Songs for the Struggling Artist


Ready for the Fight
January 16, 2017, 1:04 am
Filed under: art, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

After November, I cowered, I shook, I felt defeated and demoralized but I have turned a corner. I walk through the streets of NYC differently. I move like a truck. I don’t get out of men’s way. I take up space like it’s mine.

I wore army green on New Year’s Eve because I was ready for battle this year. I am on notice to fight for every one of my rights, the rights of others and even the rights we haven’t got yet.

Then – listening to one of my favorite podcasts, the host read her feminist version of the famous battle speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V and I cried like a baby. It was such a rallying cry. Particularly the first line about closing up the wall with our female dead. And I realized that in all of history, we’ve never had a speech like this for us. (At least not that I know of…) There’s never been a “Let’s storm the bastille” sort of battle for women. For all of history, women have borne the brunt of rape, of domestic violence, of domestic murder, of honor killings, of female infanticide and genital mutilation and we have never had a war over it.

And I’m not saying we should. I’m generally opposed to war. But…to imagine a world wherein we call upon our sisters to come together and go over the breach…well it’s a very different world than we’ve always lived in. We may need more models like this – a female Henry V – Imperator Furiousa liberating other women in Mad Max, Katniss Everdeen defending her sister in the Hunger Games.
I’m usually not a big fan of “Let’s re-write Shakespeare” but in this case, I make an exception, as this feminist breach undid me. And I needed undoing. And now I’m ready for the fight.

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The Discomfort of Being Different Part Two

Occasionally, right after I push PUBLISH on my blog, I get a flood of additional ideas on the topic. I start to think of ways I should edit it or concepts I want to add. Sometimes I’ll go back in and edit or add – other times I’ll just let it lie. And sometimes I need to continue the thought in an entirely new blog post. That’s what happened when I opened up the floodgates on sexism in theatre. Thoughts just kept rushing in and I had to write follow-up-post after follow up. Some of those were based on the feedback I was getting and some of it was the swirl of it all marinating in my brain.

This post is of the marination variety. In thinking about being different – from the social science around non-conformity to my own history, I realized there was an additional factor that I didn’t factor in to my initial thoughts on the subject. That factor, in my case, was gender.

Because, in theatre (as in almost everywhere else,) the best way to be the Same – to conform, is to be a middle class white man. The numbers mean that nine times out of ten when I’m in a theatre doing someone else’s show, I’m in the minority. I am already different, just by being born a woman. And because of that, there is an added pressure to fit in, to do things the way they’ve always been done. Working female directors (all 22% of them!) mostly make their names directing plays about men. Women playwrights get more productions if their plays are about men. In order to assimilate, one has to take on the dominant culture – and that culture is male and white. (This all applies to race, too, but I will save that post either for someone else or the moment after I push publish on this one.)

What this all adds up to for me is the sense that I’m already a foot behind in the FITTING IN GAME and it is tricky to be perceived as the Non Conformist I am, rather than the woman who doesn’t know the rules because she’s a woman. There is a presumption, right at the outset, that I don’t know what I’m doing, based on my gender. There are theatre companies who will baldly state that they don’t hire women. So if I’m DOING the job of directing, for example, I’m expected to be too feminine, to be doing things wrong. There’s a sense that I should be doubly aggressive to make up for my gender.

The fact that I refuse to do this has been a problem throughout my career. And I think it’s a problem throughout the culture, too. We lose so much potential by leaving out the female experience of leadership. Jill Soloway’s work on The Female Gaze is the FIRST TIME in my decades on the planet, that I have heard a woman in a position of prominence able to advocate for a female aesthetic and style of leadership. It is incredibly inspiring. And incredibly unusual. It requires a great deal of tolerance of that discomfort of doing things differently. Soloway asks her camera operators to feel with her subjects. She hires a crew that can cry. I can only begin to imagine how the established film crew guys react to that. What I don’t know is how she manages those confused and angry folks used to doing things the usual way. That is the trick I’d like to learn to master.

I think a lot of that finessing of the world around one comes with age. The older I get, the less I care what other people think – that is, the desire to fit in has begun to diminish dramatically. At the moment, I’m still straddling the line. I’m not yet able to wholly reject the dominant culture. Probably because I’m not really part of it.

Soloway, having already achieved traditional success in film and TV has the credentials to tell the patriarchy to go fuck itself. She can say something as radical as: men should just stop making movies and make space for women’s voices and while I’m sure that blowback is intense, she can perhaps, watch it roll by from the top of the heap. I’m still hoping to make a little mark and it is hard to do from the fringes. So – time, I hope will help me to tolerate more and more the feeling of my own differences. Every decade I live, I lose more of that people-pleasing shame that limits me now.

photo by Cassidy Kelley

 

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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 Soundcloud, click here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



The Discomfort of Being Different

I make theatre. For years I tried to make it the way everyone else was making it but I found I was always running into trouble and it never turned out the way I wanted. When I realized that I didn’t have to try and fit in, I felt liberated. I didn’t have to do things the way other people did them. I didn’t have to follow the accepted norm. I could do it my way. I could audition actors my way. I could rehearse my way. I could perform my way.

Periodically I run into some pushback and it is always fascinating to watch what happens around it. I had a moment not too long ago wherein I’d invited an actor to audition for my company and asked her to come for a workshop/playtime (which is how I invited actors to audition and also signal to them that I wanted it to be different than the usual audition) and she wrote back saying she couldn’t make it but to let her know when we were having auditions. When I got this email, my insides got all twisted up and I felt a familiar discomfort – a deep sense of something I couldn’t put my finger on.

Later, with some distance, I was able to deduce that it felt like shame. Like all those times I wore an article of clothing to school that did not pass muster with my classmates. “You’re wearing fluorescent green? But everyone’s wearing fluorescent orange. You are so out of it.” And I just couldn’t fit in, no matter how hard I tried. And I tried. I tried so hard. And then I stopped trying and began to dress completely unlike anyone at my school. I started shopping at vintage shops out of town and wearing vintage ties, repurposed skirts. I was so much happier this way. The clothes that everyone was wearing were ugly on me and I felt so much better in my self-styled wardrobe. And I discovered that I got teased a whole lot less than I did when I was trying to fit in. I was much more able to thrive when I played by my own rules.

There’s something similar going on in my theatre making. I find a lot of the usual way of doing things ugly…perhaps even toxic. Auditions are horrible. Casting can be impersonal and inhumane. There are many structures in place to keep distance and control in the hands of the people holding the bag of money. I’ve seen actors, designers and crew bullied and abused and no one can complain. It is just what people expect sometimes.

So when I set up a process that I mean to be kind and respectful and gentle, people get confused and sometimes they get mad at me because I have not asked them to do the thing they’ve used to doing. By wearing my repurposed skirt and tie, I have unintentionally challenged the entire structure.

And most of me is delighted to challenge the field. It needs a challenge.  I am a happy non-conformist. In many ways, my non-conformist structures are built to weed out those who will not respond to them. I know very well that my work is not for everyone. Nor is my way of working. It is a good thing when someone self-excludes from my process.

But when I’m challenged about my methods,  my stomach flips over and I feel like I’ve been caught not knowing what the (unwritten) rules are instead of choosing to break the rules. I have to acknowledge that while I am 90% non-conformist – there is a 10% portion that just wants to be accepted. It is my inner 11 year old who just wants all the kids to like me and the established form to open its arms and invite me in.

I get better and better at staying true to my own impulses, my own way of doing things, my own sense of style but the journey isn’t over. It is not always easy to be the odd one at the edge of the middle school dance. It can be painful to be operating from a different script than the majority of my peers.  The pain pays off, I think. We, the oddballs, have a lot of original thoughts, ideas and methods that the ones who have managed to fit in will never have access to. But it does seem to involve tolerating a certain amount of discomfort when our worlds meet.

Theatre is wonderful and awful for the same reason. Theatre involves people. We have to work with people to make theatre and we have to perform for people. There is no part of the experience that doesn’t involve being in community in some way or another. And one of the tricky things about being a part of a community is figuring out how much one needs to assimilate to the group. How much homogeneity is good and how much is counterproductive?

There is some evidence, through social science experiments, that human beings feel physical pain when we feel separate from a group. We feel physical pain when rejected. To avoid feeling like outsiders, we will say things we know are incorrect, we will risk our lives, we will do silly things like stand up when a bell goes off, just because everyone around us does. It feels important to recognize that evolution has made us social animals as a life-saving skill so the pain of diverging is real. But there are also benefits to risking non-conformity. This article from MIT said it this way:

Our studies found that nonconformity leads to positive inferences of status and competence when it is associated with deliberateness and intentionality. In other words, observers attribute heightened status and competence to a nonconforming individual when they believe he or she is aware of an accepted, established norm and is able to conform to it, but instead deliberately decides not to.

See, I know what the accepted, established norm is and I guess the discomfort that I feel is when I discover that others don’t know that I know. Instead of feeling the benefits of nonconformity, I feel the shame. That’s the danger of doing things differently. And a danger I will continue to face. Because I am definitely never wearing that fluorescent green sweatshirt again.

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You can help assuage the discomfort of being different

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read it on Soundcloud, click here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



If we knew what we were doing…

“If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be called research.”

I walked past the NYU Environmental Fluid Dynamics Lab and saw this quote in their window. It is (probably mis-)attributed to Albert Einstein but the sentiment is useful regardless of who came up with it.

This idea is particularly meaningful to me now as I’m currently raising funds for the Research and Development of my show. We don’t know what we’re doing. Or rather, it feels like I don’t know what I’m doing. I recognize that it is a little disingenuous for me to say that we do not know what we’re doing because we know many things. We come to the table with a world of skill and experience and desire and curiosity and trainings and aesthetic preferences and all sorts of juicy stuff. But even with all that behind us, it can feel disorienting to not know the answers or even the questions sometimes. But sitting in the feeling of not knowing what we’re doing is the way to something potent – through research, through discovery.

So much theatre (maybe even so much art?) is full of assuredness or even bluster. It knows what it’s doing. It has a plan and it will execute that plan to the letter. There are systems in place to execute the stuff that everyone knows how to do. It works very hard to be seen as confident and knowledgeable at every turn. This is why so much theatre fails to move me, I suspect. It’s too certain, too sure of itself, too smooth.

Sometimes it feels uncomfortable to Not Know but it so helpful to remember that not knowing what you’re doing is how you discover something new. Einstein (maybe) said it.

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You can help my company research

by contributing to our Indiegogo campaign.

 

You can help my individual research

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Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read it on Soundcloud, click here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



The Danger of Relying on Opinions

My theatre company’s crowdfunding campaign for Research and Development of our show got me thinking about arts funding and the way art gets supported. Generally, arts crowdfunding campaigns live or die based on the response to an idea, that is, the opinions of the people funding it. If a project’s friends and family LIKE the idea of the project, they fund it. If they’re not keen on it, like they think, “I wouldn’t want to go see that,” – they won’t. This is actually, at the gut level, often how grants get passed out as well. “Is this show, art-work, dance – something I’d want to see?” If yes – Stamp of Approval. If no – Rejection.

This basically means that whether or not something gets made is connected to the opinions of the consumer. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I decide whether to support something or not based on whether or not I think it’s a good idea. But I think this is problematic and symptomatic of an overly commercial sensibility when funding the arts. If you’d pitched me some of my favorite shows just as ideas, I’d definitely not have funded or chosen them. A stage version of the film, Brief Encounter? A one man show about tribes in the rainforest performed by a white dude? If you’d asked me to fund a show about a horse who goes to war, I’d have said that was an idea that was doomed to fail. And I would have been very wrong about that.

The fact is, whether or not I LIKE an artist shouldn’t preclude that artist’s ability to make the art. I don’t like all kinds of things every day. But I shouldn’t get to be the arbiter of what gets made.

We live in a world where Spiderman The Musical got made because Marvel had money to burn on it. We had Legally Blonde, The Musical because it was paid for. And I have to bet that not many people were truly passionate about making Legally Blonde the Musical. It was not born from a group of artists getting together to create something where there was nothing. A group of producers hired a group of writers to do a job and make some money using an existing property. It has all the hallmarks of a show put together by agents to showcase people at their agency.

Do we truly want a world where agents and movies studios decide what theatre gets made and artists like us – and like so many of our peers – have to send our ideas to the Idea Cemetery simply because our friends and/or granting organization didn’t like the idea? From Broadway all the way down to the smallest company, we’re letting the market determine who gets to make art.

This is why government funding for the arts makes sense. While no Arts Council is perfect, they at least aspire to a more equitable distribution of resources. They can keep their eye on inclusion and diversity. They can fund things that people won’t necessarily LIKE but really should get made and seen anyway. I’d rather have all kinds of work I don’t like funded, knowing that there are other metrics under consideration than whether the panel or audience thinks it’s a good idea.  I mean no disrespect to grant panels or audiences – but they don’t always recognize the good ideas from the outset. They tend to respond to things that are like something they’ve seen before. And this is not a great way to innovate in the Arts.

For the arts to thrive, we need to be able to explore a wide variety of ideas. We need to chase down the “bad” ones as well as the “good” ones. Good ideas sometimes make bad art. And vice versa. We need an arts funding culture that isn’t predicated on whether or not someone likes the idea. If we could, instead, fund the artists, fund the companies and fund the places that say to artists, “Whatever you want to explore, here are some resources.” That’s the way toward a vibrant, thriving arts landscape.

And, I think, that is why my company’s current campaign is going better than any crowdfunding we’ve done before. We’re not trying to sell the idea this time. We’re sharing a process. We’re looking to fund an exploration instead of a product. No one has to have an opinion about where we’re headed or what we create. And it is liberating for both artists and funders. We’ll save the opinions for the critics.

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You don’t have to like me to become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read it on Soundcloud, click here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



The Panic at the Beginning
September 20, 2016, 9:34 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

For about a week, I was crying at pretty much every opportunity. I got on the train, I’d cry. I’d lie on the floor, I’d cry. I’d go to the bathroom, I’d cry. In the moment, the source was not entirely clear but I finally traced it to the total terror of beginning work on a new show.

I didn’t always feel terror when starting work on a new show. I used to feel a kind of thrilling excitement, a blind enthusiasm. But then I DID a lot of shows. And I went to graduate school, where the making of shows went from being a pleasure to a battle. I think I may have a bit of metaphorical PTSD from grad school. There were shows post grad school that were relatively trouble free and there were shows that reinforced the fear – difficult collaborators, or challenging circumstances.

The fact is – part of the reason I was able to start shows with unbridled enthusiasm at the beginning of my career was because it was the beginning and I had NO IDEA what sort of challenges might be ahead. My company is 15 years old now and I have MANY IDEAS about what sort of challenges might cross my path as I embark on show development – and very few of them are nice. I am afraid for good reasons.

Starting something is scary for everyone – but it is especially scary for those who have been burned by experience. The culture gives a lot of support and enthusiasm for people who are just beginning. Theatre projects by first time makers are supported a great deal more than the projects of people who have been at it for a long time – but in a way those of us who have been at it a long time need more support, we are both tougher and more fragile.

I know I am not alone in this. I talked with an artist who is a generation ahead of me who was about to embark on a new project and he said he felt totally panicked – but also like he couldn’t talk about that fear, that, after decades in the game, he was supposed to be all cool about it.

When I first started making shows, people were constantly telling me I was brave. But I wasn’t so much brave as naïve and energetic. I’m brave now, actually. Now, I feel panic and terror and I have all kinds of evidence that the odds are not good for my project but I fight through all of that to do it anyway. And I’m telling you about it because I suspect that you are also brave in some way that isn’t flashy or new – but in some quiet, fighting through the weeds way. And if you see me crying, don’t worry, it’s probably just that I’m starting something. I’ll get through it and start that thing regardless. I’m brave like that.

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You can help me be brave by becoming my patron on Patreon.
They are my best cheerleaders.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read it on Soundcloud, click here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog 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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