Songs for the Struggling Artist


Everything Interesting Happens at the Edges

I remember reading about this concept in a book or a magazine or publication of some kind. I wish I could remember what the book or magazine was or who wrote it – but the memory is just at the edge of my consciousness, the way the beach is at the edge of the sea, the way the spaces between us are the places that intrigue, the way disparate parts meet each other somewhere, the way the edge of a bubble is what is vulnerable to popping. The margins, the edges, the fringes are where we are drawn again and again. That is where the action is.

I was thinking about this idea again while watching the first stages of the inspiring, intrepid Monica Byrne calling out large institutions of American Theatre. I could not help but imagine how the insiders of the American Theatre Bubble would react and respond to her criticism. I thought – “They’ll label her an outsider. They’ll question her credentials. They’ll dismiss her as someone outside the bubble, throwing stones. They’ll say she’s only criticizing because the big institutions haven’t produced her work.” I have no idea if anyone actually said that or thought or whispered it in their boardrooms – but I have seen it happen before in theatre and in many other arts and arenas. And it is why and how I am usually dismissed myself – so I’m pretty familiar with the pattern.

Seeing it outside of my own experience, though, I started to understand that criticism usually HAS to come from the edges, from the margins. Those of us at the edges have much less to lose by telling truths. (And to be clear, I think Monica is as much a theatre artist as any of the major theatres that she has tweeted to, if not more so – but there is a very narrow band of insiders that I mean to point to, the ones with deep pockets and endowments.)

Before I quit being a teaching artist, I had a lot to say about the field and what I saw happening in arts organizations but I did not feel free to share any of those things until I was prepared to give them up. My sense of freedom to say what I felt needed to be said was in direct proportion to how much I wanted and/or needed to keep my jobs. That is, while I was an insider, it was not in my interest to directly confront or address any inequities, injustices or problems in the field. Inside, I was relatively powerless to point out things that needed change.

It is not an accident that I started this blog around about the time that I realized I was not going to be enfolded into the arms of my theatre establishment. I am able to say what I say because I am in the margins.

I can almost guarantee that should, by some crazy miracle, one of my shows be suddenly snapped up by a major regional theatre or a Broadway producer and whisked into rehearsal, that you’d be hearing from me on this medium a whole lot less.

This would not be because I’d suddenly lose my brain, or my interest in changing the system. It would be because a) I’d be busy in rehearsal and b) it would not be in my best interest to compromise the one place in theatre it might be possible to make a real living. (Though you might hear a lot from me once it was all over!)

This is why you I’m blogging now. I’m in the theatre bubble enough to be able to see it but not enough to be risking my livelihood or relationships in talking about it. I’m not a complete outsider. I am a part of theatre community but I’m on the periphery and it is almost always the periphery that can point to real change or possibilities.

If you’re an institution, if you’re on the inside, and you don’t know what to do to fix the status quo, look to the fringe. Look for who is missing, bring them in and ask for their perspective. I’ve seen institutions try and make change from the inside. They ask employees to fill out surveys or do exit interviews. But those folks can never be fully honest. This is not because they lack honesty or awareness. This is because even if they’re done working with a theatre this time, they’re thinking about next time, or the way this gig might lead to the next. I have been honest at such things because I was asked to be and realized too late that honesty was not the savvy move.

A while back, I wrote a post called The Woman in the Room and it was about what it takes to stay on the inside, to tenaciously hold on to the little patch of ground one might have gained. It was for all my friends who were berating themselves for their complacency in the face of sexism in American Theatre. I said then and I will say again, that if you are a woman on the inside of the establishment (and/or anyone whose representation is negligible in the theatre,) you have to do what you have to do to stay there. We need an inside (wo)man. We need you in there. Fight when you can while you’re on the inside. Maybe gain some more ground to bring more women (and people of color, disabled people, transgender people and non-binary people) inside the establishment doors. Support those on the outside who are more able to fight for you and bring them inside when you can. And hang out at the edges. They are the most interesting places after all. They are where change is happening. Where change is possible.

 

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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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