Songs for the Struggling Artist


Thinking About Respectability in Law and Theatre
August 27, 2022, 11:09 pm
Filed under: Acting, Justice, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Mostly I don’t worry about respectability. I’m aware that I work in fields that lack a certain respectability and that by operating at the margins, I do not rank high on a lot of people’s respectability scales. I notice it particularly in the comments on anything that proposes providing support for artists (for housing, basic income, anything – “Why should we help these people who don’t even do a regular job for a living?”). I have made a kind of peace with my lack of respectability and can sometimes even revel in it.

Recently, though, I found myself thinking about it – after wrapping up jury service on a civil trial, spending hours watching lawyers. Lawyers, despite all the jokes to the contrary, experience a high level of respectability. Often, immigrants want their children to grow up to be lawyers (and doctors!) so that they know the children have achieved something like respectability. No one shakes their head regretfully when they hear someone is going to law school. It’s a sign they are entering a respectable social class, a genteel profession. There may be a lot of jokes about how terrible lawyers are but no one will be disappointed if their kid becomes one.

After sitting through a week and a half of a personal injury lawyer trying to gaslight us into punishing a doctor for something he didn’t do, I really don’t think law is such a respectable profession anymore. I may not make a lot of money but I don’t try to convince people of lies. I may do things that a lot of people don’t understand but I don’t waste people’s time and attention on spurious situations. I don’t take advantage of vulnerable people and expose their innermost life details to groups of people for no good reason. I do not find the guy who does this kind of work respectable.

The other lawyer, the guy defending against this case didn’t strike me as all that much more respectable, honestly, even though he at least had truth and science on his side. But this man spends all his time pushing back on the specious claims. He’s participating in it, too. If this lawsuit had not been brought, he would not have had a case. None of it struck me as particularly respectable. And yet.

It made me feel my own lack of respectability keenly in a way. I do not usually pay much mind to such things but I thought of all the actors I know, tired of being asked “Oh, where do you wait tables?” when they tell someone they’re an actor so they just decide to go to law school, just to get some respect for a change.

I read a quote from Uta Hagen recently where she explained why she called her book Respect for Acting. Her sense was that there wasn’t enough respect for the work and she hoped to foster some. (I’ll put the whole quote below. It’s bracing and inspiring.) There’s even less respect now than there was when she wrote the book and I suppose I’m thinking about it because it is not easy to live in a culture that does not respect what you do. Being exposed, at length, to the work of a job that IS respected and find it, instead of respectable, somewhat reprehensible is a kind of an unpleasant turnaround. I know this particular kind of law isn’t the only one and there are many many lawyers whose work I admire and am grateful for. (I think of the heroes who showed up at JFK airport the day Trump implemented the Muslim ban.) But – as a whole? I don’t know. Maybe we could treat artists with a little MORE respect and the vast field of law with a little less. It’s not all respectable.

I called the book ‘Respect for Acting’ for a very clear reason. I did not call the book ‘Delight in Acting’ or ‘Love of Acting’ or ‘The Fun of Acting.’ I called that book what I called that book because of the shocking lack of respect that was creeping into both the teaching and the practicing of acting. Now? Forget it. We have allowed so much to recede or languish that I don’t know what I could call a book today. ‘Demand for Acting’ might work. …There was a time when people became bored and they took up bridge or golf; ladies had an affair or had their hair rinsed and joined a book club. Now they want to act. And there are fools with no standards who allow them into classes and theatre groups and tell them to live their dream. I don’t care about dreams. I care about work and responsibility and truth and commitment. You can see how old-fashioned I am. When you are bored or depressed, you might be advised to visit a museum, to look at the art. You are not, typically, advised to pick up a brush and become a painter. It is understood that this is a rare gift, and foolish to presume it might be yours. If your soul is crushed, it might be suggested that you listen to classical music or submit to opera. It is not suggested that you audition for the Metropolitan Opera, or even your local, provincial opera company. You haven’t had the training. But acting? All you need, it seems, is the dream, and there are doors–doors that once meant something and once housed some standards behind them–that fly open and embrace you. And it enrages me. If there is some small society that calls itself amateur or community or whatever, and they want to get up and do plays, that is fine. I’ll contribute money and I’ll support you in the joys of understanding plays, but do not call yourself an actor. Do not think that your dream is similar in weight or meaning to the years of training and commitment that I and all the many actors whose work I love and respect and envy have invested in this art. Respect what is an art. It is not a pastime, and it is not something to get you through a bad time, and it is not something that should be taught to everyone with a dream. The term seriousness of purpose comes to mind. Apparently, only mine.

 Uta Hagen/1996. 

Uta Hagen is doing some highly respectable work on that stage. (She’s Desdemona and look how she’s THIS close to dropping that hankie.) And this production featured Paul Robeson as Othello so it is respectable feast.

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

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Confusing Art with Money

With a couple of decades in the indie theatre trenches behind me, I have some complicated feelings around money and art. I believe in paying artists. I think it’s important to give value in a monetary form to people who create. I fight hard to make it happen as often as I can. But I would much prefer to work with a group of people who aren’t doing it for the money. As soon as money gets involved, there’s always someone who starts treating me like I’m PepsiCo and makes demands, defines rigid terms and sets intense limitations. It feels lousy every single time. I find I usually have a more satisfying artistic experience with the people who signed up when they thought they were getting nothing and are happily surprised when I present them an actual check. They get paid either way but in one way the context is clear for everyone and the one with money involved makes things muddy. When I offer money from the start, some people are doing it for the money.

But this is so complicated because I really believe that it is okay to do things for money. Teaching, for example, is full of people declaring they love it, that they’d do it for free but they wouldn’t actually and when I do it, I’m not going to lie, I do it for the money. I’m good at it and I’m not doing it for love. I’ve done acting for the money, directing for the money and writing, too. So where do I get off wanting to have my artistic collaborators not do it for the money? You know? They’re allowed to only want to do my show because they want/need the $200 I have to offer them. That’s okay. Except for art is this delicate vulnerable creative sensitive endeavor and when I smell a mercenary, when someone starts to engage with me like I’m a Hollywood agent, I get a wave of anxiety and despair.

If I have $200 to give someone, it’s because I probably cobbled it together in $20 increments from my uncle, my college buddies and fellow artists. I don’t have more. I’m not out here trying to get something for nothing. I literally just want to make art and make sure folks get at least a little gesture of value for their work. That’s all it is. But almost every time there will be one or two people who make it clear that this art I think we’re making is a business transaction for them. It always confuses me and it makes me feel bad. I know it comes from their history of being taken advantage of or having to chase after payments from shady vendors but it feels so lousy to be lumped in with those people in an art context. It always gives me pause and makes me think, “Oh, I’m doing all of this wrong. They’ll know I’m not built for the business.” But it’s also possible to see it as this person doesn’t understand the context. This person doesn’t understand the world I come from. But even then it makes me question my own judgment in bringing them into my quiet little circle. It’s a real tornado of an experience. When it happened recently, I had a little meltdown and my friend talked me down off the “I can’t do this” ledge by pointing out that I really need an Executive Director for a business manager – someone who can talk the business talk with my collaborators and then send them to me for the art part. But when you’re a one person band like I am, there is no offloading these interactions. They are part of it and I am working very hard to not take them personally.

Most people I work with in the arts have mastered the context leap. They work with Network Executives and agents differently than they engage with tiny indie theatre producers. There are ways of engaging that are fundamentally different when you’re working for PepisCo or for a fellow artist. The folks who don’t work that out don’t last too long in the business. Or they don’t last too long in the art. Whichever one they’ve not nailed the special mores of. Or both.

For many artists, more important than actual currency is social currency and you start to damage that when you lean into the business side of things. It’s confusing for me, too – but it’s like, I want to pay artists but I don’t want to talk to artists about money (unless we’re doing a show about it, which I did) and if they’re doing it for the money please don’t let me know that as I need to believe my art is the best and only art and that you’d do it for free even though you wouldn’t, okay? It is a fragile relationship.

If you’re wondering whether the job you’re about to do is business or art, think about how vulnerable to flattery the creator is. Me? Totally vulnerable. Three of the five people I cast recently let me know how much they liked the show and I don’t think I cast them because they liked the show, or even because it was clear they did some research, but it did tell me that they understood what I was trying to do (it was apparent in their work really) and that all makes a difference. Let me just say a person writing ad copy probably isn’t too concerned whether or not you understand his artistic vision. He just wants to know you can read it correctly and on time.

The thing is, I’ve been at this art making business for decades and I still don’t know what to do when someone starts engaging with me in business mode instead of artistic mode. I get absolutely flummoxed. Their business concerns are fair, of course – but it always turns me around. No, you’re right, it isn’t a lot of money. No, my uncle doesn’t have another $20 for you, I’m sorry. If you need my uncle’s $20, this is probably not the gig for you. Please don’t do it for the money. Or if you are doing it for the money, can you just pretend you aren’t? Just for the illusion. This is theatre after all, we traffic in illusions. Please help me maintain mine!

Sometimes the way to do it is to make Art ABOUT Money. I’ve tried this too!

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

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Have You Ever Used This Before?

There’s a great Thai restaurant in my neighborhood where we would always get the same thing – the Sukhothai soup with wide ribbon noodles. They used to, before they brought the soup, bring out a little caddie with various toppings, a bottle of fish sauce and a container of peanuts and every time, they’d say, with exactly the same tone and phrasing, “Have you ever used this before?” We’d say yes and proceeded to enjoy the soup with the confidence that we were approaching the condiments appropriately.

That restaurant was built for newcomers. While we found it amusing to be asked the same question every time we went, it was somehow a comforting tradition. Anyone new there would feel just as welcome as those of us who’d been going for years. The Have You Ever Used This Before framework ensures that everyone is welcome. I can’t remember the moment really, but I know the first time we went there, we HADN’T used it before and so got some useful instruction on what choices were before us. That restaurant made us feel welcome and cared for from the start.

I was thinking about this because I donated blood for the first time at a local blood drive recently. I knew absolutely nothing about what was going to happen, how it worked, what the place was, where I was supposed to go and it was clear that this team of people were not accustomed to welcoming newcomers. The experience seemed to run smoothly for those in the know but for me, despite reporting to absolutely everyone I saw that it was my first time, no one took the extra time to – well, explain the fish sauce, as it were. I could feel how unusual it was for a newcomer to find their way into this atmosphere – a fact I found strange, given that blood drives need an ever-renewing crop of donors to keep supplies up.

And the thing is, they’re NOT keeping supplies up. The reason I decided to donate was that I heard a podcast about how dangerously low NYC’s blood supplies were and how that danger was magnified by how low supplies were nationwide. There is an urgent need for donors. But of course, if it’s not easy to find a place to donate in a convenient spot (it took me a month) and then when you arrive, you’re made to feel awkward and burdensome because you’re new, then, yeah, it’s going to be hard to get new donors. Also, the only thank you for donating that I received was on the placemat in the snack area and an automated email the next day. I certainly didn’t do this for the thank yous but I’m sure a direct thank you from a fellow human being would go a long way toward making someone feel good about making the effort to donate again. When it comes to emotional stuff, humans are just better at that sort of thing than pieces of paper or robo-emails. Places like Blood Centers need to actively make room for newcomers and make them feel amazing when they show. Increasing the blood supply depends on it.

Obviously, extracting blood is a job for these folks and no one who’s just busy trying to get home to their kids or whatever has the emotional energy to also make a newcomer feel welcome. There has to be some thought about it, I think. Someone whose job it is, perhaps, to just guide newcomers or some system that helps make a positive event of it for the staff. Maybe it’s as simple as asking a new donor if they’ve ever donated before. I don’t know the answer but I do know that they ought to be thinking about it because the crisis suggests that what they’re doing isn’t working well enough.

It makes me think of my friend’s teacher’s union which does nothing to welcome its new members. When you get a job there, your union dues automatically come out of your paycheck but no one sends you a letter or a postcard or even an email to welcome you to your union. No one tells you what the union is working on or what you can do to be a part of it. I know this, not just because of my friend’s stories but because, on the occasions when I’ve been briefly contracted to teach a class in this system, I’ve paid those union dues, too but never had a stitch of contact with the union itself.  

A union is also an organization that would benefit from making newcomers feel welcome. The more people are invested in a union, the more powerful that union becomes. Leaving it up to folks to find out on their own when the meetings are and motivate themselves to attend or be a part of union actions means the union never achieves its full power. There is no one to ask them if they’ve ever used this before and as result, they don’t use any of the tools/flavors available to them.

This is important for the arts, as well. There are theatres or concert halls or museums that you can go to that welcome newcomers and ones that make you feel like an outsider until you’ve gone there enough to feel like an insider. There are places that may not explicitly ask you if you’ve ever been there before but the process of going inside is such that you know everyone is welcome. Those are the places with staff to greet you or signs to guide you or even architecture to help direct you to the right place. Some arts institutions work to welcome new visitors and some institutions design their venues (and experiences) to feel exclusive. Most do the latter. But even though I’ve been going to cultural events all of my life, I am always grateful to be welcomed as if I’d never gone inside such a building before. In feeling cared for myself, I know others are being cared for and welcomed and that makes me feel more welcome as well.

Having facilitated the process of a lot of young people’s first trip to a theatre, I have seen what an impact those opening moments can have. And kids will report back, not so much about the show they saw, but how they were treated when they arrived. Many have told me that they felt like everyone was worried they were going to rob the place when they came inside. It is a far cry from feeling cared for and welcomed.

I would love for arts organizations to learn to be as good as my local Thai restaurant at making everyone feel welcome. It can be as simple as asking, “Have you ever been here before? Have you ever used this before?”

That’s the caddie, though not the Sukhothai. (I lifted this photo from the Wall Street Journal. Normally I’d feel bad about it. But I figure I’m linking back to their weirdo paper and Cassandra Giraldo took this photo for them and I hope she got paid handsomely for it already. And I figured you needed to see this caddie.)

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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Give Me Your Witches, Your Ghouls, Your Severed Limbs Hanging in Trees
October 28, 2021, 11:08 pm
Filed under: art, community, Imagination, Witchery | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The cheerful scarecrow dolls and corn cob clusters don’t thrill me but I will celebrate any nod toward decoration this month. I embrace your paper pumpkin, your hay bale, your autumnal faux leaf display.

But I am delighted by your circle of witches, your zombie doll babies, your floating spectres, your plastic bag ghosts, your homemade headless magician, your skeletons engaged in activities, your dagger wielding clown child on a swing, your smoke machine, your sound effects, your back-lit and up-lit cloaked figures, your spiders, your crows, your ravens, your bats.

Having been starved of art for so long – (I have not yet been to a museum or a theatre since March 2020) – I find myself intensely grateful for the experience of discovering decorations on my neighbors’ houses and apartments. Is it art? Mostly not. But occasionally there’s something that feels like it. The house with the Dead and Breakfast sign felt like such a complete concept in its design. I can imagine the experience continuing should I walk through the gravestone yard and go up the steps, up to the figure who tells you to beware and attempts to send you away. I can then imagine trying to check in to this glorious Dead and Breakfast, where skeletons climb in at the windows.

Art or not, it feels like an exercise of our art muscles as we applaud the good ones and bemoan the missed opportunities of houses that seem built to be perfect settings for Halloween displays.  I am weirdly so intensely grateful to all the people who’ve made an effort. It seems like this is a new development, that this year is unusually rich in Halloween festiveness, but I can’t be sure. I’ve never gone hunting for Halloween houses before.

Ever since my youngest brother was killed last month, I have felt a strong need to get out of the apartment and walk. From day one, we went out walking nearly every night and over the weeks, there has been more and more to see. It feels so much better to get out and walk because we have a mission to see the best Halloween décor, for fun, than to just be out Grief Walking.

So I just wanted to say thank you to my neighbors for giving us cool things to look at. I thank you for your inflatables, your cobweb arches, your flashing eyes, your jack o lantern pile, your comedy skeletons who drink beer, read dirty joke books and fart. I thank you for your inflatable dragons that turn their heads to look at me. (Though I am not 100% sure dragons are on theme for Halloween, they are 100% on theme for me, so extra thanks!) I thank you for your vampires and your transforming portraits. I thank you for your flashing orange and purple lights. I thank you for your skull wreath. I thank you for your severed limb Halloween bush. (Like a Christmas tree but with feet and hands instead of ornaments!) I thank you for your Yoda toting T-Rex skeleton eating a hand. I thank you for your blood smeared windows. I thank you for your tiny mermaid skeletons that I feel sure you dressed yourself in tiny shiny mermaid skin tails and bikini tops. I thank you for cheering us up with darkness.

And if you live in my neighborhood (Astoria, Queens) and you know a cool Halloween House to go see, please let me know. I’m out walking, looking for them.

This house does a little Halloween all year round. Their Labor Day decorations are the only ones in the neighborhood.

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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A $5000 Grant Would Be a $5000 Problem
July 5, 2021, 6:24 pm
Filed under: art, Art Scenes, Creative Process, dance, music, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , , , , ,

A day after applications opened, the email notifications of the grant’s existence came out. After a lot of hype, the City Corp Arts Grants applications were live! I waited until midnight to look at the tab I’d left open all day. I confess I didn’t have high hopes for it. But around midnight, I finally got the will to check it out. When I finally understood what its parameters were, I cursed and shut it all down again. There was no way I could do what it was asking. Another opportunity that I was just too uninspired to take on. Sigh. I’ve been here before. Ah well.

But then we started talking about this “opportunity” and I started to realize what a mess it was. It’s not that I’m uninspired. It’s that this grant is ridiculous. First – it’s been billed as a way to support artists after a devastating year with no support and, for performing artists, having our entire field shut down. It’s been pitched as a parcel of funds to help counteract the losses we endured. It is $5000 for 3000 individual artists. That’s nice! It’s a lovely idea. If I had $5000 to give to 3000 individual artists, I absolutely would do it. What a boon for those 3000 artists! But the catch is – they’re not just giving 3000 artists 5K. It’s not a gift. For 5K, they expect a return. They want live performances. They want murals. They want workshops and celebrations.

They’re trying to buy a summer full of art with a last minute investment. Because it’s not just that they want a show of some kind; They want it starting immediately. These performances have to happen between July and October. This timeline and this budget are impossible. I can’t make a show for $5k in NYC. I don’t know anyone who can.

If I were to sign up to try and get this grant, I’d be signing up for a $5000 problem. First this $5000 would not go to me, the artist (though this is the stated goal of this grant). The first place it would need to go would be a rehearsal space. And if we need to rent a performance venue, that’s it. The grant money is already spent. But let’s say we’re going to do this outdoors, guerrilla style – maybe on one of these Open Streets they set up this year – then maybe there’s enough money to pay some of the performers. If we want it to look good in the photos we’re required to provide for the city, we’ll need to hire some good costume and scenic designers, not to mention a photographer to document this street performance. I, personally, the artist who applied for this thing that is meant to help me, will likely not see a dime. Not to mention that I’ll have had absolutely zero time to prepare. I’d be expected to find a venue, cast a show, find a place to rehearse it, and put it all on, at warp speed. On top of that, I’d, for sure, need to raise more money to get anything really done. It’s not a great deal for me.

Now – if this grant gave me 5K and a free rehearsal space and just wanted a couple of photos of whatever I came up with, that might be something. That would be a grant that encouraged the creation of art rather than demanding some kind of product. A city that gave its artists funds to just do whatever would yield some really exciting interesting art. I fear the opposite is about to happen with this grant.

One of the requirements for this grant is to provide evidence of sustained art making here in NYC. This seems very reasonable. But it would be much better for the state of the arts here in general if instead of the asking those NYC artists with a track record to come up with a product with no real budget in a hurry, they just had a lottery for those artists and checked in with the winners after a little while to see what they came up with.

I’m sure everyone involved in this grant has the best of intentions – but it does feel a little bit like, after a brutal year, we emerge from our caves, our entire field blunted by dis-use and tears, and the city of NYC says, from the audience, “Showtime!” and we’re just pushed out on stage with no preparation. I don’t know how to say, “I’m sorry but I’m depleted and discouraged and I’ve got nothing for you.”

I would like to receive $5000 from the city of New York. I have been making art here for over two decades. It would be nice to receive a little something in honor of those years of contributing to the culture. But I just don’t have an idea for how to pull off this impossible task, for not enough money.

It’s not me, it’s this grant. This grant wants to see us dance and we are still limping back from the wars. Do we want to be dancing? Of course! There are just certain realities that we have to acknowledge. Dance costs money and it takes time to create. I feel quite sure the grantmakers imagined a summer of dozens of dancers, leaping through the streets, actors staging epics on corners, murals being painted everywhere. It is a beautiful fantasy.

I think it’s more likely that there will be a lot of solo artists, doing whatever they can in random corners. There are going to be poets and magicians and lone cellists in the streets and if we have an abundance of poets and cellos this summer, that’s cool. But I feel fairly certain that’s that this grant was not meant to be exclusively poets and cellists. And as mad as this “Dance, Artist, Dance” grant makes me, I’d still apply for it if I had even the barest semblance of an idea. I try to imagine it. I picture getting sparked by something – but then I have to find a rehearsal space and I can imagine making those calls, discovering who is still here and who has lost their space. I picture trying to find a venue and confronting the same difficult reality. None of it gives me any joy or hope, really.

I’m sure there are artists among us for whom this will be very helpful and I am very glad for them and look forward to seeing their work. But for those, like me, who might feel demoralized by these grants that were theoretically created to help us, it just feels important to acknowledge that these are not helpful for everyone.

In thinking about this, I found myself weeping harder than I have in months. And while I appreciate a good cry, I’m not sure I appreciate a grant whose very existence makes artists feel inadequate and uninspired. Intellectually, I know that I’m not artistically dead. I know that not being able to come up with a show for an impossible grant for not enough money does not mean I’m empty forever. But – it sure feels like that. I just can’t seem to stop crying whenever I try and access the inspiration well. I know that the inspiration well depends on my feeling safe and secure and stimulated and after this year I am none of those things. It is not the job of the City of New York to be concerned with my inspiration well. But – the safety and security of thousands of artists here have been compromised and I would wager that lots of artists might be in tears about their inspiration wells today. The City of New York missed a big opportunity to actually help artists, to give us a sense of safety and security that might actually make space for inspiration and instead it just wants us to smile and put on a show.

This is one empty inspirational well.
Too bad the city of NYC won’t be giving me $5000 to help fill it.

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.

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

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

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Want to help fill my inspiration well?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

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Atmosphere, Art, Magic and Souffles
February 18, 2019, 10:18 pm
Filed under: Creative Process, writing | Tags: , , , , , , ,

As I write this, I’m at a table under a palm tree facing a late afternoon sun over a blue green sea. It is a beautiful location – perfect for reading or bird watching or people watching. But it is curiously not perfect for writing. At least, not for me.

About a week before, I was in a restaurant with a storied history, with a legacy of writers and revolutionaries at their tables. It was not my usual sort of spot and I didn’t have nearly enough time there – but it was perfect for writing. Why? Why? Why does a café with dusty old photographs on the walls have more power than a beautiful sunset beach?

The answer is atmosphere. There is something in an atmosphere. There is something in an atmosphere that speaks to a writer and gives a little lift to the pen. That is why a soulless Starbucks, despite a comfy chair and the “arty” décor, does absolutely nothing for me and the Hungarian Pastry Shop (if I can find a table) is magic. There is a sense of magic in a place where other artists have hashed out their arguments and ideas. There’s a kind of possibility patina of the past on the walls.

I imagine there’s a similar magic at an artist’s colony – like a Millay, an O’Neill or a MacDowell – a sort of creative breeze that blows through there, whispering concentration, inspiration, whispering solidarity perhaps?

As lovely as a beach is, as pleasant as the atmosphere can be, the beach’s inspirational voice is not so writerly. It feels very elemental, asking you to consider the sun and the moon and the waves and the primal rhythms of the universe. And none of those things make very good drama – so the atmosphere does not so much serve the work I’m interested in. Maybe if I were a nature poet it would be my fairy dust – but as it stands – the magic is most likely to happen in a dingy old café with mismatched chairs and a surly waitstaff who mostly leave you alone.

Can I write without it? Of course. I can write anywhere with coffee and a table. I can set words down in any old place. One of my regular spots is a bubble tea place with almost zero atmosphere. Seriously, the music is terrible, the lighting is terrible and the seats are uncomfortable. But it’s fine. I make it work. However – if I get a chance to be in a place that gives me more than basics, there’s more chance for magic.

I think about the practice of writing as being a little like cooking (and I’m not much of a cook so if this analogy falls flat that’ll be why.) But certainly when you set out to cook, you gather the ingredients and you can probably make a reasonable meal. Let’s say you’ve got some eggs and some milk and some flour and butter. If you mix ‘em up and put them in the oven, you’re going to get something edible.

But only under the exact right conditions are you going to get a soufflé. It can literally depend on the atmosphere.

The fallen soufflé will taste fine – you can eat it, no matter what – but to get the delicious light texture of a soufflé, you’re going to need good atmosphere. A door slam can ruin the whole thing. My writing process is the same. The ingredients are pen, paper, coffee and uninterrupted time.

In the right atmosphere, I can write a soufflé – in most instances, I’m just writing an omelet. It’s fine – it’s good – whatever atmosphere I’m in will make it’s way into the work a little bit – so if I can, I prefer a place with atmosphere that might push me past the boring old omelet and into soufflé territory.

This post, for example, is not a soufflé. It’s fine. It gets the job done – but I wrote it on a beach with tourists shouting over me about happy hour and constant interruptions and some really lousy coffee. This post could never be a soufflé – and I knew it the moment I sat down. That’s how it goes.

I sit down with the same ingredients every day and if I’m lucky, if I’m very very lucky, a soufflé will happen even in less than ideal circumstances – but mostly I just get some utilitarian art food out of my labors. And some days there’s magic.

photo by Donna Shaunesey

This blog is also a podcast.

You can find it 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

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of February for the second album, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

If you have a particular album you’d like to keep there, let me know!

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If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



In Which I Try to Defend My (Seemingly Terrible) Choice to Dedicate My Life to Theatre
January 28, 2019, 11:43 pm
Filed under: art, musicals, Quitting, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Theatre is part of me. It has been since I first learned about it in pre-school. My pre-school teachers were actors and there has never been anyone cooler – before or since. Even if I quit theatre making tomorrow, I’d still be a theatre person. It’s almost a physical characteristic at this point – Oh, she has blue eyes, curly hair and theatre.

Other people who have theatre in their bones know what I mean. They know how inevitable it feels, how compulsive, how deep.

The people without this quality cannot fathom why theatre has so much power over us. Why do we continue to do it, despite the heartbreaks, the inconsistency and the hopelessness of the whole enterprise?

Oh, how I wish I knew the answer. Theatre is not logical.

It may have been once – back in the old days when it was the only place a community could really gather, when it provided the only drama or comedy around. But now, when we can get our stories on screens of all sizes, it no longer has the urgency it once did. Why gather in person to watch something if we can gather virtually?

If you have theatre in your blood, as either a theatre-goer or maker or both, you know why. If you don’t, I’m not sure how to capture the magic spell the rest of us are under. Why do we go to it? Why do we sacrifice for it? Why do we dedicate years of our lives to its charms?

A few years ago, after a friend’s benefit for her theatre company, a few of us were out for dinner afterwards and a friend said to his wife, “Why does she still do this? Every year. She keeps going and going and it never gets anywhere.” Even though he was talking about our friend, not me, I still experienced the words with the heat of a white hot poker.

“Why does she still do this?” Fact is, this is a question I used to fear that people were asking about me all the time. Every time I sent out a fundraising letter I’d hear that voice saying, “Why does she still do this?” Every time I promoted another show “Why does she still do this?” Every time I’d have to ask a new round of people for assistance, “Why does she still do this?”

When we first started our theatre company, people responded with great enthusiasm. They were sure we’d be the next big thing. As were we. As a culture, we respond to the new. I’ve seen this happen to other fresh faced theatre companies when they first get started. Folks on Kickstarter love to fund that brand new project for someone to follow their dreams. But just the first dream. Maybe the 2nd. After that, everyone expects you to have MADE it by now and begins to resent your asking. But the truth is, in contemporary American Theatre, almost no one “makes it.” And even if you do “make it” (i.e. you’re produced on a nationally recognized stage and get publicity and stuff,) because we have no national arts funding to speak of, you will still be asking everyone for money. In fact, you’ll be asking for more and more money as your budgets will get bigger and bigger the more “making it” you are. Why do we still do this?

My worries about hearing “Why does she still do this?” have faded and the question has now become “Why do I still do this?” The longer I keep at it, the less I worry about what other people might be thinking. Now I ask myself – whenever I return to the theatre, to the work, to the heartbreak. Why do I still do this?

I know why I WANT to. I know how it starts. It starts with inspiration, with an idea I want to see realized. It’s this ridiculous thing called Art that calls to me, where I cannot help but do it, no matter how little encouragement I receive. Many of us cannot be talked out of our art by the forces pressing on it. The sheer numbers of painters, sculptures, writers and composers who died unrecognized, with no assurance from the outside world are staggering. We count among them many of our greatest. . . but no one wonders why Van Gogh still painted. Why Kafka still wrote. They made things because they had to make things. Not to make it but to make. I’m the same. So is my friend who “never gets anywhere.”

I started this essay a decade ago and I am still making theatre – no matter how much it breaks my heart and seems to not be worth it sometimes. As time goes by, the putting on of shows becomes harder and harder to do, more and more draining. It feels less and less sensible to keep at it. Is the satisfaction of seeing my inspiration realized enough? Is it worth the agony to get my ideas to the stage?

I’ll be honest with you. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it is not worth it. So I got my idea up on stage. So? So? A handful of people saw it, a small percentage of them were moved. So?

Grantmakers measure a company’s worth in how many people were present, that saw a piece of work. My company does not get those grants because we do not reach a lot of people. Maybe that means I should just quit. Sometimes I really think I’m going to. I can do so many other things, after all. Perhaps I could be satisfied with fiction, with music, with writing about art. But…

We could just go on, dreaming of our future audiences who will, one day, understand what we were trying to do, while they miss it today. The major difficulty is that because our medium is live and ethereal, as theatre makers, we don’t really stand much of a chance to be recognized when we’re gone. But it doesn’t matter. We still do it because it is what we do. Van Gogh painted because he painted. Kafka wrote because he wrote. We put on shows because we put on shows. And that is why she still does this.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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

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

Or buy me a “coffee” at Ko-fi. https://ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis



Advice for Artists

If I could offer one piece of advice for artists, it would be to be skeptical of all advice for artists.

After so many years of dedication to making art, I think I’ve heard most of it. Some of it might be useful. A lot of it isn’t. I started to think about this after receiving my copy of New York magazine featuring a cover story of advice for artists. I found myself confused about what it was doing there on the cover. Why should advice for artists be a front page story? I read the advice – hoping to uncover some clues as to what made this front page material but there was very little in the thirty three tips that I haven’t read before.

I discussed this article with another lifelong artist and realized that its presence on the front page probably mostly was a result of the author’s recent Pulitzer prize win. He won a Pulitzer so he gave some advice so they took some funny arty photos of him and put him on the cover. And when I received this magazine, I felt weird about it. Not because his advice is bad – some of it does accurately reflect my experience of making art – but because I don’t understand who this advice is really for. On one hand, it seems to be for “the young who want to” – and on the other, it’s for the veteran and also the one about to have the New York Times come to their first gallery show in Soho. Who is that? An arty preteen with super fancy connections and an old soul?

That’s when I realized how bound by our own experience any advice is. Jerry Saltz, the guy who wrote this advice, is a critic who just won a Pulitzer prize for writing. He’s a hotshot. He may feel like he has his finger on the pulse of the art world – that he’s seen the range of the super star artists and the strugglers. But the fact is, Jerry Saltz only sees artists who are in the mix. For some artists, Saltz coming to their show is their one big shot. If he doesn’t respond positively to their work, it will become the story of the time they almost made it. But the art scene also includes artists who will not only never get Saltz at their art show but will also never get a show. They’re not in the mix. The artists Saltz is seeing, and therefore advising, are in the mix – which means they have already experienced a level of success or privilege. This doesn’t negate this particular critic’s advice – it’s just to contextualize it.

Likewise, any advice I’d have to offer anyone is going to come from my particular point of view. To me, the most salient bit of information in Saltz’s advice, was his perspective that it only takes 12 people to create a successful career. That’s something he’s seen happen a few times I’d wager and probably seems relatively easy to accomplish from where he’s sitting. Why, he knows at least 12 well connected people! And he knows a lot of people who know 12 well connected people. No problem.

But the good news about this guy is that he also understands that not everyone has access to well connected people. And that is one of the things that makes him a valuable voice for the arts. Sure, he may have used a photo of (notoriously terrible family-man) Pablo Picasso to demonstrate that being an artist parent is possible but his advocacy for museum space and artists is incredibly important for the cultural life of New York City so I’m glad he’s out here fighting.

But if you’re an artist looking for useful advice, I regret to inform you that no one has the answers. There isn’t a right way to do this. Living with that sort of ambiguity is sort of what it’s all about.

If you find little bursts of information inspiring for your art, yes, please read them and make your work. If Saltz’s article encouraged just one artist to dig deeper into her work, then it was worth it, in my view.

But if this sort of thing left you a little cold and confused as it did me, take my advice and forget all advice. When it comes to making art, yours is the only advice to follow. Not your teachers, not your parents, not some guy in a magazine and not some struggling artist on the internet either.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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

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

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Want to help this artist?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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

 



I’m Not a Productive Member of Society and I Have No Worth
November 11, 2018, 10:52 pm
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Now – before you leap to my defense against myself, you should know that I know this is a lie. I’m being deliberately provocative here. On good days, I see myself as incredibly productive and worth a whole lot. But there are days when I feel the capitalist values beating against me a little more strongly than others.

Capitalism says that the way for me to be a productive member of society is to make a lot of money, a lot of capital – which I should then spend. Or, if I don’t create capital, I should be productive by providing my labor to someone who IS doing some capital generating. I don’t do any of this and am therefore an unproductive member of society. When productivity means money, which it usually does, I am very clearly not productive.

But – there are those who define productivity in the sense of producing stuff. In this sense, I am in a very productive stage of life. I may not be contributing capital but I have, this last year or so, put forth into the world five albums worth of music, several plays, two podcasts, a novel and a multitude of blog posts. By sheer volume of creation and production, I’m one of the most productive members of society I know. But not one of those things earns me a salary or makes a profit. So I‘m not worth anything.

If you measure by money and not ideas, I am worthless. This is why I don’t measure by money. I have zero net worth. By your usual American standards, I am not a valuable member of society. Neither is any other struggling artist.

But I hope you realize how ridiculous this is. Do we only value a work of art when it makes money for someone? There are some for whom that is true. I happen to think art is worth something separate from how much money it can bring in. If you’ve gotten this far with me, I’m guessing you think so too.

It’s not just art that’s worth more than money, either. Raising one’s own children might get you a tax credit but it’s not money in the bank. In order to get that tax credit, you have to make some money elsewhere. The multitude of caretaking jobs that are unpaid or underpaid are overwhelming. Can we call someone who cares for their sick or elderly family member unproductive? Worthless? When we value “productivity” and “net worth” above all else, that’s what we do.

Then, too, when we extend this idea out to its natural conclusion in the other direction, we’re looking at many many “productive” people who are actually quite destructive to the society, culture and/or the planet. Guys selling sub prime mortgages were extremely productive if we define productivity financially. They made SO MUCH money. And they destroyed, not only many people’s lives but also the world’s economy, which led to destroying even more people’s lives. Someone happily at home taking care of their children isn’t looking so bad now, is it?

I’m not trying to take down capitalism. (Couldn’t if I tried.) But I came up with this title (and therefore this whole piece) on a day when I was feeling a sense of shame about my life and how I’ve chosen to live it. On a better day, I recognize what a load of crock it is that we define productivity and worth financially. I’d love to see some way to embrace some of the other measures of productivity in development. If we had a Universal Basic Income, for example, and we weren’t so worried about finding the money for essentials, we might discover a world of possibility for things created outside the realm of the financial demands. Scientific discoveries could expand tremendously if they weren’t tied to a need to make money for the companies that fund them.

In other words, if we worried less about being financially productive members of society, we might be able to be actually more productive. We could make more things. Discover things. Create things. Contribute love and service. Make an exciting, artistic, scientific, thrilling world full of art and love. Not just money.

I have seen many an artist twist themselves into knots trying to demonstrate the more socially acceptable forms of productivity while their artistic productivity languishes. I’m not talking about the day jobs we do to survive. I’m talking about busy work. I’m talking about feeling like I should be writing emails instead of writing a song. I’m talking about feeling like I’ll be a better person if I just do more tasks that might, one day, relate to money or a job.

For my own creative practice, I have seen that the less I worry about my productivity in a capitalist sense, the more productive productive I can be. In other words, when I can joke about not being a productive member of society and having no worth, when I can embrace a sort of anti-productivity stance and start to scale my worth differently, if only in my own mind, I find that I can actually access creativity in a fuller, more whole-hearted way, which births many creative children that would not have otherwise been born. That’s the kind of productivity I actually value. That is worth a great deal to me.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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

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

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Want to help increase my worth?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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

 



Tortoising and Hare-ing

The afternoon that the lullaby came to me, I was in the middle of working on a big long term project. Or rather, I was preparing to continue the work on a big long term project. But the lullaby called itself into existence and before the day was over. I had not only written a song but recorded it, too.

Most things I do are not like this. Most things are bigger, more unwieldy, the sorts of projects that can take years. But occasionally a shorter lightening rod piece will flash through.

When I got the burst of lullaby inspiration, I thought, “Oh, I’m a hare! And my artist friend laboring over an epic work is a tortoise! Artists come in different speeds!” But I very quickly realized that this was wrong. I have at least one project that I’ve been working on for a decade and a half. So, I’m definitely not typically super fast. What I realized, though, is that an artist isn’t either a tortoise or a hare. They’re both. Sometimes we’re the tortoise, inching along, headlights only illuminating a few feet ahead and sometimes we’re the hare, dashing ahead to a finish line in an instant. Sometimes we’re both – we send one slow project along the track and then send another to quickly dash ahead. (I also recognize that, in the fable, the hare loses but I’m sure there are races that hare could win.)

I suspect a rich artistic life has a bit of both styles in it. In the midst of working through a novel, for example, it is a gift to see an entire creative process come together in an afternoon. Most artists I know have those big pieces that they chip away at slowly, like marble carved into shape one knock of the chisel at a time, so to take a break and to do a quick sketch can be very refreshing. Simultaneously, if you’re in a space of making a series of short term projects that you can finish in a day, maybe adding a more ambitious project with multiple steps and even an invisible deadline will give you a good shift in perspective.

It’s not that some artists are tortoises and some are hares. It’s that some projects are short races and some are long. Some ideas are hares on a quick track and others are tortoises on a marathon, slowly plodding forward to an epic finish. We are not tortoises or hares, we are either tortoising or hare-ing. The trick is knowing which is which.

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

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

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

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

*

You can help support both my tortoise and my hare projects

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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

 




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