Songs for the Struggling Artist


Should I Try to Work with Egotistical Douchebags?
April 8, 2022, 10:50 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, Shakespeare, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , , ,

* Note – I’m going to use the word douchebag a lot in this post. Get ready. But also – for context – I used to be really wary about the word douchebag. I thought the word might be connected to some thinly veiled misogyny that I didn’t want to be leaning into. Then I read this blog post and now I am a convert. If you have any hesitation at all about this word, I highly recommend the journey this guy will take you on. Go. Read it. Then come back here and enjoy me talking about d-bags a lot.

And now – the actual post:

The minute I met the artistic director of that Shakespeare company, I thought “Oh he’s an egotistical douchebag.” Then I saw his show. I did not want to like it but it wasn’t terrible. I mean, the thing with doing Shakespeare is, the text is always interesting so as long as you don’t get in the way too much, it’s possible to put on a decent show, even if you’re an egotistical douchebag.

And the theatre business is oversaturated with egotistical douchebags, especially in positions of power. When I was really trying to make acting work as a career, I discovered that the vast majority of employers in this arena were, in fact, egotistical douchebags. I think it was realizing that kissing up to this type was going to be the bulk of this job that made me start my own company. It seemed the only way to ensure that I wouldn’t have to suck up to an egotistical douchebag on the regular.

Anyway, at first meeting, this Artistic Director struck me as someone I would not even like to talk to at a party but the Shakespeare world is smaller than you’d think so I told myself he was nervous – talking to all those Shakespeare teachers and maybe not the egotistical douchebag he seemed to be. Maybe he’s fine. I didn’t think so but I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. I was still pretty sure, though. I have a highly tuned douche-meter.

When an opportunity to submit plays to his theatre came up, I thought, “Why not? I may not be crazy about that guy but their work isn’t bad and I just can’t produce my own work the way I used to. It’s time to expand my circle. Sometimes it takes an egotistical douchebag to bring plays to the world.” I submitted. The play was rejected. No big deal. And when I mentioned it, a much respected colleague let me know, in passing, that I probably would not have enjoyed my time there had I been accepted. My colleague had some experience with this guy and reported him to be… an egotistical douchebag. They recounted many nail biting stories of douchebaggery in the trenches with this fellow in days of yore.

It’s very nice to have my first impressions confirmed. That’s the good news here. I know an egotistical douchebag when I see one! But it has made me think; Isn’t practically every dude who runs a theatre company an egotistical douchebag? If I want to see my work get made (by someone besides me) do I have to learn how to suck up to egotistical douchebags? I don’t want to work with douchebags, period. But there are so many of them and they work all over the place and there are only the smallest cracks getting made in the walls that keep them there in the seats of power. Twenty plus years ago, I just thought, “No problem, I’ll just do it myself!” But I didn’t factor in all the ways the system is designed to support egotistical douchebags, young and old, and leave the others in the dark. The light shines on the egotistical douchebags and the more light shines on them, the brighter they get and the rest of us can never really make it out of the shadows. Sometimes the only way to catch a little light is to stand next to an egotistical douchebag.

This particular company run by this particular egotistical douchebag was founded ONE year before mine. Technically, this guy is my peer, along with numerous other guys who started their companies at the same time as I did and somehow found the light to thrive. I don’t know another woman who started a company around then that is still going. I guess the egotistical douchebag lane is the only one available? I mean, I hope not.

Running a theatre company is not an easy job. There’s very little money in it. It’s a whole lot of work for very little reward. It’s possible an inflated ego is the only thing that will keep you afloat in this world. Maybe you need to be a little douchey to get things done. I genuinely don’t know. I would very much like to see my work produced by someone that isn’t me. Would I like it to be produced by a douchebag? No. Do I have a choice about that? I’m not sure. That’s what I’m trying to work out.

You know who that light is shining on? You guessed it.

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The Theatre Theater Problem and the Intermission

If it’s not entirely obvious, I’m a THEATRE person. I am not a THEATER person, not really. This is partly a silly distinction of spelling and partly a really serious long-standing American problem.

And before I go any further with this, let me acknowledge that I now think I’m on the wrong side of this divide. It’s a side I’ve fought for, one that I reinforce every time I spell my company’s name or website or email address, and one I somehow cannot seem to let go, no matter how on the wrong side of it I am.

I started to think about this when a European friend asked what we call the break, or pause, in a performance. I’d been thinking about all the ways that theatres are set up to make people feel like outsiders when they arrive and the simple fact that we call this break an intermission suddenly struck me as yet another way our theatres create this rarified atmosphere. We don’t take a break, no, no. We take – an intermission. So many things about going to the theatre are built to suggest that it is for the elites. We’ll have no groundlings here, please and thank you. This is why we have velvet ropes. And this is not an accident.

That’s the thing that hit me full force when thinking about our intermissions – just what a purposeful positioning all this is. American theatre was designed this way and we’ve been fighting about it for some time. The distinction between theatre and theater is not, as I’ve heard some people posit, that one is the art and the other the building. The distinction is mostly just a matter of preference. Technically, THEATER is the American spelling and THEATRE is the European spelling. Every spell check agrees.

But a lot of us in the THEATRE/THEATER – just prefer this RE version. We couldn’t tell you why necessarily. I’ve heard folks say they feel THEATER must be pronounced thee-ATE-r and so THEATRE wins the day. In my case, I guess it just looks better to me. I like it. It connects me to Europe. Given how embarrassing we Americans can be, that’s a nice benefit. And in my personal case, my aesthetic alignment tends to side with Europe so it just sort of stacked up in those early days when I was picking a side. THEATRE just sounded artier, somehow. THEATER is where they do that trashy stuff. Or something. And I know now that this is some elitist mularkey. This stacks up with the velvet ropes and the intermissions and the donors’ circles and the patron’s boxes and all the things that suggest this art is not for poor people.

Now, we imagine this was an accident but history suggests it was very much on purpose. If someone had taught me this history in my youth, I’d probably be a THEATER person instead of the THEATRE person I am.

I learned from James Shapiro’s book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, that in the first bit of the 19th century, there had been multiple riots at theatres. Theatres were one of the few places that the rich and poor encountered each other and as income inequality was getting worse and worse, they clashed about it often. The poor had power in numbers and they used those numbers in theatre audiences. Theatres were one of our most truly democratic spaces in those days. Imagine.

Then in 1849, the aristocrats of NYC got tired of being shouted at and so bought themselves an opera house and designed it in such a way so as to welcome the elites and keep the poor away. They invented a dress code that featured things like dress coats, white cravats and kid gloves. They transformed “the pit” (which once held the cheaper seats/standing area for the poor right up front) into the orchestra. They numbered the seats so they could assign them how they liked. They covered the seats in red damask and put the cheap seats upstairs, through their own separate entrance. They raised the prices. In 1849, this was all new. And the people did not like it.

It came to a head in 1849, when a feud between a British and an American Shakespearean culminated with the British actor performing Macbeth at this contentious elitist opera house and the American actor performing the same role across the street. Neither side came off well in this conflict. The Brit aligned with the elite, even though his own politics were more progressive and the American’s supporters aligned with anti-immigrant racist ideology – and both actors were part of a working creative class so the spark of this thing was not as simple as a class riot. BUT – there was an infiltration of the opera house and it got shouty in there. The next night, law enforcement was standing by for violence and violence arrived. At first it was just the building that suffered with broken windows and such. Then the militia started shooting protestors and bystanders and killed twenty of them before the night was through.

What strikes me about this now is how this battle is still simmering in the soul of American Theatre. So many of the adaptations that were designed to keep out the riff raff have remained. The elites may have ultimately lost that opera house but their innovations to shift the audience away from democracy stayed. There aren’t riots in theatre any more, not because we’ve worked out our class issues, but because the elites adjusted the theatres so that they were only talking to themselves.

What blows my mind about it all is how intentional it was at the time. And how something that was an intentional tool to keep the poor out of theatres just happens unconsciously. Or at least I HOPE it’s unconscious. I have to hope that all the education programs and diversity initiatives are an attempt to remedy the bias and are not just a cynical grab for grant money and foundation funds. I suppose it could be both – a desire to “give” to poor children while simultaneously creating conditions to keep their parents from ever coming in to see a show.

Those riots from 1849 are deep in our theatre history’s bones and so are the conditions that helped create them. We are still in this clash.

And by aligning myself with the European spelling for theatre, I am, unintentionally of course, aligning myself with the elite. In much the same way that William Macready didn’t necessarily mean to align himself with the elite when he chose to perform at the new opera house, I have connected myself to the privileged. The theatre is for red velvet ropes and lush curtains. It is for orderly seat assignments and respectful silence. I’m not gonna lie. I do like some of those things. But I respect and admire the theater which we lost – the one where an American Shakespearean like Edwin Forrest would hiss a performance he did not care for. He was an actor who hoped to “bring the American stage within the influence of a progressive movement.” I wish he’d managed it.

Anyway – according to Etymology on-line, “intermission” began to be used for the pause at performances around 1854. Notice anything about that timing? The rich set about trying to push the poor out of theatres in 1849. Their innovations in that arena began taking hold elsewhere and just five years later, this long French word is what we call a break and I insist on calling it all theatre.

If those chairs could talk, they might say “Rich people only, please!”

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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I’m Mad About Kiss Me, Kate

Look, I know they made Kiss Me, Kate over 70 years ago but I am mad about it today. I’m sorry. Sometimes my rage is not on time.

Did you know that a woman wrote the book for this musical? I did not. I work in theatre, fanatically listened to the Broadway cast album in my youth, have seen at least two productions, I care about women’s achievements in this field and I did not know that a woman wrote Kiss Me, Kate. How did I miss that?

Turns out that even though she wrote it, the production team persuaded her to let them bill her with her husband, so it is credited to Bella and Samuel Spewack instead of just Bella Spewack. Even though they were in the middle of a divorce and Sam Spewack’s only contribution was that he punched up a few of the Tough Guys’ lines, he still got the credit as a full writer on the show. And in a pair like this, it is, of course the man’s name that is important. Apparently even for a feminist musical theatre lover like myself. Her name might as well not have even been there. Gets me all worked up!

And I can totally see how this happened. I think it could probably even happen today. The producers think a show about a married theatre couple will sell better if it’s written by a married theatre couple and so, because the writer wants the show to sell, she is persuaded to add her husband’s credit to her own. But the fact is, if Sam Spewack had been the sole writer of a show, they would never have asked him to share the credit with his wife, and if they had, he’d very likely have said no, especially during the time they were going through a divorce. And that would have been the end of it. Surely Bella Spewack also said no at first. And at a certain point, she had to yield. And decades later, I discover that a woman wrote a foundational Broadway musical. And while I understand why she felt like she had to yield to this request to share her credit, I feel like I’m the reason why she shouldn’t have let it go. Not me specifically of course – but all the theatre women who came after her, desperate for a role model.

Listen, I know that the Book Writer is the least sexy writer on a musical. No one chooses to go to a musical because of the person who wrote the text. I know that. But STILL. I think if I’d realized that there was a woman behind one of the great foundational works of American Musical Theatre, in any capacity, I think I’d have gotten a little more spring in my step. I’d have known that, even in the 1940s, a woman accomplished a really extraordinary thing.

And I’m sorry – but a husband-wife team just doesn’t do the same thing. It was Bella Spewack, on her own, who collaborated with Cole Porter to create this piece. It was Bella Spewack, alone, who made the decisions about how to create these characters, how to engage with the Shakespearean source material. It was Bella Spewack, by herself, who negotiated with the producer about the gig. All while her husband was wooing the ballerina he’d left her for. And sure – they did eventually get back together again and wrote more things as a team so maybe for them, it didn’t matter at all. Maybe it was nice for Bella Spewack to think of the work she’d done on her own as part of a continuum with her creative work with her husband. But it’s not nice at all for the women who came after her. I should have KNOWN Bella Spewack’s name. I should have heard of her work, even outside of Kiss Me, Kate. She was a successful writer BEFORE she was asked to write this show. Her male contemporaries names are canonized. I did not know her name before reading about this in James Shapiro’s book Shakespeare in a Divided America.

I know I’m late to the party on this. I wish I’d been celebrating Bella Spewack all along, along with the only other foundational Broadway Musical woman I can think of, Betty Comden.

The American theatre has an incredibly short memory. We have a few white guys we remember and the rest disappear into history – or into their husband’s credits. I’m so furious that her team convinced Bella Spewack that her credit wasn’t important, when surely none of them would have shared credit with their wives. It was another time, sure – but we needed Bella Spewack’s actual credit for history. For us now.

And I know somebody out there is saying, “How could you not know Bella Spewack? That’s ridiculous! I know all about Bella Spewack!” To which I say, “Good! I’m glad you know her. That’s good. But the problem is that I did not.” And I absolutely should have. If I know Oscar Hammerstein’s name or Alan Lerner or Adolph Green or Noel Coward’s name, I should ALSO know Bella Spewack’s. And I did not. It was not even familiar. Cole Porter, I know. I even recognize the names of some of the 1940s theatre actors. But not Bella Spewack. And I should have. Now I do. And so do you, in case you missed it, like me.

Bella Spewack. By herself.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

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Brilliant Theatre and the Pit

If you don’t work in the arts, it might be hard to understand why a really brilliant piece of work might make someone more depressed than a bad one. Sometimes, I find it baffling, as well. I mean, bad theatre can be instructive and liberating, if also infuriating, when you realize that it is not the quality of something that brings all the funders to the yard. And good theatre usually checks a box for me. I see something that was good and I say to myself, “That was good. What excellent work everyone did. I might steal that bit they did with the plates one day.” But a brilliant theatre piece has the power to move me, to make me weep and/or laugh and then, not long after it’s over, drop me in the pit of despair. This is particularly likely to happen when the brilliant piece in question is close to my interests or skillset or aesthetic. The more it feels like something I might have made if I had the resources, the more likely I am to end up in a deep hole that I have to write things like this to dig my way out of.

This doesn’t happen very often. There are not a lot of shows that have the proximity to my aesthetic to trigger a trip to the pit but lately, due to the on-line access to work I’d not have otherwise seen, there have been a few. The most recent one was Emilia. It was available to watch on-line and I leaped at the chance to finally see a show I’d heard a lot about. And it was all that the hype suggested. It was expertly crafted, written, staged, performed, designed – all of it. It was created by a team of extraordinary women and flawlessly executed by a cast of women. It was a feminist theatre maker’s dream come true.

As a feminist Shakespearean, I have been waiting for this show all of my life. It’s so aligned with my values and aesthetics, I could have written it. And that, my friends, is where the pit starts to slide open. Because I have written in this weird feminist classical theatre lane my whole writing life. Like, my WHOLE WRITING LIFE. I started writing my first play while working for a Shakespeare festival and it was inspired by one of the plays I was performing in. This is my lane. I veer out of it occasionally but I started as a classical actor and it is always in there somewhere.

I don’t want to diminish what the writer of Emilia has done by saying I could have done it but I have come somewhat close and given the chance, I think I could have made something quite similar in spirit, energy and focus. But I wasn’t given the chance and I could not have conceived even anything near it on my own. And this writer didn’t have to create this piece on her own. She was commissioned by The Globe. She was given a team and a production. Circumstances placed her in their awareness and moved them to select her for this idea about the poet Emilia Bassano Lanier. And they were right to select her. She did an amazing job. It is a truly glorious piece of work. There are some parts of it where I thought, “That shouldn’t work” but then it absolutely did, even when I could have given you ten reasons it shouldn’t have. It was expertly done. I say this to you from the bottom of my pit.

This morning I was listening to the podcast made by some theatre makers I have long admired. It is a series of interviews with the Artistic Directors of Cheek by Jowl and today it was a moment with Declan Donnellan that kindly reached me down at the bottom of my pit. He was talking about ways to harm an artist. The first was to “absolutely criticize and rubbish the artist’s work.” The more harmful method was “to totally ignore the artist’s work. It’s more passive aggressive and it’s more silent and deadly.” For the most part, the world has been entirely indifferent to my feminist classical theatre. Like, entirely.

Some days I feel that indifference more than most and ironically, the play Emilia is actually about that very thing. It is the story of a woman more or less forgotten by history. (Though not entirely, of course, otherwise there’d be no one’s history to imagine!) It is a story of battling to be heard, acknowledged, respected and recognized. It is a story I saw myself in in a way I have never seen before and I wept through it in really weird places because of that strange recognition.

The play’s marketing features many famous women proclaiming their identification with the title character. There are videos of them all saying, “I am Emilia.” And they are. They are, more than me, because these famous women have some name recognition. They have achieved some kind of notoriety in the public eye. Will history remember them? Only time will tell. But for now – certainly a lot more people know Caitlin Moran’s name than know mine. And I don’t want to be Caitlin Moran. I admire her work but I wouldn’t want to be anyone but myself. I am not Emilia either, grateful though I am for her story.

I am wrestling with myself, in my pit, over the joy I felt watching the show and the abject misery I feel at the unlikelihood of ever receiving the kind of opportunities that would allow me to make something like it.

The difference between watching an amazing show I wish I’d made in my 20s, and watching an amazing show now, is that in my 20s, I could imagine a future in which I could make or be a part of the inspiring thing I saw. Here in my 40s, I understand more about how things work and once again reckon with the unlikelihood of such resources becoming suddenly available for me. And in to the pit I go.

It’s not just that I’ve become more cynical over the years (though that has certainly happened) it’s that I have a pretty thorough understanding of how the theatre has worked in the past and will likely work again when we get it back. Which is why, intellectually, I know, that despite my time in the pit, this show is nothing but good news for me. I know that it opens up a space and a pattern that will make space for so many women in the future, including me. The fact that Emilia was a giant hit and had a successful popular run at a West End Theatre is very good news for any future feminist plays, for any future modern classical works. If that way becomes more open now, it is good news for a woman who has been busy writing such things for years. My brain knows that very well. But it is not just my rational optimistic brain here in the pit with me.

The less optimistic part of my brain is overwhelmed by the obstacles that stand in the way of my ever receiving such an opportunity. They are things like: the country I live in, the country I was trained in, the accidents of mentorship, the relationships that place one in the right place at the right time, the development of one’s work in a context wherein it can grow, one’s proximity to the pipeline.

There’s been a lot of talk of the pipeline ever since that panel discussion where an artistic director defended not producing women’s work because women were not in the pipeline. The pipeline sounds like it’s just a supply line that women need to find their way into but it’s so much more than a stream that leads to production. The pipeline is where you went to school and when. It is the internships you could afford to do and the debt you could afford to take on. The pipeline is who you happened to room with at summer camp.

But the pipeline is also much more subtle stuff than just who you know. It can go as for back as a childhood. I watched the TED talk of a much-admired choreographer, and he mentioned how his childhood dance teacher told him, when he was goofing around, that he was really a choreographer. And so he became one, one who was encouraged and affirmed at every stage, one who likely walked into his first rehearsal of his first piece with no question of his right to be there. If you’re not busy defending your right to do what you do at every turn, you sure can get a lot more art made. That’s when the way is paved for you, so you can travel with confidence without running into lots of bumps. That’s the real pipeline.

One of the things that feels complex about being an artist in a marginalized group of any kind is that it can be really easy to blame any lack of success on the prejudice that limits so many. It is better to blame sexism and economic prejudice than to blame myself. I can always assume it was sexism that closed the door for me. With a show like Emilia in the mix, I can celebrate that sexism does not always win – but it also complicates my narrative about why so few people care about my theatrical work.

I got an extraordinary thrill from feeling represented in Emilia but I fear that I am not Emilia like all those famous women. I’m not the character who stormed the stage to take her rightful place. I’m not the one who had her poems published, before becoming a footnote in men’s history books. Not yet anyway.

But I will try to access my twenty something self who still had hope of making brilliant things on stages like that and listen to my more optimistic brain and I will pull myself out of the pit to write another something, even if those somethings are never seen by anyone. A world with Emilia in it is more likely to have space for me in it than the world without it ever did. And, of course, if I have to, I am fully prepared to, as Emilia says to startling effect at the end of the show, “burn the whole fucking house down.”

possibly an image of Emilia Bassano Lanier

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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You Don’t Have to Write Your Lear. Or Your Venus and Adonis Even.

As soon as the theatres shut down, the King Lear memes started. Over and over, people urged us not to bemoan our sudden retreat to our houses because Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague. This was meant to encourage us to believe that it might be highly productive to be sent home. Instead, it gave a lot of people anxiety about having to produce a masterpiece while navigating the challenges of social distancing.

I suspect some historical context might be useful and since most Shakespeare scholars are busy trying to figure out how to adapt their courses for Zoom, I thought I might offer some interim thoughts on this topic.

First, Shakespeare only PROBABLY wrote King Lear during the plague of 1606. The only evidence we have is that it was produced at the end of that year. It’s entirely possible he wrote it before the plague broke out – along with the other plays that came next, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. So, it’s not, like, hard fact that he wrote those plays while people were sequestered and/or dying nearby.

Second, the Lear/Macbeth/Cleopatra plague was not Shakespeare’s first plague. During the 1592 outbreak, Shakespeare wrote poems. He wrote Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece then. In her book, Shakespeare’s Wife, Germaine Greer theorized that he wrote these erotic poems out of dire financial need. She compares the poems to porn of the time. That is, without the theatre to sustain him, Shakespeare didn’t write his masterpieces, he wrote what he hoped would sell or get him a patron. He hustled to keep his family going.

I think this is important. For a lot of us, this is our first plague. This is the plague where we worry about paying the rent (good god, Cuomo, please hurry up and #cancelrent) and resorting to whatever schemes we can come up with. This is our Venus and Adonis plague, not our Lear/Macbeth/Cleopatra plague. If we have another one (lord, please let’s NOT have another one) and we’re a little more financially secure, maybe we can write our masterpiece. Meanwhile, I think the key for this one is survival.

I mean, if you have a King Lear in you to write, by all means, write it. But most writers I know are paralyzed with fear or worry or anxiety and none of that is conducive to productive writing. Frankly, I’d be pretty grateful to write a Venus and Adonis in this moment. Or even just one freakin’ sonnet. Lear can come when I’m less worried about my neighbors dying and my friends getting evicted, you know?

And maybe you’re laughing at me writing this because you know I’m already knee deep in a creative project that I started as soon as we started social distancing. “Ha ha!” you might laugh. “You say not to worry about being productive when you’re over there producing a podcast!” Which is true. I am. But I wrote it last year. The conceiving, the writing, the editing, the dreaming all happened in a non plague time and now is the time I got practical. “Ah,” I said to myself, “if I produce it now when theatre journalists have literally nothing to talk about, it might stand a chance to get a little press.” So… it’s actually a crass practical choice, not a burst of inspiration type choice. It’s Venus and Adonis, not King Lear. Also, starting and making things is apparently what I do in crisis. My theatre company was born on 9-11. When a boat starts sinking, I grab onto creativity for a raft. That’s just my way, I’ve come to realize.


An artist’s life is almost always a mix of the fanciful and naked practicality. I think it’s important to remember that even Shakespeare didn’t write King Lear in his first plague and he may not have even written it in his second.

Macbeth, though, that’s definitely a plague play.

Just kidding – we don’t know for sure about that one either.

And listen, I don’t want to be discouraging, but Shakespeare wrote an awful lot of really terrific plays before he wrote the plague ones. He already had Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard III under his belt by the time he had to flee the plague. So, if you haven’t written your Hamlet yet, maybe don’t worry about your Lear. Get started on everyone’s favorite, Henry the Sixth.

Side note: He also likely didn’t have to look after his children or meet with his colleagues over Zoom for his day job.

Write if it helps you. Don’t if it doesn’t. It might not meme quite as well as Lear in a plague but it might get you through and that is the important thing.

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

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It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

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Performing Arts Going Dark

Have you all read Station Eleven? I mean, don’t, if you haven’t. Even the author recommends waiting a few months to read it. It’s a little too relevant right now. It hits a little too close to home. It begins with a pandemic that leads to the radical upending of civilization. You can see why you might want to wait a minute to get into it. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week – not just because of the pandemic – but because of what happens after the pandemic. The heart of the story is a traveling Shakespeare company that tours the devastated country. When nothing is left, we have the arts.

At the moment, with all the performing arts cancelled, it can feel like our work is unimportant or inessential. Suddenly, it is, technically, palpably dangerous to do what we do. Suddenly, it has become reckless to gather people in a room and share things with them. Suddenly, the very thing that makes the performing arts so magical is the thing that makes them dangerous. Almost everyone I know in New York works in the performing arts in some capacity and almost everyone I know is in a state of absolute disarray. As show people, we are built with an intense drive for the show going on. We are used to pushing through any numbers of difficulties in order to make it to the stage. To have the stage pulled out from under us is counter to everything we feel in the very fiber of our beings. The show must go on! It can’t be cancelled! It goes on! Isn’t it better to do a show? Isn’t it always better to do a show than not do a show? Won’t the arts save us all? Not in this case, no. Not in the way we’re used to.

What’s happening for us is not just a crisis of economics (though it is that and quite a serious one at that) but also a crisis of faith. If the shows don’t go on, who are we? What is all this for? How can it not be good to gather a group of people together and share art with them? To laugh? To cry? To tap our toes to the beat together? To have our heartbeats sync up as we watch? How? How? How?

But, of course, in a pandemic, it is very bad for us all to be in a room together. I am interested in the connections we share with other things that have had to shut down recently. Sports and religious gatherings are experiencing the same unilateral canceling. We are all shut down together – all the things that bring people together, that unite us, are dangerous.

But this does not mean they are inessential. Things that bring people together, like the performing arts, like sports, like religion, are key to our survival, to our thriving as a species. It feels to me that in losing that ability of being all together in a unified state, I’ve come to appreciate it anew.

Sometimes, you may have noticed, I get a little cranky about theatre. I see shows and they make me angry and sometimes I tell you about it. I get mad – partly because I want shows to be better and partly because my ability to make shows has been hampered over the years so I get mad about shows that have a lot of resources and squander them.

But here we are in the middle of a pandemic and almost all theatres have been shut down. And it becomes instantly clear that I would rather watch the worst show there is (It’s Bike. You know it’s Bike.) over and over and over again than have no theatre at all.

For all my ranting, I do love the stuff and I’m sad for even the worst show that has closed. It suddenly feels very important to me to know that shows are running, even ones I’ll never see, even ones I hate.

I hope that when this is all over, there will be a renewed appreciation for the performing arts and their important place in our culture. We were all shaken by how quickly the entire theatre business was shut down here in New York. It was as if someone flicked a switch and thousands of people lost their jobs and thousands more lost their dreams. Like that. In an instant. But this doesn’t mean the arts are a frill that get dropped in a time of crisis. It’s just that being with people is what the performing arts are all about and suddenly being with people is dangerous and so the performing arts become the most dangerous. And not because theatre people are some of the most touchy feely people out here, either. It’s because a bunch of people breathing the same air is the heart and soul of the work – and right now that air is treacherous. So we have to stop.

But maybe, once this has passed, we can come to appreciate what we lost when the theatres went dark.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be as extreme as Station Eleven – where survivors form a community building Shakespeare company. Maybe we don’t have to wait for the destruction of civilization as we know it to support the performing arts. Maybe we can support them right now so that theatre spaces will be able to open again, that shows can continue their runs, that freelancers can survive this terrifying downturn. As this article in Vulture says, “As concert halls, theaters, and museums around the world go dark, we all need to move quickly to ensure that when it’s finally safe to emerge from our lairs, we still have a cultural life left to go back to.”

Personally, I’ve come up with a project to keep some theatre folk creatively engaged with a project that we can do from our homes. I was working on it prior to this disaster in another form and it just happens to be possible this way. So I’m just rolling forward on that and it’s already delighting me.

The skills that help us bring people together in real life are stepping up to help keep us together while we are separated. Here are two that I know about – The Social Distancing Festival and Musicals from Home. Many many theatre folk are going to find this social distance thing very very difficult (as I’m sure most people will – but I think it hits our community driven community especially hard.) I feel quite certain this will drive a lot of them to become very inventive to create distance community and whatever those inventions are will benefit us all in the long run.

There will be theatre when this is all over. And concerts. And dances. And hopefully we will all appreciate them and being with each other all the more.

Look at all these theatre kids touching each other. We can’t do this right now. And it sort of made me tear up just looking at them. Photo by Mauricio Kell via Pixabay

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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Who Gets to Rage in American Theatre? Or, Some Stuff I Learned from American Moor

The show nailed the standard white American male theatre director so well, I found I had fantasies of kicking his head down the road a few days later. Forgive me the violent imagery but I guess I’m a little bit furious.

American Moor is a show about an actor grappling with the weight of Othello. Caught in a tug of war between the demands of the racist American Theatre system and his African American peers, the character rails and resists. He wants to rage against the injustices that rain down but he keeps himself in check. He also attempts to audition for the role.

The last half of the piece is a glimpse of both that audition and the internal struggle of adapting to its demands.

While much of the show addresses the specificity of this actor’s experience – specifics that, as a white woman, I do not share – I found myself relating to it deeply.

One of the themes that kept arising was the way the actor’s black male body was a source of fear for white theatre makers. This character had to continually manage the racist fears of the people around him. His getting a job depended on his presenting a minimized self – a nice, safe, unchallenging version of himself, one that has never known anger and would never need express it.

I relate to this despite the fact that, much to my dismay, no one is ever frightened of me. No one assumes I am powerful and aggressive. Not ever. I don’t have to adjust my presence in a room to placate that fear – because no one ever fears it. I have, however, in my acting days, turned myself WAY down in order to appear ladylike, like I could be an ingénue. I have shrunk myself into a girlish form so as to be seen as a possible object. I know what it’s like to bring all my intelligence to a part and then be asked to ingratiate myself, to seduce, to giggle, to be more malleable. And anger? What is anger? Why would I be angry? I’m sweet! And nice!

I know what it feels like to have to hide myself and defer to the patronizing white guy with all the power and authority. It is, fundamentally, why I stopped acting. Because being asked to do only one thing when I am built to do 20 others things was more frustration than I was prepared to handle. And, for entirely different reasons than the character in American Moor, I, too, would never be allowed to express my rage in the theatre.

As I watched the show, the director in me wanted to push aside the character of the patriarchal dolt in charge and take over his show. “Oh, you can’t recognize the opportunity that is in front of you? Oh, you can’t set aside your own limited understanding to make space for the human being in the room with you? You don’t know how to do that? Well – I do. Get out of my damn way, dude.” And in part, this is why I quit directing. There are too many pricks in power. They kept wanting me to be like them.

So much of my experience in and out of classical theatre in America suddenly made sense. It made a kind of sense that made me want to run screaming through the streets – but still…sense!

Seeing the racism that this performer encountered in the worlds I have touched down was chilling. I have seen some of it with my own eyes and failed to recognize how awful it was. I have seen classical scholars or theatre makers look black men up and down and ask, “Have you played him?” I’ve seen that. It happens ALL the TIME. Just the other day, I saw a post about Denzel Washington’s upcoming performance as Macbeth and someone commented that he’d rather see him as Othello. Fact is, that commenting guy already sees Denzel Washington as Othello. It’s the only part that guy can imagine a black guy doing.

This is not something I have had to deal with. There are 1-4 women in each play and there is not one whose race is specified. No one will ever ask if I’ve played “her.” No one would know who they meant. I am lucky that way.

By the end of this show, tears were streaming down my face. I wasn’t entirely sure why. In part, I think, it’s because it ended with a possibility of transformation. The show had a hope, for a moment, that the white guy director could see a way to change and help bring forth that change. I think I was crying, though, because I didn’t believe for a minute that that guy was going to change. I knew he wouldn’t. (Spoiler Alert: He didn’t.) And I came all over mournful for the state of American Theatre and how little hope I have for its doing anything much different than it has always done. I mean, sure, the #MeToo Movement has made waves and we’ve ousted the most egregious examples in the theatre but mostly, if dudes managed to keep their hands more or less to themselves, it’s still their sandbox.

One of the themes of American Moor was how the character, pigeonholed into Othello, really wanted to play Titania and Feste and Juliet. And honestly, if I had my hands on a theatre with a budget, I would cast him that way without even hesitating. I think a lot of us on the outskirts of the American Theatre would make that choice. But the mainstream is stuck in a world where everyone has to look the part, where Desdemonas have to be tiny, beautiful and blonde and black men can only play Othello and it shall always be thus, now and forever.

And maybe it seems like it’s just classical theatre that is like this – but it isn’t. Many of the plays that continue to march through our stages enforce similar status quos. Every theatre wants to do their artistic director’s True West and almost every artistic director is the same variety of white man. White guys raging at each other is American Theatre’s brand.

There are changes coming, I know. I know there’s a wave of people of color stepping into authority at theatres across America – but while it’s still news, still an exceptional shift, it feels like that change is a very long way off.

Anyway, I’ll be over here kicking an imaginary white guy director’s head down the road for a while and hopefully someone stepping into new power and authority will cast the guy from American Moor as Titania soon. I hope his Titania rages.

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

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You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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O God, that I were a man!

The interviewer had asked me about my early career as a classical actor. I was explaining the math I did after a few years of acting wherein I realized how terrible the odds were for me in classical theatre. I’d realized I had little interest in performing in contemporary work and that the jobs in Shakespeare for women were so few that I had really very little chance of continuing to work. Then she asked me, “Do you think it would have different if you were a man?”

I did not hesitate for even a second as I said some variation on “Absolutely. Definitely. No doubt.”

And it’s interesting how this question caught me by surprise. I have written streams of words on sexism in theatre and sexism in Shakespeare. I could lay out structural and institutional bias and break down a host of examples.

But somehow I had never before considered what my life would have been like were I a man. Like, if I were me and I had all the same ambitions, desires, interests, personality – all of it and I just was a man instead. And there is no question that things would have been very different for me if I’d come in with a different gender.

It’s like the story Dustin Hoffman tells about his first encounters with being dressed as a woman to work on Tootsie. After the first test with the make-up and hair designers, he asks them to make him beautiful and they tell him that what was there was as good as it was going to get. He describes becoming very sad at realizing that he would never have talked to the woman version of himself if he’d met her at a party. It wasn’t just that he, as a woman would never have had his opportunities, it’s that she would have been entirely overlooked. It’s a very moving speech. (Unfortunately, the speech is now undercut for me by another story about 17 year old he sexually harassed – but that’s another subject.) I feel a little like I had the reverse experience as Hoffman when the interviewer asked me that question. I don’t think I’d have been Dustin Hoffman – but I bet I could have worked for much longer than I did.

I knew from the beginning that I had a very limited window for working. It’s partly why I was so on fire to do it. The women’s parts in Shakespeare tend to be mostly young women – young wives and love interests. There is very little middle space. Maybe Lady Macbeth, Regan, Goneril, Paulina, Tamora and Emilia. But often they’re played by young women, too. You don’t really graduate from Juliet into something juicy. You age out and hope to play maybe the Queen in Cymbeline? You won’t be the lords, the thieves, the politicians. You won’t be the kings or the emperors or the princes. Men age into these sorts of roles and they are the bulk of the jobs. Maybe a guy gets too old to play Romeo but then he’s Hamlet-age and Macbeth age and then Lear and if not Lear, there’s Gloucester, Wooster, Egeus, Egeon, Claudius ,etc. No such journey awaits women in the classics. You go from ingénue to maybe a queen, if you’re lucky.

I played a fair amount of men in my time. Not just the “pants” roles – the Violas, the Rosalinds, the Imogens – but actual male characters: Poins, Quince, Vernon, Holofernes, Feste. And I was grateful to be able to expand my repertoire beyond being in love.

But I knew if I wanted to play Hamlet, for example, I would have to make that sort of thing happen myself. If I’d been a man, it might have been just as difficult to get someone to see me as Hamlet – plenty of male actors don’t get to play Hamlet either. But their gender would not have been one of the obstacles.

Classical acting is a tricky business no matter what your gender is. The men I know from my time in it have quit in the same numbers as women. They mostly just quit later. They got a few more years in.

The male version of me probably would have moved on to writing and directing just like this lady version of me did – but I suspect he would have had longer to build up his contacts. He’d have been given some pats on the back, gotten some brotherly advice, received some introductions that I never had a shot at.

If he’d started my theatre company, he’d have had some donors lined up or some mentors in the background. He’d have portions of the road paved for him before he ever set off driving on it. I had to build the dirt road and, also, the car.

Let me just state for the record that I am very happy to be a woman and have no desire to trade my gender. But this thought experiment got under my skin in a way that I have not been able to shake.

It is somehow easier for me to look at all the systemic blocks and institutionalized sexism as not personal – to feel like those things have been blocking all of us, not me specifically. But they HAVE blocked me specifically and I find that I envy the man version of myself who would have had a few more years on the boards – who, even if he never got to play Hamlet, would probably have gotten to kill him as Laertes, or be killed by him, as Polonius.

The thing, too, that I find upsetting about my particular experience is that it will never be better for anyone else. If you are a woman who loves classical theatre, it will always be thus. The plays will always have way more men than women. They will always have screwy old fashioned gender roles. There will never be new full exciting roles for women in Shakespeare. We’ve got some great ones. But not a LOT. And it will always be thus. Always.

That frustration led me to write plays, which is ironic given how little interest I had in new plays when I started. But…like me, our theatres are obsessed with Shakespeare. They’d rather produce Hamlet than some new play no one ever heard of.

When I came to grad school, Macbeth was the first show I directed and many people told me how happy they were to be doing Shakespeare instead of all those other plays that no one had ever heard of before. (I showed them. The next year, I directed my own play which, for sure, no one had ever heard of.) We have a major underlying problem in our field. Theatre is in love with Shakespeare and it means there are never enough jobs for women. I also am in love with Shakespeare so I get it. I understand, truly. Ask me to recite a speech, it’s going to be Shakespeare. Partly, it’s that I don’t remember any other ones but also, I love it. I’m guilty, too.

This problem has hit me many times in my positions as a Shakespeare educator as well. I have often been in the fortunate position to introduce young people to their first Shakespeare and when those girls light up with love and tell me how they’ve found THE thing they want to do – I start to worry I’ve not done QUITE right by them.

But this question…this “would it be different if you were a man?” – it has to change. There has to be a future for theatre where it WOULDN’T make a difference.

I don’t know what the answer is. It’s probably a combination of things. Maybe we call a Shakespeare break for a decade. Or increase the numbers of women’s Shakespeare companies. Or increase the funding and profiles of already existing women’s companies. Or just exclusively do reverse gender casting for a while. Or maybe we could, as a society, just really chill out about gender and let the fluidity run through the plays so gender wouldn’t matter at all anywhere.

I want a future where a Shakespeare loving person could have the same opportunities, the same road, no matter their gender.

In the end, Beatrice’s line from Much Ado About Nothing, “O, God, that I were a man!” continues with, “I would eat his heart in the marketplace.” And I guess I feel pretty strongly that if you want to eat a man’s heart in the marketplace, you should be able to do it – even if you’re not a man.

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The Hamlet Project – ‘Tis a knavish piece of work

The café where I came up with the idea is long gone. I think it’s three to four businesses ago in that spot now. But the project that was born there took me through eight to nine years.

It started in that café out of a need to goose my creative practice. I was finding my writing process to be a little less smooth than I liked. When I turned on the faucet, the creativity didn’t always flow the way it used to.

I felt I needed a structure within my daily practice that might drop me in to a better state of flow. Hamlet came to me because – at the time – I was working toward playing the role. I had a goal of getting back to acting and Hamlet was the top of that mountain.

I thought if I wrote in response to Hamlet, I’d tackle two goals at once. I could prepare to play Hamlet while goosing my writing practice.

I didn’t play Hamlet, really, and now I’m probably too old for it – but I did perform a soliloquy for my friend’s Hamlet rave performance and my other friend and I organized a reading wherein I got to prepare for and read the part. So I scratched the itch, even if I never held Yorick’s skull in front of an audience.

As for the writing practice – well, it was always a practice for me. It was part of a process to get me into a state of flow for whatever I thought was my “real” writing for the day. So it served me very well in that respect.

I’m not sure why I decided to share the process, really. I think I figured that only a handful of people would read it, like everything else I put on the internet, so it wasn’t really a big deal. I think I was interested in a kind of transparency of creative process so why not?

As of this writing, The Hamlet Project has received 94,113 views – so, despite my not paying it much attention – it has become the most seen thing I do. Oh, the irony!

When I wrote the last line in my notebook a few weeks ago, I thought I might feel some sense of finality – like I’d just closed a show or something. But I didn’t, really. I gave it some ceremony – just to mark the moment – but the next day, I just began the same process from the first line of Cymbeline.

So what did learn from spending a little bit of every day with a line from Hamlet? First and foremost – I am not as close a reader as I would like to think. The thing is – I was already very familiar with Hamlet. My first acting job was in a touring production. I taught it fairly often in schools. The play was not unfamiliar when I decided to dive deep into it. But writing in response to single lines made it almost impossible to gloss over meaning in the ways that I was (apparently) wont to gloss. It became very clear that I had previously been pretty satisfied to just have the gist of the line. Working with single lines forced me to not cut those understanding corners.

The process of reading so closely led me to some surprising interpretative places. I developed a whole theory about Marcellus – which caused me to really wonder where he disappeared to. Previously, I couldn’t have made much distinction between Marcellus, Barnardo and Francisco. By the time I got through Marcellus’ scenes, I was ready to write his own play.

I also uncovered a fair amount of experiments I’d want to see. There are a lot of What Ifs. What if that scene between Claudius and Laertes were played as a Vaudeville routine? What if Horatio was the spy? Not just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What if Hamlet Senior had killed his father to become king? What if we saw that? What if Claudius saw it and we saw him see it? Do we develop sympathy for him?

There are so many imaginary productions and/or production moments that I found I wanted to see. This is kind of interesting because after all these years of seeing so much Shakespeare, I find it hard to get excited to see my twentieth Hamlet or seven millionth Romeo and Juliet. But it’s clear that I’d be 100% bought in to see any number of text based experiments.

Other themes that came up a lot were related to Shakespeare’s genius with the little lines. I was moved, over and over, by all the lines that seem like they’re no big deal but are actually packing extraordinary narrative or poetic punch.

My relationships with the characters didn’t change much (except for good old Marcellus.) I suppose I grew to sympathize with Ophelia instead of just being annoyed by her obedience. And I have some thoughts about that English ambassador who comes in at the end and I never paid him any mind before. There are a lot of characters who I’d enjoy seeing receive the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead treatment – and getting their own plays.

Some of my favorite moments were the lines that inspired their own longer narratives – separate from Hamlet. There are stories about a carp, a monster and a witch that bubbled up out of the source. There’s also a list of rejected ways for Laertes to kill Hamlet with an organ that still cracks me up. I did a fair amount of making myself laugh.

Most of the lines ended up as just a conversation between me and the sentence. There are a lot of entries of me trying to work it out in front of you. I’m showing my work – like a math problem.

That’s probably the Shakespeare educator in me. I am never interested in explaining a line to students but I can happily take someone through a process of figuring it out. A lot of lines are just me figuring it out.

There’s a lot of project here. There are a lot of lines in Hamlet! But in a way, that’s why the internet is a good place for this. It is much too much to read all at once. I think it would be a rather relentless book. Words connected to line after line start to become too much after a while. But as a place you can just click around, it’s a reasonably fun playground. It’s a place where, if you felt like reading JUST Polonius’ lines – you could.

It’s done now. And also not done. I’m still uploading lines I wrote about two years ago. It may be a while before I reach the end of the play on the internet but my writing process is complete. The uploading goes on.

If you were one (or many) of the 94,113 views, thank you. It means a lot to be seen.

The rest is silence.
Or – actually – the rest just needs to be uploaded. Then it will be silence.

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

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A Taste of Being a Patriarch in the Patriarchy

For most of the last decade, every day, I’ve been using a line of Hamlet as my prompt for daily writing. The Hamlet Project has nearly 100,000 views and most of them are not people I know. I don’t get a lot of comments on it but when I do, they tend to assume I, the author, am a man. I have been called “sir,” for example, and also “bro.” I think, even when I am not explicitly gendered in a comment, I am assumed to be a man. I don’t know this for sure, of course – but there’s something about the tenor of the comments that makes me feel like I’m being mis-gendered.

What is that tenor? Well. The comments tend to be respectful. They tend to endow me with a level of authority I am not used to receiving in situations wherein my gender is more obvious. It’s just kind of a vibe. And it is very nice, actually.

I’m not trying to obscure my gender identity in this venue but in not making it obvious, it leaves a lot of people room to assume that I am the default gender. I’m also talking about one of the most famous male characters in history – featuring one of the most famous patriarchal struggles – AND – I say on my ABOUT page that the project began from an interest in playing Hamlet. Hamlet is a male character. It thus follows, as the night the day, ipso facto, I must also be male.

Except of course I am not. And depending on the piece that someone might read, it might or might not become obvious. I mean, sure, there’s a lot of feminist content that shows up but maybe I’m just a super woke feminist dude. There’s a way that once the assumption has been made, it will be hard to see the “narrator” differently.

That is, until it becomes obvious. Recently, I started getting lots of views and comments from a man whose website describes him as his country’s “most versatile living writer.” For a few days, I knew he was reading because my statistics reflected a lot of views from his country. He commented several times. I clicked “like” on his comments but didn’t respond to them. Then, he asked me a question, so I answered. The act of commenting revealed my picture and my name and thereby also my gender identity. And wouldn’t you know – I haven’t had a comment or a view from his country since.

I don’t think this is a situation of a person realizing I’m a woman and stalking off in fury saying, “By god, I don’t wish to know what a WOMAN has to say!” I suspect I just suddenly become a lot less interesting. A dedicated reader might just wander off for no particular reason, you know. It’s not sexism, no. It’s just – what’s that over there?

This is the thing a lot of people don’t understand about things like sexism (and racism and ableism and so on) – that it isn’t the overt stuff that gets to us. It’s really the indifference that’s adds up over time and wears us down.

It is actually super nice to be seen as the default. The misgendering is so pleasant because it comes with an assumption of capability, authority and collegiality. I know what those things feel like now and recognize that I don’t usually feel them in any of the other venues (like this one) wherein my gender is a lot more obvious.

Before I tuned into this experience of reading as male, I couldn’t have really articulated what experience I wasn’t having. I didn’t have any sense of what it felt like to have male privilege. I’m thinking of that email experience/experiment those two co-workers had when they switched email signatures for a week. We focused a lot on the male co-worker’s eye-opening interactions when he was perceived as female, how formerly easy interactions became confrontational when he was perceived as his female colleague. The story for me felt like, “See! It’s not all in our heads!”

But now I’m thinking more about what the female co-worker’s experience was when suddenly the way was cleared. I think I imagined it a little bit like that Eddie Murphy SNL sketch where he disguises himself as a white guy and people just give him stuff and throw white people parties on the bus. But of course it’s not that dramatic. No one gave that switched email co-worker an award or a pile of money when she was perceived as male, her job just got a lot faster and easier. Similarly, I’m not getting any special kudos or winning awards or praise or pats on the back in being perceived as male with my Hamlet Project, it’s just a more pleasant atmosphere and I get twice as many views.

I’m not saying it’s a paradise over there. An occasional dickhead makes his way there just like anywhere. But the dickheadery is somehow less dickheaded. The vibe over there is nice.

So I’m in no hurry to disabuse anyone of their perception and I might really enjoy using a pseudonym for some stuff in the future, just because it’s nice to roll around in male privilege for a bit.

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