Songs for the Struggling Artist


“So Others May Dream”
May 29, 2016, 11:53 pm
Filed under: art, dreams | Tags: , , , ,

My grandfather retired from the Army several years before I was born so I’d never had much of a sense of his military life. There were souvenirs and stories about it but I had very little connection to it, or interest, frankly. I grew up in the Peace Movement – going to demonstrations and hanging out at the Peace Center so the military seemed very far away from my life. Since my grandfather’s death, however, I’ve had more contact with the military than I did in all the years before and it’s given me a new appreciation for what the military does and can do.

My grandfather’s military burial at Arlington National Cemetery, for example, was one of the most compelling pieces of theatre this (lifelong) theatre maker has seen. My theatre brain has been turning over the question of how to make something that powerful and packed with meaning ever since.

My mother donated my grandfather’s ring to West Point so we were invited to the West Point Ring Melt Ceremony. We gathered at a refinery to see the donated West Point class rings melted down to become part of the class rings of the 2017 graduates. The symbolism is incredibly effective. The graduates of West Point are called The Long Gray Line and the continuity between generations was remarkable and moving to see.

At the dinner before the ceremony, I discovered that each class had a motto – a phrase that was particularly meaningful for them. I heard many mottos about honor and duty and service – all of which sounded like what I imagined the military to be. The class of 2017 – the ones who were to receive the donated rings – chose the motto, “So Others May Dream.” I found myself incredibly moved by it. I was moved in a way that took me by surprise. I think it helped me understand what all that talk about “service” in the military is all about. I have understood that I am meant to thank people for their service and that they have fought for my freedoms and so on. But it was all very abstract for me.

“So Others May Dream” touched me because I am a dreamer. My artistic practice demands that I have time and space for dreaming. This idea of serving to make space for others’ dreams made me feel what The Service really wants to be about. Or at least the class of 2017’s idea of The Service. I wondered if it was not a coincidence that the West Point magazine recently had an Arts issue and highlighted that famous Churchill response to the idea of cutting arts and culture. He reportedly said, “Then what are we fighting for?” In a world where arts can be made to feel expendable, it touches me that these cadets will fight for my right to make art and for my right to dream.

I’m not convinced that every inch of the military is this altruistic. None of the complicated messes of the Military Industrial Complex go away with this new perspective I have. But Dreaming goes a step beyond Serving which warms the cockles of this artistic heart. It also somehow gives me hope for a more compassionate military in the future – with these young leaders at the head of it, I have a little glimmer of hope. I have a much keener sense of what it means to serve and to sacrifice, having seen bits of the military in action and I’m proud now to know more about my Grandfather’s lineage in these traditions.

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“Thank you for Your Smile”
May 16, 2016, 12:09 am
Filed under: dreams, education | Tags: , , , , ,

At the bakery, the clerk said, “Thank you for your smile. It’s refreshing.” And I thanked him for his because his was, too.

In my teens and 20s, I was thanked for my smile very often and just as often derided for it. As in, “What do you have to smile about?”

I hadn’t been smiling quite so much in the last ten years. I’m a smiler generally but I think the wattage of those smiles had been quite seriously diminished by the last decade. Having a full on smile exchange at the bakery made me realize how different those smiles had become. I had not been thanked for a smile in some time.

Something shifted back into place recently, something that allowed me to smile the way I used to – with all the shine behind it. I suspect that the catalyst for this was (weirdly) my college reunion.

In college, I was a pretty sunny kid. I strained against my super hip uber cool campus because I wanted to be around other sunny people and have some fun. Fun wasn’t really on the menu much where I went to school but I found ways to make fun and I was pretty confident that I could do anything I put my mind to, especially if I smiled while I did it.

But life can kick a person around. Particularly a person who chooses to go into the arts. Maybe especially if one goes into the arts in NYC. But it wasn’t NYC that kicked the smiling out of me. It was graduate school in Sunny California. Graduate school displaced my worldview, maimed my inner optimist and generally left me sadder and (maybe?) wiser. I was on fire in my undergrad years. Even when I was unhappy and struggling, I burned with optimism and ambition. Graduate school was like a big bucket of cold water.

I suspect that by returning to the place where I once felt unstoppable, I re-ignited my inner fire, which allowed me to smile again, which made everything better. The way that guy’s smile made me feel better, and the way my smile made his day better. It’s like I got some magic back – like I remembered what it felt like to burn bright.

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American Theatre’s Indecent Proposals

You guys. In my previous post, I really wasn’t mad about this translation thing. I had stuff to say about it, sure, but I had no angry feelings about it. Translations are nothing I hadn’t really dealt with before. But then I read the American Theatre magazine article about the project. And now I AM mad, y’all. Not about the “translations” – I give no real shits about them. But I’m mad because I just finally understand a) how this translation project came to be and b) why we’re talking about it.

The American Theatre magazine article talked about the origins of the project, among other things. It revealed that this project is the result of a “dream” of a long-time patron of the OSF. In other words, a wealthy man who has spent years giving money to one of the biggest Shakespeare institutions in America had a whim and the festival leapt to accommodate it. In other words, this is a story about the power of money.

If you or I said, “You know what I’d like? Some Shakespeare translations…” – OSF would have sent us straight to the bookstore for a copy of No Fear Shakespeare and that would be the end of it. But this guy wants translations. He’s paying for them. He gets what he wants. Which would be one thing if he were doing it himself. That is, if he found the writers on his own and commissioned them and put out the press releases himself, it would be different. But we wouldn’t be talking about it in that scenario. Headlines in our major publications would not read “App Developer Commissions 36 Writers.” He could have spent all that money on cars and it would likely have the same effect on American Theatre.

What we have here is a complex and potent mix of the respectability of OSF and the power of one wealthy patron. Because this guy is paying OSF to do it, he gets his dream AND the stamp of approval of the Shakespeare Festival with the biggest footprint in the country. And it ripples across the nation, changing the landscape as it goes.

I think part of the reason people are concerned about this particular shift in the landscape is because it seems out of line with OSF’s mission. And not just like an organization that funds cancer research suddenly funding a symphony but more like a cancer foundation suddenly funding cigarettes. And because it’s an important cancer foundation, suddenly people start to think, maybe cigarettes CAN help with cancer. It creates cognitive dissonance. The largest Shakespeare Festival in the country starts doing something, everyone starts to feel like they should be doing it too.

And that’s where things get really sketchy. Because, as I’m discovering, these plays are not just hanging out in Oregon – no, no, Shakespeare Festivals all around the country are reportedly signing up to get on board this money train. I don’t think the impact will be big or long lasting but for a little while here – the American Theatre is going to have to deal with one guy’s “Dream.” This means one theatre company’s desire to please a patron radiates to stages everywhere.

This gets under my skin because this is how so much crap gets done in this country. We’re not getting these new “translations” because people asked for them. (Good lord, if we’re getting translations we’re asking for, I would LOVE to get my hands on some actual good translations in other languages. Would someone publish affordable, readable Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, French or Russian translations? Please?) We have “translations” because one guy with a lot of money wanted them. If you’re a big donor to a major arts institution you can pretty much have what you want. Which – again – would be fine if we were talking about straight up patronage – from patron to artist. But non-profits are supposedly for the benefit of the public. They’re meant to be for us, the people, and instead, this example shows, they are really for the donors.

Whose dream are we going to produce next? The guy who loves Beckett but wishes he were just a little more optimistic? The mogul who thinks Arthur Miller is great but would really be so much better if he were boiled down to a Power Point Presentation of meaningful moments? I don’t know, man. Maybe I’d be singing a different tune if someone offered me a ton of cash to fulfill his fantasy. It’s possible I would. I’m pretty sure I’d “translate” a play myself for the right price. But, I saw that movie Indecent Proposal and I don’t think I’d like where it would lead me.

This is what we get with a capitalist model of art. We get what someone else pays for. This guy pays for American Theatre for a while, as a whole – he gets to have it and it doesn’t matter what we want. No one asked for this. It was just one guy’s “dream.”

If we had public funding for the arts, then we would have more of a voice about what was actually meaningful to us. In places where the people pay for the arts through taxes, there is real ownership. You can say, “This is our building. This is our theatre. We paid for it. We want a voice in what gets done there.” People advocating for gender parity and diversity in the UK have made much good progress using exactly this tactic. Until we have publicly funded art, though, the people that do pay for it are really the only ones deciding what happens on our stages. That’s why the majority of American plays produced are about wealthy couples on the Upper East Side of New York City. Because guess who’s paying for most of the play development programs and new productions?

OSF isn’t doing anything other theatres aren’t. Non Profit Regional theatres all over the country are producing shows because Broadway producers are paying them to put their shows up on their stages. An investment banker who funds lots of Musical Theatre at the Public Theatre, gets to have his musical produced there.

We don’t see diversity on our stages because it’s not what the current donors want. We could increase theatre’s diversity in a heartbeat with a series of large donations. I see now we’ve been going about our activism in entirely the wrong way. We don’t need diversity committees and speeches at theatre conferences. We just need dollar bills. With enough money you can clearly have anything you want at any American Theatre.

Anyway. I’m not mad about the translations. I predict no significant impact on my life. But I am mad to have more evidence for how vulnerable American theatre is to the worst sides of capitalism. This is how we do it. But I don’t have to like it.

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How to Get Inspired
September 17, 2015, 10:34 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, dreams, music, theatre, writing | Tags: , , ,

It may seem like artists just walk through the world waiting for inspiration to hit us – like it’s something that just comes upon you, like a lightning strike out of nowhere. And while this sort of thing CAN happen, it is pretty rare. If you want to get struck by lightning, it makes sense to search out the appropriate conditions and locations. It makes sense to go where it’s raining, for example – and to stand where lightning might be more likely to strike.

I started to think about inspiration while on a trip to Greece. I didn’t go expecting to be particularly inspired. I knew I’d be stimulated and edified and that the experience would enrich and enliven my work in lots of ways but inspiration was pretty much off the table.

And perhaps here would be a good place to pause and talk about what inspiration feels like to me – what I think of as real inspiration. For me, it is a rush of feeling. The closest comparison I have is the feeling of being in love. There’s a tremendous receptivity, an open-ness, a widening of the field – as if I were normally looking at the world through a keyhole and with inspiration, I suddenly see things in 360. Ideas rush in – some of them fully formed, some just little seeds – and I feel like I vibrate at a different frequency for a while. The feeling of this state is so powerful, an idea born from it will often sustain me for years afterward.

It’s different than just having an idea. I have those all the time. Inspiration is being lit up by ideas. If an idea is a lightbulb, inspiration is 25 strings of them.

So it was that a few days into my trip to Greece that the lightning struck and turned on all those bulbs in me. The ideas rushed in – there wasn’t time to write them all down – and it felt marvelous to be in the throes of receiving such gifts from what I was experiencing.

It had been so long since I’d felt this way, I had forgotten what it felt like – forgotten that it was possible. And I wondered about the conditions that created it. I wondered how I could court that muse, so to speak.

First, I couldn’t expect the muse to arrive. She has to show up when she wants, how she wants.

Second, I went to a place that held some power for me. My work has always been influenced by Greek mythology so there was a probable potency to Greece for me that might not have been present elsewhere. Even in Greece, there were cities and places that were beautiful and thrilling and engaging and edifying but that did not pull the trigger on the inspiration gun nor sustain it.
I have had similar experiences in other places that held power for me. Certain locations in London, for example – or Italy.

Third, I had several quiet moments with which to just soak in what I was seeing. Long car rides through beautiful scenery, for example, or writing by the water. It would have been hard for the muse to show her face if I’d been on a crowded tour bus cramming in the sites.

Fourth, and this is probably obvious but – Novelty is powerful. Just going somewhere new and foreign is a key ingredient.

It was an extraordinary privilege to get to go to a place that could give me this kind of inspiration. And in thinking about it, I realize that there are ways to court inspiration in more economically possible ways than traveling halfway around the world. I was struck with a small scale inspiration wave when I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. for example.

But even in this small scale example – I didn’t go to that museum cold. I knew there was some work by my favorite painter there (I’d discovered her there!) and I went to pay homage. When I saw a painting I’d never seen before however, quite a few strands of light went on and the play that came from it is now finished and ready for a reading. I didn’t go there to get inspired. I just went to see my favorite painter’s work. I didn’t go to Greece to get inspired. I just went to see the site and culture that has given me so much material in the past. And I think this is how you catch the muse. You come at it sideways, armed with a little bit of love for something and when inspiration comes, it pries you open to love even more.

Inspiration hadn't kicked in yet when my mom took this photo. . .but space was clearing for it.

Inspiration hadn’t kicked in yet when my mom took this photo. . .but space was clearing for it.

 

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Brave and Practical

At a friend’s suggestion, I started watching Jane the Virgin. I enjoyed the show a lot (refreshingly frank discussions about things like abortion, bold aesthetics, a complex intergenerational Latina family of women and some stellar performances) but I found myself questioning one of the show’s recurring themes.

One character asks the lead what she wants to do with her life. She reports that she wants to be a teacher if she’s being practical and a writer if she’s being brave. The show returns to this multiple times.

This Practical/Brave thing is set up as a very clear dichotomy and also has a distinct point of view. We all know it’s better to be brave in the cultural mythos. This is a classic American narrative that is sure that it’s better to be brave than practical. It’s always best to follow your dreams in movies and TV.

And I relate to it. Especially as a person who has followed her dreams, consistently, over and over. I think I watched this variety of story and deeply internalized it. I learned very early on that if I want to be the heroine of the story, I would have to follow my dreams.

And it occurs to me now that the people who write these narratives are, for the most part, people who followed their dreams and had great success with them. Their particular bravery paid off and the Be Brave narrative is personal for them. It also led to them being able to send their kids to college.

This is not true for everyone. And the Brave vs. Practical is a false dichotomy. Most of us have to be brave AND practical at some point. Most writers I know are also teachers. Even super successful ones. It’s not that easy, I know, to be practical and brave. Lord knows, I lean on Brave far too much and don’t give the Practical nearly the space that it requires/deserves.

As a struggling artist, I need stories that helps me choose the practical thing sometimes. I know so many stories about following the rainbow and I don’t need any more encouragement to chase it. I can’t STOP doing that. What I need is some powerful recurring stories to say – “Hey kid – you know you can be practical AND brave.”

Jane-the-Virgin-lead

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Thinking about JK Rowling and also Marge Piercy, with special appearances by Aisha Tyler and Marc Maron

I’ve been thinking a lot about JK Rowling. And not just because I’m broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing a children’s novel – oh, wait, maybe it IS because I’m broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing a children’s novel – but in any case, I’m thinking of her and how she began.

When she was broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing Harry Potter, no one would have predicted that she’d be a gajillionaire years later. No one. And while she was broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing, I’m sure all around her, people shook their heads and wondered when she was going to get her act together. Now, in retrospect, JK Rowling’s poverty is a funny origin story but I’m sure, at the time, it was as difficult as anyone’s poverty can be.

JK Rowling has made me think about all the other broke people who wrote in coffee shops and didn’t end up with mega-book & movie deals. Her story has made me think about how all of them, those with deals and those without, were all just driven to do it, results or not.

And that is the beautiful thing and the horrible thing about those of us who just can’t help ourselves.

In an episode of the Girl On Guy podcast, Aisha Tyler and Marc Maron were talking about drive and failure. Tyler talked about how much mediocre work artists have to make before creating a great thing. For example, a furniture maker has to make nine mediocre chairs before the tenth one can be great. It’s a way to explain and get through those difficult failing times. And Maron took some umbrage. He told stories about failing and how awful it felt and then said this: “If you’re not driven by something you can’t even understand that’s within you, good luck with creativity.” (It happens at 1:08:15 in the podcast, in case you want to listen. It sounds better than it reads.)

I found myself refreshed by this point of view. There is a sense of liberation from releasing myself from trying to imagine some bright light at the end of this tunnel. No, there might not be a reward. If experience tells me anything it’s that there probably won’t be. It makes me think of Marge Piercy’s poem “For the Young Who Want To.”

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Read the rest of it here: Marge Piercy’s For the Young Who Want To

The last line is:

Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

I’ve had this poem pasted on my guitar case ever since I was a baby artist but I understand it differently now than I did when I mod-podged it there decades ago. It actually means more now than it did then. I think it is because I actually live it now.  When I first encountered the poem, I was one of the ones who wanted to. Now I am the one whose “hobby” gets more tedious to others the older I get. Embracing this thing in me that makes me make things, in the face of impossible odds, that causes people to worry about me, that is not socially acceptable (except in retrospect with a success story) feels like the next phase of the journey. I am not the Young one who wants to. I am the one who does.

For the post part, I’m not into the stereotype of the damaged artist. Usually, I steer myself clear of the suffering artist trope but maybe seeing that thing inside me that I don’t understand as a thing that won’t quit, seeing it as a fierce little demon, could actually give me some strength when all around me the world seems to be clucking its tongue and waiting for me to get it together.

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Ashes and Light
September 11, 2014, 4:32 pm
Filed under: art, dreams, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

It is the 11th of September, 2014. Thirteen years ago, the smoke blew over Brooklyn, where I was nestled, safe from harm. This is an anniversary for so many awful things but for me, it is also a reminder of something powerfully great and the two are inextricably linked in my mind.

That morning, even before all the damage was done, my friend Shannon called to make sure I was okay. (I was. And still in my pajamas. And remarkably, she got through to me via the phone when so few could.) Shannon and I had been talking for months about working together on a play. We’d bandied the idea back and forth and Shannon, who was living in California, had been toying with the idea of moving to NYC to do it. When she called that morning, I thought, “Well, that will be the end of that! She’s not going to move to New York now, not now that the city is under attack, not now when rubble is falling and smoke is permeating the air!”

In fact, it was quite the opposite. The horror of the situation seemed to galvanize her and she said, “That’s it. I’m coming. We’re going to do this.”

For me, that was the real birth of our theatre company. It was that moment when the world was falling apart, when destruction seemed to be raining down on us – and we decided to make something.

It felt then, and still feels, like the only response to destruction is creation. And while that first show we made had nothing to do with 9-11 or politics or even destruction – it was, in a sense, a response to all of that. It was, for us, an assertion of the power of creativity in the face of death.

I find myself newly moved today, when I think about Shannon’s fierce choice to come here and make something with me. It got me thinking about how our little company, that was born in a difficult moment, has survived throughout all the subsequent difficulties.

If feels like this theatre was born out of ashes and it helps to remember that when it seems too hard to go on, when it’s so challenging to keep making things with so few resources and so little encouragement. Today, I’m reminded that we were compelled to make a bright thing in a dark time. And as we go on, I feel like the darker the moment, the lighter we are compelled to shine, even when the odds are against us.

Today, I’m remembering both things, the ashes and the light and I will carry both of them forward to the next marker in time.

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