Songs for the Struggling Artist

Art, Entertainment and SpongeBob SquarePants

My friend told me about some friends of hers who came to see her dance performance and were clearly pretty baffled by it. She didn’t take this personally because she understood that these friends of hers had no experience of contemporary dance or art in general.

What was ironic about these folks with no art experience was that they were convinced they were dedicated arts supporters. They went to tons of Broadway shows after all; They thought themselves very artistically literate. My friend tried to explain to them that Broadway wasn’t so much art as entertainment but they had no idea what she was talking about.

I think most Americans would have no idea what she was talking about. We conflate art and entertainment so dramatically that it is sometimes very hard to distinguish between the two. I have spent my entire life in the arts and am only now starting to work out the distinction. Art can be entertaining and entertainment can be artful but art and entertainment are not the same thing.

I suspect that if you come from a country with funding and support for the arts, this distinction is obvious. The national theatres, state granted and council funded work iare more likely to be art and the shows in commercial houses are entertainment. Done and dusted. Sometimes there’s crossover but it’s mostly clear. Here, where we have no state theatre, no national arts, there is little to no distinction. Maybe at the margins you can find consensus. We might be able to agree that amusement park shows and cruise ships are entertainment and avant-garde performance in a gallery space is art – but as those two things approach one another, things start to get muddy.

The distinction can be muddy for people who work in Arts and Entertainment as well. When you think of yourself as working in The Business (as in Show Business) and The Industry (as in The Entertainment Industry) you approach your work in one way. If you think of yourself as working in The Arts, you are likely to approach it another way. Even if what you are doing is fundamentally the same. Context is everything. If I sing a song on a cruise ship, it is Entertainment. Even if I sing it artfully, it is still entertainment. If I sing that very same song in a contemporary dance performance, it’s art. Same material, same artist, different genre entirely. For many performers, there is no distinction and no need to make one. And perhaps that’s true for audiences, too.

But asking these categories to do one another’s jobs makes for an anemic art climate. In a capitalist culture, entertainment consumes art, like giant multi-national banks gobbling up local ones. Entertainment grows and expands while art starves and diminishes. People start to expect art to make money, to boost the economy, to create an insatiable demand for tickets. And while that may work for Broadway, for entertainment – it will never work for art. Art is not motivated by money. Art is after something else. Art is concerned with a dramatically different range of values. It won’t be a good return on your investment. If it IS a good return on your investment, odds are good, it’s probably not art, really. There are exceptions, of course. But very few.

I am pretty clear that I am pursuing art. I enjoy entertainment as much as the next person but art is my goal, my purpose, my raison d’etre. I mean, true, there is no business like show business, like no business I know. I agree that you can nowhere get that special feeling as when you’re stealing that extra bow. Applause is exhilarating and intoxicating and I am delighted to receive it any chance I get. But – for me, applause without art feels hollow. I’d rather do without applause than reckon with that emptiness.

And so we need to talk about SpongeBob SquarePants, the Musical. When I heard it was opening, I laugh/cried so hard at the absurdity of the world. SpongeBob SquarePants is not art. It’s on Broadway. It is theatre. But it’s not art, y’all. Not even close. No matter how much the Creative Team tries to convince us otherwise.

Tina Landau, former director of Steppenwolf Theatre (art,) writer of multiple theatrical works (art,) directed SpongeBob SquarePants and in a promotional video declares that this show is what we need now. America needs SpongeBob SquarePants The Musical, she suggests. Everyone on the creative team seemed to echo this sentiment of significance and importance in this video. Everyone was on message and seemed to be trying to convince us that this was a great artistic triumph.


And maybe SpongeBob SquarePants, The Musical is amazing. The cartoon is very entertaining, I concede. Critics seem to love the musical (“It’s not that bad!” read one review I read) but even if it is artfully done, it is not art, it is not important, it is not what America needs now. It may be what Tina Landau, formerly a director of art, needs right now – like she needs a summer house, so she’s directing a mega show based on a lucrative licensed cartoon figure affiliated with a multi-national corporation. And that is fine. I do not begrudge Tina Landau being able to buy a house – not many theatre directors can do that, especially female ones. But I do begrudge her trying to convince us that SpongeBob is important, that SpongeBob is art. It’s not. It’s just not. I’m not saying it’s not entertaining or not well done – I’m saying it’s not art and I resent every single piece of media that equates it with things that are actually art. I saw multiple Best of New York Theatre 2017 lists and most of them featured SpongeBob and I didn’t see any with Indecent on them – which was the single most relevant piece of theatrical art I’ve seen in decades. SpongeBob is selling well and Indecent closed – twice. Entertainment sells like hotcakes. And Art is food for the soul and awfully hard to sell in mass quantities.

As an antidote to the entertainment-heavy world I live in, I’ve been reading the writings of Tadeusz Kantor, painter and theatremaker from Poland. He sits firmly in the art camp. He rails against the stultification that can come from theatre buildings. He bemoans the theatre’s move toward professionalism – toward codification and art strangulation. He would not be confused about the landscape we have here in America. He would not let the existence of SpongeBob SquarePants make him feel despair about his own work. His work has nothing to do with SpongeBob. And mine doesn’t either.

For me the distinction between art and entertainment comes down to a simple question. That question is related to Kantor’s history. During World War II, it was illegal to make theatre in Poland. He did it anyway, in a basement – risking death for his art.

The question I ask myself if I’m wondering if something is art or not is. “Would someone perform this in a basement in the middle of a war?” “Would someone put this on in their attic at great personal risk?”

I have a long list of shows I cannot imagine in a secret war torn basement and SpongeBob is right at the top of that list.

So why is this important? Am I just splitting linguistic and categorical hairs here? The American Theatrical landscape has always been thus. Let’s look at 1922. Alongside the premiers of Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Hairy Ape and The God of Vengeance were also plays called: Hunky Dory and Hitchy-Koo of 1922. There’s nothing new in the crass work presented alongside the sublime. It is perhaps our national impulse to sit entertainment side by side with art.

We once had national organizations to help foster and develop art. The Federal Theatre Project in the 30s and the development of regional theatres in the 60s. But now, due to the eliding of categories and things like enhancement deals, a regional theatre is much more likely to produce an entertainment than some art. There are very few places that foster the growth of art, independent from the rules of the entertainment business.

With no distinction made between art and entertainment, the Boards of theatre companies continue to make choices that privilege entertainment and the theatre’s bottom line. And there’s absolutely nothing in place to stop them doing that. On a smaller, more personal scale, artists who make ART are often made to feel that what they do has no value because it does not make a lot of money. Look at the concept of “making it.” “Making It” is a Show Business concept – not really an artistic one. But that doesn’t stop every artist I know from feeling bad about how much or little they have “made it.” Without a distinction between The Business and The Art, artists will relentlessly beat themselves up for failing to meet criteria that has nothing to do with their actual raison d’etre.

Artists can start to feel bad that they can’t make a piece of work that “America needs right now” because they can’t bring themselves to make something like SpongeBob. This could be mortally wounding to American art if we don’t start to make some distinctions and some adjustments to the field. SpongeBob and Kantor’s The Dead Class are technically the same medium. Naked Boys Singing and The Bald Soprano are both theatre. Is it any wonder people don’t want to support the arts? They think because they spent $150 a head to see School of Rock or Kinky Boots that they’ve done their bit. But they haven’t. They’ve paid $150 a ticket to be entertained. And the arts continue to languish unrecognized and underfunded.

There is a sort of Venn Diagram of Art and Entertainment. They overlap, for certain – but some things are clearly one or the other, while others sit squarely in the middle, as both. We fund and support the entertainment circle, including the bit that overlaps with art, while the Art circle is only supported where it overlaps with entertainment. This is not good for art, obviously. But is also not good for entertainment which benefits profoundly from that overlap. For the sake of our cultural health, we need to start making distinction so we don’t let art get left behind.

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Another Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

Previously, I wrote about a show that inspired me to make a list of stories I never want to see onstage again. I have now seen another show and discovered another story I have had my definitive fill of. Can we please call a moratorium on the fallen woman plot?

You get a pass if your name is Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and you were writing social commentary about this shit in the 1800s but if you are a writer in 2017, do us all a favor and leave this tired old horse alone.

I mean, I know a lot of you loved this Great Comet situation. And I agree that the design was very cool and there’s some accomplished performances in it. I give it a lot of points for its hodge-podge red curtain, fishnet, Russian tchotcke from any old period, aesthetic. But goddamn it, please, my dear writers and creators, please never ever again make me watch a story about a girl who wants to kill herself because she felt desire one time. I mean – sure, I get it, 19th Century source material and all that but can someone please explain to me why a story that hinges on the purity of some ingénue is worth adapting in 2017? (Actually, don’t. I don’t want to hear it.) If you like the old dusty classics (and I do, too! Lots!) you’d better give us something besides the old patterns of the patriarchy to grapple with. And making this story cool doesn’t do it. By making it cool, you’re reinforcing that shit. You’re saying, “Isn’t the patriarchy cool? Look how fun the patriarchy can be! It’s like 19th century patriarchy dressed up with twentieth century fishnets. This story is Dusty and Sexy!”

Now, all over goddamn America, little theatre girls are going to be singing about how they should take poison because they fell in love with the wrong guy for a minute. All over America, little theatre boys will be singing about how ennobling loving a fallen woman can be. This goddamn story. I can’t.

Updating the classics is dodgy business, y’all, because the classics are full of stuff that tells women that our only value is our beauty and if we sell beauty to the wrong bidder, we are lost forever. If you update the classics and you don’t update the gender politics, you are essentially putting a 21st century stamp of approval on 19th century ideas.

If you’re simply staging the classics maybe you can get away with telling these stories. I would happily watch a production of Sense and Sensibility onstage. But I’d need some Regency costumes and some damn harpsichords or something to make that okay. If you set Sense and Sensibility in a disco, with your own contemporary dialogue, I’m gonna be skipping that shit. And I love me some Jane Austen but I’m pretty sure that if Jane Austen were alive today, she would not write this kind of story. She was a social satirist. She showed us what was ticking away under the Regency veneer. I think she would show us something true and cutting about ourselves now if she were still kicking. If Tolstoy were alive, I don’t think he’d be writing this marriage plot shit either. Given that he was essentially writing about rich Russians who owned people, I’m gonna guess he’d have a lot to say about the current moment. I don’t think he’d be wasting his time with more fallen women.

I mean, we don’t know, obviously, what our old writers would do. But romanticizing these old stories is doing women in 2017 no favors. I don’t want to see one more woman punished for having desire. Not one more time. I’m hungry for stories about woman’s desire, about embracing it, about celebrating it. (See also the awesomeness of Indecent. Or a stage production of I Love Dick? Could we have that? Can Jill Soloway start a theatre wing of Topple?) I declare a personal moratorium on any story that celebrates a dude for transcending a sullied woman. I henceforth will avoid any and all shows that hinge on the purity of some beautiful girl. Fuck purity. Fuck congratulating men for being able to get over the “obstacle” of an “impure” woman. I am done with this story for now and forever.

Again, unless your name is Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Then, I’m good. Do what you got to do.


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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.


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 


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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 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.


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