Songs for the Struggling Artist


How to Congratulate an Artist
January 9, 2018, 10:45 pm
Filed under: advice, art, dreams | Tags: , , , , ,

When the New Yorker published my friend’s poem, I wasn’t surprised. I was thrilled and excited and proud but, as I’d fully expected such a thing since I first encountered my friend’s work, I was not surprised in the least. Frankly, I was surprised it took the New Yorker as long as it did. I congratulated the New Yorker on making a good choice rather than my friend for being chosen. This is because, in addition to being a fierce admirer of my friend, I am a fierce admirer of her work and always have been.

I have people who do the same for me – people who love me, yes, and want the best for me but also love my work, believe in it. They are the ones who are just waiting for others to come around to their opinions. I started to think about this recently after receiving some surprising good news regarding my work. I told one friend and she was excited and thrilled and also (and this is the important bit) wholly unsurprised. “It’s about time,” she said. “Oh yeah. Of course. I knew it.”

And there is something so powerfully affirming about this response. The belief is firm and unwavering – even when no one else seems to hold her opinion. And I feel precisely the same about her work and cannot believe the world at large has not beaten down her door for it.

Others I shared my good news with were actually stunned. In a way, I suspect, they’d slipped into questioning my art’s worth right along with me. It’s not that they don’t love me. They do – and that love is fierce and unwavering but it does not necessarily extend to my work. So when the world suddenly gives me approval, they have a readjustment period of looking at my work through the lens of the world’s approval. And you know – if you love me, you’re not actually required to love my work. It is not a pre-requisite . But those that hold space for both me AND my work are the ones I turn to in the darkest moments. And I rely on them in ways that I am still coming to appreciate.

Those of us who dedicate ourselves to the Arts and/or Entertainment are often asked questions like, “Why don’t you write for the movies? Why don’t you get on Saturday Night Live? Why don’t you publish a best seller? Why don’t you get on TV? Why don’t you get Oprah to produce your show? Why aren’t you on Broadway yet?”

These questions can all be reframed to be more helpful and supportive to the people who make things. Try: “Why haven’t the movies snapped you up to write for them yet? Why hasn’t Saturday Night Live recognized your comic genius? Why haven’t the publishing houses beat down your door? Haven’t they realized your work will make them pots of money? Why is TV blind to your radiance? How is it possible that Oprah hasn’t been informed of your work? Who is holding those Broadway producers hostage that they haven’t come calling?”

Sometimes it’s very weird to be congratulated for someone else’s decision about one’s work. The congratulations usually come in response to something that the artist had nothing to do with, that is, someone else’s approval. The fiercest supporters are the ones who congratulate an artist on the actual work before anyone else ever cares about it. I am exceptionally grateful to have such people in my corner.

My wish for my fellow artists this year is to have supporters as fierce and dedicated as mine are. I want everyone who makes things to hear congratulations on their actual work and “Oh yeah, of course” to any success it finds. If you love a struggling artist, don’t wait to give them your admiration or support. Give support to the work itself and not just the trophies. Anyone can be proud of an artist for winning awards but a top tier supporter is proud long before the awards ever appear.

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My First Troll

You guys. I’ve been on the internet making and doing things, writing and posting and sharing for years. I’d assumed the trolls would be coming for me at any moment because I have heard all these stories about what it’s like to be a woman on the internet. But the trolls mostly left me alone. (My guess is that this is due to my only real viral posts being theatre related – and there aren’t a lot of theatre trolls, luckily.) Then when I retweeted John Patrick Shanley talking about artists and added my own…a troll emerged. A troll, a troll! My very own real troll!

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First, I was stunned it wasn’t a rape threat and then shocked that it’s basically a knock on artists. I mean, I know trolling feminists is a thing but they’re trolling artists now?

Anyway – the good news is that it didn’t break me. During all these years of posting blogs and what not, I was afraid that too much of a public profile would lead to this type of experience – one which this conflict-averse artist would generally like to avoid. But it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. And it feels worth the risk at the moment.

I mean, it’s a risk to be a woman in public in any way. It is a risk to walk down the street in most places. And the internet is just another version of the street. I go out into the world, despite the possibilities of harassment, rape or general sexism. I don’t let it keep me in the house.

Nor will I let a troll keep me off the internet, I find. I thought I would cave. I thought I would get a tweet like this and run. But I will not run. I’m celebrating that I have raised my public profile enough that an asshole wants to troll me. If I’m making enough noise to activate a troll, I’m on the right track, I figure.

I recognize that this could all change. If I started to receive the treatment of Lindy West or Anita Sarkeesian or Leslie Jones,  I have no idea how I’d get through that. But here, with my very first troll, I can at least recognize that it will take a lot more to silence me than I previously thought. I’m stronger than I thought. More willing to fight. Tougher. Fiercer. More unafraid.

So I celebrate this rite of passage and honor you, my mean little troll. In the same way that most women will always remember their first street harasser, I will always remember you. But I’ll also never hear from you again, either, cause you’re muted, troll.

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Would you like to help fight the trolls?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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



The Discomfort of Being Different Part Two

Occasionally, right after I push PUBLISH on my blog, I get a flood of additional ideas on the topic. I start to think of ways I should edit it or concepts I want to add. Sometimes I’ll go back in and edit or add – other times I’ll just let it lie. And sometimes I need to continue the thought in an entirely new blog post. That’s what happened when I opened up the floodgates on sexism in theatre. Thoughts just kept rushing in and I had to write follow-up-post after follow up. Some of those were based on the feedback I was getting and some of it was the swirl of it all marinating in my brain.

This post is of the marination variety. In thinking about being different – from the social science around non-conformity to my own history, I realized there was an additional factor that I didn’t factor in to my initial thoughts on the subject. That factor, in my case, was gender.

Because, in theatre (as in almost everywhere else,) the best way to be the Same – to conform, is to be a middle class white man. The numbers mean that nine times out of ten when I’m in a theatre doing someone else’s show, I’m in the minority. I am already different, just by being born a woman. And because of that, there is an added pressure to fit in, to do things the way they’ve always been done. Working female directors (all 22% of them!) mostly make their names directing plays about men. Women playwrights get more productions if their plays are about men. In order to assimilate, one has to take on the dominant culture – and that culture is male and white. (This all applies to race, too, but I will save that post either for someone else or the moment after I push publish on this one.)

What this all adds up to for me is the sense that I’m already a foot behind in the FITTING IN GAME and it is tricky to be perceived as the Non Conformist I am, rather than the woman who doesn’t know the rules because she’s a woman. There is a presumption, right at the outset, that I don’t know what I’m doing, based on my gender. There are theatre companies who will baldly state that they don’t hire women. So if I’m DOING the job of directing, for example, I’m expected to be too feminine, to be doing things wrong. There’s a sense that I should be doubly aggressive to make up for my gender.

The fact that I refuse to do this has been a problem throughout my career. And I think it’s a problem throughout the culture, too. We lose so much potential by leaving out the female experience of leadership. Jill Soloway’s work on The Female Gaze is the FIRST TIME in my decades on the planet, that I have heard a woman in a position of prominence able to advocate for a female aesthetic and style of leadership. It is incredibly inspiring. And incredibly unusual. It requires a great deal of tolerance of that discomfort of doing things differently. Soloway asks her camera operators to feel with her subjects. She hires a crew that can cry. I can only begin to imagine how the established film crew guys react to that. What I don’t know is how she manages those confused and angry folks used to doing things the usual way. That is the trick I’d like to learn to master.

I think a lot of that finessing of the world around one comes with age. The older I get, the less I care what other people think – that is, the desire to fit in has begun to diminish dramatically. At the moment, I’m still straddling the line. I’m not yet able to wholly reject the dominant culture. Probably because I’m not really part of it.

Soloway, having already achieved traditional success in film and TV has the credentials to tell the patriarchy to go fuck itself. She can say something as radical as: men should just stop making movies and make space for women’s voices and while I’m sure that blowback is intense, she can perhaps, watch it roll by from the top of the heap. I’m still hoping to make a little mark and it is hard to do from the fringes. So – time, I hope will help me to tolerate more and more the feeling of my own differences. Every decade I live, I lose more of that people-pleasing shame that limits me now.

photo by Cassidy Kelley

 

Want to help me be different? Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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

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



The Discomfort of Being Different

I make theatre. For years I tried to make it the way everyone else was making it but I found I was always running into trouble and it never turned out the way I wanted. When I realized that I didn’t have to try and fit in, I felt liberated. I didn’t have to do things the way other people did them. I didn’t have to follow the accepted norm. I could do it my way. I could audition actors my way. I could rehearse my way. I could perform my way.

Periodically I run into some pushback and it is always fascinating to watch what happens around it. I had a moment not too long ago wherein I’d invited an actor to audition for my company and asked her to come for a workshop/playtime (which is how I invited actors to audition and also signal to them that I wanted it to be different than the usual audition) and she wrote back saying she couldn’t make it but to let her know when we were having auditions. When I got this email, my insides got all twisted up and I felt a familiar discomfort – a deep sense of something I couldn’t put my finger on.

Later, with some distance, I was able to deduce that it felt like shame. Like all those times I wore an article of clothing to school that did not pass muster with my classmates. “You’re wearing fluorescent green? But everyone’s wearing fluorescent orange. You are so out of it.” And I just couldn’t fit in, no matter how hard I tried. And I tried. I tried so hard. And then I stopped trying and began to dress completely unlike anyone at my school. I started shopping at vintage shops out of town and wearing vintage ties, repurposed skirts. I was so much happier this way. The clothes that everyone was wearing were ugly on me and I felt so much better in my self-styled wardrobe. And I discovered that I got teased a whole lot less than I did when I was trying to fit in. I was much more able to thrive when I played by my own rules.

There’s something similar going on in my theatre making. I find a lot of the usual way of doing things ugly…perhaps even toxic. Auditions are horrible. Casting can be impersonal and inhumane. There are many structures in place to keep distance and control in the hands of the people holding the bag of money. I’ve seen actors, designers and crew bullied and abused and no one can complain. It is just what people expect sometimes.

So when I set up a process that I mean to be kind and respectful and gentle, people get confused and sometimes they get mad at me because I have not asked them to do the thing they’ve used to doing. By wearing my repurposed skirt and tie, I have unintentionally challenged the entire structure.

And most of me is delighted to challenge the field. It needs a challenge.  I am a happy non-conformist. In many ways, my non-conformist structures are built to weed out those who will not respond to them. I know very well that my work is not for everyone. Nor is my way of working. It is a good thing when someone self-excludes from my process.

But when I’m challenged about my methods,  my stomach flips over and I feel like I’ve been caught not knowing what the (unwritten) rules are instead of choosing to break the rules. I have to acknowledge that while I am 90% non-conformist – there is a 10% portion that just wants to be accepted. It is my inner 11 year old who just wants all the kids to like me and the established form to open its arms and invite me in.

I get better and better at staying true to my own impulses, my own way of doing things, my own sense of style but the journey isn’t over. It is not always easy to be the odd one at the edge of the middle school dance. It can be painful to be operating from a different script than the majority of my peers.  The pain pays off, I think. We, the oddballs, have a lot of original thoughts, ideas and methods that the ones who have managed to fit in will never have access to. But it does seem to involve tolerating a certain amount of discomfort when our worlds meet.

Theatre is wonderful and awful for the same reason. Theatre involves people. We have to work with people to make theatre and we have to perform for people. There is no part of the experience that doesn’t involve being in community in some way or another. And one of the tricky things about being a part of a community is figuring out how much one needs to assimilate to the group. How much homogeneity is good and how much is counterproductive?

There is some evidence, through social science experiments, that human beings feel physical pain when we feel separate from a group. We feel physical pain when rejected. To avoid feeling like outsiders, we will say things we know are incorrect, we will risk our lives, we will do silly things like stand up when a bell goes off, just because everyone around us does. It feels important to recognize that evolution has made us social animals as a life-saving skill so the pain of diverging is real. But there are also benefits to risking non-conformity. This article from MIT said it this way:

Our studies found that nonconformity leads to positive inferences of status and competence when it is associated with deliberateness and intentionality. In other words, observers attribute heightened status and competence to a nonconforming individual when they believe he or she is aware of an accepted, established norm and is able to conform to it, but instead deliberately decides not to.

See, I know what the accepted, established norm is and I guess the discomfort that I feel is when I discover that others don’t know that I know. Instead of feeling the benefits of nonconformity, I feel the shame. That’s the danger of doing things differently. And a danger I will continue to face. Because I am definitely never wearing that fluorescent green sweatshirt again.

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You can help assuage the discomfort of being different

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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

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




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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Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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This blog is also a Podcast. If you’d like to listen to me read this blog, go here.

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



Ideas and Glitter and Places to Put Them
June 10, 2016, 12:16 am
Filed under: art, Creative Process | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Over the years I’ve been a part of various schemes that are meant to help artists. Most of the schemes in NYC are schemes to improve our business skills, to make us bigger and more solid institutions. These make me nuts for reasons I have discussed many times before but recently, I’ve been involved in schemes that are meant to help give me ideas and inspirations. These make me nuts in a very different way.

I have so many ideas, folks. I have ideas for breakfast, ideas for lunch, ideas for afternoon tea, dinner and midnight snack. I am rolling in ideas. And I am grateful for that abundance of ideas. I feel I can never have to many – so I am always happy to be a part of something meant to increase my inspiration. But ideas are never my problem.

It’s like ideas are glitter. Glitter is wonderful. It makes everything it touches sparkle. Every time someone gives me more glitter, I’m going to be happy to receive it.

The thing I haven’t had is a place to PUT all this glitter. It’s pouring out of drawers, stuffed into socks, pooling in corners. When there’s no space to put my glitter or a container to store it, it can start to feel like a burden to keep receiving it. Someone gives me a handful of glitter and I’m like, “Oooooh! Glitter! Thank you!” And then I look around…Where is this going to go?

I suspect my fellow American Artists are also not short on ideas and inspiration. We’ve all seen shows and been lit up and gone home thinking, “I can’t wait to try something like that,” and then we realize that we have neither the time, the space nor the context to try that idea out. We don’t have R & D grants as some of our European colleagues do – everything we do is meant to be a product with a target audience and numbers to match. There’s not much space for glitter in the models we have. But glitter is often what we love, what we respond to. I will never refuse an idea – would never refuse a handful of glitter – but like glitter, ideas can find their way into inconvenient places and start to clog up the works if you never get an opportunity to use them or express them.

I don’t want to seem ungrateful for any program or scheme designed to give me glitter but these programs should know that giving me more glitter is not the way to increase the quality of American Theatre. I imagine that if you are not an artist, that ideas seem to be the currency for us – that increasing them would be the way to build up the bank of art. But we’ve got this covered. I’ve got so much glitter, so many ideas. I understand the possibilities. I have an aesthetic education gathered from glittery artists from around the world. I don’t need more glitter. I just need a place to play with it.

Luckily, I was recently given a space with no real strings and so I chose to use it to create my own R &D experience and am therefore incredibly grateful to be able to pull out boxes and boxes of glitter I’ve had sitting around for years. And I get more glitter every day, just because I have a place to play.

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You can give me space for glitter by becoming my patron on Patreon.
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Click HERE  to Check out my Patreon Page

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This blog is also a Podcast. If you’d like to listen to me read it to you and here additional commentary, click here.

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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 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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