Songs for the Struggling Artist


Art as Service

I considered his suggestion to play some open mics. I haven’t done one of those in over a decade and even though I hate them and had sworn off them, I thought, “Well, yes, those are a thing I could do. Maybe I should make myself go again.” But then, I thought, “Why?”

When I played open mics in the past it was to try things out, to practice playing in front of an audience, to perform when I was hungry for applause. But, after decades of performance experience, I am about as comfortable in front of an audience as I can expect to be and I have no real need for applause. In the past, those kinds of performances were an opportunity to learn and a boost for my fledgling ego. Neither of which I am particularly motivated by anymore.

Now – I am motivated principally by service. I look for how and where I can best be of artistic service – what I can create that can make a difference for someone. In other words, I don’t do things so much for myself but for some (usually imagined) audience. I create theatre that I imagine someone like me would want to see. I write books that I would want to read. I sing songs that I hope will be of help to people. I blog for the same reasons. I’m not saying it’s an ego-free situation. My ego is perfectly healthy. But – the decisions I make about what to do are more connected to serving some greater imaginative force than something I’m doing for myself.

When you try to make a career in the arts, over and over, you learn how to “put yourself out there” how to “sell yourself” how to market your best assets. The business of the arts is more like a car sale than a public service. And for some that suits them just fine. They are happy to promote themselves and their work, no matter the cost. For most of the service-oriented artists I know, though, the focus on salesmanship is not only tremendously disappointing, it is also at odds to what brought them to art in the first place.

I have learned all those marketing things. I’ve taken the workshops, read the books and I get it, more or less. I understood how to shift my thinking to make marketing a way to share my work instead of selling a used car. Some days, I can actually take all of that on board and be as creative in marketing as I am in my work. But it never really does the job. Somehow my creative marketing ideas don’t actually sell the thing I was meant to be selling and despite all those workshops from organizations that claim to be serving the arts, nowhere have I learned how to be of service when producing. Every arts service organization teaches you institutional skills and marketing and grantwriting but no one will teach you how to be of artistic service.

When I apply for grants, the applications ask me how many people we will serve – and genuinely, I have no idea. And due to the lack of visibility I have as an artist, the answer is usually not a very large number. And because grants and such have to have measurable outcomes, if you serve more people, you are more likely to get the funding. My not very large number numbers (due to lack of visibility) are a pretty large barrier to actually serving any community, despite my drive to do so.

The thing that’s tricky about being motivated by artistic service is that, for the most part, no one particularly needs what I have to offer – or they don’t know how what I have to offer might be of service.

For example, I’ve been writing plays about women and power for decades. I’ve been putting women at the center of mythological stories for ages. I think this is entirely necessary if we want to change the world. Stories matter and the stories that are the foundations of Western civilization are the foundations of the patriarchy. I’m convinced that shifting those stories is important work – that I’m doing my bit to change the world. But – the world is not asking for such things. At least they haven’t been so far. And now, if they are starting to, they are not asking for them from me. Am I really being of service if so few are seeing my work?

That is the painful conundrum at the heart of almost every service-oriented artist I know.

Very often, the most service-oriented artist suffer more than those who have leaned into the salesmanship of artistic production. Many of my artistic kindred spirits have left the arts to work more directly in service. They became teachers and social workers, physical therapists and aid workers. Which is great for all those professions but not so great for the arts.

Losing our service-motivated artists to actual service is not good for the art itself. When art is full of salesmen, instead of people who want to serve, it becomes emptier, less rich in feeling and depth, more decadent, more shallow. This is related to my recent post about Art vs. Entertainment – the preference of the culture is for louder, brasher, splashier work. That splashier work is easier to sell over the clamor of the car lot, where there are so many flashy things competing for your attention. Art that wants to serve, like almost all service professions in American culture is radically undervalued.

Almost all service-oriented professions are insufficiently valued and compensated. Teachers, nurses, social workers, non-profit workers, careworkers are some of the most underpaid people around. And artists with this bent toward service are similarly undervalued and undercompensated. But, additionally, I think we, the service-oriented artists, are also overshadowed by our showier, flashier comrades. Most of the world sees no difference between me and a Broadway chorus boy. And maybe I’m fooling myself to think there is a difference between my life-long commitment to serving art in the best ways I know how and an attractive young man who’s learned some choreography. Maybe I just need to make myself get back out there and sing at open mics for a smattering of applause. Maybe singing a song or two to some other people waiting for their turn in the spotlight is the way forward. But I hope not. I don’t think me doing something that I don’t enjoy and would have to force myself to do in an environment that tends to be uncomfortable and loud and unpleasant for me serves anyone, really. I don’t think it serves the art. And that is what I’m here to do. Art is service for me and I choose what I do based on what I think serves art the best.

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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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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read it on Soundcloud, click here.

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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



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.

 

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*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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