Songs for the Struggling Artist


Everything Interesting Happens at the Edges

I remember reading about this concept in a book or a magazine or publication of some kind. I wish I could remember what the book or magazine was or who wrote it – but the memory is just at the edge of my consciousness, the way the beach is at the edge of the sea, the way the spaces between us are the places that intrigue, the way disparate parts meet each other somewhere, the way the edge of a bubble is what is vulnerable to popping. The margins, the edges, the fringes are where we are drawn again and again. That is where the action is.

I was thinking about this idea again while watching the first stages of the inspiring, intrepid Monica Byrne calling out large institutions of American Theatre. I could not help but imagine how the insiders of the American Theatre Bubble would react and respond to her criticism. I thought – “They’ll label her an outsider. They’ll question her credentials. They’ll dismiss her as someone outside the bubble, throwing stones. They’ll say she’s only criticizing because the big institutions haven’t produced her work.” I have no idea if anyone actually said that or thought or whispered it in their boardrooms – but I have seen it happen before in theatre and in many other arts and arenas. And it is why and how I am usually dismissed myself – so I’m pretty familiar with the pattern.

Seeing it outside of my own experience, though, I started to understand that criticism usually HAS to come from the edges, from the margins. Those of us at the edges have much less to lose by telling truths. (And to be clear, I think Monica is as much a theatre artist as any of the major theatres that she has tweeted to, if not more so – but there is a very narrow band of insiders that I mean to point to, the ones with deep pockets and endowments.)

Before I quit being a teaching artist, I had a lot to say about the field and what I saw happening in arts organizations but I did not feel free to share any of those things until I was prepared to give them up. My sense of freedom to say what I felt needed to be said was in direct proportion to how much I wanted and/or needed to keep my jobs. That is, while I was an insider, it was not in my interest to directly confront or address any inequities, injustices or problems in the field. Inside, I was relatively powerless to point out things that needed change.

It is not an accident that I started this blog around about the time that I realized I was not going to be enfolded into the arms of my theatre establishment. I am able to say what I say because I am in the margins.

I can almost guarantee that should, by some crazy miracle, one of my shows be suddenly snapped up by a major regional theatre or a Broadway producer and whisked into rehearsal, that you’d be hearing from me on this medium a whole lot less.

This would not be because I’d suddenly lose my brain, or my interest in changing the system. It would be because a) I’d be busy in rehearsal and b) it would not be in my best interest to compromise the one place in theatre it might be possible to make a real living. (Though you might hear a lot from me once it was all over!)

This is why you I’m blogging now. I’m in the theatre bubble enough to be able to see it but not enough to be risking my livelihood or relationships in talking about it. I’m not a complete outsider. I am a part of theatre community but I’m on the periphery and it is almost always the periphery that can point to real change or possibilities.

If you’re an institution, if you’re on the inside, and you don’t know what to do to fix the status quo, look to the fringe. Look for who is missing, bring them in and ask for their perspective. I’ve seen institutions try and make change from the inside. They ask employees to fill out surveys or do exit interviews. But those folks can never be fully honest. This is not because they lack honesty or awareness. This is because even if they’re done working with a theatre this time, they’re thinking about next time, or the way this gig might lead to the next. I have been honest at such things because I was asked to be and realized too late that honesty was not the savvy move.

A while back, I wrote a post called The Woman in the Room and it was about what it takes to stay on the inside, to tenaciously hold on to the little patch of ground one might have gained. It was for all my friends who were berating themselves for their complacency in the face of sexism in American Theatre. I said then and I will say again, that if you are a woman on the inside of the establishment (and/or anyone whose representation is negligible in the theatre,) you have to do what you have to do to stay there. We need an inside (wo)man. We need you in there. Fight when you can while you’re on the inside. Maybe gain some more ground to bring more women (and people of color, disabled people, transgender people and non-binary people) inside the establishment doors. Support those on the outside who are more able to fight for you and bring them inside when you can. And hang out at the edges. They are the most interesting places after all. They are where change is happening. Where change is possible.

 

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.

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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

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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

 



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 can support part of the Forest Floor 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 a previous episode, click here. And before too long you’ll be able to listen to this one too.

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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



Promoting. Selling. Getting Hits.

Art as commerce has been on my mind a lot these days. I took a show to Edinburgh this August and was amazed at what a marketplace it was. Theatre there wasn’t so much about theatre as about promoting theatre. Every day most artists spent an hour a day doing their show and two to eight hours promoting it. The festivals main drag (The Royal Mile) was full to bursting of artists handing out flyers to passersby. By simply walking two blocks, one could collect hundred of flyers in a few minutes. Gimmicks were legion. Pot Noodle the Musical handed out free Pot Noodles (cup-a-soup like things.)  Hamlet Experience gave out fans. Some valentine show gave out heart shaped candies. All of us were there scrambling to get people in to see our shows.

Now, I’m not opposed to marketing. I understand that people need help finding out about things they might like. My producer and I even took a marketing class a few years ago, which I actually enjoyed. I liked thinking about who would want to see our work and figuring out how to get in touch with them. But that felt very different to me than the practice just trying to get numbers in.  Sometimes making art can turn into a game of getting butts in seats, hits on a blog, plays on music sites, downloads or views.

What I’m wrestling with is the necessity of promotion and wondering if it actually works and if so, how. I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to “get somewhere” with something, I’d have to worry about promoting in some way or another. From sending out headshots, to handing out postcards, to sending out emails, I’ve done all of it. And cross-promoted some of that, too. Sometimes it’s even fun.

But, we were such unsuccessful promoters in Edinburgh that there were shows where no audience turned up at all. I’ve posted my music all over the web and there are still songs that have never been played by anyone but me. This puzzles me. I have friends. I even have friends who like my music. If I played a gig next week, I’m pretty sure I could bring in a decent audience. And yet hardly anyone listens to a thing I post. No one reads these posts on this blog when it comes to that. (This I understand, however, since I’ve only told a couple of people about it.) I try not to take personally people not showing up or not listening or not reading or whatever and for the most part, I manage that. I just find it endlessly curious. What tips something over from un-listened, unwatched, unexamined to hundreds or thousands people becoming interested in it?

The web feels a bit like Edinburgh, there are so many things competing for our attention on it, that it’s easy for the songs of our friends or their blogs or their essays or their You Tube clips to get lost in the shuffle. I guess I’m just wondering how much of my soul do I sacrifice when I get all promote-y and pushy about getting my work forward, and is it worth it? I’m happier when I can just make shows and not give a damn who shows up and who doesn’t. When I can write something and not care who reads it or compose something and not care who hears it. I guess that’s the answer for now – no more promoting until I’m in the mood for it again. At the moment, the thought of promoting even one more thing makes my stomach turn. Publicize this blog? Nope,  not yet.

This is a song that never gets any hits at all. Maybe putting it here will up its numbers. Not Your Type




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