Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Resistance Will Be Handcrafted
March 22, 2017, 10:41 pm
Filed under: art, music, puppets, resistance, theatre, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , ,

Since the digital age really kicked in, I have watched a lot of things that were important to me fade away. In a world that values social media currency and digital art and so many things on screen, my analog skills of theatre-making, performance and presence have felt less and less valued in the world. While I have adapted as well as I can, I have at times felt like an analog girl in a digital world – a handwoven basket in a factory town.

But since the world turned upside down on Jan 20th, I have found that my old-school art skills are suddenly relevant again. At a recent rally and march, I suddenly realized how many skills I was pulling out of storage to be there. Some examples were: creating an impromptu puppet, gathering protest props that not only can pop at a protest but be light-weight and fit in a bag so I can carry them on the subway, putting a costume together, singing loudly, helping ladies find a pitch when a man is leading the singing and puppeteering.

And it’s not just me – there’s a call for all kinds of analog skills that might have felt lost to the digital age. Examples: Painting signs, playing drums, marching bands, one man (woman) bands, creating spectacle, knitting. Art supply sales are booming. There is something poignant about our old-school skills suddenly being useful again. We can’t rely on video to save us. We need things in real life. Now more than ever.

In a way, it’s a shift of our public spaces out of the internet and into actual spaces. We are all out in public more. And I find I want to bring out even more things into that space. I want to cry in public space. (I was a little disappointed there was no keening at the mock funeral. I could have used a good cleansing cry.) I want to read in public space. (What if we had a Read In?) I want to just sit quietly with a bunch of my fellow introverts and shush anyone who gets too loud.

There is something about this moment that is calling us to really stand behind what we value and those values may not always be obvious. It reveals all the things we’ve let dwindle – things we actually once loved or felt were necessary. Journalism. Theatre. Music. All things we stopped paying for because we could get them for free. If there’s anything to hope for in this depressing mess of a year, it’s that adjustment of value. It’s that subscriptions of newspapers and magazines are back up, people need music like never before and theatre might just make a difference again.

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Devices in Auditions and Rehearsals
March 9, 2017, 11:42 pm
Filed under: art, Social Media, theatre

My company’s auditions for our project were meticulously planned. I did a group audition because I care about how people work together. I started with drawing, because it’s a script-flipping task that tends to calm jumpy actors down and it tends to signal that we’re doing things differently. I did a bunch of low exposure group acting explorations to get a comfort level going in a room full of strangers and then I had them play with materials to take everyone out of the context of performance and into creating.

Then I took a break. A long one. Because I wanted the group to have some time to chat and get to know one another without someone controlling their experience. It’s useful for me to see people with their masks off for a minute while they talk about their cat, or whatever. As in rehearsals, a lot of the art actually happens in these cross-pollinating moments.

But. In my recent auditions, this whole plan went completely off the rails at this point because rather than chatting and getting to know one another, almost every single actor took out their cell phone and sat against a wall. The room was silent. I was shocked. And scared for the future.

Technology has changed all of our lives in so many profound ways but until this moment, I hadn’t noticed it intruding on my art-making experience too much.

I think this is because in smaller groups, it is less obvious, this disconnection. When working with one or two other people, when someone steps away to take a call or write a text, it is an event. Someone says, “Excuse me, I need to check on my son,” or something like that. And when they return, there hasn’t been a major break in our momentum.

When everyone’s first impulse at a break is to unplug from the group and plug in to Facebook or emails or whatever – the entire momentum of a process shifts.

Theatre making is delicate. When I make something, I work very hard to create an experience that takes people out of the every day and into the world of the play. I want my shows to have this quality and I want my rehearsals to have it as well. Every intrusion from the outside world is a disruption. At our break, one actor checks Facebook and sees that an ex is getting married. Another gets an email about an audition next week that makes him nervous. And so on and so on – and so on everyone’s mind is somewhere else – and it takes effort to bring them back.

This isn’t a judgment on my actors. I fully understand why in an awkward moment, surrounded by strangers, everyone reaches for a phone. It is almost automatic. And I suppose it is that automatism that concerns me.

Back when I was an auditioning actor, no one had a cell phone to turn to in a break, and so we turned, however awkwardly to one another. I made some life long friends this way.

And those relationships led to making more art which led me here to auditioning new performers – and their phones. It’s like everyone’s a package deal now – the actor and everyone they’ve ever known, to whom they are connected via the internet. I am curious about how others handle this landscape. How do you negotiate the phones in your art-making midst?

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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



Where In the World?
March 4, 2017, 2:10 am
Filed under: art, theatre, Gender politics | Tags: , , , ,

For years, I have been dreaming about emigrating to Europe, where so many of my favorite theatre companies are based. I fell in love with Cheek by Jowel when I saw their (all male) As You Like It. I idolized Improbable and their three man Artistic Directorship. I drooled over Complicite – and the one man genius at the center of it. Oh, how I wanted to move to England so I could make work like my heroes!

I heard stories about the extraordinary work coming out of Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. I saw some of it, too. I was wowed by all those men making extraordinary work. I wanted to go there and join them. Perhaps you’ve noticed already what it took me a while to put together. But almost everyone of note in my theatre hero club was a man. I’ve finally put together that nearly all of the places I’ve idolized for their more forward thinking art and/or politics, are actually as sexist as the country I live in. Some a little more. Some a little less. But nobody’s got equity.

My first clues were the stats on my blog about sexism in the theatre. I’ve got views from around the world on that thing. There are international waves of people when someone shares it in their native land. My next clue was my experience of international theatre conferences, where I saw so many all male casts, I just assumed I’d be looking at mostly men whenever I saw a show. When I went to panels of artistic directors from abroad, they were 90% male.

Sexism isn’t just an American problem. It’s a world problem. And in some countries, the sexism is worse in the theatre than it is in the country as a whole. Around the world, as far as I know, there is no theatre community where the odds are not stacked against me, as a woman. So, while I admire the work I’ve seen from Australia tremendously, it would make no sense to move there, as only 30% of produced plays are written or directed by women. Similarly, England. Similarly, Ireland. Where in the world could I go where my gender won’t be a liability in my making work? I really want to know – because I want to at least go visit and see what it would feel like to work in a place that doesn’t dismiss me from the moment I come in. I want to know what it feels like to create without the entire deck stacked against me. Where in the world can a woman go to make theatre with equity?

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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 Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

At a recent festival, the audience favorite was a show that re-told a fairy tale – one that featured a king reckoning with his power. It won an award, people loved it so much. But it made me furious.

I don’t blame the creators, really. The source material was tried and true and they tackled it well. The aesthetics and storytelling were expertly executed. But. In watching it, I thought to myself, “I never need to see a story like this again. In fact, maybe I should make a list of stories I don’t need to see anyone.” In this case, a show about the difficulties of being a young white male king just didn’t resonate with me. I have seen a lot of these in my life. Maybe because I spend a lot of time in the trenches of Shakespeare, I feel like I’ve heard this story just about as thoroughly as I’d ever hope to and with much more scintillating language. And who knows, one day I might want to see one again.

However, meanwhile – I never want to see another story about how a young man should assume authority. Young men know how to do this. They got it. There are tons of models. If you want to show me a story about how a young woman assumes authority, I’m all about that. Extra points if she’s a woman of color. But I don’t need any more authoritarian stories. Please.

I think, too, this particular show triggered my fury because it did a lot of things at the beginning that made me think something else entirely was going to happen. I thought we were going to go in and subvert authority. I thought we were going to understand our power as a group. I thought we might even learn how to overthrow a king and become a true democracy. These are all lessons I actually need right now. That’s the show I needed to see and I didn’t get it. That’s not the company’s fault. They didn’t know what show I had in my head.

At the start of this show, we all practiced our bows for the King we were due to meet. I played along, because it’s fun to play. But I really don’t need to practice bowing to authority. Too many of my people are already too good at this, metaphorically speaking. Bowing to authority is one of the things that got us into this current political mess. What I’m seeking are lessons in resistance. I need people who can show us how to refuse, to resist, to make change.

I’m now trying to work out how to write the show I wanted and didn’t get. But there are very few models in this realm. I can only think of one or two. If you know of one, please send it along, I need some inspiration of radical democracy, of collective power.

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Ready for the Fight
January 16, 2017, 1:04 am
Filed under: art, Gender politics, resistance, 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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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 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.

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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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