Songs for the Struggling Artist


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 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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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

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You can help my individual research

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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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They are my best cheerleaders.

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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



Ideas and Glitter and Places to Put Them
June 10, 2016, 12:16 am
Filed under: art, Creative Process | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Over the years I’ve been a part of various schemes that are meant to help artists. Most of the schemes in NYC are schemes to improve our business skills, to make us bigger and more solid institutions. These make me nuts for reasons I have discussed many times before but recently, I’ve been involved in schemes that are meant to help give me ideas and inspirations. These make me nuts in a very different way.

I have so many ideas, folks. I have ideas for breakfast, ideas for lunch, ideas for afternoon tea, dinner and midnight snack. I am rolling in ideas. And I am grateful for that abundance of ideas. I feel I can never have to many – so I am always happy to be a part of something meant to increase my inspiration. But ideas are never my problem.

It’s like ideas are glitter. Glitter is wonderful. It makes everything it touches sparkle. Every time someone gives me more glitter, I’m going to be happy to receive it.

The thing I haven’t had is a place to PUT all this glitter. It’s pouring out of drawers, stuffed into socks, pooling in corners. When there’s no space to put my glitter or a container to store it, it can start to feel like a burden to keep receiving it. Someone gives me a handful of glitter and I’m like, “Oooooh! Glitter! Thank you!” And then I look around…Where is this going to go?

I suspect my fellow American Artists are also not short on ideas and inspiration. We’ve all seen shows and been lit up and gone home thinking, “I can’t wait to try something like that,” and then we realize that we have neither the time, the space nor the context to try that idea out. We don’t have R & D grants as some of our European colleagues do – everything we do is meant to be a product with a target audience and numbers to match. There’s not much space for glitter in the models we have. But glitter is often what we love, what we respond to. I will never refuse an idea – would never refuse a handful of glitter – but like glitter, ideas can find their way into inconvenient places and start to clog up the works if you never get an opportunity to use them or express them.

I don’t want to seem ungrateful for any program or scheme designed to give me glitter but these programs should know that giving me more glitter is not the way to increase the quality of American Theatre. I imagine that if you are not an artist, that ideas seem to be the currency for us – that increasing them would be the way to build up the bank of art. But we’ve got this covered. I’ve got so much glitter, so many ideas. I understand the possibilities. I have an aesthetic education gathered from glittery artists from around the world. I don’t need more glitter. I just need a place to play with it.

Luckily, I was recently given a space with no real strings and so I chose to use it to create my own R &D experience and am therefore incredibly grateful to be able to pull out boxes and boxes of glitter I’ve had sitting around for years. And I get more glitter every day, just because I have a place to play.

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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



Why Going Away for Inspiration is a Good Idea
April 16, 2016, 11:09 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process | Tags: , , , ,

My trip to Greece last fall lit me up like a mega watt Christmas tree. Ideas streamed through me. I collected images for shows I hadn’t imagined. The world once again seemed like one of possibility. It was nourishing and uplifting.

When I got back to NYC, I started to think about how to follow the thread of those ideas and I quite quickly ran into the obstacles that generally prevent me from making things.

Here are some details from the artistic committee meeting in my head:

“Sure, this idea about a theatrical immersive Oracle of Delphi is a fun one – but where are you going to get funding for that? It’s a very expensive idea, you know.”

“Alright fine – that one’s for later, I know. But – how about a Minoan puppet show inspired by all those clay figures?”

“You should! The aesthetic is full of potential! Snake goddesses!”

“Great! Let’s see. How will we get a puppet show going? Do the puppet lab at St. Ann’s Warehouse again?”

“You could. But really you’d need a really skilled puppet maker.  You’re just the writer/story/director girl. And applications went in months ago. Also, they’ve never taken anyone on story alone. And last time you did it, your project went pretty pear shaped. You want to go through that again?”

“Alright, alright. We’ll save that for later. Let it percolate a little bit.”

“How about your Messenger show about messengers? Can we do that one?”

“Sure. That shouldn’t be too hard. Just put it together – and then . . .uh. . .well, maybe a reading somewhere?”

“Somewhere not too expensive? Because no one’s going to fund you doing R & D for a show like that. You know that, right?”

“Alright, alright. Let’s think about this backwards then – Where IS there some funding and what could we do that fits into those models?”

“There’s the LMCC Creative Communities grant that you got a couple of years ago.”

“Sure – but the only thing that even vaguely fits that criteria is the project you applied with last year and that was roundly rejected by pretty much every funding body. You could TRY to apply again but you don’t have the resources to even bullshit your way to showing additional support that. That ship has pretty much sailed.”

And so it went.
None of it was particularly negative. I generally don’t really have voices telling me I’m shit and that I’ll never amount to anything. So many books on creativity are about how to deal with those hypercritical voices and those are valuable. But in my case, the voices aren’t so much critical as they are experienced and practical, which, if you’re going to make something, is all very necessary. When I began years ago, I had no idea what I was up against so I could push through the practical challenges on pure positivity and the inspirational high. I no longer have the beautiful freedom of innocence so my creative well can sometimes be hard to draw from.

What traveling can do is replenish the Creative Well – even if none of my ideas are actually possible or practical. The sheer act of having them, or dreaming them, is like priming the pump. I throw some water down there and when I go to my creative pump – the one that will give me some of that practical water – there will be something there.

Through a workshop with Improbable Theatre Company, I learned about something called The Disney Strategy. It’s apparently a system that Walt Disney used with his staff. You have three areas – The Dreamer, The Critic and The Realist and you go and hang out in each place and let yourself go there. You start in the Dreamer corner and let yourself dream. In the Realist corner, you deal with reality for a while. Then you move to the Critic’s corner and let fly with all the reasons it’s a terrible idea.

Getting away was like sitting in that dream corner for a while, letting ideas flow unencumbered by any practical concerns. I need the impractical dreams to keep me in the habit of dreaming. I need to sit in a stream of unproduce-able ideas to be able to pull out the occasional achievable one. It makes me think about the way that you can train yourself to remember your actual dreams – the ones you have at night and lose upon waking. If you write them down, you convince your brain that they are important to you. The idea being that your brain learns to remember them because it is in the habit of remembering them.  So if you acknowledge those ideas as they float past you, the odds of catching an achievable one are a lot better. You can then take one back to the practical corner and fold it into something that fits into the world you live in.

I could feel myself trying very hard to make it okay that the world I live in is so hard to make anything in. My ambitions are large and my resources small and in recent years, I have attempted to make things smaller, so as to not to experience too much despair. But I missed the thrill of dreaming big. Dreaming big feels good. It feels like a returning to myself. So I am very grateful to see that I still have the ability to sit in the dreaming corner, dreaming big dreams.

I just had to work out how to sit in the practical corner without feeling as though I’ve been made to sit in the CORNER, nose to the wall, like little Jack Horner or something. That is the dilemma.

And now, many months after I returned from the land of dreaming, I am diving back into a practical process, made possible by an unpredictable series of events, the sort I couldn’t have planned for when I first began sitting in the realist corner. It makes me especially glad I had the opportunity to prime my creative pump with a journey away. The dreaming may have planted a seed I couldn’t even see.

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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



Feedback Loop
October 4, 2015, 9:28 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

When I first started making my own work, I got an extraordinary amount of very positive feedback. While a lot of it was from the audience, the most consistent voices of support were those involved in the production. Based on their enthusiasm, I thought I must have been a genius – at writing, at directing, at producing.

It occurs to me now, though, that I was doing shows with theatre people and I now understand that theatre people tend to think everything that they’re currently working on is genius. I fear now that I ended up on this path because I believed all those theatre folk when they told me I was brilliant.

I started to think about this recently while accidentally witnessing a production meeting in a coffee shop. The creative team was young and very enthusiastic about the piece at hand. Many of them were genuine in their excitement but the lighting designer, it seemed to me, was just playing the game. He understood that he was expected to blow some smoke and so he did but he was struggling. I could feel him grasping for the words and tone to fit into the love-fest happening at the table. I suspected that most people in the group were fully convinced that this project would be the one to give them all their big breaks, while the lighting designer was there to do the job. It felt like he knew what he was doing and he also knew that the show under discussion was no better or worse than anything else he’d done. He was likely the most experienced artist at the table. I sympathized with his struggle.

A lot of us indulge in that “This shows is going to change everything!” idea – especially at the beginning of a career. And we all encourage each other in this delusion. It really can help buoy up a project. The endless feedback loop of people calling one another geniuses can be the fuel that gets a show off the ground. But it can be very painful when you’re the person in the group who knows that this piece is probably not going to be anyone’s big break. The odds are good that the show will close with not much notice and probably no one in that group is a genius. Most of us aren’t really geniuses and I wonder what we lose in imagining or pretending that we are.

On the other hand, I’m very grateful to each and every one of the people who thought (or even just said) I was brilliant. It was very nice. It felt good. That encouragement kept me going. And maybe what this post is really about is my need to have some of those people around again. It’s been a long time since someone called me brilliant and maybe that is what I need. Even if it’s just smoke. Maybe.

I just started reading The Rise by Sarah Lewis and she opens with a discussion on Mastery. She explores the idea that Mastery is the continued work on improving a thing, regardless of outside influence or possibility. Archers, for example, continue to work on their aim, despite the lack of outside adulation or approval. (There aren’t a lot of lucrative Archery contracts, you see. And can you name a famous Archer?) So, I’m interested in a theatre that is more interested in Mastery than approval. And while I like to be called brilliant as much as the next theatre person, I don’t want to depend on that “brilliant” feedback loop anymore. I want to get my aim exactly right for my own mastery and my own satisfaction. THAT will be brilliant.

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