Songs for the Struggling Artist


You Had One Job, Man

I will preface what I am about to tell you with the fact that I spent much of the evening before this day wading in the mucky pool of the aftermath of the news about Louis CK. While stand-up comedy is not technically my field, it is a sister field and therefore painfully close. So I began my day still marinating in both the horrors and the hope of this world laid bare and I felt pretty ready to tear it all down. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Just read Laurie Penny or KatyKatiKate or Laurie Kilmartin if you want to talk about it amongst yourselves.

What I want to talk about is this incredibly weird moment in an incredibly weird alumni lunch I was a part of. In the middle of the lunch, a tall middle-aged man stood up at the mic and proclaimed that he did not have his glasses and was going to mispronounce everyone’s names. His job was to point out the various alumni volunteers so that students could find us. This job should have taken two minutes. He had maybe 17 names to read. And this reading of the names took, what with the hemming and hawing and the “oh, you see I need my glasses” and the repetition of needless instructions, probably ten minutes. The man had ONE VERY EASY JOB and he was appallingly bad at it.

And you know, in some contexts, I could be very forgiving of such incompetence. If we were at a senior center, for example, I’d not have given it a second thought. But it’s 2017 and the world is run by incompetent men who have gotten away with terrible things and stupid things and I have zero patience with any old white man who has power over women. There was, at this event, a staff of incredibly capable women standing to the side, watching this moment and wanting (I imagined) to jump in and help the car wreck in front of them but unable to because this guy has a fancy title. He’s the President of the Alumni Association. So a room full of people just quietly sat there (well, truthfully I didn’t sit quietly – I cracked jokes to the student next to me) while a buffoon rambled on. ONE JOB, man. YOU HAD ONE JOB.

Listen, I sympathize with missing glasses (I need them too) but I can come up with six ways to solve this problem that would not have involved putting a room full of (mostly) women through that terrible show. And anyone who has had to fight their way into a room would do the same. And I know that my fury about this is out of proportion with the offense. I spent a day trying to unpack why this event made me, at dinner that night, want to disembowel the air with my chopsticks. And I don’t yet have an easy answer.

Here are some factors that seemed to be driving my violent chopstick impulses:
1) I’m furious in general. I have been enraged for over a year now and it only gets worse the longer this political disaster goes on.
2) This particular mediocre white man has pushed my buttons before when he advocated for the Board of the College in cutting my beloved Florence program. (More about that here.) That corporate sucking up is antithetical to what I valued about my college experience. So yeah. I’m not inclined to think of him favorably. Also I saw a little clip of him speaking at graduation wherein he said something like, “Either Key or Peele went here, I can never remember which.” – a comment I found so shockingly racist, I gasped and had to stop the video. I mean…so yeah. He pushes my buttons.
3) That a mediocre white man is representing a college that is mostly women is not an insignificant factor. And I am suddenly aware that there may have been elections for this alumni board that I have likely ignored and here is yet another area of my world where not paying attention has led to circumstances not to my liking. This guy is the President (of the alumni board) because he wanted to be and believed he could do it and because most of us have other things to worry about. So now, I’m pissed because I’m thinking, “Do I have to run for the alumni board now? My god, I do not want to. All I really want to do is make art. I don’t want to tweet and make calls to congress. I don’t want to sign petitions and campaign for people and write postcards. And I don’t want to be President of the Alumni Board of my alma mater nor do I have the resources to do such a thing. Because here’s the thing – I’m an artist, a struggling one, in case you hadn’t worked that out by the name of the blog, and you know, it cost me $16.50 to go up to the college and a whole day to try and be helpful and I really don’t have $16.50 to spare and a decent lunch might have made it feel worth it but a sandwich and a bag of potato chips ain’t really doing the trick. So it’s like, the people who volunteer for these sorts of positions like president or board member have something to get out of them and resources to spare. And they’re the sorts of people who make their forgetting of their glasses the problem of a whole room of people.”
4) I am not feeling logical or temperate anymore. I am having an Unforgiving Minute, as Laurie Penny beautifully put it. I have made excuses for, apologized to and made space for men to be right for too damn long and I will rage about the smallest infraction. I was nice and accommodating for forty years but time’s up and I’m done.
5) Sorry. No, I’m not sorry. But you know probably this guy is perfectly nice and pleasant to talk to at parties but I’m sorry – no, I’m not sorry, I don’t want this guy’s head on a platter, I just want the career I don’t have because incompetent overly confident mediocre white dudes blustered their way into gigs that more qualified people should have had. And this guy is now just a symbol of the ego-inflated oversize mediocre white dude balloon hanging over the world and all I want to do is stick a pin in it anywhere I can. So, I’m sorry. No, I’m not sorry. I’m done being sorry.

6) Like Rebecca Traister talked about in her article about the current moment – I’m also waiting for the backlash. As a woman who was writing about sexual harassment and sexism before it was trending, I know the backlash is coming and I’m bracing for it even while half hoping that this article in Time about women having reached a critical mass in all these fields is right and maybe no backlash is coming but really I’m still bracing for the terrible ugly backlash just in case and I think that makes me a bit tense, you know – so one incompetent asshole who could have just turned over the reading to someone who had their glasses or bothered to ask how people pronounced their names ahead of time or written names in a size he could read just gets right under my skin. It’s like a small scale diversary/diversity moment happening right in front of me.

So it’s obviously all really simple and stuff and I guess chopstick air evisceration is logical given the swirl of feelings. And for me that rage is relatively new. I will confess that my socialization as a feminine creature was so intense that I literally thought I could not feel anger until I was in my mid-twenties. In my early years of acting, I got nervous when I had to play characters who got angry because I worried that I had no capacity for rage. Those years are over and perhaps I’m just making up for lost time. I’m angry now about all those things I pushed away and smiled about instead of kicking over – so now I will rage about the littlest things. From a stupid speech to a shitty radio show, I know how to rage now and I can feel how much more productive it can be than pushing things aside or making excuses for stupid behavior. Not that there won’t be consequence for my rage and I’m worried about those, too because – come on, man. Just…I don’t know…bring your glasses next time and get on with it. Also, I’d like to know when the alumni board elections are. I’m paying attention now and I use my power to vote at every chance I get. And I rage.

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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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There Was So Much Less Sexism Then
October 20, 2017, 9:52 pm
Filed under: art, education, feminism | Tags: , , , , ,

Whenever I reconnect with my college experience – either by going to a reunion or reconnecting with people from that era of my life – I am reminded of a time when I felt unstoppable. It feels like I reconnect with the aspect of myself that felt I could do anything.

I have often chalked this feeling up to youth, to just winning and winning and not really knowing what it meant to fail. And that was absolutely a part of it. But after seeing a couple of my teachers recently, I realized, too, that one of the other factors was that I went to college in a place relatively free of sexism. It was the kind of place where students sometimes complained of “reverse sexism” – like, when the theatre department didn’t want them to do True West with its cast full of men. (The students did it anyway, on their own, with an all female creative team and a gender reversed agent character.) Now, of course, we all understand that reverse sexism isn’t really a thing in the same way that we know that reverse racism isn’t a thing. But at the time, we were in an environment so positive for women that it felt skewed.

What I realized recently is that this college experience was the last time that this was true for me. When I was miserable in grad school, I called up my undergrad’s career counseling services (available for life, bless them) and tried to work out if I should drop out or keep going. My counselor said something like, “Everyone hates grad school. Pretty much everywhere is a let down after this place.” At the time, I thought, yeah, nowhere is as small or thoughtful or as dedicated to its students. It made sense. I realize now that the other factor I was missing was that it was also so much less sexist there. Which is not to say it was a paradise. (I heard tales of assault and harassment there too.) But now I see that it was the last time I felt really seen – the last time I felt taken seriously – the last time my potential felt visible to a critical mass of people.

I never considered an all women’s college. I was too keen on boys to make that leap. But my college was 75% women and that imbalance was enough to give me the experience of a life that was relatively friction-free sexism-wise for a few years. I see now that that was a beautiful headstart into my adult life. I only wish the world of work could have been as smooth.

It is an incredibly potent reminder to touch back in with the people who saw me in my full personhood, who imagined I could do great things, who invested in my potential. In the past, I thought they must be so disappointed in me that I never “made it.” Now I think: no, the disappointment is not in me but in the world that failed to see what they saw.

I imagine that’s what my teachers think because it is what I think when a student of mine has the same experience. The failure, if there is one, is not in the student but in the world that does not see their full personhood, either due to their gender, their race or their disability. As teachers, we put our hope in our students, hoping they will transcend the boundaries we ourselves were unable to overcome. I am still the vessel for that hope for the people who believed in me and I put my hope in those who follow me in the same way. And luckily for me, I once knew what it was like to be an artist in a world not dominated by sexism. It was beautiful, y’all. It was beautiful. And it is worth fighting for. It could be everywhere.

I can’t find the source of this but I can’t resist using it. If it’s yours, tell me!

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Why I Shouldn’t Work in Schools Anymore
September 9, 2016, 11:16 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve written before about the changing landscape of Teaching Artistry. I’ve written about how arts education has changed in my years in the business. For the most part, I do most of my teaching outside of school environments these days but every so often, I’m brought back into the Arts in Education world. What the re-encounter highlights for me is how at odds my goals are with the goals of a lot of Arts Education.

At the heart of my goals for students sits a desire for them to make bold artistic choices and learn how to be good artists. This is not because I think they should become artists (I know what kind of a life that is) but because I think that thinking like an artist can lead to a liberation of self. Thinking like an artist can allow students to begin to question their assumptions and interrogate the givens. This is all well and good on paper for most schools but when the questioning begins and the classroom gets crazy or silly or loud, most people in schools start yelling and everyone gets into trouble. I value the trouble that art stirs up. Good art is disruptive and shakes up the status quo. This is rarely in line with the goals of a school – as most schools seek to enforce and create a status quo.

I have a revolutionary’s heart, I’ve discovered, and I like for students to get so involved in art making that they become willing to challenge the status quo. I like it when the art becomes theirs.

My favorite moment of my early teaching career was when I noticed a student missing from our 5th Grade Midsummer Night’s Dream class. I was told that he’d gotten in trouble in the cafeteria by quoting Shakespeare. I’m still delighted to think about a small 5th grade kid standing up at his cafeteria table and proclaiming loudly, with gestures, “Enough! Hold, or cut bow strings!”

I don’t remember much else about that residency but I cherish the way Shakespeare and I got this kid into trouble. I used to feel guilty about it – but not anymore. Art, when it’s good, can get you into trouble.

The more art becomes EDUCATION, the more it becomes a rubric and a set of skills to learn, the less likely it is to get you into trouble. And this is why working in education isn’t really my bag anymore. Bring me in to teach your students and I will encourage them to be bold, to take risks, to be silly, to be loud, to look for mischief, for the game, for the spirit. I trained in clown. I am inclined to make a mess. That’s probably why you don’t bring a clown into your classroom.

If you want order and quiet, I would suggest an educator instead of an artist. I fall firmly on the side of art and will always privilege the artistic choice over the orderly choice. Arts in Education these days seems to always privilege the orderly one. I want the work that young people create to be controversial, to be disruptive, to be volatile. In the past, I did a complicated balancing act of trying to keep things status quo for teachers and administrators and arts organizations’ education departments while still honoring my revolutionary impulse. But I think somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to compromise this way and can only express delight at the irreverence, at the art that might accidentally pry its way into a classroom and cause all kinds of trouble.


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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 this blog on Soundcloud, click here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



“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.

smile

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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 Selfless Teacher Story
May 6, 2016, 9:42 pm
Filed under: class, education, TV | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I watched a clip of the Ellen show in which they honored a kindergarten teacher for her dedication and generosity. On the surface, it was a touching story about a selfless dedicated classroom teacher, honored on TV and re-paid by a generous corporation. And maybe that’s all it was.

But it seemed to me that the real story was the systemic failures that we, as a country, are failing to address. The remarkable thing that this teacher does at the start of each school day is to make sure all her students have had breakfast and have clean clothes to wear – and if they don’t, she helps them get those things. That she does this on a teacher’s salary is even more remarkable. Target gave her 10K as a thank you for her service and 10k to her school. Which, I won’t deny, is very nice. But probably pales in comparison to what the school needs for its students.

Couldn’t we, as a society, pay our classroom teachers at least 10k more a year?

The salaries for teachers are vanishingly small and when they’re also supporting the impoverished students of their classrooms, it’s embarrassing for us as a first world nation.

Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10K more a year to schools that help develop the kinds of citizens we want to see in the world? Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10k more a year to fight poverty of the kind that sends millions of kids to school every day without breakfast?

I mean – it’s nice of Target to pony up 10k this one well-publicized time – and of course this teacher is remarkable and deserves to be honored – but it feels very much like a con game to me. It’s a snow job where we look at this generous woman and a generous corporation and feel good about ourselves for a bit instead of looking directly at the way we’ve structured our society. I don’t know my dystopian science fiction so well – but surely there’s a story wherein the culture sets up one person a year to help congratulate them and the whole culture rallies around them to celebrate – thereby dissipating the anger that might be brewing around the growing income disparity and poor children everywhere. Which story is that like?

Or maybe that’s just us.

children-334528_1280

I searched for images of children in poverty and every single one of them was a child of color in a far away land. No poverty to see here in America, no sir! (ahem.)

 

Normally, at this point on the blog, I’d ask you for to contribute money to my blog by becoming a patron on Patreon. This time, though, I’d encourage you to donate any spare dollars you have to help fight poverty in America. I mean, 1 in 5 American kids are living in poverty. So – – –

There are tons of organizations that work for economic and hunger relief. Here’s an option: Fight Poverty in the USA

But, of course, poverty relief is a bandaid. Total reform would be nice. Maybe the National Center for Law and Economic Justice might be a better place to send your dollars. 

Meanwhile – we rely on Target and the Ellen show. 

 

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The End of the Show Experience
April 3, 2016, 8:59 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

Imagine that you’ve just seen a show that moved you in some way. Let’s say you laughed really hard or felt like you were part of an energetic participating audience. Like a concert. Or a comedy show. Or a play. Let’s say you were at this show with a group of people you knew and all of you had an exciting experience at the theatre. You saw something you’d never seen before and your body is in a high state of excitement. Your heart is beating faster as you clap your hands at the end.

Then let’s say someone with authority over you – like a boss or something – comes out after your transformative experience at the theatre and tells you to be absolutely silent and not move a muscle. You are to stay in your seat and under no circumstances are you to discuss the performance. When you’re finally allowed to leave, you must file out in absolute silence .

This would probably would diminish your pleasure of the performance experience somewhat, I’d imagine. This is the experience the audience of one of our school performances had recently. During the show, they laughed and shouted. They were positively gleeful throughout. When it was over, we did our usual Q & A, which is also a little bit exciting, as the actors are un-masked in that moment and they get to see behind the curtain metaphorically.

But as soon as we’d waved them goodbye, the shouting from one of their teachers began. The students were stunned into silence, instructed to sit quietly in total stillness – for no other purpose than control, as far as I could tell. And it broke my heart a little bit.

It made me wonder what I could do as a theatre-maker to avoid that dissonance, at least while I’m there. I’ve worked as both a maker and a teacher of theatre and for the most part, those identities have been largely separate. I walked away from this experience wondering if I ought to be considering employing my educator tools in situations like this. There’s nothing I can do about a school that wants to yell at their students when I’m done with them – I know school culture and that’s not changing from one guest artist’s visit – but I want to build in some space for the students to have an experience like I have after a show that excites me. All my years in Arts in Education have shown me that there are great schools that will spend time after a performance unpacking it, enjoying it, discussing it. In schools that aren’t like that, perhaps I need to employ educational strategies when the show is over. My first thought was the “Turn and Talk” methodology – allowing students to actually talk to each other about the craziness we just showed them. And maybe I should do that before our Q & A. We might get interesting questions out of that strategy.

My ideas about how to handle this dismount sort of stop there, though. What would you do, my fellow educators? And for those of you who perform for schools, have you found ways to deal with this?  It’s a culture clash – the open door of art – followed by the yelling culture of some schools. Can we soften the harsh return to the yelling reality? Please send me your solutions.

Messenger Theater @ ps67 HR (7 of 60)

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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



“You Should Do Stand-Up!”
February 29, 2016, 11:07 pm
Filed under: advice, art, comedy, education | Tags: , , ,

A woman in my Feldenkrais class asked me where she should go to learn how to do comedy. She’d been told at various job conferences that she was funny and she said everyone told her, “You should do stand up!”

People SAY these things without realizing what they’re doing. People who say, “You should be a stand up comedian!” don’t actually go and see stand up. They have no real sense of what it is or what the life entails. I’m not a stand up comedian but I know what it takes and I can tell you that this woman should NOT be a stand up comedian. She doesn’t even like stand up comedy. But she was considering it anyway because so many people said it.

But people say things like this. If they see a kid who is cute and talented in a school play they say, “You should be on Broadway!” Which, again, is not something I have done but I do know what it takes and 999 out of one thousand kids should NOT be on Broadway.

I wish that people could be a little less ambitious for one another…that we could just let a funny person at a business conference be a funny person at her job or let a talented kid be a talented kid at his or her school. That’s enough most of the time.

lights-951000_1920

 

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