Songs for the Struggling Artist


Ecosystem of a Theatre Scene

I saw a big fancy Broadway show that lots of my friends and colleagues had been raving about. It’s a show that utilizes the skills, ideas, movement vocabularies and motifs of devised and physical theatre. I saw elements of Viewpoints, of Chorus Work, of Dance Theatre. For many Broadway audiences, this piece felt extremely innovative and experimental. I’d wager that 97% of the audience had never seen anything like it before.

I, on the other hand, have seen a LOT of things like it before, though not with that kind of budget and all those bells and whistles. For me, it felt like old news dressed up in fancy trimmings. I could draw a direct line from the motifs I saw in this show to the innovative independent theatres I’ve seen in the UK. This show was a UK production and, in it, I could see echoes of Kneehigh, Improbable, Complicite, Frantic Assembly, Shared Experience – to name a few.

This has made me think about how complex the ecosystem of theatre is. I think of it as a Rainforest. A Rainforest’s ecosystem features the Emergent Layer at the top, the Canopy is below it. The Understory (or Shrub Layer) is next and the Forest Floor is at the bottom.

There are similar layers in the Ecosystem of Theatre Making. Here in the States, Broadway is the Emergent Layer – the trees that grow high above everything else. They are the ones that get the most light. They are the most visible. But the Emergent Layer can’t grow without the support of the layers below. The life cycle of plants on the forest floor directly feed those emergent trees. The ideas, skills and innovations at the bottom, feed the trees at the top.

Unfortunately American funding structures don’t support the layers of the forest below the Canopy. Money flows primarily to the Emergent Layer (Broadway) with some diversion to the Canopy (Regional, Off-Broadway theatres.) But the Understory and the Forest Floor are starved of funds. This is not good for the ecosystem as a whole.

In a way, the American Emergent Layer has been feeding on the Forest Floor of the British ecosystem for the last decade or so. This may change once the Arts Cuts in England start to starve the Understory and Forest Floor there, as well.

The Broadway audience owes its new encounter with “experimental” work to the investment the English Arts Council made in non-establishment research and development in the previous 25 to 30 years.

Now that the Arts Council England has had its funding drastically diminished, Broadway may not be able to depend on getting its innovations from the ecosystem across the pond. Perhaps, I might suggest, it would be worth investing locally – in providing support for the Shrub Layer and the Forest Floor in the very soil that Broadway Emergent Layer is planted. That’s the way to a healthy ecosystem. Save our Theatrical Rainforests!

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Pre-Writing the Rejection
February 25, 2016, 10:49 pm
Filed under: Non-Profit, Rejections | Tags: ,

I’m writing this blog for a grant I’m sure I will not get – trying to save time for the inevitable moment when I definitely don’t receive what I asked for. I’ll type it up when I get the confirmation, when I get the notification – but I’m writing it in advance, because I thought of it today and wondered when I’d see that inevitable rejection notice.

I apply for things for my company but I do not expect to get them – mostly because we’ve been around too long to be considered for emerging grants and are not fiscally big enough to be likely candidates for bigger funding. Bigger funding goes to bigger institutions. Big funding likes big boards and big budgets.

As a small, nimble operation, we’re nobody’s best bet for fiscal pay off, for big impact, for all the buzz words of community based funding.

So. . .it’s no surprise that this grant hasn’t come in – so little of a surprise, in fact, that I wrote this BEFORE it came through.

*And, hilariously, this rejection notice never actually arrived. I was waiting and waiting to post and it just never came. Then I got the notice about applying for it again this year and I figured, yeah. . .we didn’t get it. They just didn’t notify us.

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*Wondering why I’m telling you about all these rejections? Read my initial post about this here and my patron’s idea about that here.

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American Theatre’s Indecent Proposals

You guys. In my previous post, I really wasn’t mad about this translation thing. I had stuff to say about it, sure, but I had no angry feelings about it. Translations are nothing I hadn’t really dealt with before. But then I read the American Theatre magazine article about the project. And now I AM mad, y’all. Not about the “translations” – I give no real shits about them. But I’m mad because I just finally understand a) how this translation project came to be and b) why we’re talking about it.

The American Theatre magazine article talked about the origins of the project, among other things. It revealed that this project is the result of a “dream” of a long-time patron of the OSF. In other words, a wealthy man who has spent years giving money to one of the biggest Shakespeare institutions in America had a whim and the festival leapt to accommodate it. In other words, this is a story about the power of money.

If you or I said, “You know what I’d like? Some Shakespeare translations…” – OSF would have sent us straight to the bookstore for a copy of No Fear Shakespeare and that would be the end of it. But this guy wants translations. He’s paying for them. He gets what he wants. Which would be one thing if he were doing it himself. That is, if he found the writers on his own and commissioned them and put out the press releases himself, it would be different. But we wouldn’t be talking about it in that scenario. Headlines in our major publications would not read “App Developer Commissions 36 Writers.” He could have spent all that money on cars and it would likely have the same effect on American Theatre.

What we have here is a complex and potent mix of the respectability of OSF and the power of one wealthy patron. Because this guy is paying OSF to do it, he gets his dream AND the stamp of approval of the Shakespeare Festival with the biggest footprint in the country. And it ripples across the nation, changing the landscape as it goes.

I think part of the reason people are concerned about this particular shift in the landscape is because it seems out of line with OSF’s mission. And not just like an organization that funds cancer research suddenly funding a symphony but more like a cancer foundation suddenly funding cigarettes. And because it’s an important cancer foundation, suddenly people start to think, maybe cigarettes CAN help with cancer. It creates cognitive dissonance. The largest Shakespeare Festival in the country starts doing something, everyone starts to feel like they should be doing it too.

And that’s where things get really sketchy. Because, as I’m discovering, these plays are not just hanging out in Oregon – no, no, Shakespeare Festivals all around the country are reportedly signing up to get on board this money train. I don’t think the impact will be big or long lasting but for a little while here – the American Theatre is going to have to deal with one guy’s “Dream.” This means one theatre company’s desire to please a patron radiates to stages everywhere.

This gets under my skin because this is how so much crap gets done in this country. We’re not getting these new “translations” because people asked for them. (Good lord, if we’re getting translations we’re asking for, I would LOVE to get my hands on some actual good translations in other languages. Would someone publish affordable, readable Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, French or Russian translations? Please?) We have “translations” because one guy with a lot of money wanted them. If you’re a big donor to a major arts institution you can pretty much have what you want. Which – again – would be fine if we were talking about straight up patronage – from patron to artist. But non-profits are supposedly for the benefit of the public. They’re meant to be for us, the people, and instead, this example shows, they are really for the donors.

Whose dream are we going to produce next? The guy who loves Beckett but wishes he were just a little more optimistic? The mogul who thinks Arthur Miller is great but would really be so much better if he were boiled down to a Power Point Presentation of meaningful moments? I don’t know, man. Maybe I’d be singing a different tune if someone offered me a ton of cash to fulfill his fantasy. It’s possible I would. I’m pretty sure I’d “translate” a play myself for the right price. But, I saw that movie Indecent Proposal and I don’t think I’d like where it would lead me.

This is what we get with a capitalist model of art. We get what someone else pays for. This guy pays for American Theatre for a while, as a whole – he gets to have it and it doesn’t matter what we want. No one asked for this. It was just one guy’s “dream.”

If we had public funding for the arts, then we would have more of a voice about what was actually meaningful to us. In places where the people pay for the arts through taxes, there is real ownership. You can say, “This is our building. This is our theatre. We paid for it. We want a voice in what gets done there.” People advocating for gender parity and diversity in the UK have made much good progress using exactly this tactic. Until we have publicly funded art, though, the people that do pay for it are really the only ones deciding what happens on our stages. That’s why the majority of American plays produced are about wealthy couples on the Upper East Side of New York City. Because guess who’s paying for most of the play development programs and new productions?

OSF isn’t doing anything other theatres aren’t. Non Profit Regional theatres all over the country are producing shows because Broadway producers are paying them to put their shows up on their stages. An investment banker who funds lots of Musical Theatre at the Public Theatre, gets to have his musical produced there.

We don’t see diversity on our stages because it’s not what the current donors want. We could increase theatre’s diversity in a heartbeat with a series of large donations. I see now we’ve been going about our activism in entirely the wrong way. We don’t need diversity committees and speeches at theatre conferences. We just need dollar bills. With enough money you can clearly have anything you want at any American Theatre.

Anyway. I’m not mad about the translations. I predict no significant impact on my life. But I am mad to have more evidence for how vulnerable American theatre is to the worst sides of capitalism. This is how we do it. But I don’t have to like it.

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You know what I don’t need?
August 19, 2015, 11:09 pm
Filed under: art, business, Non-Profit | Tags: , , , ,

Advice.

There was a stage in my artist development when I soaked up all advice like a sponge. It was a period when I’d take everyone’s suggestions. And the great thing about that period was that people love to give advice.

But after so many years of running a non-profit arts organization, I’ve grown so incredibly weary of hearing, “Here’s what you should do – “
Because I have plenty of things to do.

What would I like to hear instead?
“Here’s what I can do. . .” or “Here’s how I can help. . .”
Instead of “Have you tried. . .?” I’d love to hear: “I can try this. Would that help?”

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful to those who would like to assist with their ideas. This desire to assist is probably coming from a good place. But there comes a point wherein unsolicited advice ceases to be helpful.

Fourteen years in, I can say that I have tried just about everything I can think of and just about everything everyone else could think of, too. I have no shortage of ideas – what I don’t have are extra hands. I’m a one woman show with a whole lot of ambition, ideas and the wherewithal to chase down only a handful of them. Other people’s ideas just add to my list. Odds are that I have tried whatever it is that’s been suggested or that it is well out of the realm of possibility. (Like, when folks tell me I should just get my show on Broadway or people suggest to my composer boyfriend that he should just write for films, like John Williams.)

Also, I’ve gotten some advice over the years that was really just criticism in an advice jacket. It has usually sounded like: “You’re going to have to. . .” and “If you want to do X, you need to do Y”. And there’s often a strange aggressive tone under it.

For years, I’ve struggled to understand this response to me and my work, especially from people who know me. But I think I’ve got a handle on it now. Generally, it comes from people who know me and have seen my work. They like me. They see an intelligent, ambitious person who they would have placed a bet on for succeeding. They saw work that was good and full of potential. They’re confused by my lack of success. It creates a kind of cognitive dissonance for them. They want to believe that good work will find a place in the marketplace. They want to believe that the world is fair and just and that success comes to those with talent, intelligence and rigor. And when they see me not fitting in to that belief system, they start throwing shade. I would like to believe in a world like that, too. But we’re not there yet.

I think people look at me and my trajectory and try to explain for themselves why my career doesn’t look like they imagined. They search for flaws in me. They make things up if they have to. And once they feel like they have an answer. (“She’s not aggressive enough.” “She didn’t focus on the right thing” etc.) That’s when they start giving “advice.” Which is actually just criticism and feels lousy to receive.

I get it. I would like to believe it was just some simple thing I’m not doing, too. Then I would do that thing and pull myself out of the artistic ghetto. But it’s just not that simple.

And it’s not just me, either. The many many extraordinary intelligent, talented, rigorous artists I know who are all just as unacknowledged as I am, show me just what a crapshoot an artist’s life is.

I once believed artistic success was a meritocracy and the good and committed rose to the top while the lousy and lazy sunk to the bottom. It is not so. I know a brilliant unacknowledged artist in almost every art form. What I’ve come to understand is that the system is flawed, and rigged and unjust. And I know it causes cognitive dissonance to deal with that. Believe me, I’ve been readjusting for years to take it in. It’s troubling, I know. But – you want my advice? Don’t give advice unless you’re asked for it.

If you want to help, I thank you. Really and truly. I appreciate the impulse to be of assistance. And I have gotten some amazing advice over the years for which I am very grateful. But what I could use most is action and support, not criticism or more things to add to my very long list.

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A Fantastic Way to Support the Arts
April 15, 2014, 12:02 pm
Filed under: art, business, education, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

Here on the blog, the picture for artists is almost never good, so I wanted to share with you some happy news. Not long ago, I got word that someone (someone wonderful who I shall not name in case they wish to remain anonymous) has paid off my student loans. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am Student Loan Free!

The gesture is extraordinary and it makes such an enormous difference. The weight of that money stacking up on the back of my Master’s degree has been heavy and has loomed large in many ways. I am now free of it, due to my donor’s generosity but I am struck by what bondage many of the other skilled artists I know are still in.

If I were in a position to start another non-profit, (which I’m not, believe me) I would create something like Donors Choose to help artists get their loans paid off. You want to give a large donation that will make a big difference? Sure, you could donate $25,000 to a giant Arts Institution and I’m sure it will help buy the paper towels there for a very long time. You give $25,000 to pay off an artist’s loans, you give that artist freedom to create. You can reduce an artist’s payments or eliminate them entirely, thereby freeing him or her to make more art instead of loan payments.

I imagine a website where artists post a little profile – who they are and what they make, and donors could choose an artist to sponsor in whatever way they’d like. I imagine a donor might then be interested in the developments in the artist’s career afterwards. Perhaps the donor becomes a dedicated patron to an artist and her circle.

Now, I’d love a website/organization to just donate to artists to live and create art, as well, but I somehow suspect that transferring large sums of money from one person to another can create tricky tax issues for everyone and generally creates difficult expectations. (“Exactly what sort of art will you be making with my money? Will you paint a portrait of my family please? In the style of poker playing dogs? I did give you $25,000 to live this year. . .”) The advantage of paying off someone’s loans is that there are a couple of filters of both the loan company and (if it existed) the non-profit. I mean, heck, you could just pay off someone’s loans without a tax break (my donor did) but wouldn’t it be great to get some benefit from donating as well?

I don’t have any money. But if I did, I know I’d prefer to help one artist dramatically than to pour money into a giant institution that eats money like candy. I have several artists in mind (and they’re not me – because Ding, Dong my loans are paid!Yippee yahoo!) If anyone with more resources than me would like to start this thing, please let me know, I’ll help you do it. Or if you’re just looking for an artist to release from loan bondage, I’ll send you some names and loan numbers.
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System Secrets
July 28, 2011, 10:37 pm
Filed under: art, business, Non-Profit, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

One of the perks of spending a lot of time with someone trying to get his show produced in the American Theatre SYSTEM is that I’m learning all sorts of things I never realized before. I feel like I’m discovering all kinds of dirty secrets and being shown lots of dark corners of knowledge that I shouldn’t be seeing. A lot of this knowledge is right out in the open but somehow in my thirty seven years on the planet (and the bulk of them involved in theatre) I managed to miss it. I suspect that most of us are missing it.


For example, did you know that most major “non-profit” theatres are in the business of producing work for the Broadway stage (i.e. – the most “for profit” part of the business)?


Here’s how new work gets done in this country: for the most part it’s either “developed” (i.e. funneled through new work programs where it is sliced and diced according to the whims of literary managers, dramaturgs and administrators and then never actually produced) OR it’s brought to the “non-profit” by a Broadway producer who offers it up with an “enhancement” deal. A Broadway producer basically says to a non-profit theatre, “Hey, would you produce this show please? If you do, I’ll give you a million dollars and a percentage of the cut when it gets to Broadway.” And this institution (one of the only things our government will pay for in terms of arts funding) produces this commercial production and gets its name splashed on Broadway marquees. It also rakes in some cash.


Meanwhile, this whole non-profit system was initially created to encourage risk-taking non-commercial work. These theatres were set up to provide opportunities to support work that otherwise would have no change of being seen. Now that most theatres are essentially subsidizing Broadway theatres, there’s no space for riskier work.


Apparently, when Arena stage did this enhancement thing with the Great White Hope in 1968, they lost their grant money because this use of public funds was seen as corrupt. By the 80s, it became the norm and now you’d be hard pressed to find a large non-profit institution that doesn’t have its hand in the game.


What happens to the work that these institutions were set up to fund? It cobbles together what dregs it can from private donors and the occasional tiny grant and fights for survival in smaller venues.


The system is so calcified now that my friend’s show (which HAS a Broadway producer attached to it) is not getting produced because the “non-profits” aren’t willing to take the risk on it. It’s a crazy cockamamie world in which a Broadway theatre producer is more willing to take risks on a new work than a non-profit theatre.



Our actual strengths as artists
April 26, 2011, 1:24 am
Filed under: art, business, dreams, theatre | Tags: , ,

In 2001, I started my theatre company with two dear friends. We didn’t really mean to start a company; we just had this this show we wanted to put on and being a company seemed the best way to do it. We named ourselves, wrote a fundraising letter to our friends and families and dove in. We didn’t know the depth of the water or the temperature of the pool; we just knew we wanted to swim.

That show was a magical experience and we thought we’d keep going and use all that stuff we learned from that first dip in the pool. As we got familiar with the water, we discovered all the things we were expected to master in order to stay afloat. We joined ART/NY, took courses in marketing, grantwriting, board development and business skills. We got our 501c3 status and our first grants and we were jammin’! But there was so much to learn. We all recognized that we’d have a lot more success if one of us went to business school. We each nominated the others for the MBA but none of us was willing to do it.

Let me just step back for a second to point this out. Once we understood what was required to make our work in the New York theatre community, we felt the need for an MBA. I still think it would be the most useful thing I could do to have a “successful” theatre company in New York. Not make better art, not learn more craft, not evolve my technique nor deepen my practice – no, none of these would make the slightest difference in the “success” (read: visibility, financial stability, self-sustaining etc) of my company. Nope, to get on the map, I’d need to improve my business skills.

In the first years of our company, we did this dutifully. We were on fire and willing to do whatever it took to make the work we wanted to make, to be noticed and thrive. In recent years, we have let a lot of these things go. In the ups and downs of life, we didn’t have the strength or will to do the things we really didn’t care about. Working tirelessly without any real progress or reward but more work was not working any more. We took a kind of hiatus, only working when we felt absolutely called to, only raising money when we absolutely had to. Almost everyone I know who started a company around this time has fallen into a similar state of hiatus or dissolution or oblivion. This is why many funding bodies won’t fund a company until they’re over five years old –  because they know that most people can’t sustain the extraordinary amount of work required for more than five years.

At a meeting of Devoted and Disgruntled NYC, someone applauded this dissolution of companies, pointing out that there are more companies in this city than can possibly be seen in any given year. The sentiment, echoed and agreed to by many was: “If people can’t hack it and get out of the game, that’s good. That’s a sort of natural selection.”
And this is where I got my back up. This is where I got mad, really. This is where I’m still mad, however many months later.

Because good art is not necessarily good business. Good artists aren’t necessarily good administrators. Because the current model means that making one’s own theatre in this town is a young person’s game. Most of the people I know who have backed away from the labor of making theatre here have done it transitional moments in their lives. They leave when they get married or have kids or finally have to take regular job because their lives in the theatre are unsustainable.

When the field loses these people, we lose their wisdom.  I’m not comfortable with the attrition of brilliant artists with years of practice and ideas and craft.  Maybe they’re not the best networkers or the best fundraisers or the best marketers but their work may be extraordinary. And we will never get to see it. We get more more well marketed shit everyday but rarely get to see the transcendent or the redemptive.

There seem to be two paths open to the New York theatre artist.  1) Join in the established institutionalized model. Audition for Broadway. Assist famous people. Get an agent. Pray for work.  The fact that there are millions of other people attempting the same shouldn’t be too discouraging. 2) Make your own work. Start a company. Learn business skills. Become an administrator. (All the arts assistance  organizations are there to help you learn these skills. That’s what they’re there for, to help you get better at business. Fractured Atlas, The Field, ART/NY, NOMAA, etc will all be happy to teach you how to be a better fundraiser. )

If you don’t want to follow either of these paths, then you must not really want to be an artist. Which is bullshit, of course. All all of us want to do is just make our freakin art. When I make a plea for this possibility , I’m often shouted down for my ridiculous idealism.

The Strengths Movement in the business world  (see, I think about business, too) talks about how key it is that people do what they’re actually good  at, that it makes no sense to train someone whose strength is generating ideas to be a better accountant and vice versa. Instead, we should train the one who excels with numbers to become even better at numbers.

As a culture, by saying that artists must be trained in things like accounting, fundraising, marketing, etc, we are pulling most of them away from their strengths. We’re saying that the artist’s strengths are not enough. We’re saying that art is not enough. We’re saying it’s of no value.

Scott recently showed me a 1998 study by the Heinz foundation about the impact of the arts on audiences. The study found four thematic metaphors in how people spoke about the arts. Art as Transporter. Art as Redeemer. Art as Appropriator (i.e. – stripping away socialization and getting to the “pure” state within.) Art as Intermediary (i.e.  – helping to see themselves and the world around them differently)

These are powerful things and these are our strengths as artists. This is what we can do when we have the opportunity to improve our actual strengths, rather than all the things that would make us better business people. When we can become better at transporting an audience or better at redeeming them, why in the world should we spend our time becoming better administrators?




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