Songs for the Struggling Artist


I’m Mad About Kiss Me, Kate

Look, I know they made Kiss Me, Kate over 70 years ago but I am mad about it today. I’m sorry. Sometimes my rage is not on time.

Did you know that a woman wrote the book for this musical? I did not. I work in theatre, fanatically listened to the Broadway cast album in my youth, have seen at least two productions, I care about women’s achievements in this field and I did not know that a woman wrote Kiss Me, Kate. How did I miss that?

Turns out that even though she wrote it, the production team persuaded her to let them bill her with her husband, so it is credited to Bella and Samuel Spewack instead of just Bella Spewack. Even though they were in the middle of a divorce and Sam Spewack’s only contribution was that he punched up a few of the Tough Guys’ lines, he still got the credit as a full writer on the show. And in a pair like this, it is, of course the man’s name that is important. Apparently even for a feminist musical theatre lover like myself. Her name might as well not have even been there. Gets me all worked up!

And I can totally see how this happened. I think it could probably even happen today. The producers think a show about a married theatre couple will sell better if it’s written by a married theatre couple and so, because the writer wants the show to sell, she is persuaded to add her husband’s credit to her own. But the fact is, if Sam Spewack had been the sole writer of a show, they would never have asked him to share the credit with his wife, and if they had, he’d very likely have said no, especially during the time they were going through a divorce. And that would have been the end of it. Surely Bella Spewack also said no at first. And at a certain point, she had to yield. And decades later, I discover that a woman wrote a foundational Broadway musical. And while I understand why she felt like she had to yield to this request to share her credit, I feel like I’m the reason why she shouldn’t have let it go. Not me specifically of course – but all the theatre women who came after her, desperate for a role model.

Listen, I know that the Book Writer is the least sexy writer on a musical. No one chooses to go to a musical because of the person who wrote the text. I know that. But STILL. I think if I’d realized that there was a woman behind one of the great foundational works of American Musical Theatre, in any capacity, I think I’d have gotten a little more spring in my step. I’d have known that, even in the 1940s, a woman accomplished a really extraordinary thing.

And I’m sorry – but a husband-wife team just doesn’t do the same thing. It was Bella Spewack, on her own, who collaborated with Cole Porter to create this piece. It was Bella Spewack, alone, who made the decisions about how to create these characters, how to engage with the Shakespearean source material. It was Bella Spewack, by herself, who negotiated with the producer about the gig. All while her husband was wooing the ballerina he’d left her for. And sure – they did eventually get back together again and wrote more things as a team so maybe for them, it didn’t matter at all. Maybe it was nice for Bella Spewack to think of the work she’d done on her own as part of a continuum with her creative work with her husband. But it’s not nice at all for the women who came after her. I should have KNOWN Bella Spewack’s name. I should have heard of her work, even outside of Kiss Me, Kate. She was a successful writer BEFORE she was asked to write this show. Her male contemporaries names are canonized. I did not know her name before reading about this in James Shapiro’s book Shakespeare in a Divided America.

I know I’m late to the party on this. I wish I’d been celebrating Bella Spewack all along, along with the only other foundational Broadway Musical woman I can think of, Betty Comden.

The American theatre has an incredibly short memory. We have a few white guys we remember and the rest disappear into history – or into their husband’s credits. I’m so furious that her team convinced Bella Spewack that her credit wasn’t important, when surely none of them would have shared credit with their wives. It was another time, sure – but we needed Bella Spewack’s actual credit for history. For us now.

And I know somebody out there is saying, “How could you not know Bella Spewack? That’s ridiculous! I know all about Bella Spewack!” To which I say, “Good! I’m glad you know her. That’s good. But the problem is that I did not.” And I absolutely should have. If I know Oscar Hammerstein’s name or Alan Lerner or Adolph Green or Noel Coward’s name, I should ALSO know Bella Spewack’s. And I did not. It was not even familiar. Cole Porter, I know. I even recognize the names of some of the 1940s theatre actors. But not Bella Spewack. And I should have. Now I do. And so do you, in case you missed it, like me.

Bella Spewack. By herself.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

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Performing Arts Going Dark

Have you all read Station Eleven? I mean, don’t, if you haven’t. Even the author recommends waiting a few months to read it. It’s a little too relevant right now. It hits a little too close to home. It begins with a pandemic that leads to the radical upending of civilization. You can see why you might want to wait a minute to get into it. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week – not just because of the pandemic – but because of what happens after the pandemic. The heart of the story is a traveling Shakespeare company that tours the devastated country. When nothing is left, we have the arts.

At the moment, with all the performing arts cancelled, it can feel like our work is unimportant or inessential. Suddenly, it is, technically, palpably dangerous to do what we do. Suddenly, it has become reckless to gather people in a room and share things with them. Suddenly, the very thing that makes the performing arts so magical is the thing that makes them dangerous. Almost everyone I know in New York works in the performing arts in some capacity and almost everyone I know is in a state of absolute disarray. As show people, we are built with an intense drive for the show going on. We are used to pushing through any numbers of difficulties in order to make it to the stage. To have the stage pulled out from under us is counter to everything we feel in the very fiber of our beings. The show must go on! It can’t be cancelled! It goes on! Isn’t it better to do a show? Isn’t it always better to do a show than not do a show? Won’t the arts save us all? Not in this case, no. Not in the way we’re used to.

What’s happening for us is not just a crisis of economics (though it is that and quite a serious one at that) but also a crisis of faith. If the shows don’t go on, who are we? What is all this for? How can it not be good to gather a group of people together and share art with them? To laugh? To cry? To tap our toes to the beat together? To have our heartbeats sync up as we watch? How? How? How?

But, of course, in a pandemic, it is very bad for us all to be in a room together. I am interested in the connections we share with other things that have had to shut down recently. Sports and religious gatherings are experiencing the same unilateral canceling. We are all shut down together – all the things that bring people together, that unite us, are dangerous.

But this does not mean they are inessential. Things that bring people together, like the performing arts, like sports, like religion, are key to our survival, to our thriving as a species. It feels to me that in losing that ability of being all together in a unified state, I’ve come to appreciate it anew.

Sometimes, you may have noticed, I get a little cranky about theatre. I see shows and they make me angry and sometimes I tell you about it. I get mad – partly because I want shows to be better and partly because my ability to make shows has been hampered over the years so I get mad about shows that have a lot of resources and squander them.

But here we are in the middle of a pandemic and almost all theatres have been shut down. And it becomes instantly clear that I would rather watch the worst show there is (It’s Bike. You know it’s Bike.) over and over and over again than have no theatre at all.

For all my ranting, I do love the stuff and I’m sad for even the worst show that has closed. It suddenly feels very important to me to know that shows are running, even ones I’ll never see, even ones I hate.

I hope that when this is all over, there will be a renewed appreciation for the performing arts and their important place in our culture. We were all shaken by how quickly the entire theatre business was shut down here in New York. It was as if someone flicked a switch and thousands of people lost their jobs and thousands more lost their dreams. Like that. In an instant. But this doesn’t mean the arts are a frill that get dropped in a time of crisis. It’s just that being with people is what the performing arts are all about and suddenly being with people is dangerous and so the performing arts become the most dangerous. And not because theatre people are some of the most touchy feely people out here, either. It’s because a bunch of people breathing the same air is the heart and soul of the work – and right now that air is treacherous. So we have to stop.

But maybe, once this has passed, we can come to appreciate what we lost when the theatres went dark.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be as extreme as Station Eleven – where survivors form a community building Shakespeare company. Maybe we don’t have to wait for the destruction of civilization as we know it to support the performing arts. Maybe we can support them right now so that theatre spaces will be able to open again, that shows can continue their runs, that freelancers can survive this terrifying downturn. As this article in Vulture says, “As concert halls, theaters, and museums around the world go dark, we all need to move quickly to ensure that when it’s finally safe to emerge from our lairs, we still have a cultural life left to go back to.”

Personally, I’ve come up with a project to keep some theatre folk creatively engaged with a project that we can do from our homes. I was working on it prior to this disaster in another form and it just happens to be possible this way. So I’m just rolling forward on that and it’s already delighting me.

The skills that help us bring people together in real life are stepping up to help keep us together while we are separated. Here are two that I know about – The Social Distancing Festival and Musicals from Home. Many many theatre folk are going to find this social distance thing very very difficult (as I’m sure most people will – but I think it hits our community driven community especially hard.) I feel quite certain this will drive a lot of them to become very inventive to create distance community and whatever those inventions are will benefit us all in the long run.

There will be theatre when this is all over. And concerts. And dances. And hopefully we will all appreciate them and being with each other all the more.

Look at all these theatre kids touching each other. We can’t do this right now. And it sort of made me tear up just looking at them. Photo by Mauricio Kell via Pixabay

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Who Is This Arts Education Experience For?

Having spent a couple of decades in arts education, in a multitude of schools through a dozen or so arts organizations, I’ve had occasion to wonder who it’s all for. Maybe it seems obvious. It’s for the kids, of course! It’s for the students! Except when it’s really not.

I’ll give you some examples. This first one happened recently to a musician I know. A group of kids came in for a musical theatre workshop and their chaperones pulled out some high-end cameras and microphones and began weaving in and out of the students who were trying to learn a song. The musician suggested to the grown-ups that having a safe, camera-free space to make mistakes would be beneficial to the learning process. The chaperone said, “No, but I’m trying to get some footage of their growth so this is great for me” and kept filming. Who was this workshop really for?

Or this one: Let’s say you’re putting on a play. And you cast little Jimmy to play the lead. But Jimmy is very quiet. You can’t hear Jimmy when he says his lines. When you tell Jimmy to speak up, the “problem” does not improve. And Jimmy’s not the only one you can’t hear. So you get a sound system and a bunch of mics. Jimmy has his very own lavalier. And Jimmy, because he has a mic now, gets quieter – so the sound guy has to pump the system up all the way just so people can hear Jimmy. But then the kids can’t hear the band so they miss most of their cues. Who is this for? What has Jimmy learned? He certainly hasn’t learned to project his voice. Or even how to use a microphone.

The audience, sure, has a better chance of hearing Jimmy now, however out of sync with the band he is. And the administration can rest easier knowing they’ve invested some money in making the students heard. But none of that was for Jimmy’s education.

Over and over, I’ve watched adults twist themselves into knots trying to put on a good show. They invest their own artistic aspirations into the students’ work and do whatever it takes to get something polished onstage. This is never going to happen. Your students aren’t that good. They’re not going to put on a Broadway quality show no matter how much you yell at them. I’m sorry to break it to you but your students are probably not good. Yet.

And once you realize that student work is not there to be good, you can start to tune in to what it IS there to do. It’s there to give the students an opportunity to learn. They will learn something in the process of putting on a show – no matter how it happens. But if what they’re primarily learning is how to please their director, they are not having the richest possible learning experience.

Putting on a school play is valuable for so many reasons. The opportunities for learning and discovery are endless, really. But for me, to me, privileging the production over the students’ learning is getting in the way of the best opportunities. One of those opportunities is failing at it. If you, for example, don’t learn your lines as well you’re supposed to and then you go out onstage and forget them, that is an excellent lesson you just learned. For me, the most potent part of every theatrical experience in education is when the students unpack all the things they wish they’d done better. That’s learning in action.

But…in my experience, most people who put on plays in schools are much more concerned with how the play looks than how the students are learning in it. They are worried about how it will look or sound to administrators, to parents or to funders. School plays (and concerts and presentations and so on) are 9 times out of 10 – not really for the people putting them on but some authority that their teacher/director wants to impress.

And the reality is, you’re probably not going to be able to change that. But it can be helpful to name it as it’s happening – to be clear that you’re getting a sound system for the principal because she gets so cranky when she can’t hear students or to be clear with your students that you’re spending time on light cues that you could have spent rehearsing because the school board decides the funding based on these shows and they need all the bells and whistles. That’s who the show is for, then. It’s an audition for the school board budgetary committee, not a learning experience. And knowing that can sometimes make engaging in those parts a little easier. You can yell at the students to be louder for the principal and do some character exercises for their growth. Personally, I’d prefer a theatre program that allows for discovery and failure and learning but most programs aren’t built that way. Which is, frankly, one of the reasons why I moved away from arts education.

But before I go completely, I want to share a chapter of a book on Teaching Shakespeare that I’ve been working on. It speaks to this question of who it’s for and what exactly you’re doing when you work on Shakespeare through performance. It’s something I clarified while teaching graduate students in education and as far as I know it’s a distinction that no one’s making and a distinction I think is crucial at this point in the field’s development Shakespeare education.

The text is here on my Shakespeare website and there is a direct line between this post and that chapter. If this topic speaks to you, particularly if you are an arts educator, click on over. But meanwhile even if you are not an educator, this perspective on learning might be useful when you go and see student work. Parents, for example, can be important advocates for more student-centered work. Or, at the very least, you can avoid complaining about not being able to hear little Jimmy. Remember, the show is for Jimmy’s learning, not for you.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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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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