Songs for the Struggling Artist


Is This a Dragon Zeitgeist?
July 5, 2022, 10:49 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, feminism, Gen X, Imagination, podcasting, writing | Tags:

As many of my readers will be aware, back in 2018, provoked by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, I wrote a piece called “I Am a Dragon Now. The Fear of Men Is My Food.” A few months after that piece went around, elements of it poured themselves into a piece that became The Dragoning, an audio drama podcast. The podcast came out in the spring of 2020 and Season Two just launched.

I’m taking you through this timeline because here, in 2022, an award winning author has published a novel called When Women Were Dragons, in which there is an event known as The Dragoning. A friend sent me a review of this novel because it sounds an awful lot like my piece. Not identical, of course, but close enough to be uncomfortable.

Has, bestselling author, Kelly Barnhill STOLEN my idea? I doubt it. I suspect dragons were in the air and we both reached for them. I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea about ideas. She unpacks this notion in Big Magic. This is her theory that ideas just sort of float through the air and they visit whomever they think will realize them. The ideas visit lots of artists at once, just to be sure they are born. My guess is that The Dragoning was in the air and it chose both me and Kelly Barnhill. I got the idea out faster but Barnhill will spread it wider.

It is slightly uncomfortable, of course, to find that something that came from my brain also appeared in another person’s brain – and a woman who is exactly my age, no less. It’s like the idea was flying around in 2018 and was like – “I need a 44 year old woman to take this and run with it” and maybe it wasn’t even just me and Kelly Barnhill. Maybe there are a dozen more 48 year old women who were visited by the dragoning fairy four years ago.

Is it possible that Barnhill consciously or unconsciously lifted this idea from me? Like maybe she read the blog, which did go pretty viral, especially among Gen X women and thought, “I can imagine a world based on this!” And off she went. It is possible. Same thing happened to me! But, do I think she STOLE this idea from me as every novice writer is always convinced will happen to them? I do not. I’ve read Barnhill’s work. She has no shortage of imagination. She’s not out here trying to steal anything. She doesn’t need to. Her brain makes up lots of neat stuff on its own. She does not need to steal. I’m incredibly confident in her ability to make up her own magic.

But I do find myself in this incredibly awkward position of finding my own work slightly less google-able because someone else, with a much larger platform than me, has written a work with my title in it. They got Naomi Alderman, who wrote one of the most exciting books of the last few years – The Power, to write a review of it in the New York Times. Naomi Alderman is ALSO 48 years old. It feels like all the girls in my class are writing magical feminist speculative fiction and they all joined a club so they’re getting together and hanging out and I’m all by myself over here, quietly declaring I was here with this first.

The other thing that sucks about this is that the only way to find out if Barnhill’s work is somehow derivative of mine is to read it and I don’t feel I should, even though I know I’d enjoy her writing. I loved her novels for young people but I don’t want to mix up the waters. I don’t have any plans to write a third season of The Dragoning but I’d like to have the option and I don’t want to unconsciously take on a different writer’s dragons. So I guess I just have to wonder about it – or wait for my friends to read Barnhill’s book.

I feel like I want Barnhill’s book to be a success because maybe a rising dragon tide could lift all dragon boats. But I’m also not looking forward to being overshadowed by an established writer, who has an agent and an editor and all the trappings that come along with success. I’m proud of my work and it would be very painful if the spotlight shining on that award winning author just cast me further into the shadows. That’s why this is complicated. I am reasonably sure we’re all just part of a zeitgeist in a world where women long for the power of dragonhood, while we watch our rights and hope disappear. But the zeitgeist doesn’t feel great. Maybe just because I’m not in the club.

I’m obsessed with this Paolo Uccello painting from 1470. I love that this woman has the dragon on a leash, like she’s walking it and the knight looks like he’s giving the dragon a COVID test.

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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Do People Really Have an Aversion to Creativity?

The science in it seems sketchy and it’s not clear which people this may be true for – but the New York Times put out this article about how there’s a Creativity Problem and it feels true to me. Obviously, my feelings are not good science but if what this article posits is correct, a lot of people have a subconscious aversion to, or are pretty ambivalent about, creativity. They’ll say they like it, that they want it, that creativity is valuable to them. Then underneath, their subconscious seems to reflect the opposite experience. All the questions about methodology and sample sizes aside, if this is true, it does explain a few things. It explains why people’s stated values are so different than their actual values. It explains why people can say they support the arts while cutting all the arts programs. It explains why here in the States, we have no arts funding to speak of – because even though people say they like creative people and things, they don’t actually.

One of the theories that got floated in the article was that most people really prefer the status quo and art is disruptive. That is, it’s especially disruptive if it is innovative or creative. That is, if it’s more than just decorative, it’s probably shaking things up. Maybe that’s why people associated creativity with a word like vomit. Vomit is also very disruptive. Maybe people’s subconsciouses were going super deep when they went this way. It’s not that they don’t LIKE art, they’re just making word association visceral metaphors. (Says the artist who likes to make metaphors.)

The article suggested that even when companies declared that they valued creativity in their staff, in truth, they tended to revert to the status quo when hiring because middle managers don’t like novelty. This is not a surprise to me. I know ARTS middle managers who don’t like novelty or innovation and they’re theoretically IN creative fields. I guess we live in a world of middle managers, even in the arts.

This difference in people’s stated values feels true to me because while some people are charmed by my creative life choices when they meet me at parties, there is often a kind of underlying hostility about it that I’ve never been able to understand. I thought it was a kind of jealousy, like, everyone really wants to be as creative as they were when they were children and so it gets expressed as resentment to adults – but it may be this disgust, I suppose, this association with vomit or other negative words. It may be a subconscious resistance to status quo disruptors.

I’ve seen people get really mean in on-line discussions of artist housing that I’ve seen. They call us freeloaders who should get no special treatment and tell artists to get “real jobs.” There are some people who’d just rather we didn’t create. I guess there are more of those than I realized. That’s kind of a bummer.

I suppose I understand. Maybe my subconscious hates my creativity, too! (I doubt it. I’m a pretty clear outlier in these things.) Creativity is messy. You can theoretically want your kids to be creative, for example, but then, not let them paint without the smock and the drop-cloth and the mop at hand and really it would be easier to just not get into this painting activity. Let’s just watch a video!

You can think music is pretty cool but oh, those drums are so noisy and please stop playing that harmonica and why are we hearing that same phrase over and over?

Art makes a mess. Sometimes you can dress it up and put it on a stage with an orchestra and invite people in fur coats to come and see – but even the most refined work is messy at some point. It is inconvenient. It can bring something back up that you were hoping to never see again.

But, of course, people expressing a kind of ambivalence about creativity as a concept, as a preference doesn’t mean they don’t actually like art, or don’t engage with disruptive work or don’t respond to creativity in performance. They might love it when they see it. Actually. No ambivalence.

I suspect that folks might like art, actually – but just don’t really trust us artists. That’s okay. I really don’t trust middle managers. The feeling is mutual.

What a mess. Maybe better to just sit quietly in a corner running numbers all day. Don’t paint. You might mix up your colors or something.

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.

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

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

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Want to help me fight the aversion folks have for creativity?

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Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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

Or buy me a “coffee” (or several!) on Kofi – ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis



The Face I Made Up
December 28, 2021, 11:21 pm
Filed under: Imagination, masks, pandemic | Tags: , , , ,

In the year or so of going to this café, I have only ever seen the owner in mask – until yesterday. Yesterday, he was outside working on his shed and he was without his mask. For the first time, I saw the lower half of his face and if he hadn’t greeted me warmly and started chatting, I would never have recognized him. I am fascinated by this trick of my brain.

Put a piece of fabric over this guy’s face, I could easily pick him out of a crowd. Without it, I think I’ve never seen him before. It’s clear that my brain made up a face for this guy, one that has nothing to do with his actual face. The face I made up doesn’t exist and I can’t really describe it but if I saw someone with it or something like it, I could have pointed to it and said, “That one.” It’s not just that I didn’t know what this guy looked like, it’s that I thought I knew and I was super super wrong.

The face he actually has is as good a face as the one I made up for him but it somehow tells a different story? I feel as though I’ve uncovered a strange secret of how my brain works in grappling with the discrepancy of what he actually looks like compared to who I imagined.

It turns out that I’m making up stories about people based on their faces. It’s not just that they might have a different face than I imagined, it’s also that I assume they must have a different story. Subconsciously, I’m going, “This person is like this. That person is like that.” based on nothing other than the shape of their chin or whatever. I can’t yet really unpack what my assumptions are or were – but they have to do with social class, geographic origin, personality, upbringing and who knows what else? Like – the guy I imagined was from Connecticut and the actual guy looks like he’s from New Jersey. What does this mean? I could not tell you. The only thing I know is that my brain cannot stop making up stories – both metaphorically, as in the story of the lower half of this guy’s face, and more literally – like what that face I made up means. I feel like this is where the root of prejudice must live – because surely I am not the only one making up stories, making up associations, making up characteristics, based on someone’s face. We do this, surely, for everything and do not know we’re doing it. It’s not just facial structure. It’s bodies. It’s skin. It’s hair. It’s a movement pattern. We think we’re being intuitive or sharp but really our brains are just imaginative chunking association machines.

I’m not sure what we can do about it except perhaps to recognize that it happens and to wonder at how wrong we can be. I’m certainly not one to try and silver lining this pandemic. It sucks and I hate most things about it. I hate all the dark things it has revealed about a lot of humans. However, as uncomfortable as it makes me, I suppose it is a kind of gift to start to see the assumptions my brain makes – to see them in process and to question myself because of it. I can question my own notions of what someone from New Jersey looks like. I can perhaps assume less at the get go and try not to make up so many stories based on faces.

For some reason, I don’t make up faces for masks like this. Like, I literally have no theories about what any of these people look like but give me half a face and my brain’ll go bananas.

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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Give Me Your Witches, Your Ghouls, Your Severed Limbs Hanging in Trees
October 28, 2021, 11:08 pm
Filed under: art, community, Imagination, Witchery | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The cheerful scarecrow dolls and corn cob clusters don’t thrill me but I will celebrate any nod toward decoration this month. I embrace your paper pumpkin, your hay bale, your autumnal faux leaf display.

But I am delighted by your circle of witches, your zombie doll babies, your floating spectres, your plastic bag ghosts, your homemade headless magician, your skeletons engaged in activities, your dagger wielding clown child on a swing, your smoke machine, your sound effects, your back-lit and up-lit cloaked figures, your spiders, your crows, your ravens, your bats.

Having been starved of art for so long – (I have not yet been to a museum or a theatre since March 2020) – I find myself intensely grateful for the experience of discovering decorations on my neighbors’ houses and apartments. Is it art? Mostly not. But occasionally there’s something that feels like it. The house with the Dead and Breakfast sign felt like such a complete concept in its design. I can imagine the experience continuing should I walk through the gravestone yard and go up the steps, up to the figure who tells you to beware and attempts to send you away. I can then imagine trying to check in to this glorious Dead and Breakfast, where skeletons climb in at the windows.

Art or not, it feels like an exercise of our art muscles as we applaud the good ones and bemoan the missed opportunities of houses that seem built to be perfect settings for Halloween displays.  I am weirdly so intensely grateful to all the people who’ve made an effort. It seems like this is a new development, that this year is unusually rich in Halloween festiveness, but I can’t be sure. I’ve never gone hunting for Halloween houses before.

Ever since my youngest brother was killed last month, I have felt a strong need to get out of the apartment and walk. From day one, we went out walking nearly every night and over the weeks, there has been more and more to see. It feels so much better to get out and walk because we have a mission to see the best Halloween décor, for fun, than to just be out Grief Walking.

So I just wanted to say thank you to my neighbors for giving us cool things to look at. I thank you for your inflatables, your cobweb arches, your flashing eyes, your jack o lantern pile, your comedy skeletons who drink beer, read dirty joke books and fart. I thank you for your inflatable dragons that turn their heads to look at me. (Though I am not 100% sure dragons are on theme for Halloween, they are 100% on theme for me, so extra thanks!) I thank you for your vampires and your transforming portraits. I thank you for your flashing orange and purple lights. I thank you for your skull wreath. I thank you for your severed limb Halloween bush. (Like a Christmas tree but with feet and hands instead of ornaments!) I thank you for your Yoda toting T-Rex skeleton eating a hand. I thank you for your blood smeared windows. I thank you for your tiny mermaid skeletons that I feel sure you dressed yourself in tiny shiny mermaid skin tails and bikini tops. I thank you for cheering us up with darkness.

And if you live in my neighborhood (Astoria, Queens) and you know a cool Halloween House to go see, please let me know. I’m out walking, looking for them.

This house does a little Halloween all year round. Their Labor Day decorations are the only ones in the neighborhood.

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.

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

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

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Making “Something”
August 15, 2021, 10:38 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, Imagination | Tags: , , , , , ,

In response to my post about the $5k arts grant, several sweet well-meaning people offered some suggestions for stuff I could do to take advantage of it. There were project suggestions and ideas for ways to game the system. But the parts I can’t stop thinking about are the suggestions that featured “making something” because that “something” is exactly the thing that’s at issue. The art happens in the “something.” That’s the place where the idea happens. Deciding what the “something” will be is the hard part. If you have a good something – a lot of things can start to fall into place. But finding a good “something” is not easy.

Generally, I don’t have much trouble coming up with ideas. Ideas have, historically, come pretty cheap for me. I foster the environment for them to turn up and they do, often in numbers too big to execute. But an idea is not a “something.” An idea is not necessarily a thing I can make. I had an idea about a Butoh barista once but that little nugget had nowhere to go. It wasn’t anywhere close to a something. Let’s say this little nugget of an idea were to grow up into a play. Then I could imagine the places it needed to develop and it becomes a show in my imagination. That’s still not really a something. It could be somebody’s something but if I don’t have an idea about how to produce it, it’s just a full idea in my computer. I have bushels of those. They only become something I can make when either the conditions are possible OR I feel so fired about it, I’ll find a way to make it even without the right conditions. It is a long journey from an idea to SOMETHING and that journey is often a whole lot of work. But because it’s the kind of work no one sees it seems like the something just emerged fully formed out of my head, like Athena being born to Zeus. But you get a something the way you birth an actual baby – with a lot of pushing and crying.

I don’t know if maybe artists have somehow made what we do look too easy? Is this why people think we can make things by just wishing for them? Most art takes a ton of work. You want a swank artistic mural on your public square’s wall? That’s awesome. But settle in because it’s going to take a while. It’s not just the time it’s going to take to paint it. In a way, that’s the easy part. Your muralist is going to have to come look at the site, measure the wall, get a sense of the environment it’s in and maybe then, they can start playing with some ideas. They’ll have to draw the idea they settle on, figure out how it will work in the space and THEN get the approval of the person who commissioned it. That’s a lot of work before the visible work of standing in front of a wall with a paintbrush happens. Most of the public will think of the something as that time with the paintbrush but most artists think of that part as the easier bit. It’s the performance that people see, not the months of prep and rehearsal. The something appears to be the show but, in fact, it’s the whole process, even from that first nugget of an idea.

When you make something, context matters. You make a different mural on a door than you would on the walls of the National Palace. If you’re putting on a show, you put on a different something on a Broadway stage than you would on a street corner.

It’s not that I have no ideas. If someone said, “Hey – I’ll give you a Broadway stage and a Broadway budget,” – I’ve got six shows ready to go. What I don’t have in my back pocket are the ideas for no budget, no fuss, quickie street performances. I have had those ideas but I’m fresh out at the moment.

But let’s say you make stuff out of popsicle sticks. Maybe it’s not so hard to just make something because all you do is just sit down with your single material and see what happens. But even for a singular popsicle stick artist, with a grant like this, you’re going to have to make up a context for it. Figure out where to have your popsicle stick show or figure out how to involve an audience. You’ll need a whole something that isn’t just the making of your something.

Is there something I could make for this grant? Actually. Turns out there is. I applied for it a week ago. But do you know how that something came to me? Three weeks in a quiet place with access to a swimming pool. That’s how it came to me. My brain needed that kind of quiet and pleasurable movement before it could put any water in my well of inspiration. So this story had a happy ending but only because I happen to be lucky enough to be gifted such time and space. I don’t like the chances of the rest of New York’s artists to get the same sort of opportunities. Not everyone gets the chance to replenish depleted creativity wells and see a something emerge.

I feel like the thing to hold on to here is that somethings come out of resources. If someone said, here’s $5000, go make something; that would be a whole different world of inspiration. I would have $5000 to make something and something would emerge. If a Broadway producer gave me a theatre and a Broadway size budget, I would make a Broadway sized something. As it happens, I had a different sort of resource that allowed me to come up with something for $5000 but I needed those resources first. That’s why all arts funding is backwards. They ask us to tell us what we’d make with next to nothing when really, if we had the resources, we wouldn’t need to invent anything. The well would be full and ideas and somethings would pour out of it.

Oh look – Something hasn’t magically appeared on this page! How odd.

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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Want to help me make Something?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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

Or buy me a coffee on Kofi – ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis



An Idea Is a Little Monster
April 19, 2021, 11:56 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, Imagination, puppets | Tags: , , , ,

Famous writers and artists get asked about their ideas a lot. I feel sure I’ve read a few essays about having to respond to the “Where do you get your ideas?” question, which is, apparently a ubiquitous question for a successful writer.

For the record, I have never been asked this question. Though I have been asked the question that comes up at nearly every Q&A for actors in history which is, “How do you learn all those lines?”

I think I will know I have achieved a measure of success as a maker when someone finally asks me where my ideas come from. Obviously, they come from the idea store, where you can get a six pack of ideas for really cheap if you time it right. Ha! You know this isn’t true. I could never afford to buy my ideas!

For me, I’ve previously thought of ideas like glitter – and I stand by that concept but recently, I began to think of an idea I had as a little monster, demanding that I complete it.

It feels to me that some ideas, once they take hold, become tyrannical little demons. They’re not malevolent – just really persistent. They will not let me rest. Not all ideas are like that. Some are like butterflies that just sort of float around hoping someone will offer it a flower to land on. You can follow it if you like or let it fly on. But some ideas hook their claws into you and demand you complete them. They’re not full size monsters. They’re sort of cat sized and as unwilling to let you complete your regular work as a cat is. Wait, is the idea monster a cat? It’s close. But not quite. A cat will leave you when it gets bored. The idea monster will not get bored. It insists on itself vociferously. It WILL be completed. It will not be dissuaded by logic. You can tell it that no one cares about this idea, that it’s a waste of time, that it’s silly, that there’s no reason to do it – but it does not care. It wants to be realized. It will be realized. You might as well just go ahead and finish it if you want to get some sleep.

This makes it sound like the Idea Monster is a pest but the fact is, I’m never happier than when I’m in the hold of an idea monster. It is a persistent little bugger who captures my attention – but I love having it around. It’s an incredibly clarifying little creature. When we’re working together on something, there is nothing better, nothing more important. It is a little like a love affair.

When the idea is complete, the monster will vanish and I will miss it tremendously even if I do get a lot more sleep.

Anyway – I don’t know where the idea monsters come from but if anyone has a direct line to their place of residence, please tell them they are always welcome here.

I think the monster might look a little like this one (created by Marte Ekhougen).
This monster was the star of a video born from an idea monster. Monster circles!

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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Want to help me make a home for more idea monsters?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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

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More Tips on Masks from a Mask Theatre Person

Initially, I was just going to add a little note to my first Tips on Masks from a Mask Theatre Person, a little update, as it were. I thought it was going to be a sentence or two. But I got started and before I knew it, I’d written over a thousand words. So, I guess I had a few things to say on the subject, after all these months of mask wearing.

I wrote my initial Tips for Masks a few months ago when mask wearing was JUST kicking in for us in New York. According to my stats, people are still reading it and so it needs a little update. Wearing a mask every single day for six months is a very different experience than throwing one on for the first time. A lot has changed since I wrote that first post and I’ve got to make some amendments and adjustments, as well.

The first thing that is really very present, and was absolutely not when I wrote the initial piece, is the intensity of the anti-mask movement. When I wrote it, maskholes were the people taking up too much space and bumping into the rest of us. Now the real maskholes are the ones who refuse to put their masks on. I don’t have a lot to say to those folks – just, wear a mask, don’t be a maskhole.

It would seem that most people seem to be adapting pretty well to wearing these things. They don’t seem to be overly entitled and unconstrained by social bounds the way the early adopters were. I will note, though, that I notice there is still a visibility issue with masks. Depending on the mask, you might have discovered that your peripheral vision is impacted. I don’t have the science on this but I do know that we normally see our noses but are not at all conscious of them. Now you’re seeing this mask instead and it is distracting for the space-making parts of our brains. You’re more likely to bump in to stuff or just have a different sense of the space around you.

This happens in theatre mask work as well and if you can imagine it as a benefit, as we can in working in masks in the theatre, maybe it will start to feel a little less limiting.

For example, some of my favorite masks to work with are naïve masks AKA larval AKA Basal. Their eye-holes tend to be very small and the mask covers the entire face, so in order to work in it, you have to adapt to a very limited range of visibility. This, in fact, is where the comedy comes in. My mask teacher, John Wright, will usually introduce these masks by having everyone put their hands in circles over their eyes, like they’re putting on hand binoculars. (Try it! It’s fun!) Then he puts everyone in increasingly challenging situations while only being able to see through those small tunnels of their hands. Trying to get everyone into a line when no one can really see is almost always funny. Just because of the limitations, everyone begins to use more and more of the body. If you want to see down the line, you have to lean all the way out and turn, you cannot just peek out of your periphery. You have no peripheral vision. It is comedy gold.

Our pandemic masks do not make comedy gold but they do create a limitation. I’m still trying to work out the performative benefits of that limitation (aside from protecting ourselves and the people around us from droplets, of course). But I’m sure there is one. And since there are such a lot of us in these things, if we all search for it, maybe we’ll find something interesting. Perhaps we will all become highly expressive in the eyes. Maybe we will increase our acuity in sensing things with the body, rather than the peripheral vision.

But if you find yourself a little clumsier in mask maybe just recognize that that is likely a property of the mask and not that you are losing your grace.

Another thing I will note is that when I wrote that first post, it was pretty much the height of the epidemic in New York. For us, then, there was never a moment outside the apartment where it made sense to remove a mask. In less dense areas, I have discovered, there is a lot more on and off that tends to happen. You go for a walk in a small town and you can go without your mask for blocks and then need to whip it on as a pedestrian approaches. My “put your mask on and keep it on” advice is useless for you in those circumstances. So, in this on-again-off-again world, you’ll want to only touch the elastic. Take it on and off at the ears, not the front. That’s for safety and keeping your mask as free from the bad stuff as possible. But it is also true for aesthetics in mask that you don’t want to be seen touching the face of the mask.

I don’t have a solution for the fogging glasses problem, really. In the theatre, for performers, I usually encourage glasses wearers to switch to contact lens for their performances or go without. That is a lot harder in the real world where we really need to see. I can mostly only parrot what I have seen others say about the glasses problem – a lot of which seems to involve purchasing either fashion tape, bendable mask wires or defogging goop. I keep trying to just place the glasses over the mask but the glasses often slip or the mask does. The fog seems to entirely depend on the mask, the glasses and the weather. I have been experimenting, though, and I’ve discovered that if I put my front teeth over my lower lip like a cartoon rabbit and say things that begin with F, it does a pretty good job of clearing my glasses. I made up a phrase (“finicky feral finches fend for feed” ) that I found works pretty well. But somewhat more satisfying is telling corrupt and immoral politicians to go F themselves. I was originally enjoying telling Fitch FcFonnell to go F*** himself but then I realized how much more effective it was to begin with a classic, old timey Shakespeare curse of “Fie!” (The i has better glasses-clearing qualities than the u.) So while I walk down the streets watching businesses get boarded up due to the Senate’s abysmal Covid relief response, I can just curse away. “Fie, Fitch FcFonnell! Fie, Findsey Faham!” Lately, I’ve added, “Fie, Famey Foamy Ferrett!” Listen, no one needs to know what kind of witchy business you get up to behind your mask. I’ve Fubbled Fubbled Foiled and Fubbled back there quite a bit. My fillet of a fenny snake has in the fauldron foiled and faked.

Anyway, vocal exercises aside, the main tool an actor uses in mask work is actually available to anyone and that is imagination. The main skill involved in performing in mask is imagining that the mask on your face is your face. That the mouth of the mask is your mouth, that the eyes are your eyes.

One way to deal with the alienating effect of having to wear something on your face all the time is to imagine that the thing is not a foreign object – but an expressive part of your own self. You can imagine scenarios for this, if it will help. You could be an alien species with half a fabric face. You could be a warrior that has grown a protective layer of cloth to prevent you from telling secrets. You could be a cloth doll in the midst of a transformation. You can be someone new every day. I’m not going to say this won’t be challenging. It is actually a lot easier to imagine that a silly forehead with a comedy nose is your face than it is to invent a useful fiction for your new cloth mouth – but it will keep you occupied as you negotiate mask world. And it looks like we’re going to be living in mask world quite a bit longer, so, having a project that’ll last a whole year might not be a terrible idea.

I will update this post as new developments occur. I sure as hell hope we can stop wearing these things every day soon. I hate them as much as anyone. But we’ll suck it up and do it because it helps slow the virus down more than just about any other thing we can do. Wear a mask! Save a life! And imagine you’re a weird cloth monster or something.

You cannot imagine how long it took these masks to get into this line and find one another’s hands. It was very funny to watch them get here. They can barely see.
(This is from my company’s Very Serious Theatre. In the naive masks are: Julia Cavagna, Mia Hutchinson-Shaw, Brooke Turner and Ilyssa Baine)

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Terry Gilliam in the Toaster Oven

“Mum! Dad! It’s evil! Don’t touch it!”
This is the final line of one of my all time favorite movies, Time Bandits. I loved Time Bandits as a child and in the many subsequent viewings of it, as an adult, it has not diminished in my estimation. It is a delightful film made by one of my favorite filmmakers.

And I didn’t just love Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, no. I also admired his Brazil, The Fisher King, and even his relatively unknown and under-appreciated, Tideland. Tideland is a deep cut in the Gilliam oeuvre and I was a big fan.

After reading his interview in The Independent, to say that I’m disappointed in him is a massive understatement. I’d heard he’d said some pigheaded garbage before but this was sustained pigheaded garbage. This was relentless pigheaded garbage.

As a feminist, I found it pigheaded enough to never want to hear from or see him again. I’d honestly prefer to have read his obituary than to have read his opinions on #MeToo. If it had been his obituary, I’d have cried and mourned the loss of his brilliant mind. As it stands, I guess I have to re-evaluate everything he ever made. Why, Terry Gilliam, why?!

Listen, he’s never been a particularly woman-friendly artist – but he hasn’t been actively terrible either. Sure, there are only a few women in Time Bandits but the main ones are Shelley Duvall and Katherine Helmond and they are remarkable. I didn’t mind that Time Bandits was a boy’s story. I really didn’t. It was perfect. The battle between Good and Evil, a test of the system, as it were, featuring an adorable kid and six hilarious thieves. But now that it’s clear that Gilliam has no idea that women are human, I’m going to have to sit in some discomfort. I don’t think I will love Time Bandits any less but I have to love it knowing the man who made it thinks that MeToo is a witch hunt, that Weinstein’s rape victims chose to be assaulted and that white men are the real victims here. The man who made some of my favorite films is basically an MRA. (Men’s Rights Activists are not actually activists for men. They’re the folks who bring us many violent acts against women and some incredibly toxic thinking.) Gilliam’s become like the chunk of pure burning coal sitting in the toaster oven at the end of Time Bandits. Poisonous and Vile. I’m finding it particularly difficult to reconcile.

It’s not as if I haven’t had to reconcile this sort of thing before. I could probably still recite whole Bill Cosby routines from his albums. I was a fan of Louis CK. I have appreciated some Roman Polanksi films. And, unlike those guys, we have no actual terrible deeds from Sir Terry. We just have his terrible thoughts. And his terrible thoughts suggest that he thinks my entire worldview is ridiculous. His terrible thoughts suggest that he has never thought of women as anything more than sex objects or archetypes. His terrible thoughts suggest that he thinks the systemic oppression of women and people of color are a joke. It breaks my Time Bandit loving heart.

It also strikes me as impossibly stupid. Because I am his fan base. I am his audience. And he just lost me. Who will go see his movie now? All of 4Chan? The darkest reaches of Reddit? The incel chat boards? Is that who he wants for his audience? I’m sure as hell not going to see his movie now and I’m sure I’m not alone in being suddenly very disinterested in what he’s made.

It matters what he says and thinks. If I’m going to go sit in a movie theatre and spend a couple of hours in the world someone created, I want to trust the mind of the person who made it. I wouldn’t go see a Brett Ratner or Bryan Singer movie. I no longer want to sit through the work of Woody Allen. The writer/director’s thoughts are intimately connected to the work they make. I know because I do those things onstage. If you don’t like how I think, you won’t like my creative work. How I think is intrinsic to how I make things. That’s true for most artists.

The upsetting thing about this Gilliam situation is not that Gilliam said some dumb shit and may now be canceled, it’s that he’s revealed himself to be the opposite of what I imagined him to be. Instead of a hero of creativity and bold imagination, he’s a stinky old dinosaur reinforcing the patriarchy. And he must have been all along, in such subtle ways, even I, who am very vigilant about these things, failed to sniff him out.

I have found myself re-evaluating much of his work through this newly revealed lens of his. I’m looking for the dark threads of misogyny and racism that must have been there all along before he laid them bare. I’m also working hard to somehow explain what feels inexplicable. I think, “Oh, he’s just trying to be funny. He’s enjoying being provocative. He’s purposefully sounding like an asshole because he enjoys making mischief. He is doing that classic buffoon style of clowning or something.” This is how I’ve explained away countless other asshole clowns but I don’t think it’s an in-the-past explanation that can fly anymore. I mean – it may explain the why but the why doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter why, in Time Bandits, Kevin’s parents reach in to the toaster oven after they are warned by their son not to. It doesn’t matter if they ignore his pleas to not touch the evil because they are contrary or because they always ignore him or because they think it’s funny. They reach in and touch the evil and the consequences are predictable.

Gilliam has surely been warned not to touch the evil in the toaster oven (he’s said some dumb things before) but in the end, he just couldn’t resist. To predictable and sad results.

But what does it matter? Why not just enjoy the films I used to like and forget about the man that made them? Well, it’s actually important that I look at this and not just forget about either Gilliam himself or his work. I have to dig in to some reflection on it because his work was so formative for me. I can draw a direct line from Time Bandits, from Gilliam’s sense of humor, from his aesthetic, to my own work. I can see the threads of his influence in a lot of my plays and fiction. I may have unconsciously interwoven some of the threads of his misogyny or racism along with his aesthetic. Unfortunately, learning what he really thinks about things means I have to be extra vigilant about the foundations of my own work. He was important to me when I was a child and has continued to be important. I can’t just brush off this development. It is a great loss and it will be a great project of reorganization. Even though it’s evil, I still have to look at it. I will not touch it, though! I know better than that!

Mum! Dad! It’s Evil! Don’t touch it!

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This Hour Is for You

My priorities seem pretty screwy to a lot of people. Because Art is the most important thing to me, I tend to value my time more than money. There is not much that money can buy me that seems better than time to create in.

This means that I have made quite a few sacrifices over the years. There are things I don’t have. Places I don’t go. Shows I don’t see. Experiences I fail to enjoy. But I do have time. I have time to write, time to stare out the window, time to learn new songs, time to play guitar. I have time to read and time to wonder if I’m wasting my time reading.

It has not always been this way. At this point in my life I know I could probably be less Money Poor if I was less Time Rich but I’m actually reasonably comfortable with the current balance. It’s not at all sustainable and it won’t last forever. But it is a gift for the moment. It’s a gift I sometimes feel guilty about – like, am I allowed to mull and ponder like this? Wouldn’t I be a more productive member of society if I got out and sold something? Did some “business” or sent emails for a boss all day?

But then I read Brigid Schulte’s article, A Woman’s Greatest Enemy? A Lack of Time to Herself, and something snapped.

I am not just taking time for myself, for my art, though it can feel that way. I am also taking time for all the women who can’t spare an hour.

By taking time for myself the way Popeye takes spinach, I can, perhaps, begin to counteract the way the Patriarchy has stolen so much time from women over the years. I don’t just take an extra hour for myself, I can take one for Henry David Thoreau’s mother and sister who did his laundry and made him meals while he wrote out by the pond. I don’t just retreat to solitude for me and my play, I do it for Alma Mahler who might have taken some time for herself instead of tiptoeing around her husband. I take abundant time for all my friends, caught up in the mesh of childcare, who cannot take more than 15 minutes at a time to do much of anything for themselves, much less work on their art.

It feels as though it is my solemn duty, as a woman unburdened with the usual domestic duties, with my particular tolerance for financial insecurity, to take as much advantage of time alone as humanly possible. I would have thought that by now, what with the progress that has been made, we could have made space for women’s creativity – but no. Creative pursuits are still largely seen as a man’s rightful place. When have you heard a woman called a genius? When have you heard of a woman, gifted with time, who was supported and catered to in the way that all the “geniuses” were?

Are there women who have managed to grab moments of creativity in the cracks of their domestic lives? Of course. But I am heartbroken for all the women who never got a full afternoon to themselves to just drop in to their own minds or their creative work.

There are probably many women who have never even tasted uninterrupted time and might believe they do not need it. They may feel a stolen moment or two is enough to get some art done. (Neuroscience says otherwise. Humans are not nearly as good at multi-tasking as we think. We are also incredibly good at fooling ourselves on this front. “Why, I just happen to think better when I have Twitter scrolling by me!”) But what wonders might the women, hemmed in by domesticity, have made if they’d had more than a whisper of time to create in. We might have called a woman a genius once in a while instead of just catering to the boy geniuses.

And the thing is – it’s not JUST geniuses who have been catered to in this way. Women have lost acres of time to as many (if not more) dolts as they have to geniuses and all levels in between. Many a man thinks himself a Henry David Thoreau and many a woman does his laundry as if he were.

Sometimes I think I do not deserve to take time alone because I am not genius enough – or because I haven’t achieved the sort of success I imagined would justify having taken time. But fuck that. Just fuck it. I will pretend to be a motherfucking genius even when I least feel like one. I deserve it. I will treat myself like a 19th century boy genius. I will cater to myself, give myself the best chance I can get and enjoy every goddamn minute.

So, in honor of all the women who can find nary a minute alone in which to create, I pledge to stop feeling guilty for my productive solitude. I pledge to soak up every minute, every hour and make the best work I can make. I’m guessing that for the women without a minute, for the mothers and movers, this hour that I honor them with is actually not nearly as good as actually having an hour. So, I also pledge to give some hours to help watch your child or aging loved one so you can have an actual hour. If you’re in my city, you have some hours in my bank that I will happily give you so you can create, too, you genius woman.

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