Songs for the Struggling Artist


“He just came with the building”

An artist has died. He got cancer and some other things and he died in the prime of his artistic life. I did not know him well but I knew of some of his struggle and I knew his artistic skill and promise. He was a composer (an art which is incredibly demanding and does not pay well – except for a very privileged few) and worked as a pianist for many years at a well-known arts institution.

After the artist had worked there for some time, that arts institution finally managed to provide some of its long-term artistic staff some health insurance. This was an important gesture and I can attest to the fact that it doesn’t happen everywhere. I think I know around about when this gesture happened. I was still working as a Teaching Artist when arts organizations all over the city suddenly started making its long term artistic staff actual employees. Apparently, they’d come under some scrutiny for getting away with paying all of us as freelancers for so many years. But even in that flush of sudden employment and a sheaf of W-2s where I once had 1099s, no one ever offered me health insurance I could afford. So this arts institution, where the artist worked, did something really good. And for a brief while, the artist experienced some actual security. He had health insurance and a bit of regular work.

Then, after they’d gotten used to it, the arts institution decided to withdraw the health insurance from those they’d previously provided it for. They didn’t fire those folks. They just took away their health insurance in order to save a little money. It was probably just a line item on a budget to them. The arts institution took away the artist’s health insurance and very soon thereafter, the artist got sick. He’d had health insurance and then it was gone and then he got ill. His friends set up a Go Fund Me – but healthcare is expensive and they did not reach the goal.

Maybe even if the artist’s Go Fund Me campaign had been fully funded or he’d still had health insurance, he would have died anyway. But also maybe not. I can’t help feeling like the arts institution has his blood on their hands. I feel like they killed him.

A few months later, the arts institution provided a free space for the artist’s memorial performance. The titular head of the arts institution took to the stage to welcome everyone to his building. He made a speech about the dearly departed artist and said he didn’t know dates or anything but he’d known the artist for ages. He said “He just came with the building. He’d just always been there.”

And I’d already been wishing I had a pile of rotten tomatoes to throw at this guy who was getting all kinds of praise for “generously donating the space” when his organization so egregiously contributed to his healthcare situation. But when he said this thing about the artist just coming with the building, I wanted a whole truck of rotten fruits and vegetable to throw at him. An arts institution decides to take away an artist’s health insurance, as a result he dies and then the arts institution gets to look like a hero for giving up their space for a day? And THEN “he just came with the building”?!?!?!? I mean. You couldn’t ask one of your assistants to tell you how long he’d worked there?

And of course you took his health insurance away. He’s just part of the building. Building fixtures don’t need health insurance.

Of course he’s just part of the building. That explains why, despite many years of knowing him, you never once listened to one of his compositions. Parts of buildings don’t have their own artistic work, they are just part of the landscape. And this is how artists are often regarded – not as human beings making art that have needs just like any other human being – but as part of the atmosphere. We’re like the furniture. You use it for a while and then when you get a new interior designer, you throw it out for the next set.

This Arts Institution Head managed to express, in one dumb joke that was clearly meant to be charming, the way so many artists are viewed in institutions. Not as the very reason for the institution. Not as vibrant participants in the artistic life of the place. Not as contributors. Not even as artists. Just – part of the building.

The building just comes with artists – whose lives are as inconsequential as the dust that gets swept up on Sunday nights.

And so the artist’s work will likely be lost to the ages. And the building will stand. And another artist will come to be seen as part of the building eventually.

 

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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You can help be more than part of a building

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 

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Everything Interesting Happens at the Edges

I remember reading about this concept in a book or a magazine or publication of some kind. I wish I could remember what the book or magazine was or who wrote it – but the memory is just at the edge of my consciousness, the way the beach is at the edge of the sea, the way the spaces between us are the places that intrigue, the way disparate parts meet each other somewhere, the way the edge of a bubble is what is vulnerable to popping. The margins, the edges, the fringes are where we are drawn again and again. That is where the action is.

I was thinking about this idea again while watching the first stages of the inspiring, intrepid Monica Byrne calling out large institutions of American Theatre. I could not help but imagine how the insiders of the American Theatre Bubble would react and respond to her criticism. I thought – “They’ll label her an outsider. They’ll question her credentials. They’ll dismiss her as someone outside the bubble, throwing stones. They’ll say she’s only criticizing because the big institutions haven’t produced her work.” I have no idea if anyone actually said that or thought or whispered it in their boardrooms – but I have seen it happen before in theatre and in many other arts and arenas. And it is why and how I am usually dismissed myself – so I’m pretty familiar with the pattern.

Seeing it outside of my own experience, though, I started to understand that criticism usually HAS to come from the edges, from the margins. Those of us at the edges have much less to lose by telling truths. (And to be clear, I think Monica is as much a theatre artist as any of the major theatres that she has tweeted to, if not more so – but there is a very narrow band of insiders that I mean to point to, the ones with deep pockets and endowments.)

Before I quit being a teaching artist, I had a lot to say about the field and what I saw happening in arts organizations but I did not feel free to share any of those things until I was prepared to give them up. My sense of freedom to say what I felt needed to be said was in direct proportion to how much I wanted and/or needed to keep my jobs. That is, while I was an insider, it was not in my interest to directly confront or address any inequities, injustices or problems in the field. Inside, I was relatively powerless to point out things that needed change.

It is not an accident that I started this blog around about the time that I realized I was not going to be enfolded into the arms of my theatre establishment. I am able to say what I say because I am in the margins.

I can almost guarantee that should, by some crazy miracle, one of my shows be suddenly snapped up by a major regional theatre or a Broadway producer and whisked into rehearsal, that you’d be hearing from me on this medium a whole lot less.

This would not be because I’d suddenly lose my brain, or my interest in changing the system. It would be because a) I’d be busy in rehearsal and b) it would not be in my best interest to compromise the one place in theatre it might be possible to make a real living. (Though you might hear a lot from me once it was all over!)

This is why you I’m blogging now. I’m in the theatre bubble enough to be able to see it but not enough to be risking my livelihood or relationships in talking about it. I’m not a complete outsider. I am a part of theatre community but I’m on the periphery and it is almost always the periphery that can point to real change or possibilities.

If you’re an institution, if you’re on the inside, and you don’t know what to do to fix the status quo, look to the fringe. Look for who is missing, bring them in and ask for their perspective. I’ve seen institutions try and make change from the inside. They ask employees to fill out surveys or do exit interviews. But those folks can never be fully honest. This is not because they lack honesty or awareness. This is because even if they’re done working with a theatre this time, they’re thinking about next time, or the way this gig might lead to the next. I have been honest at such things because I was asked to be and realized too late that honesty was not the savvy move.

A while back, I wrote a post called The Woman in the Room and it was about what it takes to stay on the inside, to tenaciously hold on to the little patch of ground one might have gained. It was for all my friends who were berating themselves for their complacency in the face of sexism in American Theatre. I said then and I will say again, that if you are a woman on the inside of the establishment (and/or anyone whose representation is negligible in the theatre,) you have to do what you have to do to stay there. We need an inside (wo)man. We need you in there. Fight when you can while you’re on the inside. Maybe gain some more ground to bring more women (and people of color, disabled people, transgender people and non-binary people) inside the establishment doors. Support those on the outside who are more able to fight for you and bring them inside when you can. And hang out at the edges. They are the most interesting places after all. They are where change is happening. Where change is possible.

 

This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs and more. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

*

You can help me keep challenging the status quo

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



Please Stop Asking for Recommendations

Dear Residencies, Grantmakers, Award Givers and Artist Opportunity Makers,

Please stop asking for recommendations. Do you ever make your decisions based on them? I suspect not. I understand that you’re probably trying to weed out jerks – but almost anyone can find two people to say nice things about them. Heck, a really cagey jerk could just write them himself from a couple of extra email addresses and phone numbers.

It’s not that I can’t get my colleagues, friends, and fans to write recommendations for me, I can. It’s just that I apply for a LOT of things and I fear that your demands (for things that I am skeptical about you even READING) may be burning out my support team.

A life in the arts is not like college. I understand you need recs for college. But college happens once – maybe twice if there’s a Masters in the works – while an artistic life is ALL the time.

In continually asking for recommendations, you wear out, not just the applicants but also their networks. I try to spread out my asking – but…I know it is a burden on those I ask. They love me so they always say yes when I ask them and some have even said there is no need to ask anymore. But, after twenty plus years of this, I’m guessing even the most dedicated supporter would prefer not to have to deliver a letter every few weeks.

I suspect that one reason you ask for letters is that you want to see if maybe we know a famous person and can get them to write us a letter. Like, if Paula Vogel wrote a playwright’s recommendation, you’d take that applicant a lot more seriously. You want to know who of your applicants has connections. But the thing of it is, even if I did know Paula Vogel (I’ve only met her once in a totally random non-theatre context,) I wouldn’t ask her for a recommendation. Because Paula Vogel has better things to do than write recommendations. I don’t want her writing recommendations to residencies and whatnot for writers. I want her writing plays. I think, if you really want to know who Paula Vogel recommends, you should just call her up and ask her and every year, you can have a slot for the Vogel recommended writer and she can just send you a list.

With extremely busy famous people, artists have pretty much one favor, one recommendation we can ask for – and I’m sorry to tell you that your residency, grant, award or opportunity is not that thing. (I regret to inform you, that after reviewing your opportunity, we are unable to offer you our favor from a famous person. You must understand that the competition is fierce and there are a lot of opportunities to consider.)

So please – not for me – but for my friends, colleagues and support team – stop asking for recommendations. Please. You don’t have to ask for them. A lot of the more prestigious places I have applied to do not. You don’t have to either. And it’s two or three fewer things you’ll have to read!

Signed,

An Artist Who Has Missed a Fair Amount of Deadlines Due to Not Realizing She’d Need to Have Asked for Recommendations a Lot Sooner

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Bonus Rejection Post:

(Don’t worry, I’ve got a LOT more of these coming – so I thought I’d just tag this one on the end here.)

I keep applying. And I keep getting rejected by the Millay Colony. Luckily, I have support for the persistent “No.” And I recently read a piece that suggested aiming at 100 years rejections a year. I’ve upped my applications a lot in the last few years. But 100 would be a lot. I’ve gotten pretty close to that, if I added up the previous three years – but in order to really reach a hundred rejections this year, I’m going to have to apply to the Millay a whole lot more times.

In January I applied to ten things –which has seemed like a LOT. If I kept up that pace, I’d get to 100 before the end of the year – but January is application season and that was a hell of a lot of applying.

I will say, too, that I’ve done more applying this year than I have before, in part, because my confidence was boosted by a yes. That yes made it seem less impossible that another yes could be forth coming. Maybe if I get another yes, I really could reach 100 rejections this year.

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

You, too, can help me ease the sting of continual rejection

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

kaGh5_patreon_name_and_message*

This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.

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

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs and an album of Love Songs. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

 

*

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



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.

You can help me weather the storms of rejection by becoming my patron on Patreon.

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Click HERE  to Check out my Patreon Page



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

You can support my arty hanging out by becoming my patron on Patreon.

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The Secret to Grant-writing
November 17, 2015, 12:44 am
Filed under: advice, 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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You can help me with my grant-writing make-over by becoming my patron on Patreon.

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Click HERE  to Check out my Patreon Page

 



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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