Songs for the Struggling Artist


A Tale of Two Coffee Shops

When I go home for holidays, occasionally I get a chance to visit my old hometown’s local coffee shops. There weren’t any, really, when I was growing up – but there are several to choose from now. Usually I end up at the one closest to my mom’s house but sometimes I end up Downtown and I have to find a place to write down there. My first choice is generally a place that’s been around for a long while – all my old friends go there. I’ve had friends work there. It’s the cool coffee shop. I always run into people I know there. And it is always crowded.

This is why I don’t go there when I need a place to write. Crowdedness makes the hip coffee shop impossible for my purposes. Instead, I end up at a coffee shop that is remarkably un-cool. They play “relaxing” New Age music (with bird sounds.) The walls are painted with a color palate that suggests a beach house in North Carolina. There’s a fireplace.  Like the cool coffee shop, it has original artwork for sale. The paintings though, are very conservative. They are barns and cows done in a technique I can only describe as Grandma Style. There’s just something about this place that says who it is for. And most of the customers in the shop seem to know. I heard, while I was there, conversations about the old Christian Bookstore and stories on Fox News. All told, the place feels like it’s the Republican coffee shop in town.

In my home town – I clearly BELONG at the cool coffee shop and clearly do NOT belong at the Republican coffee shop. And yet I choose to write where I do not belong. Mostly because it’s less crowded but also because it’s an interesting anthropological opportunity. It leads me to interesting questions. How did this cafe culture develop? Are they marketing themselves on Republican listservs? And how conscious are the people who create these businesses of the culture they are creating around their business? Is the un-cool coffee shop trying to be cool?

These two coffee shops in the same town draw two very different crowds. And I’m fascinated by it. I now live in New York City and I frequent many different coffee shops. None of them have this sense of a unified personality. The people who go to them vary dramatically. In a world with so much diversity, coffee shops don’t seem to create so much culture around themselves. I don’t belong in any one of them – and I belong in all of them. City living creates a kind of contradiction in belonging/not-belonging. That is, I think, part of the appeal of city life. You never belong and always do. All at once.

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This is stock footage of a coffee shop and represents none of the coffee shops mentioned in this blog post.

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The Most Important Thing in Theatre You’re Not Talking About
December 3, 2014, 8:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This isn’t mine. This is from Bitter Gertrude. (Subscribe/Follow – she’s great!) But I stand behind it 100%. Read it. And take action if you’re so moved.

Bitter Gertrude

There’s a massive disconnect between theatre intelligentsia– bloggers like me– and what’s actually happening on the ground.

Theatre writers have been doing an excellent job drawing attention to issues of inclusion and diversity, issues of copyright and contract law and copyright/contract violation, issues of audience demographics, issues of access to arts education, issues of season selection, issues of censorship, especially in schools. Those are crucial, vital, important issues about which we need to continue to write. I have no plans to stop writing about any of those, nor do I expect (or want) anyone else to stop.

But we’re all avoiding the elephant in the room, probably because it’s simple, and boring, and all too painfully obvious.

THEATRES ARE CLOSING.

Nonprofit theatres all over the country are in trouble. While larger theatres are doing better than they were during the recession, a jaw-dropping amount of small, indie theatres and even…

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Scarcity like a Pain in the Shoulder
May 20, 2014, 11:33 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I woke up with a pain in my shoulder yesterday and as I attempted to manage that pain, it occurred to me that this is what scarcity is like. I finished reading Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s book, Scarcity, not long ago, so the concept has been on my mind.

When you’re suffering from a physical pain, a great deal of your attention (or “bandwidth” as the authors of Scarcity would say) is captured by it. You do your best to concentrate on other things but the slightest adjustment in your position brings it quickly and forcefully back into focus.

So it is with scarcity – when your mind is busy working on the problems that having too little money or time brings, it is ever occupied with the issue. You may try to concentrate on writing or other tasks but the slightest suggestion can bring your circumstances back to the forefront. Before you know it, your whole afternoon is derailed by the little twinge, the constant reminder of your difficulties.

Those who have never experienced the panic of having only $15 in the bank when the rent is due might not easily be able to understand how all consuming that worry can be, how it can derail all other plans and intentions. But most people, no matter how blessed with abundance, have experienced the debilitating effects of pain.

They feel almost the same to me. One is physical, one is mental, but both pains capture attention I’d much rather be placing elsewhere. And like a pain the shoulder one can find a way to live with Scarcity long term if one has to. But even if you’re used to it, it never goes away entirely. It severely limits what you can do – your movement, your flexibility.



September 12, 2012, 12:32 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Brilliant. Important. And for us youth-worshipping Americans with our refusal to acknowledge that class even exists, this is even MORE important.

Not Writing But Blogging

There was an interesting discussion yesterday on twitter, on the concept of Ageist Arts (#AgeistArts).
I’m not sure if it was prompted by this announcement from ACE or if it was simply a spontaneous discussion, but I joined in when it was drawn to my attention, because it’s something I am very interested in.

First off, I need to say I care deeply about the needs of youth right now, I appreciate the economic state we’re in has made things very difficult for many young people, I have worked with the NYT on three large-scale projects over four summers, I have worked with many other youth theatres, and often do schools visits (usually as a writer, but not always) … you can tell there’s a ‘but’ coming, right?

But … I truly believe we need to replace the word YOUNG with NEW or EMERGING. It annoys me immensely every year…

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Full Support
April 1, 2011, 11:59 pm
Filed under: art, business, theatre, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I was at a grant orientation meeting a while ago (they make you go to a meeting just to apply!) and listened as the well-meaning program associate read the grant application and guidelines to us. There was nothing extraordinary about it – pretty standard grant application stuff – but I was struck by her reiteration that this organization “Does not fund whole projects.” They want to give you a portion of what you need and want evidence that you’re gathering the rest of it elsewhere. This is identical to almost every grant in the city (and probably the country.) No one wants to fund your entire project. They only want to help you a little bit.
This struck me as absurd all of sudden. Every granting organization wants to know they’re not the only one and they’re all afraid to support something or someone completely.
This means that an artist with a project to make must spend the bulk of his or her time writing multiple grants and soliciting more and more funds for one single project. This means that an artist is never fully supported.
In my company’s nine year history, we’ve received multiple grants in a year maybe once or twice. Otherwise, we struggled forward with a quarter of the funds we needed. We got a grant for $500 a couple of years ago. This wasn’t even enough to help us begin our project – yet we had to do it, without any support, because we had $500 to spend or lose our standing with the granting organization.
I understand, to a degree, why funding bodies want company when they fund something. They want to know the artists are serious, that they really will do the project and make good use of those foundation dollars. I get it. It’s a safety measure.
But I think its cowardly. If you want to support artists, support them. Give them what they need. It’s like, a hungry person comes to your door and you say, “I’m not going to give you a meal – but I will give you this plate and if you can find a fork and a potato from my neighbors, you’ll have a meal!”



Is grant writing worth it?
January 26, 2011, 6:45 pm
Filed under: art, business, theatre, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

Seriously. Is it?

I spent most of September scrambling to finish a series of grants that were all due simultaneously. I hadn’t bothered to apply for a grant in a while – my will had been broken a bit and I just hadn’t been able to muster the energy. But in September, I went all out. Grant, grant, grant. Working on them, writing them, attending the info sessions, editing them, wrestling with the video editing/copying software for the required work samples, enlisting help from at least 3 people, printing the grants, copying the grants, delivering the grants. It took a lot of time and resources but I figured, “Hey, if we could pull in a few grand for these theatre projects, it would make an enormous difference.” Also, this is just the way it’s done.

Four months later, I receive rejection letter after rejection letter, each recounting how competitive the process had been and how many worthy applications they’d received and how hard the decision had been. (Rejection letters are written primarily to make the rejectORS feel better. I know because I’ve written a few of them myself.) All told, if we add up the hours I and my colleauges spent and value those hours at $10 an hour (a cut rate, for sure, but it rounds up easy) as well as the money we had to spend on copying and paper and ink and DVDs, etc – we spent about $4000 to apply for these things. This is four times the value of one of the grants and roughly equivalent to the other two. In pure economic terms, this was an enormous waste of time. Even if I’d GOTTEN the grants.

Scott’s been listening to a lot of economics lectures and podcasts lately and he told me about this one that discusses something called All Pay Auctions (a form of something called Rent Seeking.) Grants are essentially an All Pay Auction. The economist on the show illustrates this concept with his students by holding up a $20 bill and saying he’ll sell it to whomever makes the highest bid in cash in a sealed envelope. If I put $10 in the envelope and I’m the highest bidder, I get his $20. If I’m NOT the highest bidder, I lose my $10. Everyone in the class (save the highest bidder) loses their bids. The teacher meanwhile has collected quite a lot and made a tidy profit on his $20 (or else he gets rid of the bids and all the money’s lost.) Munger points out that Grant Seeking is essentially the same proposition. Writing an arts grant means an artist puts $4000 of resources into an envelope which then gets shredded and pulped. We’re hoping we’re going to get $4000 back – but the chances are slim.
Now, what’s in the envelope in this case is not money (directly) but answers to questions, resumes, work samples, etc. Those making grants would likely say that they are choosing the best work – that the bids in this auction are about quality, not quantity. However, if we look at who receives grants, it’s clear that not ONLY good work rises to the top of this auction pile. Is everything we see that has received fat grants good? I think not. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite. Are the shows of mine that received grants BETTER than the those that didn’t? Not by a long shot. Very often the criteria for who receives a grant is based on some perception of public good or the possibility that the project will benefit the granting organization in some way or even the amount of resources that a company or individual had to complete the application. We can therefore say, in effect, to the society as a whole (and maybe even to those giving the money) it doesn’t really matter who gets the money. And as Roberts and Munger point out, a competition wherein it doesn’t really matter who wins has not only become meaningless but is an enormous waste of resources.
Munger and Roberts point to some situations when this sort of competition (Rent Seeking) can work. For example, when there’s an attempt to create a new technology or other things where advancement will benefit society as a whole. They mention the NBA, wherein all the competition (resources are lost by those that don’t get there) improves the quality of the game as a whole. In the realm of the arts, however, there is no societal benefit to grant writing. Artists writing grants don’t improve Art; they improve grant writing. Every hour I spend writing a grant only makes me a little better at grant writing, which has nothing to do with my art. In fact, it makes my art worse, because I’ve lost all those resources (time, time, time, especially time) that I could have spent making my art. Also, in an attempt to get this grant, I might change my art to make it more attractive to grant makers. I might try to be more what grant makers are interested in – which, in my experience, is not the same as better art. It also makes my art worse in that delicate balance of confidence that is a crucial part of making the work. Getting a grant can seem like a vote of confidence from the world – a “yes – you-are-worthy” sort of thing. This gives me a boost, sure, for a minute – but more likely, it just gives me a little check which is only a drop in the bucket in terms of the money I need to make my work. (Almost no grant makers are willing to be the sole funder for something.) Not getting the grant can feel like a slap in the face, like the world saying “Why do you bother?” In the wrong moment, that might be enough to stop me from moving forward.
All this makes me wonder about what I’m going to do the next time I hear about a grant I’m eligible for. Will I spend $4000 in resources to get $1000? I’d rather not. I’m just not sure what my other options might be. Let’s bust this system OPEN artists! Ideas? We’re creative people, right?



Linchpin
January 10, 2011, 11:30 pm
Filed under: art, business, theatre, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I just started reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin on the subway from Washington Heights to DUMBO. (Thanks to Matilda and Phelim for impressing upon me how much I’d appreciate this book!) I’m only a few pages in at this point but I’ve already felt my chest rise (in that way that lets me know the floodgates of tears are about to open) several times. When I got off the A train and started walking, a little sob escaped but I’ve kept it together so far. Let me clarify – this book isn’t sad. It’s not making me want to cry because it’s tragic or terrible or anything in that territory. It’s making me want to cry because it’s giving me some hope for the future.
Godin’s thesis is that the world is changing from a Factory model to an entirely new form and for this new model, we need to be artists. Now, as an artist, I’m afraid I can’t really recommend the life of an artist (at least not right now) but the notion of a world in which my skills are valuable and sought after is something I find tremendously uplifting. Could it be possible that all these years of practice at forging my own path, creating, developing, cultivating my creativity and problem solving might actually lead to something besides poverty and degradation? I’m all for it.
What I’ve already begun to realize from reading the first few pages of this book is that the American Theatre is based on a factory model. It’s been trying very hard to be a factory for Art but the fit is uneasy because the factory is full of artists.
How is it like a factory?
Not only are actors treated like cattle (they’re interchangeable, plentiful and bred for docility. They attempt to look and seem more and more alike to fit a cultural norm) but directors and designers are also passed around and expected to do as instructed (follow the instructions of the institution/producers, the way to make it to the top is to follow directions and do as we’re told.) Plays are treated like products getting sent to to the factory floor – tinkered with and developed, run through focus groups and committees and made to be repeatable instead of unique, indispensable works of art. So the writers that get produced in American Theatre are the good factory workers, the ones who will keep their heads down and make the changes they are told to make by the managers on the factory floor.
Good lord, no wonder I can’t make it in American Theatre! I’m a terrible factory worker. While I’m easy to collaborate with, if you put me in a situation where I’m supposed to be a good cog and just follow directions and do as I’m told, I become a terribly squeaky wheel.
If the business world starts to cultivate artists as this book is suggesting it should, maybe there’s hope for us. While I don’t have a lot of faith in the speed which the Theatre business takes up the innovations outside its bounds (it’s a pretty slow moving creature, I think,) I appreciate the opportunity to see the system as a product of the world our industrializing forefathers created. This means that innovation is possible. This means that maybe another way of making good art could be possible in my lifetime.It gives me hope for the art and it gives me hope for myself.

Mostly, I’m excited about that little bubble of hope that has risen from just these few pages. We’ll see what I get to do with that little bubble of hope.




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