Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Beginning of Authority in Theatre (and Beyond)
July 31, 2017, 12:48 am
Filed under: Leadership, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

At the end of the evening, the young actors were hanging on his arms, pleading for an audition for whatever he did next. He had just joined a company four months before and directed his first show in the months previous. The last time I’d seen him, a year before, he’d asked me for advice about beginning. Now he was asking if I wanted to be his assistant. I have had a company for 16 years and a Master’s Degree in Directing. But no young actors hang on my arms or tell me they will stalk me until I let them audition.

My friend is a white man with an authoritative air. As an actor, he is at his best when playing ridiculously rigid authority figures. If you’re casting a buffoonish General, he’s the best man for the job. He exudes authority. I do not. When I’m returning to acting, I like to perform with this authoritative friend because I enjoy playing characters who subvert authority – the more restrictive the authority figure, the more fun it is to subvert them. My friend is a genius at playing this charismatic authoritative type and it is tremendous fun to be his subversive second in performance.

I understand that I am not an obvious leader. I don’t think anyone would pick me out of a crowd to lead them. But while I don’t project power or authority, I do lead. I can lead. I make space for people and make things happen. I am not a novice at this – and I am happily finding that there are more and more new models for my style of leadership. Jill Soloway is probably not an obvious leader either but I’d follow her anywhere.

I’m thinking about this because I’m thinking about how these kinds of patterns replicate themselves over and over. How men who project a certain kind of authoritarianism are not just taking power but are also given it. This creates and recreates the same authoritative structures in theatre that we’ve always had and all it takes to replicate itself is one charismatic authority announcing himself and a few people to agree to that proposition and enlarge it with adulation and obsequiousness.

The young actors hanging on the arms of my friend wanted to make theatre like the show they’d just seen and they asked my friend if he made work like that. He said “not really no.” But they didn’t care. They just wanted to work with him, whatever he was doing. They could see he exuded authority and they wanted in, no matter what he was doing, their own interests aside. What is ironic is that I DO make work like the show they’d seen and I am always looking for actors are hungry for it. But they weren’t looking at me. And I didn’t need them to. I have zero interest in the fawning.

I suppose I’m writing this now to help those young actors think more broadly than the obvious. Who knows what other connections they failed to make because they were busy responding to the most authoritative voice in the room?

Extrapolate this out a bit and you can see how we ended up in the political situation we’re in – many Americans saw an authoritative charismatic white guy declaring himself to be the greatest, despite the fact that he had zero experience – and they hung on his words and his arms and swore a sort of blind fidelity to wherever he would lead them.

An authoritative person is not always the best authority. It is a kind of gut response to authoritative behavior, I think, to give over to someone who declares himself a leader. It is probably a primal response that is worth investigating with a more reasoned part of the brain. I mean, evolutionarily speaking, there was probably once a good reason to follow the person who stood up, shouted loudly and said, “Follow me!” I’m not an evolutionary psychologist, so I’m not sure what that reason was. But now, given all I’ve learned, I’m less inclined to follow anyone who claims to have the answers. From the Dunning-Kruger effect, to the No True Scotsman fallacy to Confirmation Bias and the Optimism Bias, social science shows us that our instincts, our gut responses are often way off base. Authoritarianism works, not because someone is a good authority, but because people are so willing to follow someone who declares their authority. It’s time to open up what it means to have authority. This passage from Douglas Adams says it best:

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

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Take Your Daughter to Your Last Day of Work Day

My mother retired from a company where she’d worked for over 30 years. For many of those years, she was the Executive Director. She was the leader. At her retirement party, I learned a lot – both about my mother and leadership.

As a child, I spent some time with my mom at work – not in any official “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” way – but in a “School’s Out and Childcare Is Hard to Come By” way. I thought I had a sense of what she got up to – both from what I saw while playing with the office supplies and from what she’d talk about when she came home. But as I discovered at her retirement, I had no idea.

The facts of her long and illustrious career are well documented (in proclamations and resolutions by the state, the city and various public boards) but what blew the doors off my perception was my mother’s style in the face of it all.

Here are some things I realized:
1) My mother doesn’t really have a work persona. She is herself whether she’s working with a board of directors or a birding group. She doesn’t turn off her humanity to be professional.
2) One of the things that was often mentioned by those inspired and trained by her was her compassion and kindness. I heard many iterations of the words, “compassionate leadership” spoken about my mom.
3) My mother laid all of her success at her career at the feet of her colleagues and employees. She seemed to have no ego about all that she’s done.

None of these aspects of my mother’s personality are a surprise to me. But now that I have spent some time out in the world, I can recognize how unusual these things can be in a leadership role. What I understand now is how rare a bird my mother is and how her style of leadership has inspired others. (Especially women who came up behind her in a field that was entirely dominated by men. When my mom began, she was often the only woman in the board rooms and conferences.)

I can count myself among those inspired now, but I have benefitted from growing up assuming that my mother’s way was how things were. Of course kind, compassionate women can become powerful leaders in their communities while retaining their humanity and verve. Of course, they can and should do, because that is what my mother has always done. It’s taken years out in the wilds of the working world for me to see how unique my mom’s career was, how much of a trailblazer she has been and what a difference she’s made to the people around her. There’s something remarkable about how unapologetically she’s a woman and a leader.

The conversations about women’s leadership in the press tend to fall in the “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” category. The descriptions of my mother’s leadership that I heard at her retirement party strike me as revolutionary now. I hesitate to label my mother’s style as feminine because femininity is so loaded an idea. But feminine or not, it is well outside of the model of the Big Man in Charge. In theatre (which is my field,) this ideal still holds tight. People LIKE tyrannical directors, particularly male ones.  They hire them, they promote them, they pay them to run their theatres. Some theatres will come right out and say that they won’t hire women to direct. Although no one said it out loud, most of my experience in directing school was being pushed to be more like a Big Man in Charge.  It’s why I quit directing for a while.

There’s now a leader closer to my own field that makes me think of this “feminine” leadership style. Film and TV director, Jill Soloway, is on a roll, shaking things up all over Hollywood and being unapologetically all the things we’ve been told we can’t be. For example:

You CAN cry at work—in fact, you must cry at work. In fact, if you’re going to make a movie, do me a favor and think of it as “bring your tears to work day.”

Every time Soloway gives a speech, I feel a surge of hope.

People like my mother and Jill Soloway have changed the landscape for the rest of us and I’m tremendously grateful. It is rare and wonderful.

My mother is living proof that you can achieve great things and still be the person you are, and the kind of human you want to be. So I’m proud of my mom as she leaves her career woman identity behind. And I hope to be able to honor the qualities that we share by using my own leadership to a good effect as time rattles on.

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The writing started early, folks.

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Waiting for Good Leadership
May 7, 2012, 12:18 am
Filed under: art, business, education, theatre | Tags: , , ,

As a person juggling between 5 to 7 jobs at a time, I see a pretty wide range of managing/leadership styles. I also see a lot of these things in action at the perhaps 300 schools I’ve worked in over the years. I realized today, after yet another awkward exchange with someone I work for, that I am waiting for an ideal. I see a lot of things that work, but the things I have never seen in the decade and a half of teaching are as follows:
I am waiting for someone to ask me how they can help me be the best I can.
After years of being observed and given “Feedback”, I am waiting to be invited to watch a manager do his/her job to do the same.
I am waiting for someone to be clear and explicit about what they see as my strengths.
I am waiting to be asked what I think about the organization I work for. (This has happened once, but not in this position – see what I wrote about that.)
I am waiting to be appreciated as a valuable asset to a team or organization, to be given a bonus for making things happen or a gift/token or a nice note.
I am waiting to be asked what sort of training would best benefit my teaching practice rather than being called in and “instructed” twice a year.
I am waiting to be asked to bring my artist’s brain to the classroom, to be invited to experiment, to explore, to take risks. I do these things anyway, but am inevitably taken to the cleaners for it.
I am waiting for someone to treat observing a class with the same artistic rigor and care and delicacy as an artist watching another’s work. Liz Lerman pointed out that many artistic feedback sessions devolve essentially to what the person giving the feedback would have done if they made the piece. This is what observers of teachers do, too. Observations are almost always a list of what the observer would have done if it had been their class. Which it wasn’t.
I have had some managers do some great things. One in particular got us a raise, fought to get me some school support in a troubled classroom and asked us what our frustrations were. The fact that that was the ONLY time that that has happened in 15 years in about as many organizations is an indication of how rare it is.
I’m waiting still and getting more and more brittle and more and more I bristle when given “helpful” “feedback” that is no more helpful than a slap in the face.

I’m telling you that I’m waiting but I’m also writing this down so that I remember when I’m standing on the other side, sitting in the (admittedly difficult) manager’s chair, to practice what I preach. When that happens, I want to find ways to give someone else what I have waited for all these years.




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