Songs for the Struggling Artist


Thinking About Respectability in Law and Theatre
August 27, 2022, 11:09 pm
Filed under: Acting, Justice, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Mostly I don’t worry about respectability. I’m aware that I work in fields that lack a certain respectability and that by operating at the margins, I do not rank high on a lot of people’s respectability scales. I notice it particularly in the comments on anything that proposes providing support for artists (for housing, basic income, anything – “Why should we help these people who don’t even do a regular job for a living?”). I have made a kind of peace with my lack of respectability and can sometimes even revel in it.

Recently, though, I found myself thinking about it – after wrapping up jury service on a civil trial, spending hours watching lawyers. Lawyers, despite all the jokes to the contrary, experience a high level of respectability. Often, immigrants want their children to grow up to be lawyers (and doctors!) so that they know the children have achieved something like respectability. No one shakes their head regretfully when they hear someone is going to law school. It’s a sign they are entering a respectable social class, a genteel profession. There may be a lot of jokes about how terrible lawyers are but no one will be disappointed if their kid becomes one.

After sitting through a week and a half of a personal injury lawyer trying to gaslight us into punishing a doctor for something he didn’t do, I really don’t think law is such a respectable profession anymore. I may not make a lot of money but I don’t try to convince people of lies. I may do things that a lot of people don’t understand but I don’t waste people’s time and attention on spurious situations. I don’t take advantage of vulnerable people and expose their innermost life details to groups of people for no good reason. I do not find the guy who does this kind of work respectable.

The other lawyer, the guy defending against this case didn’t strike me as all that much more respectable, honestly, even though he at least had truth and science on his side. But this man spends all his time pushing back on the specious claims. He’s participating in it, too. If this lawsuit had not been brought, he would not have had a case. None of it struck me as particularly respectable. And yet.

It made me feel my own lack of respectability keenly in a way. I do not usually pay much mind to such things but I thought of all the actors I know, tired of being asked “Oh, where do you wait tables?” when they tell someone they’re an actor so they just decide to go to law school, just to get some respect for a change.

I read a quote from Uta Hagen recently where she explained why she called her book Respect for Acting. Her sense was that there wasn’t enough respect for the work and she hoped to foster some. (I’ll put the whole quote below. It’s bracing and inspiring.) There’s even less respect now than there was when she wrote the book and I suppose I’m thinking about it because it is not easy to live in a culture that does not respect what you do. Being exposed, at length, to the work of a job that IS respected and find it, instead of respectable, somewhat reprehensible is a kind of an unpleasant turnaround. I know this particular kind of law isn’t the only one and there are many many lawyers whose work I admire and am grateful for. (I think of the heroes who showed up at JFK airport the day Trump implemented the Muslim ban.) But – as a whole? I don’t know. Maybe we could treat artists with a little MORE respect and the vast field of law with a little less. It’s not all respectable.

I called the book ‘Respect for Acting’ for a very clear reason. I did not call the book ‘Delight in Acting’ or ‘Love of Acting’ or ‘The Fun of Acting.’ I called that book what I called that book because of the shocking lack of respect that was creeping into both the teaching and the practicing of acting. Now? Forget it. We have allowed so much to recede or languish that I don’t know what I could call a book today. ‘Demand for Acting’ might work. …There was a time when people became bored and they took up bridge or golf; ladies had an affair or had their hair rinsed and joined a book club. Now they want to act. And there are fools with no standards who allow them into classes and theatre groups and tell them to live their dream. I don’t care about dreams. I care about work and responsibility and truth and commitment. You can see how old-fashioned I am. When you are bored or depressed, you might be advised to visit a museum, to look at the art. You are not, typically, advised to pick up a brush and become a painter. It is understood that this is a rare gift, and foolish to presume it might be yours. If your soul is crushed, it might be suggested that you listen to classical music or submit to opera. It is not suggested that you audition for the Metropolitan Opera, or even your local, provincial opera company. You haven’t had the training. But acting? All you need, it seems, is the dream, and there are doors–doors that once meant something and once housed some standards behind them–that fly open and embrace you. And it enrages me. If there is some small society that calls itself amateur or community or whatever, and they want to get up and do plays, that is fine. I’ll contribute money and I’ll support you in the joys of understanding plays, but do not call yourself an actor. Do not think that your dream is similar in weight or meaning to the years of training and commitment that I and all the many actors whose work I love and respect and envy have invested in this art. Respect what is an art. It is not a pastime, and it is not something to get you through a bad time, and it is not something that should be taught to everyone with a dream. The term seriousness of purpose comes to mind. Apparently, only mine.

 Uta Hagen/1996. 

Uta Hagen is doing some highly respectable work on that stage. (She’s Desdemona and look how she’s THIS close to dropping that hankie.) And this production featured Paul Robeson as Othello so it is respectable feast.

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Put Up Your Dukes
August 10, 2022, 12:21 am
Filed under: anger, Justice, masks | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In case it’s not completely obvious, I’m a fairly conflict averse person. I hate when people argue. I get anxious when tensions rise. I do not enjoy a debate. I would almost always prefer to exchange smiles then to exchange “words” with anyone. Sometimes, on-line, people will think I like heated “discussions” because I have strong opinions and I express them through this particular medium. Just for the record, I do not. I will do a LOT to avoid a heated “discussion.”

As the time for jury deliberation got closer for those of us sitting through the trial, this one juror seemed positively excited about it. She’d put up her hands and pretend to duke it out with an imaginary person. I gave her the gesture back on occasion because I like to be playful – and I hate to leave an acting offer on the table. She wants to play fight? I’m here for her. But once the deliberations started, this woman had a lot to say and not a lot of it made sense and I was not there to indulge anyone’s whims. I did my best to get us on track and stay on the question at hand and the facts. And this woman who’d seemed so excited about the fighting she was looking forward to doing (“the fun part” she’d said) declared to me, “You’re so aggressive. I feel like I need to get out my boxing gloves.”

And this may be the most bizarre thing anyone has ever said to me. I found it positively baffling, especially in this context. But – just in case – I apologized and said I would try and turn it down – though what I was trying to turn down was completely unclear to me. There was something about what she said that made it sound like she was responding to my being passionate or some word to that effect so in addition to the apology, I let them know I was an actor and that seemed to satisfy everyone – like, “Oh, that explains it.” But what was it exactly?

I suspected that it had to do with a level of animation I have, an expressiveness that is perfectly normal for me but among these mostly quiet reserved people somehow felt out place? We’re all wearing or masks so everyone is harder to read than they might usually be. I probably turn myself up a little bit to get past the obstacle on my face. But I have noticed that a lot of people don’t do that. They just aren’t heard as well or aren’t understood. I guess that’s okay with them? It’s not ok with me so I become more expressive in a mask, not less. I will not disappear behind a piece of cloth.

But I suppose it’s possible that this makes me seem more aggressive to people who don’t do this? I don’t know. The whole interaction confused me so much. I wondered if this woman, with her mimed boxing gloves, was so interested in sparring that she just turned me into a sparring partner or if she truly did see me as aggressive.

I mean, I’ve changed a lot in these last few years, maybe I’ve turned over into aggression without even knowing it, though I very much doubt it. Do I write aggressively sometimes? Sure. Am I more assertive than I used to be? Yes. Thank goodness. But I’d be surprised if I’ve actually had an entire personality change.

I think the masks are a factor. They make it a lot easier for us to project things on to each other that have very little to do with us. I think that’s probably the main thing that was happening here. But maybe I’m just too aggressive.

This pic is like me, kissing my new dukes.

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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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The Theatre of the Court
July 13, 2022, 10:49 pm
Filed under: American, Justice, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

In one of the videos they play for jurors, the narrator explains the Court as being a lot like Theatre. He explained the roles and the conflict, the set and the setting. I was intrigued by this explanation because, as a theatre maker, I would not assume people understood theatre any more than they do a court.

If court is a show, though, it is not necessarily a good one. One thing that surprised me, in serving on a jury, was how willing to bore the audience everyone seemed to be. There were multiple moments where I thought, “Are they trying to win this case by boring us to death?” The first time I thought this was when the Plaintiff’s lawyer interviewed his hired-gun medical witness and had him slowly answer medical questions and read medical records for over an hour – both of them speaking incredibly slowly with very little inflection. The second time I thought this was when the Defense read the plaintiff’s description interview onto the record. It went something like this:

QUESTION: Where did you live then?

ANSWER: I don’t remember.

QUESTION: You don’t remember?

ANSWER: I don’t remember.

It was the world’s  driest dialogue read dryly by one dry lawyer. And he read “Question” and “Answer” each time, too. I’m a professional actor and I feel like I could inject some zest in almost anything but I would shake in my boots if I was challenged to read this dialogue.

The third time I felt this way was during the plaintiff’s lawyer’s closing statements wherein he pulled out a stack of medical records, chose the one from the top, flipped to the back, slowly found the doctor’s name and then read it, followed by their description of the patient’s complaint. It was the same phrase over and over, the same procedure, over and over, one stack of papers after another, for maybe fifteen minutes? The reading I could handle. It was the minutes of searching for the page and then slowly pulling out the next one. My god. If it was a show I’d have left it.

The last time I felt this way was during the judge’s “charge to the jury.”  We were warned by the officer that it generally took 50 minutes for him to read this thing so we were prepared but wow. The judge did his best to zhuzh it up but the material is long and dull and I cannot imagine an actor who could make it work. Maybe Mr. T. Because every show would be improved by the presence of Mr. T.

But, of course, all these exceptionally dull and tedious hours are not for theatrical purposes. No theatre maker would DARE bore their audience like this. But then –  a theatrical audience is not compelled by law to sit there and listen. Maybe that’s the major difference.

The architecture of this particular courtroom was also really not effective theatrical space. I was Juror #2 so I was seated at this odd point of convergence of the space wherein absolutely everyone spoke directly to me. There were five other jurors in the box but almost every single person on “stage” looked almost exclusively at me while they spoke. I imagine that’s mostly to do with the way the space is arranged but I also know that I am a well trained audience member so I am easier to talk to than most. I am easy to read and incapable of cutting off the channel of a “performer” who needs it. This is why I prefer not to sit in the front row of a show if I can help it. It’s a lot of work for me to be that channel! I kept wanting to tell the folks in the courtroom to work the ROOM, not just me.

This was not a situation of being at a concert and being convinced that the singer is singing just for me, though I have certainly experienced that phenomenon.  At times the lawyers were directly in front of me, maybe a foot and a half away, looking directly into my eyes. It was EXHAUSTING.

If court is a show, it is an incredibly tedious one, with dull performances and awkward acting. It’s overly long. And you’re not even allowed to talk about it until it’s all over.

Was it dramatic? No.

Was it comedic? Briefly, for a moment or two. The way a joke at the DMV is a nice break in the atmosphere.

Was it romantic? Can’t imagine how. If there was ever a meet cute in the jury room. I’d like to hear about it because it is not a meet cute atmosphere, that is for sure.

Was it action packed? No. All events happened six years before. All drama was long past.

If courts are theatre, they’re very very bad theatre. Which came first? Courts or theatre? Or did they evolve alongside one another? I suspect courts have a different lineage. The first courts were part of the Court and it was mostly just going along to see the king and hoping he’d see things your way. It feels to me that the courtroom is designed more like a king’s court than a theatre. Our court system is certainly better than a king’s authoritarian rule (though it might not feel that great lately!) – but it is not good theatre, that much I can tell you.

Certainly if the judge came in dancing with some show girls, that might give it a little extra something.

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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What I Was Supposed to Get Out of Jury Service and What I Got Instead

People like to tell you that being a part of a jury for a trial gave them a new sense of appreciation for the court system. The videos preparing you for jury service like to report that people say this as well. I might have thought this would happen to me, too, but in fact, it was something like the opposite. The whole experience made me incredibly sad. Now that it’s over, I can tell you why. Warning: there’s a lot about bowels in this case.

I was selected to serve in a civil suit brought by a patient who’d had to have bowel surgery on the heels of his colonoscopy. His lawyer claimed that the doctor had poked a hole in the man’s colon while performing the test. The man had had to use a colostomy bag for six months and had a miserable time. This man had been living with HIV since 1989 and at times lived in shelters. He is an incredibly vulnerable man, who also, it became clear through his testimony, just didn’t really understand what had happened to him. For him, events sort of blurred together so he felt that he went to sleep for a test and woke up the next day with a colostomy bag attached to him. He’s a man who has struggled enormously and the way our system works, rather than find a reasonable way to get this guy the care that he needs, he’s been seemingly pushed into bringing a malpractice suit against his doctor. He would not seem to have any real means of support and an absence of community to catch him when he falls. It sounds like, after his surgery, he just stayed in his apartment, unable to go anywhere for six months. And our government, rather than find a way to help this guy, somehow thinks it’s better to have him sue the doctor who gave him a test?

It was clear to me from the start that the doctor was actually exemplary in his care. The doctor’s office made sure the man was okay when he left their office and when the man went to the hospital the next day in pain, the doctor came to the hospital to see him again. Honestly, if I had a doctor who just gave me a test turn up to the hospital for me the next day, I’d be shocked but then, I’m used to pretty haphazard care. The doctor ordered a CAT scan to check for a bowel perforation and the radiologist reported “There is no evidence of a perforation.” Twelve hours later they did another CAT scan and he’d developed a perforation. Why? The gastroenterologists we heard from explained it was something called ileus, which is when your digestive system just quits moving. It’s pretty dangerous. I mean, I think of what Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Movement is Life,” and then he goes on to discuss that it is movement that is the way we know something is alive. So when things like the colon stop moving, there’s big trouble.

Anyway – I don’t need to tell you all the (incredibly tedious) details of this trial but what may already be obvious is that this poor guy, with all his troubles and cognitive issues to boot, was continually on display over the course of this trial. We saw CAT scans of his entire torso from lungs to rectum. We heard about his gas, his bowel movements, his fecal matter and more. For a man who could barely bring himself to say any bathroom words on the stand, it must have been brutal to be so exposed. I tried to make myself feel better by thinking, “Well, he brought the suit. I guess he asked for this.” But did he? A man this vulnerable?

The trial seemed to go on and on for no good reason. We’d hear an hour of testimony in the morning, after waiting an hour, and then be done for the day. It took a week and a half until we were finally put in a room to deliberate. The deliberation took us less than 45 minutes – mostly because the question we had to answer was so simple. It was something like, “Did the doctor deviate from standard medical practice and use too much force to push through the wall of the colon during the colonoscopy”? No. Obviously no. We were unanimous and we were not required to be.

Honestly, I resent that we had to be asked, that we had to sit in a courthouse for a week and a half to say so. A man had an unfortunate health event and rather than find a way to support him through it, to help him understand what happened and give him good resources to deal with it – our system thought it would be better to give him some false hope about getting a bunch of money from his doctor through the court system. The system is fine with putting out all these resources for this specious case instead of caring for a vulnerable man. Trials are expensive! If all the money spent on the trial had just been handed to this unfortunate guy that would have been money well spent. I would be happy with my tax dollars helping out a vulnerable person. They’re gonna pay me $240 for my week and a half of jury service. It’s not a lot but I bet this guy could use that even more than I could. How about DON’T call me in to listen to a lot of poop talk and just give the money to the man who needs it?

It’s just such an appalling mis-use of resources. And this how we do it. The doctor was compelled to hire a fancy malpractice defense lawyer. The jurors were compelled to disrupt their lives to come in and listen to this business. The plaintiff was compelled to listen to lawyers talk about his colon for a week and a half. What was the point of all of that? Is this justice? We rendered a just verdict, I think, but who benefitted from it? No one. It was just a colossal waste of time and resources. So, no, I have no new respect for our jury system. It was an impersonal, needlessly invasive sad state of affairs, that exposed not just the inner workings of the plaintiff’s guts but the ways our government fails the most vulnerable. Sorry, no. Especially with the Supreme Court becoming the travesty it is, I am not gaining new respect for our system. I have lost a lot of faith in a system I might have once had hope for.

We looked at an image like this for a week and a half.
I can tell you a few things about the Sigmoid Colon now and can’t believe they left out the Cecum on this diagram.

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

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