Songs for the Struggling Artist


(Still) Waiting to Be Discovered

As a child, I wanted to be an actor but I lived in a small city wherein my opportunities were mostly school plays and community theatre. This did not stop me hoping that some director or producer would stumble upon me and whisk me away to Broadway or the movies. I imagined someone like the Hollywood guy in Cold Comfort Farm seeing me somewhere and a light would shine on me the way it does on Rufus Sewell and he’d know I was gonna be a star!

The fact that I was a shy, quiet, unremarkable looking kid didn’t stop me believing such a thing were possible. I did talent shows and musicals and revues and every play that would let me in. And the people who came would tell me to mention them in my Oscar or Tony speech. Everyone seemed to hold the same dream of my future discovery. Someone, somewhere would recognize my talent and catapult me to the stars.

Lana Turner was famously discovered at a soda counter after all. It was just a matter of time. The process of being an actor was primarily a waiting game, a game of wanting to be picked, to be “discovered” by someone with actual power. It was like trying to be Sleeping Beauty – but, like, awake and trying to look beautiful in the sorts of places princes might be looking.

Ultimately, this is why the business of acting didn’t suit me – even though I loved the act of acting. This is also why I moved toward the bits of theatre that allowed me to feel a sense of agency, an expression of some kind of power. I don’t like waiting – so I discovered myself instead.

But even so – I’ve often caught myself in the same expectant state, at a metaphorical soda counter, waiting for someone to discover me and change my life. I think maybe this isn’t just because I wanted to be an actor. I think this is because I have a little bit of fairy tale princess dust still in the system. While I refuse to fall asleep like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White and I am not locked in any tower like Rapunzel, I’m still locked in a kind of expectant state. When I’m told I can’t go to the ball, I don’t always think about how to get in without an invitation, I just wait for some Fairy Godmother to swoop in and make me presentable for the privileged. I wish I’d read a version of the Cinderella story wherein Cinderella picks herself up out of the ashes, dusts herself off (only a little) and then just brings herself to the ball just as she is. I want to see a version of this story wherein Cinderella sees something she wants and then goes and gets it. No waiting. On one of my favorite podcasts, the host often uses the phrase “Include yourself” and I have found it very useful when trying to elbow my way into places I have not been invited. I also just discovered something that Shirley Chisholm said that I have found very inspirational.

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

But even while I now try and carry a metaphorical folding chair with me everywhere, I still often feel excluded. And while I thought I’d left behind my habit of waiting to be discovered, every so often I find it rearing its ugly fairy godmother head. I’ll put on a show and hope “someone” will come see it and pick it up. I’ll write a blog and think this will be the one that somehow shifts me from Struggling Artist and Thriving Artist. I write a play and think that “someone” will read it and take me to the theatre dance. And they never show up and I sink back into the ashes to cry and wish, like some older grayer Cinderella without the fairy godmother.

And for some people getting “discovered” does happen. They have mentors or advocates that shepherd them to the ball – but not every one gets a fairy godmother. Not every one who is working gets “discovered.” Being discovered is essentially a passive activity and hoping for it is a heartbreak. If you don’t get invited to the ball, sometimes you find your own way in and sometimes you just have your own party which, while a lot more work, can be a lot more fun and certainly a lot less passive.

I hesitate to write about this internal pattern because it is the very thing someone might use to explain why success eludes me (or any woman.) It’s that thing where confessing to lacking in confidence suddenly leads to blaming women for the confidence gap. I fear that acknowledging that I notice a tiny inner fairy tale princess who keeps waiting to be chosen will then be used as evidence for why I have not made my way to the ball. It sounds as if I am passively sitting on a rock and wishing for my (artistic/professional) prince. Which I categorically am not. I mostly do no wishing at all. I just do doing. I write the thing, I direct the thing, I devise the thing, I produce the thing, I publicize the thing, I invite people to the thing. I write other things. I podcast the thing. I tweet. I email. I call. It’s just that there is, below the doing, a little wishing fairy princess that was imprinted on me from a very young age. She mostly does me no real harm, aside from the disappointment of the fairy godmother never showing up.

It makes me think of a speech that Virginia Woolf gave called “Professions for Women.” She talked about the necessity of killing the Angel in the House. She spoke of the nice, accommodating angel who sacrifices herself for her loved ones. Woolf described how the “Angel” whispers in her ear while she tries to write. And each time she sat down to write, she had to kill the angel anew.

I suspect that it is not JUST the Angel whispering in my ear that I have to kill. The fairy tale princess, trying to help me be chosen, needs to be killed, too, before any real writing can happen. It’s tricky because the fairy tale princess seems to want to help me. She wants me to be seen and accepted, to be invited to the ball – but her voice is just as distracting and manipulative as the Angel.

When I sit down to write I have so much murdering to do. And while I don’t particularly find murdering appealing, I prefer it to the despair and disappointment of waiting to be chosen. It is, at least, an active engagement – an energetic purposeful task. Unlike waiting, which is total enervation.

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Another Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

Previously, I wrote about a show that inspired me to make a list of stories I never want to see onstage again. I have now seen another show and discovered another story I have had my definitive fill of. Can we please call a moratorium on the fallen woman plot?

You get a pass if your name is Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and you were writing social commentary about this shit in the 1800s but if you are a writer in 2017, do us all a favor and leave this tired old horse alone.

I mean, I know a lot of you loved this Great Comet situation. And I agree that the design was very cool and there’s some accomplished performances in it. I give it a lot of points for its hodge-podge red curtain, fishnet, Russian tchotcke from any old period, aesthetic. But goddamn it, please, my dear writers and creators, please never ever again make me watch a story about a girl who wants to kill herself because she felt desire one time. I mean – sure, I get it, 19th Century source material and all that but can someone please explain to me why a story that hinges on the purity of some ingénue is worth adapting in 2017? (Actually, don’t. I don’t want to hear it.) If you like the old dusty classics (and I do, too! Lots!) you’d better give us something besides the old patterns of the patriarchy to grapple with. And making this story cool doesn’t do it. By making it cool, you’re reinforcing that shit. You’re saying, “Isn’t the patriarchy cool? Look how fun the patriarchy can be! It’s like 19th century patriarchy dressed up with twentieth century fishnets. This story is Dusty and Sexy!”

Now, all over goddamn America, little theatre girls are going to be singing about how they should take poison because they fell in love with the wrong guy for a minute. All over America, little theatre boys will be singing about how ennobling loving a fallen woman can be. This goddamn story. I can’t.

Updating the classics is dodgy business, y’all, because the classics are full of stuff that tells women that our only value is our beauty and if we sell beauty to the wrong bidder, we are lost forever. If you update the classics and you don’t update the gender politics, you are essentially putting a 21st century stamp of approval on 19th century ideas.

If you’re simply staging the classics maybe you can get away with telling these stories. I would happily watch a production of Sense and Sensibility onstage. But I’d need some Regency costumes and some damn harpsichords or something to make that okay. If you set Sense and Sensibility in a disco, with your own contemporary dialogue, I’m gonna be skipping that shit. And I love me some Jane Austen but I’m pretty sure that if Jane Austen were alive today, she would not write this kind of story. She was a social satirist. She showed us what was ticking away under the Regency veneer. I think she would show us something true and cutting about ourselves now if she were still kicking. If Tolstoy were alive, I don’t think he’d be writing this marriage plot shit either. Given that he was essentially writing about rich Russians who owned people, I’m gonna guess he’d have a lot to say about the current moment. I don’t think he’d be wasting his time with more fallen women.

I mean, we don’t know, obviously, what our old writers would do. But romanticizing these old stories is doing women in 2017 no favors. I don’t want to see one more woman punished for having desire. Not one more time. I’m hungry for stories about woman’s desire, about embracing it, about celebrating it. (See also the awesomeness of Indecent. Or a stage production of I Love Dick? Could we have that? Can Jill Soloway start a theatre wing of Topple?) I declare a personal moratorium on any story that celebrates a dude for transcending a sullied woman. I henceforth will avoid any and all shows that hinge on the purity of some beautiful girl. Fuck purity. Fuck congratulating men for being able to get over the “obstacle” of an “impure” woman. I am done with this story for now and forever.

Again, unless your name is Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Then, I’m good. Do what you got to do.

 

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Why Giving Up Art Is Not an Option

The actors stood up and I started crying. The house lights went down to start the show and moments later I was moved. It took a moment to shake me out of my familiar world.

But it wasn’t just the moment, of course. There was a world of history behind the moment. It was the skill and finesse of a lifetime of theatrical practice that knew how to bring that world into a moment. It took extraordinary expertise and sensitivity to make something so simple so powerful. It took mastery.

After giving me such a powerful moment right out of the gate, I thought, “There might be nothing else as good as this in the rest of this show but if this is all it has to offer, it would be enough.” But it was definitely NOT all it had to offer. I saw a play that exquisitely resurrected the past while shining light on our present. It made me weep so often I wished I’d brought a box of tissues with me. And I almost never cry in the theatre. All around me, I heard the quiet sound of other people taken over by their emotions.

When it was over, the audience did not leap to its feet. On Broadway, a standing ovation is practically a reflex. But this Broadway audience was too moved to leap to its feet. Many of us were too moved to move at all. An usher had to ask us to vacate our seats. A transformative art experience is not always met with cheers.

In fact, if you’ve really struck an audience to the soul, they will likely not be able to hoot and holler. A transformative art experience is usually so personal to an audience that they may not be keen to talk about it, they may not tell all their friends, they may just want to keep it to themselves. A transformative art experience may not draw a crowd, it may not generate a profit for its producers, it may not make a big noise. It may shine briefly in the firmament before winking into memory. But it will continue to do its transformative work for a long time after it has faded. The magic of Indecent is that it both shows us that story of continuation and is likely to be that story as well.

The marketing department for the show seems to be trying to boost sales to this show by talking about why #ArtMatters and while this is perfectly in line with what I took from the show, a hashtag feels like such a diminishment of what is actually at stake. This is not a hashtag sort of experience. It’s not an instagram moment. It’s not suited for 140 characters.

But certainly art matters. And this show helps remind us how much it can matter. And aside from all the mattering it does, it also made me want to keep working at being a better artist. Indecent helped me see how a lifetime in the theatre could refine and invigorate the form. There are so many moments in my theatre life that make me want to give up, that make me question whether I’ve dedicated my life to the wrong art. Over the years, I’ve seen so much crap, so much compromise, so much ego, so much selling out, so much shady dealing, so much sexism, so much racism, so much shouting, so much soullessness. There have been so many times that I’ve wondered why I continue to let theatre break my heart. Because theatre breaks my heart pretty much every time I put on another show and each time I do, I ask myself again, “Why do I do this? Why do I put myself through this agony? Why do I think I love theatre when it clearly doesn’t love me?” And then I saw this show and I remembered why.

If I write plays that no one but me wants to produce with any regularity, if I direct plays that I can’t convince many people to see, if I devise work that only touches a handful of people, that doesn’t make me a failure, that makes me an artist on a journey. The experience of seeing this show reminded me of a truth that I find I have to return to again and again, that worth is not equivalent to popularity.

This show moved me not because it is on Broadway, but because it is the collaboration of artists working at the height of their powers. It shows me that I could make the best work of my life over twenty years from now. That even though I have often felt that my prime has passed (I have, to my regret, internalized that only young women are valuable) my prime is much more likely to be in the future. I learned, from my seat in the balcony, that a lifetime in the theatre could distill an artist into the clearest, most concise expression of theatricality. I see that time, rather than just battering me and graying my hair, might distill this cluster of longings and ideas and furies and hopes into something transformative – not just for me but for an audience.

In a world wherein I often feel that I’ve seen all the tricks, that I’ve had all the glitter fall from my eyes to reveal the familiar old men behind all the curtains, this show gave me hope and surprise.

It reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Protest and Persist: Why Giving Up Hope Is Not an Option” which explores how change really happens. In it, Solnit unpacks how an initial movement for change may fail in its immediate goals – but that the change achieved by future generations is built directly on the work of our predecessors. It is the same in art. The God of Vengeance (which Indecent invokes) was on Broadway for a blink in time but that blink was a pebble in a pond that echoed to create something new and potent in a time when we needed it.

I don’t know if Indecent will get a long run (I hope so though I worry about those empty seats behind me on a Friday) but even if it closes tomorrow, it will have dropped a mighty art pebble into the art pond and the ripples will be rippling for years after the artists are gone.

This show gave me the long view at a time it feels like we are in an ever-alarming, ever-panicked present moment. And it showed me that though we very well might be forgotten when we are gone (or even forgotten while we are here) someone somewhere in the future, might resurrect us for their transformative art. We keep creating in the darkest hours. We make because we must, because something captivates us, even if it breaks our hearts.

Photo of Indecent by Carol Rosegg 

 

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No One’s Asking for Your Art

Probably, there is no one who can’t wait to read your next play. Probably, no one is itching to read your novel. No one is clamoring for your new album or begging for your next dance piece. Probably you have some loved ones who are very supportive and tell you how excited they are to read your latest writing but 9 out of 10 people really don’t care and even the most supportive person you have on your side won’t see or read EVERYTHING. Your friends might feel obligated to go see your show or listen to your album but they probably won’t come every single time or listen more than a few times. Probably when you tell them about your latest creative venture, they’ll tell you they’re excited about it but they probably won’t come. (Life happens. To everyone. Everyone can’t see everything.) I’m not saying your people are not glad that you make art but the odds are they’re not clamoring for your latest thing. Especially if you make a lot of things.

This is why you have to untie yourself from your potential audience. If you have the instinct to create, you have to do it for yourself first because no one wants whatever you have in mind more than you.

I think this is true even if you’re a popular artist who people want to hear from. Let’s look at J.K. Rowling. Her fans wanted Harry Potter, now and forever. No one wanted her to write a book about a small-time English Village council election. No one was asking for that. But she wrote it anyway. If Rowling was completely tied to what people wanted from her, she’d have been writing only Harry Potter for the rest of her life. But no, not only did she write a novel about an election, she also went and wrote a whole crime series under a pseudonym. I bet you no one was asking for her to do that when she started.

If you’re not J.K. Rowling, your audience might not want anything at all from you. The most likely response you will get to your art is indifference. And you cannot let this stop you. Just because no one particularly wants you to do it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

If you’re called to create, you have to do it. For you. No one else. Or maybe one other person. It could even be an imaginary person. I have one dedicated fan of the podcast. I record it for him. And even he doesn’t listen to every single one. A more logical person might leave such an enterprise aside. But I don’t make a podcast for logical reasons – I make it for artistic ones. My reasons understand that not every artistic expression is for every one. And that as long as I feel inclined to create, that’s how long I should do it.

No one wants it. But if you DON’T express that unique sparkling thing in your soul, it will fester. Or at the very least, wink out of existence.

If you need people to want your work, you might just want to go ahead and work in advertising. You can go be “a creative” in marketing or some form of industry. They’re going to want your words, your ideas, your drawings, etc. They’ll give you assignments, structures and feedback. They’ll ask you for all you have. They will read everything you write for them. They will listen to all you record. They will look at all that you draw. And you will get payment, one way or another.

But if you feel called to be an artist, you’ll need to be prepared to go where no one is calling to you, where there is no encouragement but your own creative spark. The practice of a life in the arts is learning how to nurture your own spark, how to stoke your own creative fire and encourage it to blaze so it becomes harder and harder to ignore. Learn how to be your own match, your own oxygen, your own kindling, your own log and you have a practice for life.

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If My Pen is Rockin,’ Don’t Come A-Knockin’

The bulk of my writing practice is dedicated to getting myself primed to write with the most focus I can manage. The practice is dedicated to finding a kind of flow. In an ideal session of writing, I will not stop the pen. I just go. And go. I’m sure that I look busy when I’m writing. I’m 100% sure I don’t look like I want to talk with anyone. And yet. And YET.

Several times in the last few months, I have had white men, both young and old, attempt to talk with me while I was writing. One said, after watching my pen moving rapidly across the page for a while, “Can I ask you a question?” I did not stop moving my pen and said “Not right now.” But even though I kept writing, of course, it very much interrupted my flow. It took me a while to pick my thought back up.

Another one, sitting next to me on a café bench at an adjacent table where I had been sitting and writing for 40 minutes, says, almost right into my ear, “Are you journaling?” And fury passed through me as I paused to turn and tell him “No” and attempted to resume.

Why on earth does someone think a woman busy on her own, clearly engaged with a task, wants to be interrupted? Never once has a woman interrupted me to ask an invasive question or start up a conversation. Nor has any man of color. Everyone but white dudes seems to respect my personal space and engagement.

The good news is that there is literally no activity that I am more protective of than writing. I guard my time to do it. I protect it with ferocity – so if some dude happens to intrude, I don’t fall into my usual patterns of being nice or compliant. If you interrupt me, I will not be polite.

This is also the gift of aging. I do not give any fucks about making men feel alright for being assholes. Not anymore.

But it continues to astonish me that even in personal space NYC, where we all more or less leave each other alone, dudes can take me being busy doing something as an invitation.

I suppose it is the activity equivalent of wearing headphones – and lord knows, despite sending a million signals that a woman doesn’t want to be bothered, she gets bothered anyway. I’m thinking of that article about how to talk to girls with headphones on. And the answer of course is – you shouldn’t. Unless you want to talk with a really pissed off woman.

Understanding that not all space is your space is a hard one for the white boys who are used to feeling welcome everywhere. But it is essential for not getting a pen through the eye one day when I’m really in flow and pissed off that you’ve disrupted it. To avoid a pen in the eye…no talking, dude. If you absolutely must talk to me, you can pass me a note. But I’d rather you didn’t.

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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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