Songs for the Struggling Artist


Why Giving Up Art Is Not an Option

The actors stood up and I started crying. The house lights went down to start the show and moments later I was moved. It took a moment to shake me out of my familiar world.

But it wasn’t just the moment, of course. There was a world of history behind the moment. It was the skill and finesse of a lifetime of theatrical practice that knew how to bring that world into a moment. It took extraordinary expertise and sensitivity to make something so simple so powerful. It took mastery.

After giving me such a powerful moment right out of the gate, I thought, “There might be nothing else as good as this in the rest of this show but if this is all it has to offer, it would be enough.” But it was definitely NOT all it had to offer. I saw a play that exquisitely resurrected the past while shining light on our present. It made me weep so often I wished I’d brought a box of tissues with me. And I almost never cry in the theatre. All around me, I heard the quiet sound of other people taken over by their emotions.

When it was over, the audience did not leap to its feet. On Broadway, a standing ovation is practically a reflex. But this Broadway audience was too moved to leap to its feet. Many of us were too moved to move at all. An usher had to ask us to vacate our seats. A transformative art experience is not always met with cheers.

In fact, if you’ve really struck an audience to the soul, they will likely not be able to hoot and holler. A transformative art experience is usually so personal to an audience that they may not be keen to talk about it, they may not tell all their friends, they may just want to keep it to themselves. A transformative art experience may not draw a crowd, it may not generate a profit for its producers, it may not make a big noise. It may shine briefly in the firmament before winking into memory. But it will continue to do its transformative work for a long time after it has faded. The magic of Indecent is that it both shows us that story of continuation and is likely to be that story as well.

The marketing department for the show seems to be trying to boost sales to this show by talking about why #ArtMatters and while this is perfectly in line with what I took from the show, a hashtag feels like such a diminishment of what is actually at stake. This is not a hashtag sort of experience. It’s not an instagram moment. It’s not suited for 140 characters.

But certainly art matters. And this show helps remind us how much it can matter. And aside from all the mattering it does, it also made me want to keep working at being a better artist. Indecent helped me see how a lifetime in the theatre could refine and invigorate the form. There are so many moments in my theatre life that make me want to give up, that make me question whether I’ve dedicated my life to the wrong art. Over the years, I’ve seen so much crap, so much compromise, so much ego, so much selling out, so much shady dealing, so much sexism, so much racism, so much shouting, so much soullessness. There have been so many times that I’ve wondered why I continue to let theatre break my heart. Because theatre breaks my heart pretty much every time I put on another show and each time I do, I ask myself again, “Why do I do this? Why do I put myself through this agony? Why do I think I love theatre when it clearly doesn’t love me?” And then I saw this show and I remembered why.

If I write plays that no one but me wants to produce with any regularity, if I direct plays that I can’t convince many people to see, if I devise work that only touches a handful of people, that doesn’t make me a failure, that makes me an artist on a journey. The experience of seeing this show reminded me of a truth that I find I have to return to again and again, that worth is not equivalent to popularity.

This show moved me not because it is on Broadway, but because it is the collaboration of artists working at the height of their powers. It shows me that I could make the best work of my life over twenty years from now. That even though I have often felt that my prime has passed (I have, to my regret, internalized that only young women are valuable) my prime is much more likely to be in the future. I learned, from my seat in the balcony, that a lifetime in the theatre could distill an artist into the clearest, most concise expression of theatricality. I see that time, rather than just battering me and graying my hair, might distill this cluster of longings and ideas and furies and hopes into something transformative – not just for me but for an audience.

In a world wherein I often feel that I’ve seen all the tricks, that I’ve had all the glitter fall from my eyes to reveal the familiar old men behind all the curtains, this show gave me hope and surprise.

It reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Protest and Persist: Why Giving Up Hope Is Not an Option” which explores how change really happens. In it, Solnit unpacks how an initial movement for change may fail in its immediate goals – but that the change achieved by future generations is built directly on the work of our predecessors. It is the same in art. The God of Vengeance (which Indecent invokes) was on Broadway for a blink in time but that blink was a pebble in a pond that echoed to create something new and potent in a time when we needed it.

I don’t know if Indecent will get a long run (I hope so though I worry about those empty seats behind me on a Friday) but even if it closes tomorrow, it will have dropped a mighty art pebble into the art pond and the ripples will be rippling for years after the artists are gone.

This show gave me the long view at a time it feels like we are in an ever-alarming, ever-panicked present moment. And it showed me that though we very well might be forgotten when we are gone (or even forgotten while we are here) someone somewhere in the future, might resurrect us for their transformative art. We keep creating in the darkest hours. We make because we must, because something captivates us, even if it breaks our hearts.

Photo of Indecent by Carol Rosegg 

 

Help me keep me in my art long enough to get as good as I want to be

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

kaGh5_patreon_name_and_message*

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 Soundcloud, click here.screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

*

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

 



“Thank you for Your Smile”
May 16, 2016, 12:09 am
Filed under: dreams, education | Tags: , , , , ,

At the bakery, the clerk said, “Thank you for your smile. It’s refreshing.” And I thanked him for his because his was, too.

In my teens and 20s, I was thanked for my smile very often and just as often derided for it. As in, “What do you have to smile about?”

I hadn’t been smiling quite so much in the last ten years. I’m a smiler generally but I think the wattage of those smiles had been quite seriously diminished by the last decade. Having a full on smile exchange at the bakery made me realize how different those smiles had become. I had not been thanked for a smile in some time.

Something shifted back into place recently, something that allowed me to smile the way I used to – with all the shine behind it. I suspect that the catalyst for this was (weirdly) my college reunion.

In college, I was a pretty sunny kid. I strained against my super hip uber cool campus because I wanted to be around other sunny people and have some fun. Fun wasn’t really on the menu much where I went to school but I found ways to make fun and I was pretty confident that I could do anything I put my mind to, especially if I smiled while I did it.

But life can kick a person around. Particularly a person who chooses to go into the arts. Maybe especially if one goes into the arts in NYC. But it wasn’t NYC that kicked the smiling out of me. It was graduate school in Sunny California. Graduate school displaced my worldview, maimed my inner optimist and generally left me sadder and (maybe?) wiser. I was on fire in my undergrad years. Even when I was unhappy and struggling, I burned with optimism and ambition. Graduate school was like a big bucket of cold water.

I suspect that by returning to the place where I once felt unstoppable, I re-ignited my inner fire, which allowed me to smile again, which made everything better. The way that guy’s smile made me feel better, and the way my smile made his day better. It’s like I got some magic back – like I remembered what it felt like to burn bright.

smile

Become my patron on Patreon and, for as little as a dollar a post, you can make a big difference in this artist’s life.

Also – this blog is now a podcast that (at the moment) only my patrons will be able to hear. If you’d like to hear a podcast version, become a patron!

 kaGh5_patreon_name_and_message

Click HERE  to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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



In which we lose an old growth forest, hope and Marley’s ghost

The Board of Trustees of my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, just made a decision last week to dismantle its study abroad program in Florence. Alumni of the program (of which I am one) banded together, and over the weeks leading to the decision, wrote letters, set up a fundraising campaign and made every effort to save it. To no avail.

The plans are to fire the staff of the program in Florence (many of whom have worked there for decades,) let the lease expire on the Florence campus, set up a partnership with another college to keep it going in name only, or, failing that, to dismantle it altogether.

And a lot of us (over 600 members in the Facebook group) are FURIOUS (and heartbroken, distressed and baffled.)

Why? Why should we care about a program that some us haven’t been to in over 20 years?

And why should you care? You, who probably didn’t study with us in Florence or probably even at Sarah Lawrence?

I wasn’t sure why I cared about it at first, or why I thought you might – but the more I think about it, the more I see this decision as an example of a disturbing trend in our culture. I have seen this sort of thing happen many times before.  BAM dismantled its Shakespeare program, for which I’d taught for 14 years. Universities are relying on adjunct faculty for 70% of the teaching, without providing a living wage for its scholars. Over and over again, successful, rigorous educational programs, like big old growth trees with venerable root systems are chopped down and replaced with cheaper, younger forests created for quick profits. And this is happening in the arts, journalism and education.

I’ve previously written about my own confusion about what college is for. To train for a job? To make money? To transcend class? To learn? To grow a soul? I settled firmly on the “build a self” and “Grow a soul” side – even though, for me, that has meant a lifetime of poverty. And I stand by it. I was proud as hell to have gone to an institution that helps create more interesting, well-rounded people that want to make the world a better place. My fellow alumni are articulate, passionate and socially minded. We love learning things. At reunion this year, I failed to find out what most of my former classmates were up to because we were too busy talking about ideas, our teachers and things we learned in college. The ideal Sarah Lawrence experience deepens the intellect, expands one’s empathy and horizons and gives one tools for social change. I’m not trying to be an ad for Sarah Lawrence (SLC) here. Far from it – because this decision about Florence tells me that the Sarah Lawrence I knew is dead. The new SLC has nothing to do with who many of us alumni feel ourselves to be.

I keep thinking about William Deresiewicz’s article about what college should be for. (It showed up in my last post, as well.) And SLC can really do that self building stuff sometimes. Or it could. (On a good day, when it isn’t cutting out pieces of its soul like it’s doing right now.) And the program in Florence could REALLY do it. Here’s how:

1) While there may be a glut of American programs in Florence, (yes, there are a ton) the SLC program was particularly good at encouraging intellectual rigor and building on our natural curiosity, as so many of the letters written to the President of the college recounted. While other programs were the Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour version of studying abroad, our program was an embedded, immersive experience. While we experienced Italy, other programs were Epcot Italy. I went there looking for A Room With a View experience and came back with a whole new world of Machiavelli, Goldoni, Dante, Boccaccio, Calvino, Levi, Giacometti, Cherubini, Vivaldi, Caravaggio, Vasari and Giotto.

*
2) Self building doesn’t just happen in a classroom. So much of my learning happened off campus in Florence – in museums, streets, in the countryside. We traveled with support and context and I began to understand both the country I was in and how I might become a citizen of the world. Guided by compassionate, intelligent people, we learned how to feel at home in a foreign land. My experience there made me braver and stronger. I got my spine there.

*

If the program sucked, that would be one thing. I’ve seen any number of administrators who ought to be fired and programs that had no educational value whatsoever that I would not bemoan the loss of. But by all accounts (so many of them!) this program in Florence did an exemplary job of all the things we hope college will do for us. It was the highlight of most of our college careers.

I’ve worked in a great many schools, programs and colleges and it is exceptionally rare to find a program that is this beloved and respected. You will be hard pressed to find an administration so well regarded elsewhere. So to see this program that is highly successful, that does the job of building selves, that provides such important soul work to its students, be summarily dismissed because there are cheaper options available? It makes me want to throw things. Hard things. That break.

I mean – there are any number of cheaper options for going to college. Why not just dismantle SLC altogether? I mean, all it’s doing is a good job educating the people who choose to go there – it’s just too expensive. And there are so many other options for college. I mean, just in the tri-state area alone! So what if many of the faculty have been there for decades? So what that a lot of us loved the place? It just doesn’t make sense to spend money on education, apparently.

That’s what this decision says to me. It tells me that the values of an institution once known for its values have changed. It would seem that the college is more interested in the bottom line than in the extraordinary education of a small group of students. Which is all the college is.

SLC in Florence is SLC in micro. It starts here – with a diminishment and dumbing down of something valuable and where does it go from here? Will SLC eventually cut the entire humanities curriculum like colleges in Japan are considering? Are the arts no longer worth it? They’re expensive. Artist alumni don’t give back as much as hedge fund managers could. Old growth forests can’t make you cheap paper like a pulp forest can.

Is this where we’re headed? Is this where all culture is headed?

Good god. I hope not. Because I am running out of things I can throw.

Finally, I think a good education also features morals and social justice. We learn, from other people but also from books, from art, from teachers, how we ought to treat one another. Whether or not we do it is another question. But in college, we hopefully learn what we think the right thing to do is for the culture and for ourselves. We shape our sense of social responsibility.
That’s why the firing of an administrator (as well as her staff) who has given 29 years of her life to the betterment of this particular program,  (and thereby increased institutional reputation internationally) feels so fundamentally out of line with everything I thought my alma mater was about. We don’t behave that way, do we? We take care of people. We treat the guardians of our education, our intellect, our lives, with respect. We don’t toss them out on their ears when the lease on the classroom gets expensive. That’s Scrooge shit, right there. And we all learned that lesson way back in the Victorian age. Or has our world transformed so much that this cheap paper version is the new norm? In the gig economy, maybe everything and everyone is disposable.

And it’s not just SLC behaving like Scrooge here. All over the world, beloved institutions that have always done good work disappear because they don’t meet someone’s line item on the bottom line. We lose libraries, theatres, museums, schools – all of which do the good work of helping us deal with the mysteries of life and become better humans – not just humans who will fit appropriately into machines.

Is this who we want to become? Excellent sheep as Deresiewicz suggests? I’d like to believe not. I’d like to believe that there is still a place in the world for small groups of people learning, building themselves, experiencing edifying art and cultural touchstones and just becoming better people. Is that too corny for the current moment?
Are we all Scrooges now? And are we in a world with no Marley to come knock on our doors and remind us of who we dreamed we could be?

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business.”

italy-748400_1280*

Like the blog? Become my patron on Patreon.

 kaGh5_patreon_name_and_message

Click HERE  to Check out my Patreon Page




%d bloggers like this: