Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Danger of Relying on Opinions

My theatre company’s crowdfunding campaign for Research and Development of our show got me thinking about arts funding and the way art gets supported. Generally, arts crowdfunding campaigns live or die based on the response to an idea, that is, the opinions of the people funding it. If a project’s friends and family LIKE the idea of the project, they fund it. If they’re not keen on it, like they think, “I wouldn’t want to go see that,” – they won’t. This is actually, at the gut level, often how grants get passed out as well. “Is this show, art-work, dance – something I’d want to see?” If yes – Stamp of Approval. If no – Rejection.

This basically means that whether or not something gets made is connected to the opinions of the consumer. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I decide whether to support something or not based on whether or not I think it’s a good idea. But I think this is problematic and symptomatic of an overly commercial sensibility when funding the arts. If you’d pitched me some of my favorite shows just as ideas, I’d definitely not have funded or chosen them. A stage version of the film, Brief Encounter? A one man show about tribes in the rainforest performed by a white dude? If you’d asked me to fund a show about a horse who goes to war, I’d have said that was an idea that was doomed to fail. And I would have been very wrong about that.

The fact is, whether or not I LIKE an artist shouldn’t preclude that artist’s ability to make the art. I don’t like all kinds of things every day. But I shouldn’t get to be the arbiter of what gets made.

We live in a world where Spiderman The Musical got made because Marvel had money to burn on it. We had Legally Blonde, The Musical because it was paid for. And I have to bet that not many people were truly passionate about making Legally Blonde the Musical. It was not born from a group of artists getting together to create something where there was nothing. A group of producers hired a group of writers to do a job and make some money using an existing property. It has all the hallmarks of a show put together by agents to showcase people at their agency.

Do we truly want a world where agents and movies studios decide what theatre gets made and artists like us – and like so many of our peers – have to send our ideas to the Idea Cemetery simply because our friends and/or granting organization didn’t like the idea? From Broadway all the way down to the smallest company, we’re letting the market determine who gets to make art.

This is why government funding for the arts makes sense. While no Arts Council is perfect, they at least aspire to a more equitable distribution of resources. They can keep their eye on inclusion and diversity. They can fund things that people won’t necessarily LIKE but really should get made and seen anyway. I’d rather have all kinds of work I don’t like funded, knowing that there are other metrics under consideration than whether the panel or audience thinks it’s a good idea.  I mean no disrespect to grant panels or audiences – but they don’t always recognize the good ideas from the outset. They tend to respond to things that are like something they’ve seen before. And this is not a great way to innovate in the Arts.

For the arts to thrive, we need to be able to explore a wide variety of ideas. We need to chase down the “bad” ones as well as the “good” ones. Good ideas sometimes make bad art. And vice versa. We need an arts funding culture that isn’t predicated on whether or not someone likes the idea. If we could, instead, fund the artists, fund the companies and fund the places that say to artists, “Whatever you want to explore, here are some resources.” That’s the way toward a vibrant, thriving arts landscape.

And, I think, that is why my company’s current campaign is going better than any crowdfunding we’ve done before. We’re not trying to sell the idea this time. We’re sharing a process. We’re looking to fund an exploration instead of a product. No one has to have an opinion about where we’re headed or what we create. And it is liberating for both artists and funders. We’ll save the opinions for the critics.


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Ecosystem of a Theatre Scene

I saw a big fancy Broadway show that lots of my friends and colleagues had been raving about. It’s a show that utilizes the skills, ideas, movement vocabularies and motifs of devised and physical theatre. I saw elements of Viewpoints, of Chorus Work, of Dance Theatre. For many Broadway audiences, this piece felt extremely innovative and experimental. I’d wager that 97% of the audience had never seen anything like it before.

I, on the other hand, have seen a LOT of things like it before, though not with that kind of budget and all those bells and whistles. For me, it felt like old news dressed up in fancy trimmings. I could draw a direct line from the motifs I saw in this show to the innovative independent theatres I’ve seen in the UK. This show was a UK production and, in it, I could see echoes of Kneehigh, Improbable, Complicite, Frantic Assembly, Shared Experience – to name a few.

This has made me think about how complex the ecosystem of theatre is. I think of it as a Rainforest. A Rainforest’s ecosystem features the Emergent Layer at the top, the Canopy is below it. The Understory (or Shrub Layer) is next and the Forest Floor is at the bottom.

There are similar layers in the Ecosystem of Theatre Making. Here in the States, Broadway is the Emergent Layer – the trees that grow high above everything else. They are the ones that get the most light. They are the most visible. But the Emergent Layer can’t grow without the support of the layers below. The life cycle of plants on the forest floor directly feed those emergent trees. The ideas, skills and innovations at the bottom, feed the trees at the top.

Unfortunately American funding structures don’t support the layers of the forest below the Canopy. Money flows primarily to the Emergent Layer (Broadway) with some diversion to the Canopy (Regional, Off-Broadway theatres.) But the Understory and the Forest Floor are starved of funds. This is not good for the ecosystem as a whole.

In a way, the American Emergent Layer has been feeding on the Forest Floor of the British ecosystem for the last decade or so. This may change once the Arts Cuts in England start to starve the Understory and Forest Floor there, as well.

The Broadway audience owes its new encounter with “experimental” work to the investment the English Arts Council made in non-establishment research and development in the previous 25 to 30 years.

Now that the Arts Council England has had its funding drastically diminished, Broadway may not be able to depend on getting its innovations from the ecosystem across the pond. Perhaps, I might suggest, it would be worth investing locally – in providing support for the Shrub Layer and the Forest Floor in the very soil that Broadway Emergent Layer is planted. That’s the way to a healthy ecosystem. Save our Theatrical Rainforests!


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“You Should Do Stand-Up!”
February 29, 2016, 11:07 pm
Filed under: art, comedy, education | Tags: , , ,

A woman in my Feldenkrais class asked me where she should go to learn how to do comedy. She’d been told at various job conferences that she was funny and she said everyone told her, “You should do stand up!”

People SAY these things without realizing what they’re doing. People who say, “You should be a stand up comedian!” don’t actually go and see stand up. They have no real sense of what it is or what the life entails. I’m not a stand up comedian but I know what it takes and I can tell you that this woman should NOT be a stand up comedian. She doesn’t even like stand up comedy. But she was considering it anyway because so many people said it.

But people say things like this. If they see a kid who is cute and talented in a school play they say, “You should be on Broadway!” Which, again, is not something I have done but I do know what it takes and 999 out of one thousand kids should NOT be on Broadway.

I wish that people could be a little less ambitious for one another…that we could just let a funny person at a business conference be a funny person at her job or let a talented kid be a talented kid at his or her school. That’s enough most of the time.



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On the Town: Old Fashioned Fun or Old Fashioned Sexism

When I first moved to NYC, I saw a production of On the Town on Broadway, directed by George C. Wolfe and featuring Lea DeLaria. I was skeptical about it but found myself delighted and uplifted by what felt like a very old fashioned musical. Earlier this year, I got to see a new production of the show and this time I found the old-fashioned sexism completely alienating and frustrating. I was baffled by this difference in my responses to the same musical and have been trying to understand how these two productions could have such different effects.

First, of course, I’m different than I was. A lot has happened since I arrived in NYC in 1998. But I’m not significantly MORE a-tuned to my feminist lens than I used to be. I’m more public about it now, sure, but I was closer to those women’s studies classes, then. So – I don’t think it’s my feminism that’s changed.

I have always had some (seemingly) contradictory impulses – the feminist and the nostalgic. It’s not all bell hooks and Gloria Steinem over here with me. I love old movies. I could watch The Thin Man series again and again. Give me a Katherine Hepburn film or His Girl Friday for the 100th time – yes please. And while some of those films feature really ballsy gutsy women – they are still dated. Myrna Loy isn’t the detective in The Thin Man, her husband is. But I’m fully able to set aside the old fashioned ideas and enjoy myself for movies like The Philadelphia Story. I even loved the film of On the Town. (I mean, come on – Gene Kelley and Frank Sinatra?!)

But I just could not get over the sexism in this production in On the Town. Perhaps it’s because they updated some things for a contemporary audience. There was much more frank acknowledgement of sexuality, for example. We got hip thrusts and dick jokes. Homosexuality was acknowledged and enjoyed – but the gender roles did not get an update. In fact, it felt like we got a reinforcement, a revival of some 50s style ideals.

Is it in the text that the Miss Turnstyles pageant features the lead dancer donning an apron and preparing a meal for her future husband? Maybe but I don’t recall it from before. The production I saw in 1998 didn’t take anything it did too seriously. While it was very earnest – it did nothing in earnest. This is a fine line, I acknowledge, but I think it’s an important one in this sort of gender roles throw-back situation.

The thing I remembered most about the 1998 production was Lea DeLaria’s portrayal of Hildy, the taxi driver. I found some clips of her performance and it gave me an opportunity to compare the two productions. The song “I Can Cook, Too” is some sexist shit if you look at it earnestly. Its lyrics advertise a woman’s worth solely as a home-maker and cook. You take it seriously at your peril.

Oh, I can cook, too, on top of the rest,
My seafood’s the best in the town.
And I can cook, too.
My fish can’t be beat,
My sugar’s the sweetest around.
I’m a man’s ideal of a perfect meal
Right down to the demi-tasse.
I’m a pot of joy for a hungry boy,
Baby, I’m cookin’ with gas.
Oh, I’m a gumdrop,

A sweet lollipop,
A brook trout right out of the brook,
And what’s more, baby, I can cook!
Some girls make magazine covers,
Some girls keep house on a dime,
Some girls make wonderful lovers,
But what a lucky find I’m.
I’d make a magazine cover,
I do keep house on a dime,
I make a wonderful lover,
I should be paid overtime!

DeLaria’s 1998 version has nothing to do with cooking. At all. It’s almost as if the lyrics are incidental. You can hear and understand them but it is 100% about the subtext. The character knows she’s hot stuff and she’s going to let us (and her conquest) know. The extra layer of this performance was that Lea DeLaria has a very public persona as a lesbian. We (most of us) know how much DeLaria is NOT going to be “a pot of joy for a hungry boy.” Watching her subvert both the song and her persona is what makes it all the more subversive and fun.

Alysha Umphress who played Hildy in the recent Broadway production has an extraordinary voice and is a stellar performer. But when she sang this song, many aspects of the production turned her into “a pot of joy for a hungry boy.” The musical arrangements encourage us to see her as a sweet, harmless ingenue with some sexy decorations. The tempo is much slower. It’s nice! Pretty!

There’s nothing “nice” about the arrangements of DeLaria’s song. It blares. It drives forward. The Nancy Walker version (the original Hildy here in Bernstein’s recording) drives even more quickly. It’s like a city street. It’s noisier and more energetic than either of the revivals. It’s all edges. Umphress’ version is all curves.

The choreography, too,  gave Umphress some Betty Boop style demonstrations of how she is “a man’s ideal of a perfect meal.” She seemed like she had to genuinely convince this sailor to sleep with her. (Jesse Tyler Ferguson who played the sailor in 1998 looked convinced by DeLaria’s Hildy and delighted from the start.) This 2015 Hildy was choreographed to bend over to show off her ass in a coy “Oh, is that my ass?” way.

Now, let me pause for a moment to discuss this particular bit of choreography. In the film Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon pulls it off with self-awareness and aplomb. (Although this same character does not so fare so well in the extremely sexist stage version of this show. Skip it, my fellow feminists. It’s a horror show.). Aside from the ladies in Legally Blonde, I’ve almost never seen this move look good. And almost every woman had to do it this production.

Why does it look awkward? Because in real life almost every woman learns from an early age how to be extremely conscious of bending over. On the Broad Experience podcast, a woman who works in construction talked about her hard and fast rule for herself to never bend over to look at something at work. She always squats or sits. She says it would make her “too vulnerable” to bend over. Any character who does it “by accident” is clearly not doing it by accident and if they’re doing it on purpose, it signals to most women that she is offering herself up as an object. Not a person to have sex with – just an object, to ogle.

This is fundamentally the difference for me between these two performances of “I Can Cook, Too.” Lea DeLaria is nobody’s object and still signals very clearly that whoever sleeps with her is going to have some sexy fun. Umphress has to negotiate a very tricky switch between being object and subject, between expressing her own desire – and somehow advertising herself as desirable.

This confusion between subject and object was all magnified by the set up they gave her for the number. The production made it clear that she cannot, in fact, cook. She doesn’t know how to work the oven and her frying pan is dusty. The effect of this is to make it seem that Hildy is lying about everything and it makes it seem like she’s probably not so great in the sack either when it comes to it. So a song that for DeLaria was an empowering sexy showstopper, in this newer production, while the skill and musicality of the performer earns lots of applause for its performer, it ultimately disempowers the character. It was weirdly uncomfortable applause.

Fundamentally, the style of the production seems to be the key whether it’s a fun old-fashioned romp or a discomforting throw-back. When everything is snappy and just a tiny bit self-aware, the sexism is just old fashioned amusement. When it seems like its all meant to be taken seriously, it dies.

I don’t mean to flog a dead horse by talking about this newer production, it’s already closed and looked due to close when I saw it. But as we continue to revive the old stories, there are things I think it makes sense to pay attention to and make adjustments for. We already do this with classics like Shakespeare. You can’t stage The Taming of the Shrew without thinking through how you’re going to deal with the problem of a play that celebrates a woman’s subjugation. You have to have a perspective on it.

I think the same is true of the old standards in musical theatre. You have to give it a little think before you do it or over half of your audience is going to think it’s just old fashioned instead of fun nostalgia. And those audiences might not come back for the next one.

In its way, On the Town could be seen as super progressive. Two of the three female leads are frank in their desire and do not hesitate to pursue it. The show doesn’t punish them for this as so many stories (even now) will. The other female lead, while she isn’t the pursuer, does have a job as a “Cooch dancer” which makes all three of the women in the show not your usual ingénues. I think it could be possible to do feminist On the Town. The female characters are BOSS but they weren’t this time. Maybe for the next go round.

I look forward to a time when Broadway starts to get with the current moment, when more women can direct there – even the feminist ones – ones who can update our old fashioned catchy musicals with some contemporary smarts.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Lea DeLaria in the 1997 Shakespeare in the Park production of On The Town at the Delacorte Theater, directed by George C. Wolfe. Photo credit: Michal Daniel

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Lea DeLaria in the 1997 Shakespeare in the Park production of On The Town at the Delacorte Theater, directed by George C. Wolfe. Photo credit: Michal Daniel

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Why I still give a shit what they do on Broadway
October 30, 2012, 12:00 am
Filed under: art, business, theatre | Tags: , , ,

I know it’s commercial. I know it’s market driven. I know that the handful of people that produce the majority of shows are a handful of lunatics. I know that the process that Broadway shows go through to make it to the stage is so antithetical to art that it’s a miracle that anything of value ever makes it to the stage at all. I know there’s no overarching body watching over what happens there and the themes are no one’s responsibility. And I still give a shit.
Here’s why:

Our entire theatre culture is aimed at Broadway. We are built to look toward Broadway as the ultimate goal of all that we do. This is partly to do with tradition, in that it has always been thus and partly to do with the fact that there is nowhere else to look if you’re looking for the top of the theatre mountain. We don’t have a national theatre. And as Americans we can’t help but look up. Our culture is aspirational. The American Dream is built on climbing a mountain and Broadway is the only mountain we have.

One could argue that regional theatres were set up as a way to create other more local, community appropriate, non-profit mountains. They were set up to do this. But they don’t. Not most of them. Not anymore.

Regional theatres are now the stepping stones to Broadway: the old out of town try-outs of yore, but sneakier. Shows are sent through the regional system by Broadway producers with enhancement deals. A Broadway producer with an interest in a show will bring it to a regional theatre, along with a whole lot of cash, and suggest that they produce it. If Broadway is the factory, the regionals are the parts manufacturers, getting things ready for the assembly.

Broadway is the ultimate expression of the theatre culture, if not in the theatre makers minds, then in the minds of the general public. Introduce me to a practitioner of theatre and I’ll introduce you to someone who has heard, “Can’t wait to see you on Broadway someday!” – to their delight, if that’s where they want to go or their horror if it’s not. As far as many Americans are concerned, the only theatre that exists is Broadway and the only value our work will ever have for them is when it “makes it” there.

The average American believes that Broadway represents the best that American theatre has to offer. He perhaps imagines that some invisible committee has looked at all the theatre in the land and decided what is the best, most worthy of the resources available. When he sees something that he doesn’t much care for, he might assume that he just doesn’t much care of theatre in general, since he assumes that what is on Broadway represents the best of the litter. The average American believes in a meritocracy of theatre, that the cream rises to the top and that top is Broadway. Those of us IN the theatre recognize that this not only ain’t necessarily so but is sometimes entirely the opposite. But even then it takes a good long time and a lot of exposure to shake this belief.

Broadway is a little bit like the USA TV network. Occasionally, it will make a sort of interesting piece of work like Monk or Burn Notice or something (I haven’t actually seen these shows, I’m just going on hearsay) but mostly it produces re-runs or takes mediocre ideas, irons out the interesting unusual bits and throws a lot of money into polishing and marketing up the turd.

So I give a shit what they do there on Broadway because it represents what the rest of the world thinks about American theatre in general. And what happens on Broadway trickles back down the theatre pipeline as well as effecting things on the way up. Work that made it to Broadway will next be seen at the regional theatres – the ones that didn’t get a shot at the thing on the way up. From there, it will make its way to community theatre, then universities and schools. What happens on Broadway dominates both sides of the mountain it sits upon – so when commercial producers make work that is sexist or racist or just dumb – that pollutes the entire American Theatre Pool. And I’m a little bit tired of that pool being so full of shit.

Why the Incoming Crop of Little Girl Shows Doesn’t Make Me Feel Any Better

The New York Times reported this: that due to the realization that women and girls make up the majority of the Broadway audience, there’s a whole new crop of girl-centered work on the way to Broadway. On one hand, this is good news, the future looks good for girls. I can already see all the middle schools across the land happily producing Matilda Jr or Cinderella Jr. (They’ve been doing Annie Jr for years.) Perhaps, girls will be playing girls for the first time in their middle school careers, the little lovelies. So, yes, hooray!

But on the OTHER hand – Broadway has a thing for little girls. Annie comes around again and again and now we’ll have Matilda, which appears to be a darker English Annie, filled with adorable ragamuffin children. Thus providing work for. . . Little Girls. Which we can find in many a hit show. From Les Miserables to The Secret Garden to Warhorse to Gypsy. Little girls can really make it on Broadway. And there are many women who make careers out of playing girls as well. I’ve seen Cristin Milioti play girls in Stunning, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Little Foxes. Celia Keenan-Bolger from Peter and the Starcatcher has reportedly played many many other little girls. No disrespect to the women making careers out of being girls (I’m glad you’re working!) but I’d like to see some damn WOMEN on the Broadway stage sometime, please!

And what happens to little girls who tear up the stage? Do they get to grow up and mature before our very eyes? Do we get to see them tear up the stage as women? Not much. Daisy Eagan won a Tony in 1991 when she was 11 years old. Here’s her recent tweet that tells you what she’s up to. My friend Lydia Ooghe started in Les Miserables, moved on to the little girl in Secret Garden and quit the business when she began to mature. Now she’s a rockin’ singer songwriter (yay!) far far away from Broadway (boo!)

And while it’s great for little girls to see themselves on stage, I think it’s an enormously mixed message we’re sending. For the little girl who wants to be onstage, we’re telling her that she’s only worth something while she’s little. We’re telling her that if she’s interested in a career in theatre, she’d better hurry and have it while she’s still a child. By giving her so few adult female role models, we’re telling girls not to bother growing up. This is something the culture tends to reinforce on a regular basis, what with its interest in little girl looks, pre-pubescent bodies and so on.

So, yes, hooray, more girls on stage. That’s good. But it is not the same as having fully grown women on the stage, playing women, fully expressing woman-ness on a regular basis.

System Secrets
July 28, 2011, 10:37 pm
Filed under: art, business, Non-Profit, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

One of the perks of spending a lot of time with someone trying to get his show produced in the American Theatre SYSTEM is that I’m learning all sorts of things I never realized before. I feel like I’m discovering all kinds of dirty secrets and being shown lots of dark corners of knowledge that I shouldn’t be seeing. A lot of this knowledge is right out in the open but somehow in my thirty seven years on the planet (and the bulk of them involved in theatre) I managed to miss it. I suspect that most of us are missing it.

For example, did you know that most major “non-profit” theatres are in the business of producing work for the Broadway stage (i.e. – the most “for profit” part of the business)?

Here’s how new work gets done in this country: for the most part it’s either “developed” (i.e. funneled through new work programs where it is sliced and diced according to the whims of literary managers, dramaturgs and administrators and then never actually produced) OR it’s brought to the “non-profit” by a Broadway producer who offers it up with an “enhancement” deal. A Broadway producer basically says to a non-profit theatre, “Hey, would you produce this show please? If you do, I’ll give you a million dollars and a percentage of the cut when it gets to Broadway.” And this institution (one of the only things our government will pay for in terms of arts funding) produces this commercial production and gets its name splashed on Broadway marquees. It also rakes in some cash.

Meanwhile, this whole non-profit system was initially created to encourage risk-taking non-commercial work. These theatres were set up to provide opportunities to support work that otherwise would have no change of being seen. Now that most theatres are essentially subsidizing Broadway theatres, there’s no space for riskier work.

Apparently, when Arena stage did this enhancement thing with the Great White Hope in 1968, they lost their grant money because this use of public funds was seen as corrupt. By the 80s, it became the norm and now you’d be hard pressed to find a large non-profit institution that doesn’t have its hand in the game.

What happens to the work that these institutions were set up to fund? It cobbles together what dregs it can from private donors and the occasional tiny grant and fights for survival in smaller venues.

The system is so calcified now that my friend’s show (which HAS a Broadway producer attached to it) is not getting produced because the “non-profits” aren’t willing to take the risk on it. It’s a crazy cockamamie world in which a Broadway theatre producer is more willing to take risks on a new work than a non-profit theatre.

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