Songs for the Struggling Artist

A Day Without Immigrants
December 31, 2016, 2:28 am
Filed under: Racism, resistance | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

UPDATE: I’ve noticed that some people are ending up at this blog after searching “A Day Without Immigrants” or “A Day Without Immigrants NYC.” The good news is that it is actually happening on February 16th. The bad news is that it seems to be more well publicized in Washington DC. I’ve heard rumors that there will be another Day Without Immigrants in April. But meanwhile – this article may get you the info you’re actually looking for:

Now – back to the blogpost from a couple of months ago:

London. 2016. The day after the Brexit vote. The city was in shock. I was visiting and that day I saw multiple friends, coincidentally all of them born in other countries but residents of the UK for well over a decade. One of my friends proposed a response to all the immigration hysteria gripping the UK. She suggested organizing everyone who had emigrated/immigrated to the UK to pick a day to not go to work. The country would inevitably grind to a halt – and everyone would see what a vital contribution immigrants make. I thought this was a brilliant idea.

NYC. 2016. My own city is devastated by the news that our election yielded us a xenophobic, racist, sexist, internet troll who ran on an anti-immigrant platform. It seems that a lot of my fellow countrymen voted against immigrants.

I’m heartbroken for a lot of reasons that it will likely take me years to sort through. Meanwhile, the most heartbreaking emails come from the college where I do some adjunct work on occasion – they’re about how to help undocumented students, how to assure immigrants’ safety, how to get the message out about keeping them safe so they can get through the end of the semester. The xenophobia is already destroying people’s lives. Already. And it’s only just begun.

And then – on the subway – I see tourists whom I imagine made this horror waterfall happen. (I know, I know, #NotAllSoutherners, #NotAllMidwesterners) And I can’t help feeling my own version of xenophobia – a fear of xenophobia – a fear of xenophobes. Is there a word for this ? Xenophobicsphobia?

And then I hear these tourists talking about where they’re going to find good Thai noodles in the city and I become irrationally furious. It kicks off a whole imaginary rant in which I tell them:

“Oh? You voted out of fear of immigrants? And now you want to eat Thai noodles? No. You don’t get to. You can’t eat Thai noodles or Chinese dumplings. You definitely shouldn’t get to have tacos anymore or burritos. No hummus. No pita bread. If you’re afraid of immigrants, you shouldn’t get to benefit from their contributions. Why don’t you commit to your old school America? You can now only eat the foods of your white ancestors from Britain. It’s Hard Tack and Ale for you from now on. Maybe you can have some canned veggies but be careful! Most of our agricultural goods are farmed by migrants – so if you want to really commit to your traditional white-only ways? You’re going to have to grow your corn yourself.
And you’ll need to turn in your iPhone. The founder of Apple was the son of a Syrian refugee so his work is not for you. Turn it in.
Like Broadway shows? Too bad. There are a lot of immigrants on Broadway stages. And not just white ones, either. Plus, given the concurrent homophobia that travels with xenophobia, you’re going to have to give most culture a miss – because we sure have a lot of gays in the theatre and I know how you feel about them. You’re not allowed at the theatre anymore. Or the ballet. Or the opera. Or popular music – which, by the way has been very much influenced by people of color who are really what you’re afraid of let’s face it. So – sorry – you can’t listen to pop music, not rock, not hip-hop, not R&B, not country. It’s only English folk songs for you from now on.
If you can’t support the people who make the things you like, you shouldn’t get to have them. You wanted new rules? You get them.”

But of course I know this would be exactly the wrong strategy to take. I know it is through art and food that bridges can be built and it would be counterproductive to deny their diplomatic power to people who need it the most.

It is, perhaps, lack of exposure to this sort of difference that causes people to behave in this nationalistic isolationist way.

There’s a Trump voter I know who, when I knew her, was a big fan of the word “different.” If she had a food she’d never had before, she’d report it was “different.” And if she saw a show she’d never seen before, that too was “different.” For her, even just a new flavor of Dorito might qualify as “different.” There was a hint of both excitement and distaste in her use of this word. And I think she is not alone in her response to things (i.e. foods, people and culture) that are different. I think that’s maybe what she was afraid of. Difference. At the heart of xenophobia is just a fear of difference.

But everything was new and different once. Even original flavor Doritos.
And it is that difference that has historically made the United States great. It is that difference that a lot of us embrace and celebrate. Maybe anti-immigrant voters embrace more than they realized as well. If we take their tacos away – their Thai noodles and culture – maybe they’ll start to appreciate them and the diversity of the people who make them.

We can’t do that, I know. Not yet anyway. But maybe my English friend’s post-Brexit protest idea would work here as well. One day without immigrants – documented, undocumented, long term and new. One day.


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A Tale of Two Coffee Shops

When I go home for holidays, occasionally I get a chance to visit my old hometown’s local coffee shops. There weren’t any, really, when I was growing up – but there are several to choose from now. Usually I end up at the one closest to my mom’s house but sometimes I end up Downtown and I have to find a place to write down there. My first choice is generally a place that’s been around for a long while – all my old friends go there. I’ve had friends work there. It’s the cool coffee shop. I always run into people I know there. And it is always crowded.

This is why I don’t go there when I need a place to write. Crowdedness makes the hip coffee shop impossible for my purposes. Instead, I end up at a coffee shop that is remarkably un-cool. They play “relaxing” New Age music (with bird sounds.) The walls are painted with a color palate that suggests a beach house in North Carolina. There’s a fireplace.  Like the cool coffee shop, it has original artwork for sale. The paintings though, are very conservative. They are barns and cows done in a technique I can only describe as Grandma Style. There’s just something about this place that says who it is for. And most of the customers in the shop seem to know. I heard, while I was there, conversations about the old Christian Bookstore and stories on Fox News. All told, the place feels like it’s the Republican coffee shop in town.

In my home town – I clearly BELONG at the cool coffee shop and clearly do NOT belong at the Republican coffee shop. And yet I choose to write where I do not belong. Mostly because it’s less crowded but also because it’s an interesting anthropological opportunity. It leads me to interesting questions. How did this cafe culture develop? Are they marketing themselves on Republican listservs? And how conscious are the people who create these businesses of the culture they are creating around their business? Is the un-cool coffee shop trying to be cool?

These two coffee shops in the same town draw two very different crowds. And I’m fascinated by it. I now live in New York City and I frequent many different coffee shops. None of them have this sense of a unified personality. The people who go to them vary dramatically. In a world with so much diversity, coffee shops don’t seem to create so much culture around themselves. I don’t belong in any one of them – and I belong in all of them. City living creates a kind of contradiction in belonging/not-belonging. That is, I think, part of the appeal of city life. You never belong and always do. All at once.


This is stock footage of a coffee shop and represents none of the coffee shops mentioned in this blog post.

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What I Learned from an Old Train

Riding on the Holiday Nostalgia train (which runs every December) is an opportunity to step into the past a bit, to ride on an old train, read old subway ads, feel the breezes of open subway windows and the whir of the open blades of the fans in the ceiling. It is full of train aficionados and retro wardrobes. The inside of the train is a delightful confluence of diverse geekery.

My favorite part happens outside the train, however. I sit by the windows so I can watch the faces of the people on the platform as the train comes into the station. Almost no one expects this magical retro train to appear. I love to see people surprised by this mysterious arrival. What astounds me, however, are the vast variety of responses.

To me, the appearance of this train is a little miracle. I imagine that if I were on the platform and this train from the past just appeared out of nowhere, I’d be so delighted. I’d probably clap my hands with glee. To me, the proper response to this train is something in that territory. But very few people actually respond that way. More common is suspicion and confusion. I’ve seen people scowl at it or give the train the evil eye. The train is unexpected and many people are seemingly troubled by its arrival.

This tells me something about how people respond to art, too. I strive to create work that has the potential to be as delightful and unexpected as a nostalgia train and occasionally, I’ve gotten reactions that I haven’t understood. I have taken some of those reactions personally in the past. But the train shows me that that variety of responses is normal when exploring the world outside of the very day.

When I see something that is unexpected and delightful, I’m often surprised to find that everyone does not experience it that way. I think, as a theatre maker, I have, at times, really believed that an audience could have a uniform response to something. The nostalgia train shows me that they do not. Something that makes some people slack jawed with wonder will make others pulse with fury.

I have always thought that all people crave the wondrous, the unexpected, the extra-daily but the train has taught me that some people find it very disconcerting. I take this to heart and it helps me make the things I want to make, to not be dependent on the reaction of the audience but to just create the wonder I want to see, even if it makes people uncomfortable.


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Rejection Post #2 (instant un-gratification)
October 12, 2014, 11:03 pm
Filed under: art, business, Rejections, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

It’s 2:30 AM. This grant is only one page long but it’s taken forever. (The character limits keep cutting off my text, I can’t use much of anything I’ve written previously about this project, I have to track down a bunch of community board, senate, council and representative district numbers for my new neighborhood, etc.) Each time I’ve thought I was done, I discovered one more thing. Finally, at 2:30 AM, I click “Submit.”

I try to go to sleep but I find myself tossing and turning over funding. The grant I’ve just applied for would be $2500, which would pay for five performances for community organizations. I’ve been crowdfunding for this same project for the last month. At 17% of our goal, there’s only enough money in the bank to cover our fundraising costs and a rehearsal. It’s possible this project won’t be able to move forward. I spend a couple of hours staring at the ceiling crafting pleas for money.

That’s all just context for this, my second rejection blog in the series. And this one’s on a technicality. I felt it might make sense to give you the atmosphere in which I received this rejection. (i.e. sleep deprived and overwrought)

So, this afternoon, I received an email from the place I’d submitted my grant proposal, asking me to withdraw my application. This is due, it says, to my having applied to another granting agency with the same project.

And there is my first almost instant grant rejection. There are many things that are frustrating about this – the lack of information about this particular ineligibility in the guidelines, for example. (Something which, if it had been present, could have saved me days of work.)

But that aside, this little bump in the road speaks to a peculiarity in the arts funding culture of NYC. Local arts funding here cares about where you live if you’re an individual and where you are based if you are a company. City arts funding is parceled out by borough. The Manhattan council will only fund work that is based in and performed in Manhattan. The Brooklyn council will only fund work based in and performed in Brooklyn. Which, you know, that’s fair. Everyone has their territory. Especially when you’re dealing with governments and politicians.

What this funding structure doesn’t reflect is how art actually gets made in this city. For most artists, those boundaries don’t exist. We move like water and will flow where there are openings. With my company, for example, we’ll rehearse in any reasonably affordable location. When I was living in Washington Heights, Manhattan, I booked rehearsals in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, (which is over an hour away) with great regularity. We’ve rehearsed in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan so far. And if someone offered me a free space in the Bronx, I’d go there, too. The people we work with live all over the city and beyond. (Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, Long Island.) The current project aims to perform anywhere we can be of service. We’re not concerned with borders. Artists rarely are.

But governments are deeply concerned with borders – which is why the funding landscape is so full of little kingdoms, living side by side. Which, you know, fine, if they have to do it that way to get a little funding to artists, so be it. But I think this delineation may not be offering the best system for the people in those communities. If I make something in Queens that’s good, why shouldn’t people in the Bronx get to benefit from that good work? I live in Queens, but I don’t necessary want to have to go to Brooklyn to go see good dance. Couldn’t that cool Brooklyn dance piece come to me? Wouldn’t that be a good use of arts dollars? Sharing and commissioning good art for the communities that live in a place?

Anyway, I wasn’t eligible for this grant, that’s the long and the short of it. The email I got made me feel like I was somehow trying to pull one over on the arts council – like I was unfairly trying to double dip arts funding. When the truth of the matter is that I’m just trying to get some funding to share my work with whatever borough will have us, through whatever channels are available. And none of it is possible without a little more funding.

CODA A couple of hours after I wrote this post, I returned to my computer and discovered another email from the grant coordinator. I’d gone back and forth with her a couple of times, trying to clarify the ins and outs of what funding went where and what I was eligible for. And the upshot of this series of emails was that my instant rejection was, in fact, un-instant-rejected. My application will actually proceed to adjudication. This was not an outcome I expected. Not in the least. But I’m thrilled by investigating this rejection, I found myself in a much better position. So this may not be the last rejection post for the same application. Stay tuned!   map-223942_1280

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Where the Women Go
November 26, 2013, 10:32 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

Over the years, I have made theatre with a number of extremely talented remarkable women. I started a company with women and make work with a woman-centered sensibility. These women are also my dear friends and most of them left NYC a long while ago. Until recently, I just saw myself as an odd victim of fate, surprised by fortune that almost every major collaborator has picked up sticks and gone elsewhere.

Then I started to think. Almost to a person, these friends/collaborators have gotten married and moved away to follow their husband’s (or wife’s) career path. Many of them have, in that moving, also given up theatre. I can name you former theatrical collaborators up and down the West Coast, in the mid-west and in Vermont. As far as I’m concerned, the country is littered with former NYC theatre practitioners and their partners.

Is this a post about how women shouldn’t put aside their own ambition to follow a partner? Nope. In almost every case, these women are happier, more at ease and thrilled to be able to have livable homes, babies and actually afford healthcare.

So what’s the problem? Well. NYC has lost a slew of remarkably talented female theatre practitioners. It is a loss to Theatre in this city. Given what a hostile environment it can be for women, it is no surprise that many of them hitch their wagons to their partners’ stars and just hightail it out of here. But the loss to the culture is profound.
When it comes down to it, it’s almost impossible to advocate for your own career when it has nothing to offer you. So when your partner gets a nice job across the country or is getting offered enough money to support you both, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from going.

The only female theatre artists I know who have stuck it out in these NYC trenches are either single or partnered with other theatre people. And listen, I know this isn’t a scientific sampling but I wonder about it. I wonder if theatre is losing its most smart talented women because the circumstances are so ridiculous. And if you’re one of those who hasn’t left yet, I want to meet you. Because I’m very afraid that the next wedding I attend will mean the loss of yet another collaborator.

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