I’d like to be better though. I actively try. But most artists I know are better at this than others – mostly because we know how it feels. Unfortunately, us liking each other’s work doesn’t always translate to the wider world. We need fans. We need cheerleaders. We need advocates. You don’t have to do it for every artist you know. Maybe pick one and be that one artist’s champion. It will mean more than you can imagine to that person. I have a couple of people like this and I appreciate them more than I can possibly say.

I’m not trying to say that only 15 people are ever interested in what I do. Sometimes I get a hit. But most of the time – 15 is the average. And I feel like I’m telling you this now because I know I am not the only one. Many of the artists I know are in a similar position but most of us work very hard to create an illusion that our numbers are much higher than they are. We’re not doing this to con anyone. We just know that human beings tend to gravitate toward popular things. To sell tickets to a show, tell people it’s selling out fast. Every theatre producer knows this.

Here are some reasons that people have given me for reading, watching, listening to my work: “Because you’ll be famous one day,” “because I want you to thank me in your Oscar speech,” “because I want to say I knew you when.” These are all investments in a future where my numbers are so big that the person is glad they got in at the ground floor. I used to try and capitalize on this instinct – to try and project an image of “I’m going places!” But I find I can’t get on board with this idea anymore. Not because I don’t have faith in my work but because I think possible fame in the future is a lousy reason to support artists.

It is unlikely I will be famous one day. But something I do might influence someone who will be famous one day or who is already famous. Or, more important to me: something I do might contribute to the culture, might influence another artist to make something great, might inspire someone to create extraordinary things.

In order to get just 15 views, sometimes we will create an aura of success. I have been known to say things like “bloggers over on WordPress love this!” when three bloggers have clicked the like button. I’m not lying. Three bloggers is more than usual for me. But I also understand that I’m putting a little bit of a shine on a situation while trying to boost my views.

When I began in theatre, I didn’t know almost everyone was bluffing. I thought everyone’s career was really going great! I didn’t know that theatre people are always having a great year no matter what is actually happening. I also didn’t know art wasn’t meritocratic yet. I didn’t know how much more important process and artistic integrity would be to me than “success.”

But I digress. I’m telling you about this because I want you to understand that even the artist who is projecting an air of cool, could probably still use your support. Unless your artist friend is Beyonce, they’re probably struggling to get more than 15 people’s eyes or ears on each of their things. Click, show up, be a patron. It’s good for artists. And good for art.

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.

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

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

*

Want to be a top supporter?

Become 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

 



Sometimes I Need Applause

My life in the arts began with performance. I also wanted to be a writer but it was theatre that tipped the balance. From the first time I stood on a stage, I was besotted. As the tightrope walker in the first grade circus, I pretty much just tiptoed in a line on the stage but pretending to be doing more was a thrill. The applause was intoxicating. I loved performing. Passionately. Talent shows were MY time. I got into plays as soon as I possibly could. The response was immediate and applause felt better than just about anything else ever.

Having a performing career however did not feel as good as I had hoped it would. The moments onstage and in rehearsal were sometimes euphoric, sometimes routine and sometimes devastating – and all of that was the best of it. The rest of it was the worst and it’s why I more or less gave it up.

I started recording songs in my living room when I didn’t know how else to comfort myself in 2016 – but despite the performative craft and context, singing for a microphone is not, in fact, performing. There is no audience in front of me. There is no immediate return on the energy given. There is no applause.

I started to think about this distinction of experience after I released the albums of the songs that came out of my podcast. As I prepared to send the first one into the world, I had a sense of excitement, an anticipation. I wondered what would happen.

And then I released it. And nothing happened. Like, no response. Not for weeks, actually. Dropping an album was less like dropping balloons into a party and more like dropping something off a cliff. For a performer used to working in a live medium, the lag time between sending something out and seeing a return was shocking. I did it 4 times this year, with four albums and each one was a similar non-event. The same is true for podcasts, my fiction and the blog. The response tends to happen on its own time. If people say anything at all (and they probably won’t) it will be weeks or months down the line. This is an aspect of making things that is taking me some getting used to. It is a completely different model of creation.

I’m very happy to not have to depend on an audience’s immediate reaction to something anymore and to not have to first gather a large group of people into a room to do something is great but I do miss applause.

I feel silly about it but I have a performance’s heart. I felt sad a few weeks ago and I was trying to understand it and found myself telling my partner that maybe I just needed some applause and he gave me some and darned if I didn’t feel better.

I mean, maybe sometimes it’s just that simple. Sometimes I just need applause. Not everyone does. My partner, for example, has no interest in applause – but luckily was happy to provide some for me. I’m curious to learn how those of you who work primarily in non-time-based media handle the lag between release and response. Do you have methods for managing the wait as people listen or read, slowly, at their own pace (as they should, of course!) Or do you just find nice people to applaud for you occasionally? Or maybe you don’t need applause at all? I wish I were like that. But I have to acknowledge just how valuable applause is to this former elementary school pretend tightrope walker.

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.

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

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

*

Want to give me some consistent applause?

Become 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

 

 

 



Mature
July 20, 2018, 9:27 pm
Filed under: age, art, clown, comedy, music, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I have arrived at the point in my career wherein people are starting to call my work “mature.” It has happened with my playwriting. It has happened with my singing. And I do not like it. In both of these instances, “mature” seemed to be meant as a compliment. “Mature” is not (yet) code for “old” – but meant to suggest a kind of complexity and evolution. I think. So why don’t I like it? Surely I want my work to mature, right? I want my work to age like a good cheese or a fine wine, don’t I?

Don’t I? I don’t know. I’m trying to understand why “maturing” doesn’t please me. At the heart of my discomfort of it is the dismissal of what came before. If this play is mature, it suggests that the plays that came before were immature, just little adolescent saplings running around untethered. It implies a kind of linear artistic development and I just don’t think such a thing exists. An artistic life does not travel in a straight line. It circles. It comes back around to ideas from the past and brings them to the future.

It’s like this conversation my partner and I had about Shakespeare. He noticed that sometimes when scholars don’t have definitive evidence for when a play was written, some of them will group the plays thematically. That is, they think because Shakespeare wrote a play about fathers and with disobedient daughters in one year, that that would suggest the undated father-daughter play would be around the same time. To me, that’s bananas. While certainly we all have our artistic phases where we obsess over one thing for awhile – we also have artistic touchstones, ideas that we return to again and again, ideas that we investigate anew from a new place in the life circle.

And maybe that’s why I find the idea of maturity so uninteresting. I mean, Shakespeare, again, is a good example of this. Some might say Hamlet is his most “mature” play. It sits at the top of achievement in Western literature. And yet it sits right in the middle of his career. Probably written in 1600, Shakespeare had many more plays to write after that one. Some of those plays are very silly and some of them are quite wild (including my favorite, Cymbeline.) Which are the most “mature”?

Maybe it’s my clown training but I am not particularly interested in maturity. Maturity has airs of seriousness, waves of severity that just don’t connect with my sense of play. When someone calls me immature, they are usually pointing out my irreverence, silliness or non-conformity. I value all those things tremendously.

I know maturity doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve lost my irreverence but maturity smells like mothballs to me. What I hope people who tell me my voice has matured (either metaphorically or literally) mean is that my stuff is complex, layered and interesting. I sometimes get called “wise,” too. And I like that just fine. I like it a lot, actually. Because there is always space for a wise fool.

I suppose, too, that I can’t help but keep returning to the idea that labeling my current work as “mature” suggests that my previous work is less than. And I just don’t appreciate any compliments for my newborn that insult my previous creative children.

I don’t mean to make anyone self conscious about giving me compliments. I don’t receive quite enough of them to start getting picky about them. Believe me, I sincerely thanked every person who called my work “mature” because it feels appropriate to accept a compliment in the spirit it was given, even if it has an odor of backhandedness about it.

I will say, though, that no one has seen enough of my body of work to make such a judgment. The only human to have a thorough enough experience of my oeuvre would be my mother. She’s the only one who’s seen enough of it to make that call. And I think the last time she called me “mature” was when I was a teenager. (I was very mature then. I’m not sure I am anymore! )

So, if you are tempted to call someone’s work mature, maybe dig a little deeper. What do you mean?

Is the work complicated? Layered? Deep? Rich?

I mean – let’s look at wine and cheese. We don’t stop at describing a wine or cheese mature. We call it nutty or grassy or robust or smooth.

I would be so delighted to have my work described with the subtlety of wine or cheese descriptions. Some of my work may be mature. It may be immature. Neither of those categories is useful to me. Call it robust or nutty, though? I’m gonna eat that up.

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.

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

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

*

You can help support both my maturity and immaturity

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

 

 

 



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.

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

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

 



A Big Disappointment (and How to Go On)

When I was in college, I had one goal and one goal only and that was to be part of a particular Shakespeare company I’d been inspired by a few years earlier. While I was still in school, I auditioned for them and secured my very first acting job at what was then my dream company. The fact that I was making $50 a week did not matter to me in the least. I was on track for the life I wanted. I thought I’d just keep working there forever and my artistic destiny was set. But then I had rather a rude awakening when none of us were cast in the next season.

I picked myself up, dusted myself off and worked in Atlanta, Roanoke and Memphis before returning to audition again a year later and got to do another season of Shakespeare with them. It wasn’t long after that that I moved to NYC and away from performing.

But that theatre where I started is firmly imprinted on me. It was formative in my aesthetic, my career path and my sense of self. I’ve done a LOT of other things since then and grown and shifted in lots of directions I’d never have predicted – but there’s something about that company that will always have a quality of home for me.

So when this writing opportunity with them came up, it had a sense of fated poetry to it. Artist returns to artistic home in a new role to a new beginning. It also had a curious quality of uniting what has always felt like two parallel tracks that would never meet – that is, my Shakespeare identity and my feminist playwriting identity. I just generally assumed those two aspects of myself would never have much call to meet (aside, of course from the devised Shakespeare piece I made a few years ago – where I used my dramaturgical skills to “write” with Shakespeare’s words.)

Anyway – something about the call for submissions for this just felt like little blocks of fate, slotting one into another. I wrote a play VERY QUICKLY that grappled with things in Comedy of Errors that I have always struggled with and found I’d woven together two strands of my artistry that I hadn’t known I could. Because I know the company well, I wrote it with them in mind. I saw their space, I saw their actors. It came to me more easily than almost anything else I’ve ever written. Part of me thought, “They’d be crazy not to select this play. It is for them. It is their aesthetic. It will showcase their particular skills. It gives their actors – particularly the women – opportunities that they don’t often get – and because I’m a former actor in their company from twenty years ago, this press release just writes itself.” As a friend of mine said, “That’s a marketing gold mine. They’d have to choose you for that alone.”

But I am pretty used to rejection and pretty used to not being the choice of the status quo so I was actually pretty delightfully surprised to be first a semi-finalist and then a finalist for what would be a life-changing prize and a kick ass opportunity to return to an artistic home.

When I received the email that I was a finalist, I started to fantasize about what would happen were I to get it. I’d return, not just to a theatre that was once a home, but also my home state. I’d finally get some recognition as a playwright in a well-publicized prestigious situation. It would have paid me more money than I have ever made in a year.

I began to acknowledge to myself that it was something I really wanted. (Generally, I try not to do this. I just apply for stuff and move on.) I thought about it a lot. It started to feel a little bit like when I was in college wanting to work for this company. I started to feel like the poetic circularity of the thing meant that I was destined to get it.

When the rejection came this morning, it hit me harder than any rejection has in a long while. The O’Neill was hard but I never really thought I’d get even as far as the semi-finals so I wasn’t surprised not to get an acceptance there. But this one, I knew I had a shot. The poetry of the story was too good.

But real life doesn’t really work like a story. I seem to have to learn this lesson over and over again. I suppose that’s the peril of being a story maker. I am infinitely vulnerable to good stories. (For example: I cannot be 100% positive that I didn’t partly choose to go to the graduate school I went to due to the serendipity of my sharing a name with it. This would not be a good reason to go to a school, btw.)

I have twenty plus years of practice at dealing with rejection. When the American Shakespeare Center (then known as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) didn’t hire me in 1996 as I expected them to, it was a shocking betrayal that took me a while to recover from. Here in the spring of 2018, I saw that rejection email from them, felt the blow to my solar plexus and then just got on with making things. I finished recording a song for the podcast and practiced the choreography for the Nelken line I’m joining this weekend. I’m grateful for the decades of artistic practice that has helped me put my eggs in multiple baskets so that when, say, the playwriting basket falls to the ground and all my eggs break, I can just reach into the music basket or the blogging basket, as I’m doing now, and I know I’ll have eggs enough for an omelet later.

I can’t say I’m not sad to not get to see my play performed on that damn beautiful stage by those actors I tailor-made that play for. I am fucking sad about it, no doubt. But, I now have a play that is much more easily produced than most of my other work. I have a prequel to Comedy of Errors that maybe one day someone else might want to do.

It’s sad. I’m sad. And the Hope Hangover (a phenomenon and song I wrote about recently) will be brutal, I know. But I have weathered disappointment consistently for the last two decades. I can do it some more. The thing to do when you are disappointed by art is to make more art. It is the only way through.

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.

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

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 deal with disappointment

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



What No Money Really Means

A few months ago, I met with some college students who were interested in working in theatre. When I said, “You know there’s no money in it, right?” they nodded vigorously and said they knew and so we proceeded on to other things.

But I kept thinking about those vigorous nods. I know I nodded the same way when people told me the same thing when I was in college. But I know that what I imagined when I heard “no money’ was wildly different than what no money actually looks like. I imagined something romantic, like La Boheme or An American in Paris. If it involved sunny garrets and fingerless gloves, that was my idea of “no money.”
And while I do have a pair of fingerless gloves, a sunny garret would be way too expensive.
I know if anyone had actually been able to tell me what my life in theatre would actually look like, I probably would have chosen it anyway – I was unshakeable.
But for those who may have choices…I feel like it might be important to know a few things.

1) Just because you manage to make some money in theatre once, doesn’t mean you’re going to make some again. One job does not necessarily lead to another. As a young person, I thought my artistic life would be logical, that it would proceed the way student life had, high school leading to college, college leading to work and more work and then better work. But theatre work is like the weather – there are seasons and they are rarely entirely predictable. A career in theatre does not proceed predictably. I thought one job would build on another – for example if you did a show on Broadway, your next gig would be an even better, bigger show on Broadway. In fact, unless you’re Jerry Zachs or Audra McDonald, your next gig after Broadway is probably your catering gig.

2) No money can also often mean no time. It’s not just CEOs who experience time as money. The time will come when you will decide not to do that show you really want to because you cannot afford to take the time off your day job. It will happen. It has happened to almost everyone I know.

3) If you’re as maniacally dedicated to art as I was as a young person, you aren’t so worried about yourself, your rent or your groceries. You’re worried about your art. But your art, too, will suffer for lack of funds. Let’s say you’re a singer. Without resources, you won’t have the money for voice lessons that others may have. You won’t have time to practice due to the day jobs. You can’t afford to hire the best musicians for your recording session. You’ll watch those who have the time and resources to improve their craft do just that, even if you began with more talent or dedication.

And if you’re really worried about money, the worry, the scarcity of the resource will begin to take over your bandwidth. If you’re a generative artist, this can be particularly debilitating as your brain does not have the space or the quiet necessary for creation. (See also my post about why artists seem to be bad with money.)

4) Having no money when you graduate from college is perfectly normal. No one really does and your peer group will essentially have that in common. As your peers get fancy jobs or just, like, jobs, the distance between you will begin to get wider and wider. You might worry about going to their birthday party at the fancy restaurant or be unable to go to their destination wedding. If you are lucky in your friends as I am – they will not be unaware of those things and they will do their best to include you in such moments stress free. But some will not be so understanding and you could end up blowing your rent money at birthday dinners if you’re not careful.

If you remain committed to your theatrical life, your non-theatre friends many begin to wonder what you’re doing wrong. They’ll think you made some error along the way that has led to you continuing to have no money to speak of. They may begin to ask the dreaded, “Why does she keep doing this?”

Being without money for a short period of time is very different than being without it for years, for decades, maybe forever. Most of those nodding vigorously at that college event were probably used to a fair amount of economic privilege. Even if they were there through the benefits of financial aid, as I was, their parents probably have/had regular salaries, as mine did. My sense of “no money” largely came from not having enough babysitting money to go to the movies and I knew I could deal with not going to the movies as often as others. But having no money isn’t just not going to the movies or not having cable or not buying yourself jewelry or clothes or books or going out to brunch, or whatever. Sometimes it’s not having enough to pay rent or bills or buy groceries. It’s how (pre-Obamacare) so many of my fellow artists and I did without health insurance – because – it was either rent or health insurance and we were healthy, so it was actually cheaper to deal with stuff as it came.

And all of that was really fine for the first few years. Certainly when I was working as an actor, touring and performing, I didn’t have time to worry about it. And that first job came with an application for food stamps, so none of us starved. I suppose that’s the ideal – to work for no real money for a little while, see what it’s like and see if you can hack it. It’s not for everyone.

Decades of it is very different than a couple of years. A few weeks ago, I lost the silver hoops I wear in my ears and I realized I had no idea where to get new ones as I had not purchased a piece of jewelry for myself since college. That’s over twenty years, y’all. (I found some on ETSY and feel like a VERY FANCY lady.)

If you have support available to you, use it. It is a sad reality that, for the most part, the theatre world does not offer any real avenues for those without that support. It’s something I’d really love to see change – for the field to open avenues for working class folks to be able to participate more fully in the art – but at the moment – you’re going to need every bit of support you can muster. Maybe for just a little while if you’re VERY VERY lucky or maybe forever.

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.

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

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 escape the no money trap

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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