Songs for the Struggling Artist


Pre-Writing the Rejection
February 25, 2016, 10:49 pm
Filed under: Non-Profit, Rejections | Tags: ,

I’m writing this blog for a grant I’m sure I will not get – trying to save time for the inevitable moment when I definitely don’t receive what I asked for. I’ll type it up when I get the confirmation, when I get the notification – but I’m writing it in advance, because I thought of it today and wondered when I’d see that inevitable rejection notice.

I apply for things for my company but I do not expect to get them – mostly because we’ve been around too long to be considered for emerging grants and are not fiscally big enough to be likely candidates for bigger funding. Bigger funding goes to bigger institutions. Big funding likes big boards and big budgets.

As a small, nimble operation, we’re nobody’s best bet for fiscal pay off, for big impact, for all the buzz words of community based funding.

So. . .it’s no surprise that this grant hasn’t come in – so little of a surprise, in fact, that I wrote this BEFORE it came through.

*And, hilariously, this rejection notice never actually arrived. I was waiting and waiting to post and it just never came. Then I got the notice about applying for it again this year and I figured, yeah. . .we didn’t get it. They just didn’t notify us.

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*Wondering why I’m telling you about all these rejections? Read my initial post about this here and my patron’s idea about that here.

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What I Wish the American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits #10

# 10 – Creating Welcoming Theatre Spaces

On my last trip to London, I revisited some theatre institutions I’d spent a lot of time in back when I lived there. I hung out at both the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) and the National Theatre. Funny thing was, I didn’t see a show at either one during this trip. I walked in and out of the front doors of both places dozens of times – sometimes to meet friends, sometimes to write in the cafe, sometimes to see what was playing. I felt welcome.
At the BAC cafe, for example, I saw new mothers with their babies.It made me think about how those babies would grow up with the theatre – how that theatre would always be part of the fabric of their lives. Not just the shows they saw but the hours they spent in its walls. I saw design meetings for shows both at the BAC and elsewhere. I saw people of all ages from all ends of the neighborhood. You can feel how these are PUBLIC institutions. Like a library. Everyone is welcome.
There is no American Institution (that I know) that has this kind of atmosphere. American Theatre Institutions are consumption experiences. You come in, you watch the show, you maybe get a quick drink at intermission and you’re out the door.
You can’t just walk into Lincoln Center and feed your baby. You need to be there to buy a ticket for a show. There are cafes in Lincoln Center but you will need to purchase something (expensive) to sit in one. At BAM, where I used to work, there is a restaurant (an expensive one) but it only opens before certain shows and closes by the time the show is over. Furthermore, if you wanted to try and walk into the building, to say, visit someone in an office, you would need to get written or verbal permission from someone upstairs who would have to either come down and get you or call the security desk to let you in and then you would need to show your id. I worked at BAM for over 10 years before I had an ID that actually got me in without having someone come escort me to the office.
Having a truly public theatre spaces means that more people are likely to feel comfortable in them and that only benefits the work – even if someone never actually buys a ticket for a show. If we find ways to make our institutions more welcoming, we increase our audiences, we diversify our audiences, we probably even sell more tickets.

Battersea Arts Centre Cafe - where you can just hang out

Battersea Arts Centre Cafe – where you can just hang out

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The Secret to Grant-writing
November 17, 2015, 12:44 am
Filed under: Non-Profit | Tags: , , , , ,

I just figured out the secret to grant-writing.
I’ve been writing grants for my theatre company for over a decade – sometimes with success, sometimes not. In the process of writing the most recent one, I suddenly had an epiphany. The more we can sound like we don’t need a grant, the more likely we are to get one.

It occurred to me that grantmakers are like popular kids. They’re only interested in you if you seem like you’re already popular. Even when grantmakers ask you what your challenges are, and what you need funding for, they still want to know why you’re awesome and why they need to get on your super cool wagon train.

Almost every grant, while theoretically a source of support, doesn’t want to be the first one to fund you. Like a popular kid, a grantmaker doesn’t want to be left out on a limb, taking a risk on someone who hasn’t gotten approval from someone else. He’s not going to be friends with the weirdo until the other kids have approved of him first.
I haven’t really understood this before. I was baffled by this question of why no one wanted to be the sole support of an artist or artistic project. I even wrote a post about it. But now, reframing all this like a high school cafeteria, I get it.

My job when applying for funding is not tell the truth of our struggles or challenges. My job is not to show how much I need the grant. My job is to show much I don’t need it. I’m supposed to demonstrate how great we’re doing and how, if the popular kids want to stay popular, they’re going to want to get on board my cool circus theatre wagon and throw in some cash.

As you may have worked out from reading the blog, this sort of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. I am much more able to tell the truth than create a popular fiction. However. Truthfully? I need the funding. So with a little coaching, I can pull a Sandy from Grease and throw on the metaphorical padded bra and lipstick for my next grant application. Watch out Grantmaker High, you’ll never recognize Sandy now!

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American Theatre’s Indecent Proposals

You guys. In my previous post, I really wasn’t mad about this translation thing. I had stuff to say about it, sure, but I had no angry feelings about it. Translations are nothing I hadn’t really dealt with before. But then I read the American Theatre magazine article about the project. And now I AM mad, y’all. Not about the “translations” – I give no real shits about them. But I’m mad because I just finally understand a) how this translation project came to be and b) why we’re talking about it.

The American Theatre magazine article talked about the origins of the project, among other things. It revealed that this project is the result of a “dream” of a long-time patron of the OSF. In other words, a wealthy man who has spent years giving money to one of the biggest Shakespeare institutions in America had a whim and the festival leapt to accommodate it. In other words, this is a story about the power of money.

If you or I said, “You know what I’d like? Some Shakespeare translations…” – OSF would have sent us straight to the bookstore for a copy of No Fear Shakespeare and that would be the end of it. But this guy wants translations. He’s paying for them. He gets what he wants. Which would be one thing if he were doing it himself. That is, if he found the writers on his own and commissioned them and put out the press releases himself, it would be different. But we wouldn’t be talking about it in that scenario. Headlines in our major publications would not read “App Developer Commissions 36 Writers.” He could have spent all that money on cars and it would likely have the same effect on American Theatre.

What we have here is a complex and potent mix of the respectability of OSF and the power of one wealthy patron. Because this guy is paying OSF to do it, he gets his dream AND the stamp of approval of the Shakespeare Festival with the biggest footprint in the country. And it ripples across the nation, changing the landscape as it goes.

I think part of the reason people are concerned about this particular shift in the landscape is because it seems out of line with OSF’s mission. And not just like an organization that funds cancer research suddenly funding a symphony but more like a cancer foundation suddenly funding cigarettes. And because it’s an important cancer foundation, suddenly people start to think, maybe cigarettes CAN help with cancer. It creates cognitive dissonance. The largest Shakespeare Festival in the country starts doing something, everyone starts to feel like they should be doing it too.

And that’s where things get really sketchy. Because, as I’m discovering, these plays are not just hanging out in Oregon – no, no, Shakespeare Festivals all around the country are reportedly signing up to get on board this money train. I don’t think the impact will be big or long lasting but for a little while here – the American Theatre is going to have to deal with one guy’s “Dream.” This means one theatre company’s desire to please a patron radiates to stages everywhere.

This gets under my skin because this is how so much crap gets done in this country. We’re not getting these new “translations” because people asked for them. (Good lord, if we’re getting translations we’re asking for, I would LOVE to get my hands on some actual good translations in other languages. Would someone publish affordable, readable Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, French or Russian translations? Please?) We have “translations” because one guy with a lot of money wanted them. If you’re a big donor to a major arts institution you can pretty much have what you want. Which – again – would be fine if we were talking about straight up patronage – from patron to artist. But non-profits are supposedly for the benefit of the public. They’re meant to be for us, the people, and instead, this example shows, they are really for the donors.

Whose dream are we going to produce next? The guy who loves Beckett but wishes he were just a little more optimistic? The mogul who thinks Arthur Miller is great but would really be so much better if he were boiled down to a Power Point Presentation of meaningful moments? I don’t know, man. Maybe I’d be singing a different tune if someone offered me a ton of cash to fulfill his fantasy. It’s possible I would. I’m pretty sure I’d “translate” a play myself for the right price. But, I saw that movie Indecent Proposal and I don’t think I’d like where it would lead me.

This is what we get with a capitalist model of art. We get what someone else pays for. This guy pays for American Theatre for a while, as a whole – he gets to have it and it doesn’t matter what we want. No one asked for this. It was just one guy’s “dream.”

If we had public funding for the arts, then we would have more of a voice about what was actually meaningful to us. In places where the people pay for the arts through taxes, there is real ownership. You can say, “This is our building. This is our theatre. We paid for it. We want a voice in what gets done there.” People advocating for gender parity and diversity in the UK have made much good progress using exactly this tactic. Until we have publicly funded art, though, the people that do pay for it are really the only ones deciding what happens on our stages. That’s why the majority of American plays produced are about wealthy couples on the Upper East Side of New York City. Because guess who’s paying for most of the play development programs and new productions?

OSF isn’t doing anything other theatres aren’t. Non Profit Regional theatres all over the country are producing shows because Broadway producers are paying them to put their shows up on their stages. An investment banker who funds lots of Musical Theatre at the Public Theatre, gets to have his musical produced there.

We don’t see diversity on our stages because it’s not what the current donors want. We could increase theatre’s diversity in a heartbeat with a series of large donations. I see now we’ve been going about our activism in entirely the wrong way. We don’t need diversity committees and speeches at theatre conferences. We just need dollar bills. With enough money you can clearly have anything you want at any American Theatre.

Anyway. I’m not mad about the translations. I predict no significant impact on my life. But I am mad to have more evidence for how vulnerable American theatre is to the worst sides of capitalism. This is how we do it. But I don’t have to like it.

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You know what I don’t need?
August 19, 2015, 11:09 pm
Filed under: art, business, Non-Profit | Tags: , , , ,

Advice.

There was a stage in my artist development when I soaked up all advice like a sponge. It was a period when I’d take everyone’s suggestions. And the great thing about that period was that people love to give advice.

But after so many years of running a non-profit arts organization, I’ve grown so incredibly weary of hearing, “Here’s what you should do – “
Because I have plenty of things to do.

What would I like to hear instead?
“Here’s what I can do. . .” or “Here’s how I can help. . .”
Instead of “Have you tried. . .?” I’d love to hear: “I can try this. Would that help?”

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful to those who would like to assist with their ideas. This desire to assist is probably coming from a good place. But there comes a point wherein unsolicited advice ceases to be helpful.

Fourteen years in, I can say that I have tried just about everything I can think of and just about everything everyone else could think of, too. I have no shortage of ideas – what I don’t have are extra hands. I’m a one woman show with a whole lot of ambition, ideas and the wherewithal to chase down only a handful of them. Other people’s ideas just add to my list. Odds are that I have tried whatever it is that’s been suggested or that it is well out of the realm of possibility. (Like, when folks tell me I should just get my show on Broadway or people suggest to my composer boyfriend that he should just write for films, like John Williams.)

Also, I’ve gotten some advice over the years that was really just criticism in an advice jacket. It has usually sounded like: “You’re going to have to. . .” and “If you want to do X, you need to do Y”. And there’s often a strange aggressive tone under it.

For years, I’ve struggled to understand this response to me and my work, especially from people who know me. But I think I’ve got a handle on it now. Generally, it comes from people who know me and have seen my work. They like me. They see an intelligent, ambitious person who they would have placed a bet on for succeeding. They saw work that was good and full of potential. They’re confused by my lack of success. It creates a kind of cognitive dissonance for them. They want to believe that good work will find a place in the marketplace. They want to believe that the world is fair and just and that success comes to those with talent, intelligence and rigor. And when they see me not fitting in to that belief system, they start throwing shade. I would like to believe in a world like that, too. But we’re not there yet.

I think people look at me and my trajectory and try to explain for themselves why my career doesn’t look like they imagined. They search for flaws in me. They make things up if they have to. And once they feel like they have an answer. (“She’s not aggressive enough.” “She didn’t focus on the right thing” etc.) That’s when they start giving “advice.” Which is actually just criticism and feels lousy to receive.

I get it. I would like to believe it was just some simple thing I’m not doing, too. Then I would do that thing and pull myself out of the artistic ghetto. But it’s just not that simple.

And it’s not just me, either. The many many extraordinary intelligent, talented, rigorous artists I know who are all just as unacknowledged as I am, show me just what a crapshoot an artist’s life is.

I once believed artistic success was a meritocracy and the good and committed rose to the top while the lousy and lazy sunk to the bottom. It is not so. I know a brilliant unacknowledged artist in almost every art form. What I’ve come to understand is that the system is flawed, and rigged and unjust. And I know it causes cognitive dissonance to deal with that. Believe me, I’ve been readjusting for years to take it in. It’s troubling, I know. But – you want my advice? Don’t give advice unless you’re asked for it.

If you want to help, I thank you. Really and truly. I appreciate the impulse to be of assistance. And I have gotten some amazing advice over the years for which I am very grateful. But what I could use most is action and support, not criticism or more things to add to my very long list.

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System Secrets
July 28, 2011, 10:37 pm
Filed under: art, business, Non-Profit, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

One of the perks of spending a lot of time with someone trying to get his show produced in the American Theatre SYSTEM is that I’m learning all sorts of things I never realized before. I feel like I’m discovering all kinds of dirty secrets and being shown lots of dark corners of knowledge that I shouldn’t be seeing. A lot of this knowledge is right out in the open but somehow in my thirty seven years on the planet (and the bulk of them involved in theatre) I managed to miss it. I suspect that most of us are missing it.


For example, did you know that most major “non-profit” theatres are in the business of producing work for the Broadway stage (i.e. – the most “for profit” part of the business)?


Here’s how new work gets done in this country: for the most part it’s either “developed” (i.e. funneled through new work programs where it is sliced and diced according to the whims of literary managers, dramaturgs and administrators and then never actually produced) OR it’s brought to the “non-profit” by a Broadway producer who offers it up with an “enhancement” deal. A Broadway producer basically says to a non-profit theatre, “Hey, would you produce this show please? If you do, I’ll give you a million dollars and a percentage of the cut when it gets to Broadway.” And this institution (one of the only things our government will pay for in terms of arts funding) produces this commercial production and gets its name splashed on Broadway marquees. It also rakes in some cash.


Meanwhile, this whole non-profit system was initially created to encourage risk-taking non-commercial work. These theatres were set up to provide opportunities to support work that otherwise would have no change of being seen. Now that most theatres are essentially subsidizing Broadway theatres, there’s no space for riskier work.


Apparently, when Arena stage did this enhancement thing with the Great White Hope in 1968, they lost their grant money because this use of public funds was seen as corrupt. By the 80s, it became the norm and now you’d be hard pressed to find a large non-profit institution that doesn’t have its hand in the game.


What happens to the work that these institutions were set up to fund? It cobbles together what dregs it can from private donors and the occasional tiny grant and fights for survival in smaller venues.


The system is so calcified now that my friend’s show (which HAS a Broadway producer attached to it) is not getting produced because the “non-profits” aren’t willing to take the risk on it. It’s a crazy cockamamie world in which a Broadway theatre producer is more willing to take risks on a new work than a non-profit theatre.




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