Songs for the Struggling Artist

A Duck Message on New Year’s Eve

Due to having lived in London for a bit, I am on the mailing lists of many English theatres and arts organizations. On New Year’s Eve, I received an email from the Institute for Contemporary Art wishing me a Happy New Year with an animated drawing of a duck.

And that was it. That was the whole message. They wished me a Happy New Year with a drawing of a duck. They didn’t let me know how many hours were left in the day to make their fundraising goals. Nope. They just sent me a fun drawing of a duck.

If you live here in the US of A, you understand why I found this surprising and amusing. As 2019 drew to a close, I heard from American museums, theatres and arts organizations of all kinds. I received hundreds of emails. Many of them, indeed, wished me happy holidays – but that was largely a pretext for reminding donors to send money. I didn’t read most of those emails – but I know what they say because I’ve read thousands of them over the years. I’ve also written them myself for my own non-profit theatre company. I know the strategies because I’ve used them.

The ICA’s duck message was so refreshing. So pure in its message. It can afford to be. They can just send out art at the holidays because it is an arts organization in a country that funds the arts.

I find the hundreds of end of year pleas from arts organizations so demoralizing. Every single one of the arts orgs are in need of support – even the big fancy ones who draw in a lot of grant funding. There isn’t an arts organization in the country that could skip an end of the year plea for funds. (Mine skipped it this year but only because I don’t have any projects on the docket right this second.) Even the wealthiest theatre in the US still relies on year-end giving to survive. And this is partly why I find the whole enterprise so depressing.

Let’s say I had millions of dollars and all I wanted to do was support every arts organization I’m on the mailing list of. As the end of the year rolled in and I started to receive the year-end pleas, I’d probably have to make it my full time job, going to all the different web sites, logging in, entering my credit card, etc. As this mythical arts loving millionaire, just to support all the arts orgs in my orbit, I’d probably give up before the last email rolled in on New Year’s Eve. The way art gets funded in this country is not only brutal and unpleasantly capitalistic – it is also wildly inefficient.

Imagine, if you would, just for a moment, a world in which you did not have to choose between sending your year-end donation to the Public Theatre, The Chamber Music Society, Gibney Dance or your cousin’s indie art museum. You could just pay your taxes knowing that the American Arts Council was looking out for the national health of our arts scenes. You could know that you helped pay for theatre, music, dance, visual arts, film and more and you didn’t have to deal with two hundred emails to do that.

You would get holiday emails from your favorite arts orgs at the end of the year that weren’t fundraising emails in seasonal greetings disguises. Instead of frantically trying to meet fundraising goals at the end of the year, arts orgs could just come up with creative ways to wish you a Happy New Year – like a fun drawing of a duck.

This is not the duck they sent me.


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What I Wish American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits #12 – R and D

My English theatre making friends apply for (and receive) funding for R & D. R & D is short for Research and Development and is commonly thought of in this country as a scientific or corporate exploration of ideas. We innovate in business in this country but not in the arts. You can not get a grant for R & D in theatre here. If you have an idea, you have to be sure it is a good one. You do not get funding to TRY something out. Everything you do should be a winner. This is madness, of course, especially in a creative field. Every idea is not a winner. And without opportunities to try things out, we can not innovate artistically.

You know that super successful, multimillion dollar show touring all over the world, War Horse? It began its life as a small R & D exploration in the National Theatre Studios. Granted it was R & D within the National Theatre and in collaboration with one of the most well respected puppet companies in the world. The odds were good that it was going to work out. But even so – when they began, they didn’t set out to make what we know now as War Horse – they set out to EXPLORE the possibilities of a show that might become War Horse and they took almost a year of solid work to do it. I think that’s why it was so successful. But that sort of thing doesn’t just happen at the National Theatre level. On the Fringe, small theatre companies explore ideas with their own R & D funding. I think this is why British Theatre is dominating the American landscape.

The culture of R & D encourages innovation. It allows for the possibility of failure but also of new ideas. Big businesses know this. Google knows it. 3M knows it. There is all kinds of evidence that innovation comes from having the time and the space to play. We need funding models that allow us to do R & D – to play, to discover, to try things out, to allow us to discover what the show really IS before we have to do the marketing.

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What I Wish the American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits # 11: Groom, Support and Recruit Producers

# 11- Groom, Support and Recruit Producers
My experience, a few years ago, of working at the Battersea Arts Centre impressed me in many ways – from its egalitarian employment models, to its wide-ranging programming, to its community focus and café, to its support of artists, but I was particularly impressed and surprised by its emphasis on developing Arts Producers. They had a whole team of In-House Producers. These producers took on projects within the season or brought in work for the Scratch nights or for other stages of development. These were (mostly) young people who were paid to help make shows happen. They were people who wanted to be producers. I met people who wanted to be producers all over London – not just at the BAC.

When I met with the folks at the Arcola Theatre about how I might put up a show there, they let me know that they didn’t bring anything in that didn’t have an independent producer attached. That is, I couldn’t be my own producer. And this was not an unreasonable request. One could find a producer because there are many people around interested in the work.

Here in New York City, where I’ve lived much longer than I lived in London and where I know tons of theatre folk, I have never met someone who wanted to be a theatre producer. I’ve met some theatre producers, sure. But I’ve never met an aspiring theatre producer. (Believe me, if I had, I’d have snapped them right up.) I think this is because the only place to make even a marginal living in producing is on Broadway. And you don’t need any other producing experience to produce a show on Broadway. You just need a lot of money.

If we want to improve the quality of American Art, we don’t need to improve our ideas, we have an abundance of those. We need to improve the job prospects of independent producers. We need to make the idea of producing a tiny indie show in a basement theatre on the Lower East Side actually sexy to someone – instead of a whole lot of work with no reward.

I self produce. Not because I want to – but because I cannot find anyone else interested in the job. And when I’m self producing, I’m necessarily less IN the experience of making whatever show I’m making. The art suffers – not as much as it would if it weren’t happening at all – but still, it suffers. I’d like to see fewer meaningless artist residencies (i.e. “Here’s a modicum of space or $500 or just a cute title) and more producing schemes. I’d like to see Arts Institutions churning out Indie Theatre Producers and Dance Producers and Performance Art Producers – not an endless stream of lip service and a tiny bit of support to one lucky company a year. (I swear, I was just told about a “residency” where the artists had to pay 4k-6k a week to be in residence.) Invest in Producers and producers would invest in us.

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

# 10 – Creating Welcoming Theatre Spaces

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

Battersea Arts Centre Cafe - where you can just hang out

Battersea Arts Centre Cafe – where you can just hang out

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Flattering Rejection

I got a nicely written rejection from the Leah Ryan FEWW award. It would be nice if they wrote it especially for me – if it was my work specifically that was (SOME NICE FLATTERING WORDS – I meant to put the actual words here but the rejection letter has now gone missing so just imagine some nice flattering playwright-y words) but I sincerely doubt that they wrote multiple rejection letters.

Rejection letters are tricky because you want them to be somehow palliative but if they’re too complimentary, like this one, they can seem insincere. Surely not EVERY play they read was (MORE FLATTERING WORDS.) It makes me appreciate anew how great the theatres in the UK were at their rejection letters. You knew when they said something about your play that they were actually responding to YOUR work, whether they liked it or not. There were sufficient references to the work at hand to be sure that a human being had read it, processed it and went to the trouble to tell you about their response.


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Checking in with 2004 (self-mentorship, time travel and jealousy)

Not long ago, I had an opportunity to watch a video of a show I made ten years ago. The video began with my introduction to the show. This was a window on who I was in 2004. This version of myself is idealistic, enthusiastic and very passionate about her work but she’s also very concerned about being likeable. She’s performing a very particular brand of femininity as if she’s hoping some boy in the audience will fall in love with her charms. Ah, sigh. I am glad to be free of that impulse. One of the benefits of age seems to be a waning sense of giving a shit about what other people think of you.

I look at this version of me from a decade ago and there are dozens of things I want to share with her, dozens of tips, dozens of insights. I’m sure the version of me 10 years from now would look back at 2014 me and want to do the same. I want to be my own mentor. If only time travel would let me.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the current me wants to go back to 2004 and mentor my art in addition to my personal self. And this for me feels the most poignant. The piece in this video was one I was very proud of. It got our best reviews, including our one and only NY Times review. Watching it now, though, I’m shocked by some of the choices I made. Some of it holds up. There are still some good moments but there are so many things that I would never let stand now. Why, for example, did I choose to use a shitty audience chair when it really wouldn’t have been hard for us to bring a decent looking chair to that theatre?

There are dozens of wonky transitions, some odd timing choices (not all of them can be due to the electricity problems I know this particular show to have suffered.) In watching it now, I see it as a show with a great deal of potential but not the finished product I thought it was at the time. In watching it now, it is clear as day that this writer, this director needs a mentor.

And I happen to know she’s never had one. Not the kind she needed. She did, not long after this show, go to graduate school for directing – hoping to find that guidance. But it didn’t quite work out like she’d hoped. See, I want to mentor myself as an artist because I’d know how to do it. I’d know how to tell myself what I’d need to hear without hurting my feelings. It is a very delicate balance.

But this post is not about the mythical mentorship I wish I’d had. I mean, yes, it is, yes it has been. . . but I’ve been chewing on this experience for some time, wondering what to make of it.

Then, I saw a show by Catherine Wheels, out of Scotland. The piece was relatively simple but it was made with such care, I could feel that every word and gesture had been given careful consideration. It was clearly made by a group of artists who were really paying attention and considered every angle – and by a company that gave them the resources they needed to make that consideration. I imagined that there’d been a lot of experimentation, a lot of investigation, a lot of trial and error and a lot of reflection on what was working and what was not. What I imagined I saw in that show was a community of theatre-makers, a dedicated culture of excellence. It was really very beautiful to see the net of all of that under a 50 minute piece for young people about friendship.

And it made me insanely jealous. Because that is ACTUALLY what the 2004 version of myself needed. Not just a mentor who would tell her not to use that awful chair but a whole community of people who are listening to each other and trying things out and reflecting in respectful ways. I imagine that the Arts Council provided funding to do an extended R & D process for that group of people. For those weeks, there was a safe, open space for those artists to play in and that time and that support gave them the wherewithal to really consider all of their choices.

The 2004 me needed that like nobody’s business. And the 2014 me does, too. We both of us long for a real community of artists striving for excellence – most of us here in NYC can’t afford to get to excellence and have to settle for survival.

As I watched the show from Scotland, I thought of that VHS tape of my show in 2004 and wished so hard that I could have developed that piece in the bosom of a company like Catherine Wheels, instead of all on our own as we did.

I wished I could have had the confidence that these young men had, when I was their age. Instead, I was too concerned about my character’s likeability to actually embody the excellence I knew I was capable of. Ah, for a time a machine and the ability to mentor myself! Or just a European passport. I’d take one of those, too.

astronomical-clock-475445_1280Photo by Peter Kraayvanger via Pixabay

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What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits (#9)

No assholes allowed.

After working on a show at the Arcola Theatre in the summer of 2006, I decided I was going to move to London when I finished grad school. My friend Yvonne (who was in that show) asked me why. I gave her a lot of reasons based on the production we worked on together. Everything I said, she’d say “Well, that was really just that show.” or “That’s not really the case.”
For example, I was convinced that English Theatre was really international and inclusive. Yvonne dismissed this by saying that our production was pretty unusual in that way.
“Ok, ok.” I said and tried a few other ideas I had about the British theatre.Then I said, “And. . . I know you’re going to say that this isn’t true and that it was just this production but it feels like nobody is really an asshole there. People just seemed to be essentially nice when dealing with each other most of the time. But I know you’re going to say that was just our show. . .”
“Oh – well – that’s true actually.”
“Yeah, if you’re an asshole, you don’t work. It’s just that simple.
“It feels like it’s just the opposite in the American Theatre.”
“I’ll tell you. I went to Drama school with this actor who was extraordinary. He was amazing in our King Lear but he doesn’t work. And he won’t. Because he’s a world class asshole.”
(She’s a good code-switcher. She said “ass” instead of “arse” for me.)
Can you imagine a world wherein, as an artist, you didn’t wonder if you might be a bit farther along in your career if you were a bigger asshole?
I’ve been in such a world and everyday I’m trying to recreate it. I hereby declare my theatre an asshole free zone.

What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits (#8)
December 11, 2010, 12:01 am
Filed under: art, theatre, What I wish American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits

Respect for Actors

While I was spending a couple of weeks in London this summer, I kept thinking of the difference of being an actor there versus here in NY. The respect that comes with the identity there is extraordinary. It means something. It’s not connected to fame or who’s working or not working. It’s just a respectful fact. In New York, being an actor is eye roll worthy. You either get a sort of bored, “Who isn’t?” or a “What do you really do?” This is why Uta Hagen had to write a book called Respect for Acting. We need one called Respect for Actors.

Problem is – here in NY – I don’t have a respect for a lot of actors either. So many of them are insufferable and terrible.

I’m as guilty as anyone.

What I wish American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits (# 7)

More Egalitarian Structures

The job I found in London was in the cloakroom at the Battersea Arts Centre, during the run of Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death. It was a bottom of the totem pole job and I worked a few nights a week for not very much money. (Side bar of shocking info re: minimum wage type jobs – I got paid Holiday wages even though I wasn’t anywhere near full-time. Oh yeah and that National Health Care thing. So benefits, too.)

In an American theatre, only my immediate supervisors would have recognized me or known my name. In London, I was invited by the Theatre Manager to participate in an organizational meeting (a meeting for which I was paid, by the way) wherein all parties involved in making the theatre go were invited to discuss the future of the organization, to evaluate what it is and where it had been. My voice, as the recently hired cloakroom assistant, was just as valuable and heard with as much weight as the voices of the Artistic Director, Education Director or the Marketing Director. I have worked for many many arts organizations and business over the years and I have never before had anyone really truly ask me what I thought. Periodically, I’m asked to fill out an evaluation of a project I worked on (which I can rarely be fully honest about given my precarious positions in these jobs) – but nobody ever asks me, or anyone involved in the everyday workings of the organization, for participation in it on a big picture level.

I think this is a great loss. Sometimes the people who are on the periphery know things, important things, about the goings on in a company and his/her wisdom is lost because everyone thinks of the janitor as “just” a janitor. Arts organizations, more than any institution, should understand the value of everyone’s voice being heard.

As the lowest woman on the totem pole at that meeting at the Battersea Arts Centre, I felt more valued and heard than I have ever felt in any of my Arts jobs here in the US. Despite the fact that I was working in a low wage position when I’m highly qualified to do many other things, I would have stayed on in that company for a long time, had the law allowed. (Immigration laws are a bitch.) All it took to invoke my sense of loyalty was to ask me once, at one meeting, for my opinion and to truly listen to it.

In all my Arts in Education jobs here, the program managers and the middle men (my direct supervisors) change every year. I suspect that no one asks them what they think either and so they move on to jobs where they have some sense of contributing to the big picture. It’s so simple –  but find me one American arts organization that does it. Please. I’ll go check coats there.

What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits (#6)

#6 Openness for Writers

Anyone can send a play to almost any theatre that does new writing in the UK. Mostly, they’ll also write you back and tell you what they thought. They will not send you a standard rejection letter. They will reference specific things in your play that indicate that they have actually read it. Just try that at an established American theatre.

You absolutely have to read this article by Allan Katz about this. It’s genius.\”Just Dying to Get that Play Produced\”

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