Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Beginning of Authority in Theatre (and Beyond)
July 31, 2017, 12:48 am
Filed under: advice, Leadership, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

At the end of the evening, the young actors were hanging on his arms, pleading for an audition for whatever he did next. He had just joined a company four months before and directed his first show in the months previous. The last time I’d seen him, a year before, he’d asked me for advice about beginning. Now he was asking if I wanted to be his assistant. I have had a company for 16 years and a Master’s Degree in Directing. But no young actors hang on my arms or tell me they will stalk me until I let them audition.

My friend is a white man with an authoritative air. As an actor, he is at his best when playing ridiculously rigid authority figures. If you’re casting a buffoonish General, he’s the best man for the job. He exudes authority. I do not. When I’m returning to acting, I like to perform with this authoritative friend because I enjoy playing characters who subvert authority – the more restrictive the authority figure, the more fun it is to subvert them. My friend is a genius at playing this charismatic authoritative type and it is tremendous fun to be his subversive second in performance.

I understand that I am not an obvious leader. I don’t think anyone would pick me out of a crowd to lead them. But while I don’t project power or authority, I do lead. I can lead. I make space for people and make things happen. I am not a novice at this – and I am happily finding that there are more and more new models for my style of leadership. Jill Soloway is probably not an obvious leader either but I’d follow her anywhere.

I’m thinking about this because I’m thinking about how these kinds of patterns replicate themselves over and over. How men who project a certain kind of authoritarianism are not just taking power but are also given it. This creates and recreates the same authoritative structures in theatre that we’ve always had and all it takes to replicate itself is one charismatic authority announcing himself and a few people to agree to that proposition and enlarge it with adulation and obsequiousness.

The young actors hanging on the arms of my friend wanted to make theatre like the show they’d just seen and they asked my friend if he made work like that. He said “not really no.” But they didn’t care. They just wanted to work with him, whatever he was doing. They could see he exuded authority and they wanted in, no matter what he was doing, their own interests aside. What is ironic is that I DO make work like the show they’d seen and I am always looking for actors are hungry for it. But they weren’t looking at me. And I didn’t need them to. I have zero interest in the fawning.

I suppose I’m writing this now to help those young actors think more broadly than the obvious. Who knows what other connections they failed to make because they were busy responding to the most authoritative voice in the room?

Extrapolate this out a bit and you can see how we ended up in the political situation we’re in – many Americans saw an authoritative charismatic white guy declaring himself to be the greatest, despite the fact that he had zero experience – and they hung on his words and his arms and swore a sort of blind fidelity to wherever he would lead them.

An authoritative person is not always the best authority. It is a kind of gut response to authoritative behavior, I think, to give over to someone who declares himself a leader. It is probably a primal response that is worth investigating with a more reasoned part of the brain. I mean, evolutionarily speaking, there was probably once a good reason to follow the person who stood up, shouted loudly and said, “Follow me!” I’m not an evolutionary psychologist, so I’m not sure what that reason was. But now, given all I’ve learned, I’m less inclined to follow anyone who claims to have the answers. From the Dunning-Kruger effect, to the No True Scotsman fallacy to Confirmation Bias and the Optimism Bias, social science shows us that our instincts, our gut responses are often way off base. Authoritarianism works, not because someone is a good authority, but because people are so willing to follow someone who declares their authority. It’s time to open up what it means to have authority. This passage from Douglas Adams says it best:

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

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The Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

At a recent festival, the audience favorite was a show that re-told a fairy tale – one that featured a king reckoning with his power. It won an award, people loved it so much. But it made me furious.

I don’t blame the creators, really. The source material was tried and true and they tackled it well. The aesthetics and storytelling were expertly executed. But. In watching it, I thought to myself, “I never need to see a story like this again. In fact, maybe I should make a list of stories I don’t need to see anyone.” In this case, a show about the difficulties of being a young white male king just didn’t resonate with me. I have seen a lot of these in my life. Maybe because I spend a lot of time in the trenches of Shakespeare, I feel like I’ve heard this story just about as thoroughly as I’d ever hope to and with much more scintillating language. And who knows, one day I might want to see one again.

However, meanwhile – I never want to see another story about how a young man should assume authority. Young men know how to do this. They got it. There are tons of models. If you want to show me a story about how a young woman assumes authority, I’m all about that. Extra points if she’s a woman of color. But I don’t need any more authoritarian stories. Please.

I think, too, this particular show triggered my fury because it did a lot of things at the beginning that made me think something else entirely was going to happen. I thought we were going to go in and subvert authority. I thought we were going to understand our power as a group. I thought we might even learn how to overthrow a king and become a true democracy. These are all lessons I actually need right now. That’s the show I needed to see and I didn’t get it. That’s not the company’s fault. They didn’t know what show I had in my head.

At the start of this show, we all practiced our bows for the King we were due to meet. I played along, because it’s fun to play. But I really don’t need to practice bowing to authority. Too many of my people are already too good at this, metaphorically speaking. Bowing to authority is one of the things that got us into this current political mess. What I’m seeking are lessons in resistance. I need people who can show us how to refuse, to resist, to make change.

I’m now trying to work out how to write the show I wanted and didn’t get. But there are very few models in this realm. I can only think of one or two. If you know of one, please send it along, I need some inspiration of radical democracy, of collective power.

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My Customer Service Whisperer

My boyfriend is a genius at calling customer service, or anything like it. He manages to stay calm and collected and get what he came for. When I get on the phone with customer service, I become almost instantly furious. And I am not, in any other area of my life, a particularly furious person.

Watching him negotiate a call system, immediately after I’ve hung up blinding mad, is like watching a miracle in progress. I’m trying to understand what’s going on here. Why is he so successful at it and why am I so terrible? And is it gendered?

When my first pass at my most recent customer service exchange failed, he jokingly offered to call them back with his “authoritative male voice” (said with some irony) – and we laughed about it, especially when I said, “Yes, please!” in my damsel in distress voice. But I think there’s really something TO this idea of authority.

The fury that builds in me when I’m on the phone with customer service (or tech support or whatever) is related to a sense of extreme powerlessness – a feeling that nothing I do will yield the results I’m looking for.

The National Theatre produced a fantastic podcast about the Female Voice and in it, one of the participants mentioned that she noticed her voice getting higher whenever she talked to customer service. I do something similar. And it is what I try to do in life as well, I think. I think I’m going to win by charming the person, by seducing them with my niceness and if all that fails, I’ll attempt to have them empathize with my plight. I try to get what I want by smiling. These can be feminine strategies for survival in life in general. But they just don’t work for me in this context of calling customer service. They almost never yield results.

One of the things that my boyfriend does with customer service is to immediately establish his own authority, to see the phone call as HIS and not the operator’s. This seems to me to be a key aspect of the success of his call. He controls the conversation rather than letting the conversation happen to him. He never feels helpless while talking through endless circles of bureaucracy because it’s always his space and he’s just patiently waiting for other people to behave appropriately.

This sense of ownership of space feels like the key missing ingredient for me. I’ve been socialized to defer. The world belongs to men and I’m usually just asking for what I want from that world, even if I’m asking a woman. When I come in to a space, I wait to see where and how the space will make room for me, I do not come into a space and posses it.

I recently watched a Ted talk by Soraya Chemaly called the Credibility Gap.  She talked about the various ways the world is built for men and not for women. Her thesis was that (aside from the home) all spaces were men’s spaces – even women’s restrooms. She points out that our understanding of this starts very early – that socialization teaches all of us that women are not to be trusted or listened to. We (teachers, parents, everyone) interrupt girls and let boys talk. We affirm boys who take up space and shame girls who do. Chemaly wrote an article called 10 words every girl should learn  which gives us concrete ways to be heard, just by saying “Stop Interrupting Me,” “I just said that” and “No explanation needed.”

I have found ways to be heard in a lot of areas of my life – but sometimes when I get on the phone with customer service, all the ways I have been dismissed over the years rise up and the circular logic and bureaucratic red tape add up to make me vibrate with fury. Explaining what I need for the 10th time to the 10th person is all too familiar in this heightened concentrated form. It is concentrated helplessness.

I think I could use some of the tips my customer service whisperer uses the next time I have to make a call like that but I know, because of the way the world has always been, that I will never be able to put it to use in quite the way someone with a male voice could. It just goes that way. For now.

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“Is this what it feels like to be a man?”

I recently finished watching Seasons 1 and 2 of Call the Midwife. My first thoughts, after watching an episode or two, were “Is this what it feels like to be a man? To see your gender entirely at the center of stories? To have a wide variety of characters and not just one pretty one to be the romantic interest for the lead?”

It has been remarkable to watch stories not just featuring women but about some of the most quintessentially female experiences you could have. Watching stories about pregnancy and childbirth, for one, but also abortion, domestic violence and motherhood.

That all feels pretty revolutionary to me.

But in addition to things like the thrill of having the main romantic story happening to the most awkward of the women, there is also the extraordinary effect of watching so many women in authority.

Every single midwife in the series finds herself in a position of authority at some point, so we watch the younger ones struggle with it and find their own voices and power. That, in itself, feels instructive as this is not a narrative we ever really get to see in the media. But the other part of it is the way authority sits on the older women in the show. They are in charge and there is no question about it. It occurs to me that I have spent most of my life watching media that models for men how to take on authority (or how not to) but leaves women to figure it out for ourselves.

To watch a community of women in full command of themselves and the world around them is something I don’t think I’ve ever had an opportunity to watch on screen before. I love Orange is the New Black and its community of women, too, but because it is set in prison, all authority rests in the hands of the state, so even though the show is fantastic, it doesn’t have the same empowering effect.

Call the Midwife isn’t perfect (It’s very white, it can be way sentimental and sometimes the plot twists make me roll my eyes) but it is thrilling to experience a TV show that offers so much female-ness.And given the way theatre tends to follow TV and film, it gives me hope for a future when we could also have this sort of thing can stage. More please. More of this.

*call the midwife

P.S.  On another note, I also love Masters of Sex. Set in almost the same time period, dealing with women’s health and created by women with a woman at the center. I am particularly thrilled to see a story that is so concerned with women’s sexuality and ambition in a way that we rarely see on TV. It doesn’t have Call the Midwife’s variety of bodies and ages or its authority – but it embraces some of the darkness and pleasure that Call the Midwife couldn’t possibly engage in. What would happen if these worlds could collide? I would definitely watch that show.



Being Good Girls.


This kid in this video is my new role model. First, look at what all the other little girls are being asked to do. They’re pre-schoolers and their choreography is basic burlesque. They’ve got their arms up in a Playboy “Look at my swimsuit” position. They’re blowing kisses at “Mr. Producer” and enacting all the hallmarks of objectification – but cute, like for girls! And most of those little girls are getting it right. They’re shimmying appropriately, they’re looking coy, they’re showing off their legs in Marilyn Monroe “Who me?” positions. And this kid’s not having it. She’s doing the moves she likes and also doing her own. She seizes the authority of her own experience and just does her own dance. And gotten over 3 million views in the process.

But while she’s my new role model, I was nothing like her as a child. I can relate to the other little girls attempting to do the choreography as best they can, confused by the one who isn’t being good. I believed in following the rules, not getting into trouble and always always being nice. Apparently I’m not alone in this legacy and it could be one of the major things holding me back.

On Ashley Milne-Tite’s brilliant podcast, The Broad Experience, one of her guests said. . .

“One of the reasons women do so well in school is because we’re great followers of authority. We check the right boxes. We follow the proper procedure. We tend not to act outside the authority that we’re given.”

There seems to be a world of research on this topic – this article – and this – and I have begun to pay attention to my own willingness or lack of willingness to break the rules.

As a child, I thought the rules would save me. And in school they did. But now I can see that the rules essentially just hem me in and breaking them is required to get anywhere. No one ever makes a mark in their art by coloring in all the lines or exactly doing the choreography and while I sympathize with that little girl’s choreographer, I know no one would have cared about this bit of choreography if that kid hadn’t just done her own show.

As I was attempting to promote my own rule-breaking show, I found myself consistently up against the question of what was appropriate. Things like, do I have the authority to ask this person AGAIN to come to my show? Have I stepped out of my lockstep shimmy choreography by sending my third email to this guy? Am I going to get in trouble if I put this poster here?  I didn’t let my perceived propriety stop me from doing any of these things but I watched the question come up again and again. I realized that success probably means a willingness to get into trouble, to step out of the bounds of propriety.

In being socialized to be nice and appropriate, we are often hamstrung in every field because we never learned how to take authority we aren’t given.  School teaches us one thing. The world demands another.

In my art, I feel perfectly able to be the authority. I break a million rules. I do it my way. But as soon as I attempt to engage with the outside world, I’m flummoxed by how to grab authority where I don’t seem to have any.

Success literature will tell you to just go out and TAKE things, to stride into that guy’s office and ask for that raise or whatever. But as this article points out, women who do this are perceived differently than men who do it. Men who ask for things are usually perceived as forthright straightshooters. Women, doing the very same thing, taking the very same advice, can be perceived as demanding ballbusters.

We’re not crazy to avoid stalking in to places of power and asking for things. Experience tells us it will not be well-received or accomplish what we want. There’s still a loophole in NY State law that allows someone to fire you for talking about your salary, so good luck raising the question of why that guy makes more than you do.

All of which leaves us in a sticky place about how to gain authority. Be nice and fail. Be assertive and fail. Play the game and fail. Ignore the game and fail. But this little girl has found a brilliant and hilarious way around the problem. She’s doing the dance. She’s singing the song. But she’s singing and dancing it her way.




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