Songs for the Struggling Artist


No Right to Be Disappointed in Me
June 2, 2022, 11:15 pm
Filed under: Acting, art, Art Scenes, dreams, education | Tags: , , , ,

An artist friend told me about a dream they had in which one of their artistic teachers asked what they’d been up to in such a way that suggested great disappointment in this artist’s achievements. The artist was stunned and speechless. For a lot of artists, this is a highly relatable dream. Many of us had teachers or colleagues that felt we had a lot of potential in our youth and while most of them don’t come right out and say, “What happened?,” we can feel their disappointment. They thought we were going to make it and we didn’t. How disappointing for them!

I can tolerate this sort of thinking from bystanders. For all the people in my high school classes who told me to thank them in my Oscar speech, I do not carry your expectations heavily. I never thought I’d get an Oscar. I am not sorry I don’t have an Oscar and I’m not worried about my old classmates’ possible disappointment that they never saw me make an Oscar speech. My teachers, though – those responses have always carried more weight. They wanted me to succeed. I wanted to make them proud. It’s a bummer to feel I’ve disappointed anyone.

But the thing – when I look at this from the outside – at other artists’ feelings of disappointing their mentors, I just get angry at those mentors. Do you know how people succeed in the arts? (I mean, aside from being born to celebrities.) They succeed because someone helped them. No one, not even the children of famous people, gets anywhere without help from someone further up the ladder. Success in the Arts is not the wizardry it seems to be. It’s not like a young artist has some kind of magic that will lead them to make it. There is no enchanted sparkle teachers can spot or not spot. A teacher cannot wish a young artist out of obscurity. You can’t just hope your student will make it. If you’re invested in them, you have to actively help them. That’s how they do at Yale and Juilliard and that’s how those places maintain their hold on the American Theatre. Teachers introduce their students to people who can help them. They give them opportunities. I’ve been a teacher. I’ve done this to the best of my meager ability for the students I really believed in. There weren’t a lot of those – but the others, I have no right to be disappointed about. If I didn’t try to help, I get no say.

I had some amazing teachers. Some of them really continued to show up for me long after most people would have given up. They did what they could but when you don’t have a lot of power in a field, there’s not much to do. But if you DO have power in a field and you don’t try and help the students you were invested in? You lose your right to disappointment. It’s hard out there and you know it. If you gave someone an opportunity and they tanked it, okay – you can be disappointed, that’s fair. But you can’t be disappointed in your student for failing to get lucky.

We all hope the magic star will hover over the heads of people we believe in but magic stars are rare. They’re so rare they don’t even exist. People who end up with success end up with those successes because someone helped them. If you’re a teacher, you can be one of those people. Go ahead and help an artist out. You can feel proud of both the artist and yourself! If you’re not one of those people, you better rein your disappointment in, that’s not fair.

Oh wow. Look at that! That tree is going to be the next big thing. I hope it has its Oscar speech ready as it is clearly marked for greatness!

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Circles of Gen X Friends

Someone in the Gen X subreddit proposed a “dating” app for making Gen X friends. I expressed my enthusiasm for it, saying it appealed to me because most of my Gen X friends have moved out of NYC. Someone replied that they still had a lot of Gen X friends in NYC and I did not respond to that person with a hearty sarcastic, “Well good for you! Aren’t you a lucky one?” Though I wanted to.

I did not say, “I guess most of your friends didn’t move to NYC to chase their theatre dreams or their art dreams or their music dreams or their poetry dreams or their film dreams or their dance dreams and I guess everything worked out for your people, huh?”

Now I don’t mean to imply that stuff didn’t work out for my friends. They moved here to follow their dreams and then they followed them to other places. They run theatres in their hometowns or their adopted cities. They have poetry programs and dance companies around the world. They make movies in their native mountains. They make paintings and sculptures of their new neighborhoods. They bring their big city dream-following perspective to young people in far flung spots. It’s working out for them.

But the fact of those folks leaving does mean that any community that formed when we all moved here has been scattered and lost. I imagine that this happens to every generation at some point. Everyone moves to NYC like they’re going to be here forever and then they leave after a handful of years. I guess that’s the norm. Contrarian that I am, I moved here like I was only going to stay a year and here I still am, over two decades later. I miss the leavers and need to find (or reconnect to) more stayers.

That’s why a Gen X “dating” app for friends sounded really good to me. That’s why (prior to the pandemic) I wanted to be invited to your party. That’s why I joined multiple book clubs. That’s why I joined a knitting/crochet group, even though I am VERY BAD at crochet. I will tell you – in every single instance of attempting to make friends in this city – I was always the lone Gen X-er. Every single time. So, sure, this random person on Reddit may still know a lot of Gen X-ers who live here but they probably travel in much different circles than I do. Maybe they’re high-powered lawyers or over-committed doctors. Maybe they belong to the Yale Club or Soho House and hang out drinking martinis with fancy people. That’s nice. Sounds like fun. I used to hang out at Dojo where you could get a whole carrot-ginger dressing-covered dinner for less than $5.  It’s harder to find Gen X-ers here, in general, and even more challenging to find some who would have felt at home on the St. Mark’s Place of yore.

It’s not like I don’t have any Gen X friends here. I still have quite a few. It’s just that I used to have a community of Gen X friends, or rather, communities. Two decades ago, I had circles of friends. I had theatre friends, music friends, circus friends, education friends, college friends, Shakespeare friends, random friends, friends from my home state. There were circles that intersected and some that never would. I have lone friends now. The communities have gone off to more hospitable climates but one lone friend usually remains. Often, I am that lone friend.

Also, the friends I still have here are New Yorkers and therefore usually impossibly busy. Most of them are also parents so they don’t have acres of time for galavanting around NYC with the childfree likes of me. It’s not that no Gen X-ers are here. It’s just that they are busy and the social nets of our communities have vanished and so we stand a vanishing chance of just happening to be in the same places together at the same time.

So maybe I don’t need a Gen X friend app. I need a Gen X circle creating app. It’s not that all the dream followers have followed their dreams elsewhere – some of us are still here – it’s that the communities that formed around those dreams have dissipated and there’s no good way for those of us whose circles have vanished to build new circles.

Frankly, I think it’s a problem that this city spits out as many artists and dream chasers as it does. It may be good for the places it spits people back into, but it is terrible for the artistic life of this city.

We lost artists from multiple generations this last year and a half. The city failed to support most of them in their darkest hours and now we’ve lost them, probably forever.

Most Gen X artists already left when they were in their 30s and now most Millennials are in their 30s (the eldest ones are turning 40 this year) and what with the abysmal way this city supported its artists recently and the inevitable waves of NYC spitting out its dream followers, I think there’s bound to be an exodus in the next decade. Maybe I’ll be in it, who knows? (Unlikely, where would I go?)

Will Gen Z artists and dream-followers even bother coming here? If they do, I hope this circle dispersal doesn’t happen to them, too. I read recently that we know a city is dying when young people stop moving there to chase their dreams. I’m not loving the prognosis for NYC that way right now. Maybe let’s get that circle app going, pronto.

****

In case you’re new here, I wrote a whole series about Gen X a few years ago. It starts here and expands in many thematic directions. Or you could search the whole range of Gen X writing here.

Just a circle of Gen X childfree friends galavanting around the city like we used to. We’re going to go get a soy burger at Dojo after.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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A Performance Once a Week

It started when A texted me to tell me about the National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre that was available on the internet for the week. “LOL,” I said, “I’m in the middle of watching it RIGHT NOW.” And we had a fun little text exchange about our favorite moments in the show. We decided to watch the next one “together” via text and before we knew it, we had a tradition of watching some kind of performance once a week. It has been one of the few things I’ve found genuinely sustaining in these Covid times.

We’ve been pretty omnivorous in our viewing and I feel as though I’ve actually had a bit of a survey course in the Performing Arts of the current moment. Or, really, it’s a course in the moment from the moment before this moment because most of these works were recorded in the before times. Sometimes I weep just seeing an audience.  

The survey is, of course, limited by the kind of companies that can afford to have their work well presented on video and then can afford the bandwidth to share them. The survey leans heavily on European dance and theatre partly because of that. And of course on our taste.

A small sampling of our list:

Works by Crystal Pite, Christian Spuck, Akram Kahn, StopGap Dance, Spymonkey, Wooster Group, National Theatre, Told by an Idiot, Nederlands Dans Theater, Le Patin Libre, Monica Bill Barnes, Graeae Theatre

Shows like: Emilia, Akhnaten, Titon et L’aurore, The Plastic Bag Store, Richard II (twice! two different productions), What the Constitution Means to Me, Latin History for Morons, Theatre of Blood, Revisor, Death of a Salesman, Oedipussy, Birth-Day, Giselle, Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival and Reasons to be Cheerful.  

I wanted to write about this because I’m really hoping I can continue this kind of omnivorous performing arts watching once the pandemic is over.

I mean, part of the reason I have not seen these works before is that they are so expensive. I know they’re worth the money when you’re dying to see them. Like, you know you love their work and you’ll spend $100 a ticket to go see them. But you have to usually, if money isn’t abundant, be judicious about what you see and you won’t take risks when tickets are a hundred dollars. In this digital world, with the barrier so low to entry – that is, mostly free with the very occasional ticket price under $15 – I’ll see anything. And at home, I’m not even stuck wasting the evening if something sucks. One night, A and I watched about ten minutes each of a random assortment of dances, puppet shows and plays because none of them were great. You can’t just watch 10 minutes of something in a theatre. Sometimes it’s not just the ticket price you’re out, it’s the whole night. But digital performance allows for big risk taking and big risks sometimes mean big rewards. It’s actually quite remarkable that I have become a fan of so many performers, choreographers and theatre makers this past year that I never even heard of before, in a moment where there are few performances happening.

None of us know what’s going to happen for the performing arts when this is all over but I hope for two things in particular. One – that digital performance will continue to be available. It may seem counter productive; Why would people pay to come to a show when they can watch it at home for free? But, I think there has been quite a bit of evidence that digital performances actually encourage ticket sales for live shows. My own experience is that I would, for sure, pay money to see QUITE a FEW shows I watched on-line, in person. Those are tickets I probably wouldn’t have thought would be worth it before. Now I’d be begging for them to take my money so I could sit in the actual room with those shows. When it’s safe, of course. (And when it is, I’m going to need an NYC presenter to pick up the slack and book Crystal Pite and Kidd Pivot as soon as possible. Please and Thank You.)

The second thing I hope for is that we can somehow lower the ticket prices for EVERYTHING. I would like to continue to see a show a week when this is over but I would like to see these shows in person, and I would like to be as omnivorous as we’ve been able to be on-line. That’s something I want for everyone. An omnivorous audience is an interesting audience. It’s an audience that cross pollinates and makes an exciting impact on artists.

Affordable arts make for accessible arts and this horrible pandemic time has opened my artistic mind to all sorts of work I never had access to before. It is a real gift to be able to go around the world through performance. I am lucky enough to live in a city where much of that sort of work comes to tour but I rarely have gotten to see the kinds of variety that I have seen over the last year. I would like to see these things in person, once a week, for an actually affordable price, please. I know that no venue, presenter or producing organization can afford to cut ticket prices at the moment but I am dreaming of a reshuffling of everything, where theatre, dance, puppetry, opera and beyond are as affordable as the digital world. Or maybe a Netflix for performance, where I pay a monthly fee and get to see whatever I want? Some new way of doing things would be glorious because I have seen extraordinary new works this year and I want to keep doing it. Hopefully performances will come back and A and I can see a show once a week in real life, no text messages required.

This performance was not on-line but if it were I would watch it.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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Brilliant Theatre and the Pit

If you don’t work in the arts, it might be hard to understand why a really brilliant piece of work might make someone more depressed than a bad one. Sometimes, I find it baffling, as well. I mean, bad theatre can be instructive and liberating, if also infuriating, when you realize that it is not the quality of something that brings all the funders to the yard. And good theatre usually checks a box for me. I see something that was good and I say to myself, “That was good. What excellent work everyone did. I might steal that bit they did with the plates one day.” But a brilliant theatre piece has the power to move me, to make me weep and/or laugh and then, not long after it’s over, drop me in the pit of despair. This is particularly likely to happen when the brilliant piece in question is close to my interests or skillset or aesthetic. The more it feels like something I might have made if I had the resources, the more likely I am to end up in a deep hole that I have to write things like this to dig my way out of.

This doesn’t happen very often. There are not a lot of shows that have the proximity to my aesthetic to trigger a trip to the pit but lately, due to the on-line access to work I’d not have otherwise seen, there have been a few. The most recent one was Emilia. It was available to watch on-line and I leaped at the chance to finally see a show I’d heard a lot about. And it was all that the hype suggested. It was expertly crafted, written, staged, performed, designed – all of it. It was created by a team of extraordinary women and flawlessly executed by a cast of women. It was a feminist theatre maker’s dream come true.

As a feminist Shakespearean, I have been waiting for this show all of my life. It’s so aligned with my values and aesthetics, I could have written it. And that, my friends, is where the pit starts to slide open. Because I have written in this weird feminist classical theatre lane my whole writing life. Like, my WHOLE WRITING LIFE. I started writing my first play while working for a Shakespeare festival and it was inspired by one of the plays I was performing in. This is my lane. I veer out of it occasionally but I started as a classical actor and it is always in there somewhere.

I don’t want to diminish what the writer of Emilia has done by saying I could have done it but I have come somewhat close and given the chance, I think I could have made something quite similar in spirit, energy and focus. But I wasn’t given the chance and I could not have conceived even anything near it on my own. And this writer didn’t have to create this piece on her own. She was commissioned by The Globe. She was given a team and a production. Circumstances placed her in their awareness and moved them to select her for this idea about the poet Emilia Bassano Lanier. And they were right to select her. She did an amazing job. It is a truly glorious piece of work. There are some parts of it where I thought, “That shouldn’t work” but then it absolutely did, even when I could have given you ten reasons it shouldn’t have. It was expertly done. I say this to you from the bottom of my pit.

This morning I was listening to the podcast made by some theatre makers I have long admired. It is a series of interviews with the Artistic Directors of Cheek by Jowl and today it was a moment with Declan Donnellan that kindly reached me down at the bottom of my pit. He was talking about ways to harm an artist. The first was to “absolutely criticize and rubbish the artist’s work.” The more harmful method was “to totally ignore the artist’s work. It’s more passive aggressive and it’s more silent and deadly.” For the most part, the world has been entirely indifferent to my feminist classical theatre. Like, entirely.

Some days I feel that indifference more than most and ironically, the play Emilia is actually about that very thing. It is the story of a woman more or less forgotten by history. (Though not entirely, of course, otherwise there’d be no one’s history to imagine!) It is a story of battling to be heard, acknowledged, respected and recognized. It is a story I saw myself in in a way I have never seen before and I wept through it in really weird places because of that strange recognition.

The play’s marketing features many famous women proclaiming their identification with the title character. There are videos of them all saying, “I am Emilia.” And they are. They are, more than me, because these famous women have some name recognition. They have achieved some kind of notoriety in the public eye. Will history remember them? Only time will tell. But for now – certainly a lot more people know Caitlin Moran’s name than know mine. And I don’t want to be Caitlin Moran. I admire her work but I wouldn’t want to be anyone but myself. I am not Emilia either, grateful though I am for her story.

I am wrestling with myself, in my pit, over the joy I felt watching the show and the abject misery I feel at the unlikelihood of ever receiving the kind of opportunities that would allow me to make something like it.

The difference between watching an amazing show I wish I’d made in my 20s, and watching an amazing show now, is that in my 20s, I could imagine a future in which I could make or be a part of the inspiring thing I saw. Here in my 40s, I understand more about how things work and once again reckon with the unlikelihood of such resources becoming suddenly available for me. And in to the pit I go.

It’s not just that I’ve become more cynical over the years (though that has certainly happened) it’s that I have a pretty thorough understanding of how the theatre has worked in the past and will likely work again when we get it back. Which is why, intellectually, I know, that despite my time in the pit, this show is nothing but good news for me. I know that it opens up a space and a pattern that will make space for so many women in the future, including me. The fact that Emilia was a giant hit and had a successful popular run at a West End Theatre is very good news for any future feminist plays, for any future modern classical works. If that way becomes more open now, it is good news for a woman who has been busy writing such things for years. My brain knows that very well. But it is not just my rational optimistic brain here in the pit with me.

The less optimistic part of my brain is overwhelmed by the obstacles that stand in the way of my ever receiving such an opportunity. They are things like: the country I live in, the country I was trained in, the accidents of mentorship, the relationships that place one in the right place at the right time, the development of one’s work in a context wherein it can grow, one’s proximity to the pipeline.

There’s been a lot of talk of the pipeline ever since that panel discussion where an artistic director defended not producing women’s work because women were not in the pipeline. The pipeline sounds like it’s just a supply line that women need to find their way into but it’s so much more than a stream that leads to production. The pipeline is where you went to school and when. It is the internships you could afford to do and the debt you could afford to take on. The pipeline is who you happened to room with at summer camp.

But the pipeline is also much more subtle stuff than just who you know. It can go as for back as a childhood. I watched the TED talk of a much-admired choreographer, and he mentioned how his childhood dance teacher told him, when he was goofing around, that he was really a choreographer. And so he became one, one who was encouraged and affirmed at every stage, one who likely walked into his first rehearsal of his first piece with no question of his right to be there. If you’re not busy defending your right to do what you do at every turn, you sure can get a lot more art made. That’s when the way is paved for you, so you can travel with confidence without running into lots of bumps. That’s the real pipeline.

One of the things that feels complex about being an artist in a marginalized group of any kind is that it can be really easy to blame any lack of success on the prejudice that limits so many. It is better to blame sexism and economic prejudice than to blame myself. I can always assume it was sexism that closed the door for me. With a show like Emilia in the mix, I can celebrate that sexism does not always win – but it also complicates my narrative about why so few people care about my theatrical work.

I got an extraordinary thrill from feeling represented in Emilia but I fear that I am not Emilia like all those famous women. I’m not the character who stormed the stage to take her rightful place. I’m not the one who had her poems published, before becoming a footnote in men’s history books. Not yet anyway.

But I will try to access my twenty something self who still had hope of making brilliant things on stages like that and listen to my more optimistic brain and I will pull myself out of the pit to write another something, even if those somethings are never seen by anyone. A world with Emilia in it is more likely to have space for me in it than the world without it ever did. And, of course, if I have to, I am fully prepared to, as Emilia says to startling effect at the end of the show, “burn the whole fucking house down.”

possibly an image of Emilia Bassano Lanier

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Frustrated Artists and Tyrants

From listening to the Bunga Bunga podcast, I learned that Silvio Berlusconi started as a singer. He was reasonably successful and having a great time when, apparently, his dad shamed him, asking him if he was really going to be a singer for the rest of his life. So Silvio Berlusconi quit singing. Even though he loved it. And became a shady ass real estate developer instead. This led him to becoming a shady ass media mogul and then the shady ass prime minister of Italy. Did that go well for Italy? No, no, it did not. Would Italy have been better off if Berlusconi had just continued to do what he loved and just kept singing? I think so. I blame Berlusconi’s dad for the problems of Italy. I also blame the world that denigrates the arts and deems them not enough.

This makes me think about Hitler, of course. Hitler wanted to be a painter. He was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna, where he’d moved to pursue his dreams. He had a go of selling his work and found a few people to buy it. He was fucking serious about painting. Was he any good? No. But some people liked his stuff. They even paid for it – so hey – that’s something. But his failures in art led him to politics and the world ended up with a disaster. Do I blame the Academy of Fine Arts? Nope. No one wants to go to school with Hitler. And he was bad. So. Of course they had to reject him. But someone, somewhere might have encouraged him. I don’t know who but somebody could have kept that man painting and it would have saved millions of lives.

The stories of frustrated artists going on to do terrible things are many. And there are many frustrated artists who ruined the lives around them when they took their own. What I’m trying to say here is that I think we need to take frustrated artists seriously.

Think of all the tyrants we could have avoided if we’d just managed to be supportive of artists or even just gave them some time, space and resources to do their thing. I mean – good lord – Just give artists the space to be artists and the ones who would have turned out to be tyrants can just happily paint in their basements or sing in the clubs.

But – golly gee whiz – what if they’re no good? What if they’re a terrible singer or a lousy painter?

To that, I say, wouldn’t you rather have a gallery full of shitty paintings than the fucking holocaust? Live with the shitty art, for crying out loud!

Embracing art and artists is a great thing to do, just because art is great but it ALSO could be seen as a preventative measure. Prevent a tyrant! Support an artist! Even a shitty one! I swear everyone is so concerned with whether things are good or bad when, really bad art is entirely tolerable in a way that, say, genocide is not. And I say that as someone who, when I’m watching something terrible, acts as though I’m being quite melodramatically tortured.

I’m not trying to say that all frustrated artists are genocidal maniacs (if so, watch out for me!) but an awful lot of genocidal maniacs really wanted to be artists. They would have rather been singers and painters or authors or actors or whatever. I think a culture that encouraged these things would see a lot fewer genocidal maniacs. Support an artist! Prevent a possible global catastrophe! Buy that weirdo’s ugly paintings! You don’t have to hang them up. Go to that terrible play! Listen to that awful album! Do it for the world.

I feel like sometimes when people talk about supporting the arts, they really want to make sure they only support the really good stuff. Organizations have extensive applications to make sure they get work of which they approve. They require references or degrees or resumes to try and insure quality. If you propose running a lottery, they worry about how they will weed out the bad stuff.

But true support would mean supporting all of it – the wonderful, the good, the mediocre and the terrible. It’s like trying to save a forest by just saving a couple of the tallest trees. The forest thrives because of all of the trees, even the fallen rotting ones and to support a forest would mean supporting the widest variety of forest life. The same is absolutely true of the arts. The more supported the entire ecosystem is, the more good art we get out of it.

And if just having a robust arts culture isn’t enough of a reason for you, just think of investment in the arts as tyrant insurance. Support all the arts, even the bad, and maybe you’ll save us from the ravings of the next frustrated artists.

Again, I’m not saying artists are uniquely poised to be tyrants; Surely someone who had potent dreams in another field that were thwarted and discouraged, would be equally likely to turn sour. Anyone with their dreams dashed upon a rock might be likely to turn bad – but artists have their dreams dashed more often than most and there are few places in the world where an artist’s ambitions might be realized to their full potential. I think a world that encouraged its artists, whether they be good, bad, mediocre or genius, would be a much more interesting world. And if my theory is correct, it might also have a lot fewer tyrants in it.

Look how happy young Berlusconi was singing.
Coulda saved everyone a whole heap of trouble if he’d kept this up.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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“Believe in Yourself!”

In the bathroom at my local café, someone has written on the wall with chalk, in what I’m sure is meant to be an inspirational font: “Believe in Yourself!”

I hate this note. I know it’s meant to be uplifting but I cannot imagine that anyone could look at a note on the bathroom wall and change their belief or lack of belief in themselves. In response to this cheery message, I may have given a bathroom wall the finger. I’m not proud of it – but I think I’ve been pushed to my Believing in Myself limit.

My having reached Believe in Yourself capacity is probably coming from my time in acting where the main career strategy is to Believe in Yourself hard enough that good things will come to you with secret attractive magic. But then – ironically – if a director told an actor to believe in himself while acting in a scene – he would be at a loss. “But what do you want me to DO?” he’d ask in frustration. That’s always my question, too. But what should I actually DO?

The thing that’s dangerous about this Believe in Yourself business is that it often becomes a way to explain one’s success or lack thereof, particularly in fields where luck plays such an extreme factor. As people search for explanations for why we succeed or fail, it often tends to boil down to, “Well, he didn’t really believe in himself, did he? If he had – he’d be doing great!” Belief in self becomes this mysterious magic that can be dark or bright.

In my earlier years, I often took this sort of thing to heart. Someone would try to instill confidence in me by telling me that I just needed to believe in myself more and I believed them. I thought that the reason I hadn’t achieved whatever I was trying to achieve was because I hadn’t had enough confidence in it, that my belief in myself had been insufficient to achieve the goal. It strikes me now as insidiously destructive. The magical thinking that pervades the arts makes our success or failures hinge entirely on an unmeasurable metric of an ethereal thing when most of success is actually based on a series of systemic advantages or disadvantages. To transcend the disadvantages, one needs a champion or champions. I think we can all agree that the fabulous Billy Porter probably believes in himself. But he does not credit his self belief in the same way he pays tribute to the people who supported him. Here he is in an interview with Diep Tran for American Theatre talking about his relationship with Huntington Theatre:

Yeah, Peter DuBois and I were both working at the Public Theater under George C. Wolfe back in the early 2000s. Peter was a producer, and I had a writing/directing residency there. When he got the artistic directorship at the Huntington, he called and asked me to direct there. He believed in me. He has believed in me as a director from the very beginning. He’s one of the few who has given me the opportunity to exercise that muscle and become the best that I can be—because you can’t get better unless you have a space to practice. He’s given me a really safe theatrical home for me to expand my art and help everybody else understand what that expansion is.

I am so glad that Peter DuBois supported Billy Porter from the beginning and on through the years so that we could have him inspiring us now and only wish I’d had a Peter DuBois. I long for someone who might have provided me the same sort of support and encouragement and a safe theatrical home.

I have seen men do this for each other over and over again. It makes no difference if the mentee is as brilliant as Billy Porter or as mediocre as the most mediocre white bread man in the world – men escort other men into the circle. I have seen it happen over and over again. I have anecdotes. I have receipts. And I have never seen a man do this for a woman. At this point, I think there are not quite enough women in the inner circle for women to be able to do it for other women, either. The women I know who made it into the center did it by banding together and getting their crowd through. No one brought them in or made space for them.

Maybe we don’t need everyone believing in themselves more. Maybe it would be good to try believing in someone else, for a change. Choose someone and be their champion – be their best believer. That has a whole lot more value than believing in yourself.

This was not the message on the bathroom wall. This is far more arty and tasteful. (It is by HaseebPhotography via Pixabay.)

 

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Real Talk About Imagination

Real Talk. I am not actually a dragon. I wish I was one. But I’m just a human lady person who is impossibly angry. I am not actually a witch, either. Surprise. I have often dreamed of having such powers but I don’t, in fact, possess any particular skill in magic.

What I do have, though, is a well-practiced imagination and an understanding of the powers of make believe. Sometimes pretending makes things better.

I mean, I have been a rage fountain these last couple of weeks – just spinning around and round, watching rage pour forth from me like a sprinkler. It comes out in situations that do not merit such a response and after a lifetime of being nice and sweet and making things easy for everyone around me, I do not really know how to handle my new rageful reality. Imagination and embodied expression are my only safe outlets. And what’s wild is how it actually works sometimes.

For example, as my friend and I stood talking next to the subway entrance, some man in khaki pants seemed to find us terribly compelling. He walked by us a couple of times and finally started to approach us. We did not stop our conversation or look at him but I opened my hand, made a little whooshing sound and combusted him in my imagination and darned if he didn’t just turn around and walk away. That’s magic.

The thing of it is – now is the time for fierce imagination. It is not going to be possible to free ourselves from the dystopia ahead of us without some really bold and vivid dreaming.

In simply imagining a world wherein I am as powerful as a dragon, wherein the world is re-made with women unafraid to walk down the street at night or anywhere, everywhere, I find it very hard to return peaceably to the world we live in. I cannot tolerate the old stories. I cannot stomach victim blaming. I am newly and freshly furious that women have had to accommodate ourselves to a world that has not seen us a human beings for five thousand years. It’s as if I’ve woken up in new horrible world but I’ve been living here the whole time.

I don’t want to see one more woman raped or murdered on screen. I don’t want to see any more harassment on the street. I don’t want to see a single woman disempowered. I don’t want to watch one more wife in a sitcom get laughed at and dismissed. It feels like the only thing I can tolerate now is some other more imaginative world.

We need our dreamers now. We need our sci fi creators, our afro-futurists, our utopian other worlds. I have no stomach for anything else. I know it is virtually only in our imaginations that women can have real authority or agency or power – but imaginations can turn into reality and can lead to real life transformation. It’s time to get to work with high level imagination.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Hope Hangover

I thought I’d sworn off the stuff. I was trying to be level headed about things – you know – not indulge in too much of that magical thinking that my theatrical tribe is wont to rely on.

But when I got that unexpected vote of confidence from an establishment organization, I felt a surge of hope. And my imagination – the one I use to write things and create art with – went a little bit wild. I got drunk on hope. I knew while I was drinking all that hope these last four months that I’d probably pay for it pretty hard later but while I was downing hope, it felt so good.

And when the rejection came, I sobered right up and woke up with a hope hangover.

This is why people will tell you not to get your hopes up. They’re trying to help you avoid a hope hangover – the kind that makes you feel like you were such an idiot to take in all that hope before and swear off hoping in the future.

The hope hangover is no fun. It makes it seem like everything you ever did was a futile waste of time and energy and gives you no fuel for whatever you need to face in the future.

But – just like the hope that came before it – I knew the hope hangover would pass. And this one did. It lasted about 24 hours and then it was over.

I’m not sure, though, that I shouldn’t have let myself get my hopes up at all. The hope hangover is survivable. I think, in a way, we have to allow ourselves a little hope bender sometimes, or else we slide deeper and deeper into a sense of futility. A little dose of hope, followed by a hope hangover is better than no hope at all.

One thing that decades of working in the arts can do is give you a sense of your own artistic patterning, like, what you can expect in situations that were once unfamiliar. For me, I have (more or less) learned to ride the emotional waves of the highs and lows of artistic life.

For example, I remember when I was a kid, doing shows in community theatre. I did a couple of plays and after the third or fourth one, I started to recognize that once the shows were over, I slipped into a bit of a trough emotionally. But I gave it a name – the Post Show Blues – and the next time a show ended, I was prepared for the dip. It wasn’t quite so scary and it didn’t feel permanent the way it had the first few times. It serves me to this day.

This hope hangover thing is a similar useful model for me. It allows me to actually feel my feelings, to enjoy the highs of dreaming, of possibility, to drink the frothy fun of a transformed future. In other words, I can get my hopes up and just know that I’ll wake up from that dream a little hungover.

And luckily, some new good news came in not long after the previous disappointment passed. So I am actually hopeful again at the moment. But fully prepared for the probable hangover.

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I wrote a song called Hope Hangover for it. You can listen to it there.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs and more. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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by becoming my patron on Patreon.

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How to Congratulate an Artist
January 9, 2018, 10:45 pm
Filed under: advice, art, dreams | Tags: , , , , ,

Note: I’ve noticed that quite a few people have ended up at this post by googling “How to Congratulate an Artist” and while I do think what you’re about to read here can be helpful in answering this question, I’ve written another post that might actually be MORE helpful for finding out what you want to know and that post is here: How to Talk to an Artist

And now, on with your regularly scheduled blog post:

When the New Yorker published my friend’s poem, I wasn’t surprised. I was thrilled and excited and proud but, as I’d fully expected such a thing since I first encountered my friend’s work, I was not surprised in the least. Frankly, I was surprised it took the New Yorker as long as it did. I congratulated the New Yorker on making a good choice rather than my friend for being chosen. This is because, in addition to being a fierce admirer of my friend, I am a fierce admirer of her work and always have been.

I have people who do the same for me – people who love me, yes, and want the best for me but also love my work, believe in it. They are the ones who are just waiting for others to come around to their opinions. I started to think about this recently after receiving some surprising good news regarding my work. I told one friend and she was excited and thrilled and also (and this is the important bit) wholly unsurprised. “It’s about time,” she said. “Oh yeah. Of course. I knew it.”

And there is something so powerfully affirming about this response. The belief is firm and unwavering – even when no one else seems to hold her opinion. And I feel precisely the same about her work and cannot believe the world at large has not beaten down her door for it.

Others I shared my good news with were actually stunned. In a way, I suspect, they’d slipped into questioning my art’s worth right along with me. It’s not that they don’t love me. They do – and that love is fierce and unwavering but it does not necessarily extend to my work. So when the world suddenly gives me approval, they have a readjustment period of looking at my work through the lens of the world’s approval. And you know – if you love me, you’re not actually required to love my work. It is not a pre-requisite. But those that hold space for both me AND my work are the ones I turn to in the darkest moments. And I rely on them in ways that I am still coming to appreciate.

Those of us who dedicate ourselves to the Arts and/or Entertainment are often asked questions like, “Why don’t you write for the movies? Why don’t you get on Saturday Night Live? Why don’t you publish a best seller? Why don’t you get on TV? Why don’t you get Oprah to produce your show? Why aren’t you on Broadway yet?”

These questions can all be reframed to be more helpful and supportive to the people who make things. Try: “Why haven’t the movies snapped you up to write for them yet? Why hasn’t Saturday Night Live recognized your comic genius? Why haven’t the publishing houses beat down your door? Haven’t they realized your work will make them pots of money? Why is TV blind to your radiance? How is it possible that Oprah hasn’t been informed of your work? Who is holding those Broadway producers hostage that they haven’t come calling?”

Sometimes it’s very weird to be congratulated for someone else’s decision about one’s work. The congratulations usually come in response to something that the artist had nothing to do with, that is, someone else’s approval. The fiercest supporters are the ones who congratulate an artist on the actual work before anyone else ever cares about it. I am exceptionally grateful to have such people in my corner.

My wish for my fellow artists this year is to have supporters as fierce and dedicated as mine are. I want everyone who makes things to hear congratulations on their actual work and “Oh yeah, of course” to any success it finds. If you love a struggling artist, don’t wait to give them your admiration or support. Give support to the work itself and not just the trophies. Anyone can be proud of an artist for winning awards but a top tier supporter is proud long before the awards ever appear.

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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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“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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You can help me dream by becoming my patron on Patreon.
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This blog is also a Podcast. If you’d like to listen to it, click here.

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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