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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The Secret to Grant-writing
November 17, 2015, 12:44 am
Filed under: advice, Non-Profit | Tags: , , , , ,

I just figured out the secret to grant-writing.
I’ve been writing grants for my theatre company for over a decade – sometimes with success, sometimes not. In the process of writing the most recent one, I suddenly had an epiphany. The more we can sound like we don’t need a grant, the more likely we are to get one.

It occurred to me that grantmakers are like popular kids. They’re only interested in you if you seem like you’re already popular. Even when grantmakers ask you what your challenges are, and what you need funding for, they still want to know why you’re awesome and why they need to get on your super cool wagon train.

Almost every grant, while theoretically a source of support, doesn’t want to be the first one to fund you. Like a popular kid, a grantmaker doesn’t want to be left out on a limb, taking a risk on someone who hasn’t gotten approval from someone else. He’s not going to be friends with the weirdo until the other kids have approved of him first.
I haven’t really understood this before. I was baffled by this question of why no one wanted to be the sole support of an artist or artistic project. I even wrote a post about it. But now, reframing all this like a high school cafeteria, I get it.

My job when applying for funding is not tell the truth of our struggles or challenges. My job is not to show how much I need the grant. My job is to show much I don’t need it. I’m supposed to demonstrate how great we’re doing and how, if the popular kids want to stay popular, they’re going to want to get on board my cool circus theatre wagon and throw in some cash.

As you may have worked out from reading the blog, this sort of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. I am much more able to tell the truth than create a popular fiction. However. Truthfully? I need the funding. So with a little coaching, I can pull a Sandy from Grease and throw on the metaphorical padded bra and lipstick for my next grant application. Watch out Grantmaker High, you’ll never recognize Sandy now!


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Two for One Rejection
November 13, 2015, 1:39 am
Filed under: Rejections | Tags: , , , ,

Rejection #1

That grant was a long shot but I figured I should take the shot anyway. Because my organization is so small, we aren’t actually eligible for a lot of funding. Most foundations are much more interested in more institutional theatre – more institutional arts. This makes sense – foundations and institutions being more like each other than not. But neither thing is particularly creative at its heart.

I apply for these things, though I doubt we’ll receive them, just in case. Because an extra grand could make the difference in our survival. Or, on a good year, could make a difference that would allow us to thrive.

Rejection # 2

I can feel the human behind the rejection letters from the Edward Albee foundation. Last year’s letter was somehow encouraging – as if they’d actually read the play – and almost – for a moment – like, they could have given me the residency but went another way at the last minute.

This year’s letter had a different tenor – but it was clearly a different letter than last year’s.

It feels like, perhaps, actual writers write these rejection letters. Humans, not apology machines.

They’re among the best of all the rejection letters I receive – not overly apologetic or defensive. Just the facts but in a compassionate way.

Of course, I’d rather receive an acceptance! But – these rejections aren’t so bad.



*Wondering why I’m telling you about all these rejections? Read my initial post about this here and my patron’s idea about that here.

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Rolling Deadlines just roll on By
August 6, 2015, 5:30 pm
Filed under: art, Rejections, theatre | Tags: , , ,

I applied for a travel grant that had a rolling deadline. I almost submitted it earlier several times but a rolling deadline is a little trickier to motivate when there are three or four other things in the works with hard deadlines. But this was a grant I wanted maybe more than any other. I labored over it over many weeks.

Not long after I finally submitted it, they wrote back to say that they’d received my application but could not grant me a grant yet because they were out of money. Which I hadn’t realized might be a risk of the rolling deadline.

Luckily, this organization has plans to somehow refresh their granting coffers and asked if I’d like to be submitted to the next granting cycle. Um – yes, please.

So while I did not get the grant – it is not yet an outright rejection. That may be coming. (Though at this point, I’m skeptical, it has been over 6 months.) Meanwhile, I’ve learned a lesson about the perils of a rolling deadline – and next time I’ll jump as soon as applications are released because it seems like, with rolling deadlines, it’ll be the early grantwriter that gets the worm. And the grant.



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A Rejection and a Non-Rejection Rejection
November 16, 2014, 10:42 pm
Filed under: Rejections, theatre, writing | Tags: , ,

Recently, I received a rejection email from a writer’s development program that I forgot I’d applied to. This happens periodically where I apply to something and immediately forget it, only to be reminded of it many many months later by a rejection notice.

I’m of two minds about these. Sometimes I wish they didn’t even inform me at all – like, if I just submitted and forgot about it, I would never need to feel the rejection. But then – there’s no way for them to know that I’m not siting by my inbox with bated breath, waiting for their judgment. So of course, they have to notify everyone.

Then, too, sometimes I don’t get a notification and that sucks, too. I applied for a Workspace Grant through LMCC earlier this year and I was actually very keen on the idea of receiving it. I did, periodically, wonder where the notification might be.

Then, the same day that I got that writing development group’s rejection email, I received a generic mailing list email from LMCC talking about how awesome the Workspace program was and it listed all the people who received it this year – and surprise! I was not on it. I read it and said to myself, “Oh, I guess I didn’t get that grant then.” That advertisement was my notification, I guess.

So – here’s me – having two completely contradictory rejection experiences all rolled up in one. One – a rejection from a group I wouldn’t have minded not hearing from and one – a non-rejection rejection from an organization I was disappointed NOT to have heard from.

I guess the short version of this is that it rejection still sucks – no matter how it shows up or doesn’t.


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Reframing Rejection

Getting up the energy to apply for things can be really challenging. Whether it’s grants, fellowships, residencies, festivals, contests, publications or production, all applications amount to buying into RENT SEEKING, an economic concept (There’s a great podcast about it on Econ-Talk .) This is all to say that applications are highly inefficient way to distribute resources. When I’m the person expending all the effort to apply, it can sometimes be very hard to motivate spending the many many hours of work for either no return or very little return, especially when I weigh it with resources spent. Because of this, I’d severely slowed down on applications like this round about the time I went to grad school. Until last fall.

A year ago, author, Monica Byrne published her rejection list (called her anti-resume) on her blog. It is an extraordinary document – and one of the things that particularly struck me about it was the sheer quantity of places she’d submitted her work. She endured a STAGGERING amount of rejection and just kept applying to things (theatres, literary agents, residencies, magazines, prizes.) After reading her list, I decided I need to up my game and apply and apply and apply to everything, no matter how many resources I wasted in this process. I was a flurry of applications this year, of all kinds, and I was pretty proud of myself for doing it.

Then a few months later all the rejection letters started to roll in. Some of them were more disappointing than others. But they were all the same. No, Again and again. Grant? No. Fellowship? No. Residency? No. Prize? No. Production? No. Writer’s Group? No. An endless parade of No, from many different avenues.

The applications were for me, for my company or some combination of the two. It’s a whole lot of No. One day, I got three rejections in a row. One in my mailbox and two in my email. And from an economic perspective, this is ridiculous. If I’d gotten paid for all that work, I’d have a decent salary. (Shame I didn’t!)

But from another angle, these sorts of attempts are the only way to transcend the artistic ghetto I’ve found myself in and I probably just need to keep applying to things until something hits. Byrne submitted hundreds of applications before they started to hit and once they hit, the odds went up and she started to hit more and more. At least that’s what it looks like from her list.

The trick for me now is to try and figure out how to continue to motivate myself to apply even when the odds aren’t good, even when rejection is almost a foregone conclusion. Could I switch my thinking to see if I could get as many rejection letters as possible? Have each rejection be a celebration of some kind?

When I did a lot of auditioning, I sometimes managed to think of those auditions as my job, to see the audition as the performance, as the end goal and not an attempt for something beyond it. It helped. Because I like performing.

But I’m struggling to find a way to convince myself that filling in applications is the end goal, because I don’t enjoy filling out applications. And while I love writing, I don’t enjoy writing artistic statements of varying word/character counts or plot summaries or answering “Why I want this residency” questions.

Every time I spend hours (or days or weeks) filling something out, I have to convince myself I really want to get that thing in order to write convincingly about it. And every time I don’t get it, it becomes harder to apply to the next one.

So I’m in search of a re-framing device, some way to have receiving a rejection letter be good news and affirming. In their book Switch, the Heath brothers talk about Triggers (setting up an automatic response to something.) I want a new trigger for rejection letters. Some way to tie pride or contentment or some positive emotion to receiving them. I thought about getting myself an ice cream every time I received a rejection – but I really don’t need THAT MUCH ice cream. There are the writers who wallpaper their bathrooms with rejection letters – which I would totally do – except that 90% of my rejections come in my email now. And I’m not printing those things out just to smear paste on them or tear them up.

The Heath brothers also talk about this idea of an elephant and a rider, that when we’re riding a (metaphorical) elephant, the emotions of the elephant really determine where we go, that the rider can only do so much when the elephant’s emotions get involved. So I’m trying to figure out how to motivate my elephant to do something that generally makes me feel bad and somehow find a way to make it feel good.

Have you solved this? Suggestions welcome. I can’t imagine I’ll ever be in a position to be able to avoid applying for things altogether. So I need a way to make peace with the labor of applying and the rejection that comes after.


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American Arts Funding
October 5, 2011, 12:05 am
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , ,

From earlier this year:

This week in the Puppet Lab, we discussed funding. One of our members is a recent arrival in the U.S. and he’d asked about who to apply for for funding for his show. The short answer? No one.  There is no funding. The long answer? Well, there’s this grant and its deadline has passed or this one, for which you’d have to apply after the fact and here are all the Sort-Of-Resources you might be able to draw on.

In that discussion, one of the members brought up something called the 80/20 rule. He said that someone told him that you have to spend 80% of your time looking for funding and 20% of your time on the Art. This rule of thumb (while likely the reality of the current system) made me want to throw up. The idea that this is the recommended way of making theatre in this country is horrifying. It means that the work of an artist is really to find money and that the Art is a hobby.

All signs point to a hobbyist sense of theatre making. We do it in our spare time, not with the bulk of it. We have to fund it ourselves. (Most of the participants in the Lab are buying their materials and rehearsal space with their own money. We might as well be building model train sets. It would probably be cheaper.)

Now this program is one of the few supports for puppetry in the city. It’s at a prestigious theatre and comes with a little basket of status. However, there’s no money for it. Every single hobbyist puppeteer has to find his/her own way to fund the project – to fund this 20% – to fund the model train convention, to speak metaphorically. Watching a room full of people explain to a new arrival to the country that this is how it is, made “how it is” seem all the stupider to me. I was embarrassed for us – embarrassed for a culture that turns artists into hobbyists – that believes in this 80/20 rule  and that instructs the artists arriving to our shores to expect less than they were used to in less privileged cultures.

Most career/self-help books will instruct us that whatever we do the most is really our career. If we spend 80% of our lives looking for a way to pay for the other 20%, we’re not doing anything more than funding our expensive and heartbreaking hobby. Those numbers NEED to be reversed. We need a system where artists can spend at least 80% of the time making art, making it better, mastering it. Malcom Gladwell says in his book about genius that people become geniuses by doing something for 10,000 hours. How is anyone ever able to do this with only 20%? It’s time for new rules.

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