Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Imbalance of Talent Crushes

When I was in my twenties and touring the country doing Shakespeare, I was struck by a curious phenomenon. Everywhere we went, women threw themselves at the men in our company. Girls everywhere became besotted with our boys, especially the ones with swords.

But the reverse never happened. Boys in our audiences didn’t chase after the women in our company, we didn’t have groupies. We didn’t have admirers. One of the women got a secret admirer message once but it turned out to have been from one of our fellow actors in the company.

In my years as a performer, I saw this happen over and over. Men onstage inspired desire while women onstage did not.

I started to think about this again recently while I listened to an interview with Rhett Miller and found myself thinking how intelligent, curious and committed he is. We’re about the same age. He even went to the same college as me, briefly, right before I got there. He’s a dynamo onstage and a sensitive thinker. Ever since I saw his band open for Cake in 1999, I’d see him perform and sigh. This time, though, I heard him and thought, “Oh, I’m actually LIKE him in a lot of ways.” I mean, he’s prettier than me but otherwise, we have things in common.

I thought, “Why not only be the change you wish to see in the world? Why don’t you also be the man you once wished to be with in the world?” This is a thought I’ve had before but somehow this was the first time I felt it viscerally.

There are some philosophers and psychologists who frame desire for others as a calling to some part of ourselves. They theorize that we are attracted to things that mirror and amplify our own qualities. Me? I have discovered that I am a sucker for anyone who takes their art incredibly seriously. And I take my own art incredibly seriously. So. Of course. But until I met my current partner, I’d never met a man who was as interested and invested in my artistic journey as I was in his.

Throughout history, women have found men doing things/making things attractive and slipped into the supporting role in partnerships, to play help-meet to the “real” genius in the family. The Thank You for Typing phenomenon is a great example of this (this is where “great” men thank the women in their lives for typing their work and you realize that the women did much more than type. Like, they actually wrote the book, for example.) Or even Albert Einstein’s wife, who was, some theorize, more of a partner in his work, if not a dominant voice, than anyone realized.

I think there is something in the water that encourages women to find achievement attractive and that same thing (very possibly) socializes men to find achievement unattractive in women. I have only very rarely heard of a man developing a crush on a woman because of her book or her play or her leadership or even her acting prowess. The trope is that he will fall for her in spite of those skills. If she’s pretty enough, a man can overlook her accomplishments but because of the accomplishments? Not so much. Is this true of every man? Of course not. But it is the dominant cultural impulse.

And, of course, I am mostly talking about hetero-normative behaviors here. I know it is infinitely more complex than this. But it does seem important to identify this undercurrent that flows through our dominant culture.

Women develop talent crushes. Men (generally) do not. This is a hugely damaging pattern that hinders many women’s achievements. In the interest of attracting a man or even to just seem attractive, women may downplay their intelligence, hold back at their jobs. It happens. I’ve seen it happen so many times. Case in point: Hillary Clinton. She is the epitome of a high achieving woman and the dominant response to her is distaste. Women across the world developed crushes on Obama. And I don’t want to think about it, but there those who find our current men in government attractive.  Is there a man out there with an achievement crush on Hillary Rodham Clinton? I’ve never heard of one. I’m going to guess not. Is there some dude out there who finds Elizabeth Warren impossibly hot due to her political prowess? Is there an Angela Merkel fan club? Or a dude who finds Theresa May’s rise to political power irresistible? I doubt it.

I think real progress in creating spaces for women’s achievement will happen when men start to find women’s achievement as attractive as women find men’s achievements or talents or skills. The moment when women are seen as sexy, just for making something or achieving something, for expressing something or leading something, for being funny, or talented, or smart, or brave, or for their expert sword skills – that is the moment we will have finally turned the corner on equality.

I’ve seen ladies get talent crushes on Falstaff, y’all. Falstaff.

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The Gender of Puppets
November 11, 2014, 11:08 pm
Filed under: art, puppets | Tags: , ,

During a talk back after a puppet performance, one of the audience members referred to the puppet in it as “he.” As in, “when he spreads his wings.” I was intrigued by this because the puppet, in addition to spreading its wings, had also laid an egg and sat upon it. It would seem to me that if this puppet had a gender, it must, by virtue of the way childbirth works, be female.

But I understood the audience member’s interpretation of this puppet’s gender. It did seem male. Even, and perhaps especially, when it found a pair of breasts, put them on and did a sexy dance. But I think, more than anything, given the way our culture runs, when we don’t’ know for sure, we tend to assume maleness. That is, male is the default gender. Female is the deviation.

I’ve seen this in puppetry a lot. A gender neutral puppet is usually perceived as male until someone puts a bow on it or a little dress. Male puppets can just be a body. Female ones need accessories.

And as ever, puppets do tend to reveal a bit about being human beings. Our perceptions of objects can tell us a lot about our perceptions of people. The fact that a puppet could give BIRTH and still be thought of as male points to a tenaciousness of a perception that lives in so many of us. It reveals a strong default switch that may take some time to dismantle.

Is this body male or female?

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Getting Mad at Shakespeare
April 28, 2013, 8:45 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: , ,

At the Women’s History event at Equity a little while ago, an audience member asked all three of the participating Artistic Directors why we’d started our companies. There are a dozen ways to frame the start of my company but after thinking about the event and the discussion that followed, I realized there was one I’d never considered before. This is it: I ended up on this path because I got mad at Shakespeare.

Now, I want it understood that I love Shakespeare. A lot. Obsessively sometimes. I got mad at Shakespeare the way people get mad at God. You know, you’re in awe of all he created but you wish he’d do a few things better. Wars and plagues and stuff for God. Women’s roles for Shakespeare.

Don’t get me wrong. Shakespeare wrote some of the best roles for women ever written by anyone ever. He was a product of his time and given the context of his time, it is a flat out miracle that we have the women that we do. But I got mad at him anyway and that anger is one of the most productive feelings I have ever had.

It’s 1996. I’m working as an actor at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival. It’s my third job in the professional theatre. I’m pretty psyched. I’m 22. I’m playing Maria in 12th Night and the musician in Troilus and Cressida. I am also the understudy for ALL of the women in Troilus and Cressida. I think this is where the anger starts. The fact is, understudying all of the women in Troilus and Cressida is not an impossible task. It is a task that is manageable for even a green 22 year old actor. And it would be impossible for any actor to play all the men.

I watched this production closely (because I had to, see?) and I watched my friend Erin play Helen every night. Erin is a vibrant, funny, complex and skilled performer but you’d never know it because all she got to do in that play was look pretty and ask for music. Shakespeare let my friend Erin down and it pissed me off.

“Really Shakespeare?” I thought, “This character is meant to have started a war and all you could do was write a bimbo? That’s all you’ve got? Really?! Oh, and you just give Cassandra two scenes and send her off again? Come ON, Shakespeare, you’re better than this!”

So day after day, night after night, I got more and more frustrated and more and more interested in the underwritten women of Troy. So I started writing. At first I just wrote a monologue for Helen (for my friend, really) then it expanded and got bigger and bigger. That expanding play came with me to my next classical theatre job, where I once again got mad at Shakespeare. In the company I was a part of, men outnumbered women 2 to 1. In the close quarters of touring, it was like living in a locker room. That was the start of it, but then, too, listening to Henry IV, part 1 so often, I started to get fed up with hearing “woman” used as an insult day after day, for a year. “Come on, Shakespeare! You’re the insult king! All you’ve got is “Woman!?” By the time I’d sat through our two hundredth show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream began to feel like a series of ways to humiliate women. I started to think I might need a break from acting.

So I kept writing until what I’d started from anger was a hefty two act play. It took me years to muscle it into shape. But one day, I showed this play, this product of my anger at Shakespeare, to my friend Shannon and it prompted her to move to New York and start a theatre company with me. Getting mad at Shakespeare led me directly to writing and then directing and to my company. And like many people I get mad at, I ignored Shakespeare for a while before I came back to him.

It was 2005 before my company returned to Shakespeare and 2011 before I re-engaged with him anew, this time on my own terms. This time I wasn’t mad at Shakespeare, I just decided not to treat him like gospel anymore. We explored the text and arranged it to make the play we wish Shakespeare had written, not to replace the one he did, but to talk with it, to be a point of comparison, to say things about it and to it.
I’m not mad at Shakespeare anymore. But I also don’t expect him to be perfect. It’s like a real relationship. I love him. I acknowledge his foibles and limitations. I listen very closely to what he has to say. And I get to say my piece too.

Thanks to everyone at the Equity Women’s History Month Event (especially my fellow participants) and the audience member who inspired me to think about this.




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