Songs for the Struggling Artist


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

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The Weird Perils of Surviving in the Arts

It WAS a magical show. It’s not that we didn’t have difficulties – it’s just that they were so minor in the face of the magic afoot. The cast was talented and smart and game. The design team was innovative and generous. The musicians were curious and supportive. The three of us who made it happen thought of ourselves as Charmed Ones – bringing forth good art magic. It was a charmed time, I think. And I don’t think I’m wrong about how good it actually was.

Anyway – that was 18 years ago. A baby who was born on the day we started rehearsals is probably preparing to go to college. Time has passed. But for me, it still feels quite fresh. It is part of my artistic continuum– the first step on a long road – and therefore a still significant card in my deck. For most of the other people involved, it is a pleasant memory. It is a show they did in that (perhaps) brief period of making a go of theatre in New York at the dawn of the century. It has become a bit of nostalgia – something to tell their kids about.

Since that show in 2002, at least 18 children have been born to people involved in it. A few of them have remained in theatre but have moved to other parts of the country. As far as I know, I am the only one left of that 22 person team doing theatre in New York. And even I have scaled way back.

It’s become clear what a young person’s game theatre can be. The large majority of that magical team were young artists. We were mostly in our late 20s and we were all on fire. But without sustaining support, without sufficient opportunities to keep working, most people made the quite sensible choice to leave theatre or New York or both. I did not make that sensible choice and while I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, done it any other way, I am running into some surprising new perils in sticking around this long.

For example, enough time has now passed that shows that I think of as contemporary are, for others, part of their crazy artistic long distant past. Shows that were and are the most important things I’ve ever done are now, to others, comparable to a fun party they went to a long time ago. It is a very weird feeling. I used to be surrounded by hordes of people who all seemed to believe that theatre was the most important thing in the world and over time, almost everyone has found other things that are the most important to them, while I remain.

I have so many conversations wherein people express surprise that I’m still at it. There is often a tone that sounds a little like, “You’re still playing with dolls?” If feels as if, to most people, theatre was a childish thing that they put away with all their other childhood toys and almost no one can believe I still have mine.

When I first started putting on shows, it was all fresh and new and I felt I had so much to learn and discover. I was pulling on so many threads and bits of training. I figured out how to work with our masks from books, learned Rasa Boxes from our Movement Director and threw in some training in Viewpoints I’d gotten a few years before. I didn’t have a method, per se, but I did know what I was after and tried anything and everything to get it.

Now – I am much clearer about my methods and techniques. All the things I’ve learned over the years have sort of coalesced into my own practice. I have acres more confidence in my ability to get a group of people where I want them to go. But all that hard won knowledge feels wasted due to the fact that I rarely have the will and/or energy to raise the necessary funds to make a show happen. I have had my theatrical heart broken a lot and it is hard to love again.

I can say, with a fair amount of confidence, that I would make an objectively better piece of theatre than I could 18 years ago. I know what I’m doing now in a way that I did not then. But what I had then was a kind of unbridled enthusiasm and positivity, as well as some delusional optimism. Turns out, that may be the more valuable commodity.

Let’s say you met a genie who told you he could give you either endless unbridled enthusiasm for your work OR highly evolved skill and knowledge – but you could not have both. Which would you choose?

In previous years, I’d have thought that skill and knowledge would be a better choice but having seen how things work, well…part of my hard won knowledge is the realization that unbridled enthusiasm tends to get people a lot further than skill. Take the genie’s first offer. With your enthusiasm, you can fundraise and hire someone with knowledge and skill.

In the not quite two decades since we put on that first magical show, I have made many things, taken many risks and put on a lot of shows. The company lost actors to other professions, other callings and other cities. Two of our regulars were lost to fatal illness. Things happen in 18 years. Births, deaths, art, all of it.

That first show eighteen years ago was connected to the cycles of the world. It was about Persephone and how she came to live in two places – the Underworld and the world above. Since we made it, there have been seven Spiderman movies and a couple of versions of a Spiderman musical. Given the way the world retreads the same stories again and again, it has not come as a surprise to me that a show based on the same mythical source material has become a hit show on Broadway. I’m sure there were many wonderful Persephone shows somewhere before ours ever came into being. It’s clear if you live long enough that you’ll see these sorts of things happen often. It’s probably never easy to watch the world embrace things that it ignored when you made them but maybe you get used to it the longer you keep at it.

There’s a chapter in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic where she talks about ideas sort of floating around in the atmosphere and then gifting themselves to the person that is ready to receive them and bring them forth into the world. I have found this concept comforting and motivating. It has helped me welcome the crazy ideas that occur to me and justify my work on them. I think, “Well, that idea chose me to come through. It must be a good one and I have to honor it.” The part I have yet to be able to reconcile is the bit that comes later – after I’ve made the thing and after I’ve fulfilled the promise to the best of my ability – and then the idea goes and flies off to someone else, to go do it for a bigger audience.

I don’t think anyone could have warned me about some of the more unexpected perils of sticking out a life in the arts. No one could have prepared this particular road for me. The only things I could say to my younger self if I could time travel and give her advice are: Grab hold of that unbridled enthusiasm and ride it for all its worth. Catch hold of the ideas flying by and ride those, too.

But everyone will tell you that sort of thing. And honestly, that’s pretty much what I did. So…I don’t know. Merde?

I suppose my real hope is to speak to those, like me, who have been at it for a long while to just say – Yep. Of course it’s unsustainable. Yep. It’s weird in so many unexpected ways. Yep. I’m here too. We’re here and it’s weird.

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.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

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Want to help me nurture the ideas that gift themselves to me?

Become my patron on Patreon. They get all my good news before anyone else. 

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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

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