Songs for the Struggling Artist


We Need Fiction in Schools

I don’t know why I think of this one classroom at a high school in Brooklyn – but every time I think of this bizarre turn that education took in which it decided that fiction no longer had a place in American schools, this moment when it leaned hard into non-fiction, I think of that classroom. It must have been where I heard that news, where I heard that this was a policy Obama supported and dropped my mouth open in shock. “Obama?! What is he thinking?”

This was a class for which I was doing workshops for the Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves, a work of dramatic fiction that the students went to see. When the student next to me gasped with recognition at something the character did and later told me it was like her family member – well, I wished Obama could have been there to see the power of fiction.

I was thinking about how important the study of fiction has been to me and to my peers and what a shame it is that these muscles have been un-exercised in many American schools. I was thinking about it because I was on a jury and the process of deliberation felt familiar somehow and it wasn’t just because I’ve had to teach 12 Angry Men a few times. One of the things that surprised me about my fellow jurors was how much they were inclined to just make things up. Several of them came up with “theories” about the case, adding events and possibilities that had nothing to do with the question at hand. Over and over again I found myself saying, “Let me read the actual question.”

If these folks had been my students, I’d have done exactly the same. I would have asked where they saw that idea or concept and what was the evidence. In literary circles, we call this practice Close Reading. When you write a paper, you need to point to the place in the text where you got this idea or information. You can’t just make stuff up. I’m so practiced in this I don’t even know that I’m doing it sometimes. I mean, I like to make stuff up more than most people but there are the things we make up and things we don’t and even fiction has rules this way.

I feel like, if we’re going to ask people to sit on juries and deliberate and evaluate the evidence, we really need to give them practice and we need to give them practice on fictional people. There are no consequences to a misinterpreted fictional character. You can’t ruin a fictional person’s life by charting out the series of events they go through in the course of a work. Your conclusions about a fictional person have no power to send them to jail or condemn them to death. Maybe you think Macbeth didn’t kill the king. You’d be wrong. But, hey, why not? Kick that idea down the road. Show me the evidence. That search through the play will be illustrative and, in exploring it, you (hopefully) will find all the evidence that he did, in fact, kill the king.

I’ve been in a lot of classrooms where some well-meaning teacher puts a character on trial. They’ll put Macbeth in the witness box and have some kids play lawyers and interrogate him. While this is fun, sure, it’s almost always a mess, pedagogically speaking, because the kids will inevitably make stuff up that’s not in the play and suddenly the whole case will hinge on what Macbeth had for dinner. (This is something that almost happened in the jury deliberations I was in, by the way, when a juror wanted to send a question down to the court to ask what the plaintiff had had for dinner one night. This was just as irrelevant to the case as what Macbeth might have eaten at any point in the play.)

As we deliberated, I found myself in a fairly active role, bringing us back to the question we had to answer over and over and, at first. I didn’t understand why I fell in to that position then. I have no interest in the law. I have no law training. I’m not even a big Law and Order watcher. (Night Court, though – big fan.) But what I DO know how to do is analyze a character and the sequence of events of a narrative. I know where to look for evidence and I know not to make things up. That’s the main thing.

Students need to study fiction as much, if not more than, non-fiction for a whole lot of reasons beyond this skill of analysis, close reading and finding evidence. (Such things as empathy, aesthetics and imagination.) But the skills of analyzing literature, in particular, are what I found particularly useful in that jury room. (In addition to the practice of working quickly in a group that I learned and practiced in theatre.) I’m still shocked that Obama couldn’t recognize this when this policy began. He studied law. I know he’d want people to learn skills to help them be better citizens, to be better jury members. Learning literature is actually vital for our democracy, I think. If we care about having careful jurors, we might want to teach some fiction again.

Is this a dinner which I see before me?
JK – it’s the banquet scene from Macbeth. But what is on the table? What are they eating? What do ghosts have for dinner?

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

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It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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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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In Praise of the Monologue

Despite having written and created an audio drama podcast made up entirely of monologues, before now, I’d have told you I hated monologues. When casting actors, I would never ask for a monologue for the audition. I felt sure they could tell me nothing about what an actor would do in a show. I know I have delivered a few rants on the subject before. I could not fathom why preparing one classical and one contemporary monologue became a norm. As a director, I found them useless. My feeling was a monologue performance could only tell me whether that actor could do that monologue performance and not much more. It told me nothing about what they were like with other people, what their choices might be like for my show. Why did training programs rely so heavily on them when most directors I know prefer to see sides of the work they’re casting?

Today, I finally get it. I find myself intensely grateful for the way theatre trains actors with monologues. I feel like I finally understand why everyone bothers.

Because I’m in the middle of casting the second season of my audio drama, I have gotten a fresh perspective on what theatre folk do and what it takes for us to do it. This didn’t happen with Season One because every single one of the actors was a theatre person (among other things, of course). But the main thing was, I could give them pages of text and they could read it back into a microphone in such a way as it all made sense, that had a rhythm and a music to it. Every single one of the actors gave their work a shape and an arc and a series of beats. You would not believe how little direction I gave these people. I did not need to. They all just did it naturally. I thought at the time that it was just because they’re all good actors, but I think now it is specifically because they are good theatre actors.

Because Season Two is set in another country, I have to draw from an unknown acting pool and I began to listen to a lot of acting reels from voice over actors. They are incredibly skilled. They can do animated character voices. They can make a bank ad sound like silk. They can stretch sound into moments you would not believe. I have found myself impressed. Believe me, I have tried reading ad copy before – it is a lot harder than I ever imagined. These folks have skills. But do they have the skills I need?

I’ve dipped my toes into the film world a little bit more this year and one thing I’ve noticed about the difference between film and theatre is the rhythm of the making. Most everything in film is in small bits. You do one line in a multitude of ways (or the same way over and over) and then you move on to another one. If you had a long passage of text (unlikely in a film, but, just for the sake of argument) you wouldn’t shoot the whole thing all at once, you’d get two lines here, two lines there, another from the other side and so on. The rhythm of the speech would happen in the edit. It only matters what each individual line is like, not the whole. The whole gets created later.

In the theatre, however, you have to say the whole thing, all at once. You need a plan of attack. You become a one person band, orchestrating the speed, the tone, the ups, the downs. When you’re giving a speech in the theatre, it’s all you. You’re it. It is a much more sustained experience.

It turns out that reading a monologue is more than just saying the words in a reasonably correct way. It is taking an audience on a journey and that is what we train actors for. That’s why we teach monologues. I apologize for every bad thing I ever said about monologues. It turns out that training actors to deal with large swaths of text is exactly the training I need as a creator right now. It may be one of the theatre’s defining characteristics actually.

Theatre educators – thank you for continuing to teach actors to do more monologues, even in the face of cranky people like me who didn’t understand the value before. Please keep doing it.

This isn’t actually a monologue. But it LOOKS like a monologue and that’s the important thing. And, like a monologue, if I gave it an actor to read, they could handle all that text without too much trouble.

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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The Arts Save the Children

We had a hopeful politician come to our door, campaigning, and so we asked her about what she’d do for the arts. She said she understood the value of the arts, that they kept kids out of trouble, the way sports had for her as a kid so she supports them. It’s a sweet story, really.

I enjoyed that story and I like this politician a lot but I hate this reasoning. First, supporting arts programs for kids is not supporting the Arts. It’s great and I spent many years in those trenches but Arts Education is not the entirely of The Arts. This is a common conflation, though – and artists do it as much as anyone, usually when they’re trying to raise money for an arts program.

The other part of it I hate is the way it sets up art as just a method of keeping kids busy. It’s like an after-school job or a club or something. This framing also tends to travel hand in hand with setting art up as a savior for troubled children. I’m particularly sensitive to this one because I used to believe it. I used to be in classrooms trying to SAVE THE CHILDREN with Shakespeare or music or whatever. In some cases, the people who sent me into these classrooms also wanted me to SAVE THE CHILDREN with my theatrical magic.

Nope. Nope. Nope.

I’m not saying it’s not possible for a child to discover an art and find their way to a new future that might be seen as saving them. That sort of thing DOES happen. I have seen it happen myself. But it does not happen often. And it can’t be planned for.

But it’s also not unique to the Arts. Anything could save a wayward child. It could be sports. It could be cooking. It could be knitting. It could be watching Wheel of Fortune. Basically, anything that lights a person up and gets them going can “save” a person. The arts are perhaps more likely than Wheel of Fortune to engage a child but it’s all really up to chance.

Why should we support the arts if not to save wayward children? What are they good for besides keeping kids out of trouble?

The arts are good for our souls, okay? Maybe we’re not supposed to use words like that when it comes to finding funds and government support – but that is fundamentally what is at stake. When the going gets tough, people turn to the arts. During this last year of trauma and lockdown – when so much became inaccessible – many people turned to music, turned to stories in multiple formats. It’s not a hug from your mom but it’ll do you good.

A culture is judged by its arts and a culture that doesn’t support its artists is going to lose them. They’ll emigrate or cease to be artists or their wells will dry up and the faucet that pours out stories and meaning might not deliver like it needs to at some point.

What do we need to say to our politicians so they understand? How do we help them see artists as more than an after-school program? For years, our arts leaders have been attempting to make the economic argument about how much the arts contribute to the economy and if, after this year of artistic devastation and all the economic devastation that surrounds that, they still don’t get it, I don’t know that they ever will. I think we have to just talk about the source. That arts are good for our culture, our souls and our social identity. The politician who came to our door was elected while the more Arts forward candidate lost – so now the task becomes how to help her do more than just say she supports the arts. Now we have to help her learn how to actually support them.

The Arts can do a lot but I don’t think they’ll save these boys from those bees!

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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Some Invisible Gifts of Theatre Training

A lot of my theatre friends have been working in other fields lately, partly due to not being able to actually work in theatre in these times. I’ve had a fair number of conversations about how weirdly non-theatre people do things. (Apologies to all you non-theatre folk. I know we’re really the weird ones but you’re weird to us in some ways!) This has made me think about some of the things the performing arts train us for, that aren’t just singing high notes and how to do pas de Bourrees.

One thing I’ve really come to value about theatre people (and performing arts people in general but I’m going to let theatre people stand in for everyone since I know them best) is our ability to collaborate. And I know, blah blah, we all know collaboration is a thing. I can’t tell you how many theatre education meetings I’ve sat in where we sell the fact that we teach kids how to collaborate. But what does that really mean? We teach folks how to work together. Okay. Who out there in the work force thinks they didn’t learn that? Everyone thinks they know how to collaborate. The thing is that theatre people know how to collaborate in a very particular way. We know how to work with a group of disparate people with multiple specialties and work together to get something done on time and on budget.  Theatre people are always on time and on budget when it comes to deadlines. This means we not only know how to collaborate, we know how to do it quickly. The curtain is going up at a particular time on a particular day and we are built to make sure that happens to the best of everyone’s ability. Show folk know how to do things quickly. We know how to get on with it. We know how to make it fast and we know how to pivot on a dime.

Example: We can’t afford the orange shoes? Ok. Maybe we get some white ones and dye them or shine an orange light on them and how much do we really need these orange shoes? Can they be purple or can we just do the show without them? And show people will make that call in a few minutes.

One thing I’ve noticed about meetings or collaborations with non-theatre folk is that even the smallest decisions can often take an unholy amount of time. And by unholy I mean infinitely frustrating to a theatre person who is used to working quickly. If you are in a meeting with a theatre person, you should know that they are very likely imagining clapping their hands and thinking, “Go, go, go, go, go!” Sometimes I feel like half of the job of theatre directing is telling everyone to pick up the pace. And I’ve also wanted to say it at every non-theatre meeting I’ve ever been to.

Another thing I’ve come to appreciate about theatre is our understanding of the need for a leader. I think this is related to the awareness of the curtain time. Even the most collaborative of processes, the most communal of groups, recognizes the need for someone to be the voice of leadership even if they’re not the boss. We have stage managers who will make sure we take a break. We have directors who make the final call on a lighting question the designer’s been wrestling with the costume designer about. There is always someone to decide. There is always someone running the show. And if no one is running the show in another context, outside of the performing arts, I can almost guarantee you that the performing artist will step up for that role if they care at all about what the group is doing. Theatre people sense a leadership vacuum and almost everyone will step in to fill it if necessary. If the dance captain is not there to run the rehearsal, someone else will do it. Same goes for the marketing meeting.

Theatre people would almost always prefer to be doing instead of talking about doing. We want to get through a meeting quickly because we need to get back to rehearsal. And we open in three days! Also, moving quickly is a great way to actually make things happen instead of getting stuck in talking about them. Sometimes I think 90% of my work as a theatre educator was just shouting “Five more minutes” even if we actually had ten. I’m sorry I lied to you, students – but it was the best way to get you moving.

Another obstacle my theatre friends are running into in other fields is a lack of creativity, particularly in problem solving. Theatre folk love to solve a problem. Sometimes we make problems just so we can solve them. Ever hear about someone making drama? That’s us. (Though we really do prefer to keep it onstage.) But really, we make problems to solve. Sometimes those problems are relationship or story problems (What will the Prince do when the ghost of his father tells him he was murdered by the current king?) and some are design problems. I used to describe the heart of my theatre making as just problematizing. I’ll give you an example from my real creative life. First day of rehearsal/devising on a project. I brought a bunch of newspapers, tape and string and asked my actors to stage scenes inspired by several highly visual paintings. This is a problem. There isn’t a logical solution. Whatever they invent is not going to look anything like the source material. But results are a study in creativity. That’s exciting stuff for me.

Theatre people are built to find a way. It’s part of the reason we can be kind of annoying when someone tells us something is impossible. We can make the sun rise in a small space using only light and imagination. We’re not inclined to believe that things aren’t possible.

In other fields, when someone says, “Oh, we can’t change that rule because we don’t have the data,” the non-theatre folk will shake their heads and say, “That’s too bad. Oh well.” The theatre person asks, “How do we get the data?” And eventually this leads to a heist movie with six union reps breaking into an administrator’s file cabinet. No, no, it probably doesn’t. But we would entertain it as a possibility! Theatre folks don’t give up when a problem is on the line.

This is part of the reason that I’m convinced that if someone had entrusted the vaccine rollout to theatre people we’d all be vaccinated by now. Seriously, there’s an entire field of people out of work who are used to managing large groups of people, who do things quickly and efficiently and are not daunted by impossible tasks. Let’s get ourselves a new WPA and our first show is The Vaccine Rollout.

Can theatre people be annoying? Yes. The most. We are the worst. But we tell good stories and there are a lot of things we learn to do that are worth every silly penny of our theatre training education.

It might seem like I’m here to pat theatre folk (and therefore myself) on the back – to give out some awards in a year where there definitely won’t be any – but really, it’s a plea to recognize that some of the gifts of an arts education are not obvious and yet also extremely valuable. Arts funding has been gutted. Money for arts education in the city where I live is gone. I understand why that happened. (How do you teach theatre on Zoom? Personally, I don’t know but I know a lot of people who’ve figured it out, so hey – bring it on back!) but the results have an impact on things far beyond the artists who lost their jobs or the students who lost their art class. Every time I hear about my theatre friends’ experience in other fields, I am reminded of the gifts of an arts education that even I hadn’t noticed. Sometimes we try to sell our work as good for collaboration! Or great for teaching empathy and tolerance! Or – I don’t know what we say any more. But maybe we need to get more specific. Maybe we need to lay it on the line. Talk ourselves up. Give ourselves some awards.

Also – if you’re looking for an employee who completes projects on time and on budget, who knows how to take charge in a group and who can problem solve creatively and quickly, might I suggest a theatre person? They’re all out of work right now. You could probably get any one you wanted. And you’re sure to get some good stories to go along with them. Just be prepared to pick up the pace.

When you can’t afford a real dragon, just make one out of lamp shades and hula hoops.
Photo of Research and Development of Messenger Theatre Company’s The Door Was Open by Kacey Anisa Stamats

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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4,500 Teaching Artists (Predictably) Fall Through the Cracks
January 8, 2021, 8:02 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , , , , ,

In the comments on the Gothamist article about 4,500 Teaching Artists losing work, someone said “Do you mean Art Teachers?” Here was a major publication addressing what was once my profession perhaps for the first time and the comments all suggested a complete and total lack of awareness of what the job was. One comment suggested all these out of work artists go join the army. Nice. Nice. And also hilarious. Can you imagine the guy at the recruitment office if 4,500 visual artists, musicians, actors, composers, directors, writers, filmmakers, puppeteers, dancers, cartoonists, choreographers, clowns and more (who can all teach killer workshops) showed up to join the army? That recruiter would not know what hit him. Believe me, 4,500 artists would not be a benefit to an organization that values obedience. If the organization was in the mood to shake things up, re-evaluate, maybe use their resources differently than, say, shooting people, then 4,500 artists might not be a bad idea. If you want an army of creativity instead of an army of soldiers, it’s genius – otherwise? Total disaster.

Anyway – I used to talk about teaching artist stuff quite a lot here on the blog, back before I quit doing it. I had a lot of worries about where the field was going and what was going to happen to the veterans of it as well as the new ones joining the ranks. I was worried about the professionalization of a profession that had no security. I was worried about people investing a lot of resources into programs to certify them that would never give them secure jobs or a safety net.


And here we are. I mean. Everyone is in crisis. Teaching Artists are not the only ones. A lot of Arts Administrators who had secure jobs don’t have them anymore, so it’s not just Teaching Artists in the Arts and Arts Education who are now in dire trouble.

But – most Teaching Artists I know were generally living right on the edge, picking up work when it was available, piecing together a living out of a class here and a workshop there. There is no net for most of them. They probably have no savings account nor a house they bought.

The thing I keep thinking about is how Teaching Artists were invented as a stop gap measure when the arts were cut in the 70s, here in NYC. With no actual arts classes in schools anymore, arts organizations stepped in to supply the one thing there is always an abundance of: artists – to teach at least a little bit of art in little chunks of time. It was not a solution. But decades later, it was what everyone was still doing and the stop gap measure grew and grew and no one complained because schools were getting world class artists for cheap, artists were getting flexible work that utilized their art making skills and organizations were raking in grant money. The job got more and more formalized and yet never more secure, with no benefits or guarantees of work, depending on the whims of a (rapidly) rotating cast of administrators. And the arts did not return to the public schools in a meaningful way. There wasn’t, say, recruitment from the Teaching Artist ranks to join the faculty at a school and be the drama teacher, the art teacher, the music teacher or run an arts program in-house.

Now the arts budget that brought Teaching Artists in and sent students to Broadway shows or to see the symphony or a museum have been reduced to almost nothing. There is almost no reason to bring a Teaching Artist into your Zoom classroom. The stop gap is now just a gap. The gap reveals all the ways this was all just built on sand. The degrees and certifications that people went into debt for to do this job, the job itself, the investment arts organizations made in these programs. It’s all just – gone. A part of me just wants to shout, “I told you so, I told you so!” But that would be a real jerk move given that everyone involved has probably lost their entire livelihood.

The thing is – if, instead of building these haphazard arts programs – the city had rebuilt its arts programming in schools, things would be a whole lot less precarious. It’s easy to let 4,500 artists fall through the cracks because they never really existed for the schools or even a lot of arts organizations. Not in a meaningful way. When I was doing this work, I had to consistently explain to multiple people who I was and what I was doing there just to get a key to be able to use the bathroom. That’s both in the schools and at some arts organizations I worked for. But what if, instead of a teaching artist doing a 12 day residency once a year, the school had a drama teacher? That person is a lot harder to get rid of. The people in the school would know their name and would at least throw them a party if they got fired. And the union would certainly have something to say about it, if it were a public school. I’m not saying I would have liked to have been a drama teacher. I 100% would not. Popping in once a week was exactly the right speed for me. But I know a lot of Teaching Artists who would have loved to be invited to teach in more secure circumstances, who would have appreciated the opportunity to get health insurance, a pension, etc.

I imagine there’s around 4,500 of them who would especially appreciate that now.

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

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Is a Seventeen Year Old Girl Convincible?
August 11, 2020, 11:44 pm
Filed under: age, anger, education, feminism | Tags: , , , , ,

I sort of thought I was all done sorting through my past and re-evaluating. I’d scanned through it during the various waves of Yes All Women and Me Too. But the other day, I found myself suddenly absolutely newly furious about a relationship I had when I was 17. Before this moment, I had mostly fond memories of this relationship and, despite some ups and downs, I remained friends with the man. Until now, I’d seen this relationship with the eyes of the seventeen-year-old girl who was in it. Now I’m 46 and I realize that I had no business being involved with a twenty-three-year-old man. He should absolutely not have been messing around with me, a seventeen-year-old girl.

At the time, it all seemed very reasonable. I saw myself as an unusually mature young woman who’d outgrown boys my own age. To be involved with a man who’d already graduated from college, had jobs, even gone to war, well, there was no question I was into the idea. His attentions seemed to confirm what I imagined about myself – that I was a grown-up person ready for grown-up relationships.

But the woman I am now has suddenly realized that I was not nearly as grown up as I imagined myself and that this experience, while not all that bad, was also not good. One of the things that suddenly dawned on me was a new interpretation of his friends’ behavior. I thought they didn’t like me. I thought they thought I wasn’t good enough for their friend. I thought they were underestimating me, that they didn’t know me well enough to understand how mature I was. I realize now that they were trying to protect me. It wasn’t that they didn’t like me – they just didn’t think a twenty-three-year-old man should be messing around with a seventeen-year-old girl. They told their friend not to mess around with me and I suppose he got sort of half the message – because he told me we couldn’t date – we could only be friends. And we were. Except for when we’d make out. Except for when we’d roll around in his bed. Except for when he’d try to sneak past my boundaries. But it had to be a secret. Which now I recognize as a giant red flag – but at the time just seemed necessary, since his friends did not approve.

Now, I know his friends were right but I wonder if their attempts to help actually made the situation worse. So much of the damage was around the secrecy. Because I was a kid, I thought the secrecy was because I wasn’t good enough to date out in the open.

When this guy remarked that all of his girlfriends had been extraordinarily beautiful, I felt that the reason I wasn’t his actual girlfriend was because I lacked this essential extraordinary beauty. The whole situation was an exercise in shame. But the seventeen-year-old me could never have been convinced that this was a bad idea. Any questioning of it seemed like a knock against my own sense of maturity. Now, I know I was still a kid but, at the time, I genuinely thought I was grown.

I think this is a major factor in a lot of these predatory scandals we see. The girls think of themselves as grown-up women who are suddenly being welcomed to the grown-up world by actual grown-ups – and it is not until decades later that they realize the damage.

I’ve been trying to think of what anyone could have said or done at the time to shift my thinking around it and all I can come up with are a couple of things that shifted my thinking now. One of those things was reading Edith Wharton’s novel, The Buccaneers, and the other was watching the TV series version of the same. I feel it may have been a combination of the two. I’ll walk you through it a bit.

The central character of the story, Nan St. George, is fairly childlike when we meet her. She’s just been given a governess to look after her and she resents being given a babysitter when she feels grown but then comes to adore Miss Testvalley, her English governess. Her older sister has just come out (in the debutant sense) and so they all troop over to England for the London season. Nan meets Guy Thwaite on a tour of his house and they have some stimulating conversation about the estate, the landscape and the paintings and it’s clear they like each other but it’s also clear she’s a child.

So he goes off to South America to make some money and she meets the Duke. And the Duke is charmed by her and asks Miss Testvalley what he should do about proposing. She tells him to wait, and that, “in many ways Nan is still a child really” and he replies that that is what he likes about her.

This moment is gross in the book but it made an even bigger impact on me in the TV show somehow. Because we have seen how like a child she is, because the actor (Carla Gugino) is playing her as this vivacious, luminous, enthusiastic creature that, of course, we find charming. But we can also see how she is still a child, even though she has a woman’s body.

Suffice it to say that this marriage does not end well for The Duke and Nan. She grows up and he doesn’t like it.

There’s something about watching a girl, who, of course, is longing to be seen as an adult, end up in the hands of a man who doesn’t recognize that he should wait for her to grow up that turned on a series of lightbulbs for me.

I have no idea what effect it would have on an actual teenage girl. Would she recognize her own vulnerability as a child who feels ready to be an adult but isn’t quite? Would it help her avoid the Dukes of this world?

The educator in me really wants to be able to solve this for future generations. And, of course, I think stories are the answer because stories are powerful. The plethora of stories, songs, plays, movies, TV about a man falling in love with a young girl have played a role in how normal this feels to everyone. She was just seventeen, if you know what I mean. It’s not just Lolita. It’s story after song after film after novel after opera after play after book.

We need more stories that show us why the girl dating the older man is not a great idea. From this angle, the red flags are legion but how do we help girls see the red flags when they are blinded by the romance of being brought into the grown-up world by a grown-up man? More importantly, what stories would help men to see that underage women don’t exist? Underage women are girls. They are still children, even when they look like women.

Because I’ve spent time in a lot of high school classrooms, I know the difference. I’ve met a lot of highly mature, intelligent, vibrant teenagers. They are extraordinary humans but they are clearly still children. I cannot imagine how a healthy adult person could see them as a prospect for a romance. They are children. Intelligent, energetic, passionate children but still children.

No teenage girl wants to be seen as a child, though, which is why this problem is so hard to shake. There is nothing anyone could have said to me that would have convinced me that a relationship with a man was a bad idea. This is true for my friends at the time, too, who also got involved with men much older than themselves. None of us could have been convinced we were still girls and that these relationships might have consequences beyond us feeling grown up and ready for the world. Stories that shift this might be good for the girls but given that they are still children, I think it’s actually more important for men to see these stories, to learn the difference between a woman and a girl, to recognize their own power as adult men and wield it for good. It shouldn’t take an unfinished novel written in the 1930s to show us the way. There should be more stories. And if you’re seventeen and reading this, maybe just realize that that older man who is after you is kind of a creep, even if he seems cool now. You don’t need to wait 29 years to discover his creepitude. I’m here to tell you, if he’s a man and you’re a kid, he’s a creep.

This is Edith Wharton in 1880, which means she was about 18.

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Be Quiet. You’re Disturbing the Movie.

They were doing a screening of Roma in my neighborhood so I went. The theatre was dotted with audience members – so everyone sort of had a little bubble of space for themselves.

About two rows behind me sat two elderly Latino men. They were possibly the only Latinx people in the place. Once the movie began, they spoke to each other in Spanish. In a movie that is so much about atmosphere, their voices added to the experience. I was only sorry that my Spanish is not good enough to eavesdrop a little.

But some guy on the other side of their row was not happy about their conversation. He shouted at them to be quiet. His shouting was very jarring. And he did it again about ten minutes later. He was really mad about those old guys talking. The third time, he shouted “Be quiet. You’re disturbing the movie.” Which was ironic because to my mind, it was him who was disturbing the movie. (Also – it’s a movie. It doesn’t care what happens out in the audience. I think you mean the movie going experience.) I turned around to glare at him and of course he was a white guy. He was a white guy who was convinced he was being a white guy hero. However, I’m a white lady so I used my disapproving white lady glare to hopefully disabuse him of that position.

I don’t know if it worked or it didn’t work. He shut up after that. If it was my glare, I wish I’d used it sooner. And I don’t know if I ought to have said something to the shouter who was disturbing the movie by declaring the movie disturbed, I somehow didn’t feel like more white people shouting would help the situation.

But I did find it ironic that this white guy had decided to come to this movie about a working class Latina and did not want his experience disturbed by actual (I’m assuming) working class Latinos in the theatre. It felt a bit like all the folks who love tacos and nachos and celebrate Cinco de Mayo but are fine with separating Latinx children from their parents at the border.

It’s all of a piece, it feels to me. It is a control of the space, any space. This attempt to keep spaces like theatres and movie houses quiet and in control is an attempt to exclude, to state who is welcome and who is not. The attempt to dictate how we experience culture is generally classist if not explicitly racist. I’m thinking of that story I just heard on This American Life about a group of kids going to see a movie on a field trip and getting kicked out of the theatre because they had a visceral response to what they were seeing and no context for it. And the racism that they encountered on their way to their seats didn’t help either.

I’m particularly sensitive to this because of my previous work as an arts educator wherein it was my job to prepare students for whatever they were about to see in a theatre or on a screen. Performers loved our audiences because they were vocal and responsive. But if they were ever mixed in with a general audience, the general audience became a problem. It’s almost as if we ought to have been leading workshops for the adults in how to be less classist, racist or uptight before we let them watch a show with a bunch of kids. (Watching shows with bunches of kids is great. People should pay extra to do it.) The kids generally just need a little context and a heads up about stuff that’s going to be new for them. Adults usually need far reaching lessons in cultural imperialism.

In the end, back at Roma, I was more interested in what the two old guys thought of the movie than the movie itself (that’s another post, coming soon) and I definitely hoped to never have to see (or more importantly, hear) Mr. White Savior again – especially at the movies. He very definitely disturbed that movie for me.

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Who Is This Arts Education Experience For?

Having spent a couple of decades in arts education, in a multitude of schools through a dozen or so arts organizations, I’ve had occasion to wonder who it’s all for. Maybe it seems obvious. It’s for the kids, of course! It’s for the students! Except when it’s really not.

I’ll give you some examples. This first one happened recently to a musician I know. A group of kids came in for a musical theatre workshop and their chaperones pulled out some high-end cameras and microphones and began weaving in and out of the students who were trying to learn a song. The musician suggested to the grown-ups that having a safe, camera-free space to make mistakes would be beneficial to the learning process. The chaperone said, “No, but I’m trying to get some footage of their growth so this is great for me” and kept filming. Who was this workshop really for?

Or this one: Let’s say you’re putting on a play. And you cast little Jimmy to play the lead. But Jimmy is very quiet. You can’t hear Jimmy when he says his lines. When you tell Jimmy to speak up, the “problem” does not improve. And Jimmy’s not the only one you can’t hear. So you get a sound system and a bunch of mics. Jimmy has his very own lavalier. And Jimmy, because he has a mic now, gets quieter – so the sound guy has to pump the system up all the way just so people can hear Jimmy. But then the kids can’t hear the band so they miss most of their cues. Who is this for? What has Jimmy learned? He certainly hasn’t learned to project his voice. Or even how to use a microphone.

The audience, sure, has a better chance of hearing Jimmy now, however out of sync with the band he is. And the administration can rest easier knowing they’ve invested some money in making the students heard. But none of that was for Jimmy’s education.

Over and over, I’ve watched adults twist themselves into knots trying to put on a good show. They invest their own artistic aspirations into the students’ work and do whatever it takes to get something polished onstage. This is never going to happen. Your students aren’t that good. They’re not going to put on a Broadway quality show no matter how much you yell at them. I’m sorry to break it to you but your students are probably not good. Yet.

And once you realize that student work is not there to be good, you can start to tune in to what it IS there to do. It’s there to give the students an opportunity to learn. They will learn something in the process of putting on a show – no matter how it happens. But if what they’re primarily learning is how to please their director, they are not having the richest possible learning experience.

Putting on a school play is valuable for so many reasons. The opportunities for learning and discovery are endless, really. But for me, to me, privileging the production over the students’ learning is getting in the way of the best opportunities. One of those opportunities is failing at it. If you, for example, don’t learn your lines as well you’re supposed to and then you go out onstage and forget them, that is an excellent lesson you just learned. For me, the most potent part of every theatrical experience in education is when the students unpack all the things they wish they’d done better. That’s learning in action.

But…in my experience, most people who put on plays in schools are much more concerned with how the play looks than how the students are learning in it. They are worried about how it will look or sound to administrators, to parents or to funders. School plays (and concerts and presentations and so on) are 9 times out of 10 – not really for the people putting them on but some authority that their teacher/director wants to impress.

And the reality is, you’re probably not going to be able to change that. But it can be helpful to name it as it’s happening – to be clear that you’re getting a sound system for the principal because she gets so cranky when she can’t hear students or to be clear with your students that you’re spending time on light cues that you could have spent rehearsing because the school board decides the funding based on these shows and they need all the bells and whistles. That’s who the show is for, then. It’s an audition for the school board budgetary committee, not a learning experience. And knowing that can sometimes make engaging in those parts a little easier. You can yell at the students to be louder for the principal and do some character exercises for their growth. Personally, I’d prefer a theatre program that allows for discovery and failure and learning but most programs aren’t built that way. Which is, frankly, one of the reasons why I moved away from arts education.

But before I go completely, I want to share a chapter of a book on Teaching Shakespeare that I’ve been working on. It speaks to this question of who it’s for and what exactly you’re doing when you work on Shakespeare through performance. It’s something I clarified while teaching graduate students in education and as far as I know it’s a distinction that no one’s making and a distinction I think is crucial at this point in the field’s development Shakespeare education.

The text is here on my Shakespeare website and there is a direct line between this post and that chapter. If this topic speaks to you, particularly if you are an arts educator, click on over. But meanwhile even if you are not an educator, this perspective on learning might be useful when you go and see student work. Parents, for example, can be important advocates for more student-centered work. Or, at the very least, you can avoid complaining about not being able to hear little Jimmy. Remember, the show is for Jimmy’s learning, not for you.

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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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