Songs for the Struggling Artist

Why I Shouldn’t Work in Schools Anymore
September 9, 2016, 11:16 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve written before about the changing landscape of Teaching Artistry. I’ve written about how arts education has changed in my years in the business. For the most part, I do most of my teaching outside of school environments these days but every so often, I’m brought back into the Arts in Education world. What the re-encounter highlights for me is how at odds my goals are with the goals of a lot of Arts Education.

At the heart of my goals for students sits a desire for them to make bold artistic choices and learn how to be good artists. This is not because I think they should become artists (I know what kind of a life that is) but because I think that thinking like an artist can lead to a liberation of self. Thinking like an artist can allow students to begin to question their assumptions and interrogate the givens. This is all well and good on paper for most schools but when the questioning begins and the classroom gets crazy or silly or loud, most people in schools start yelling and everyone gets into trouble. I value the trouble that art stirs up. Good art is disruptive and shakes up the status quo. This is rarely in line with the goals of a school – as most schools seek to enforce and create a status quo.

I have a revolutionary’s heart, I’ve discovered, and I like for students to get so involved in art making that they become willing to challenge the status quo. I like it when the art becomes theirs.

My favorite moment of my early teaching career was when I noticed a student missing from our 5th Grade Midsummer Night’s Dream class. I was told that he’d gotten in trouble in the cafeteria by quoting Shakespeare. I’m still delighted to think about a small 5th grade kid standing up at his cafeteria table and proclaiming loudly, with gestures, “Enough! Hold, or cut bow strings!”

I don’t remember much else about that residency but I cherish the way Shakespeare and I got this kid into trouble. I used to feel guilty about it – but not anymore. Art, when it’s good, can get you into trouble.

The more art becomes EDUCATION, the more it becomes a rubric and a set of skills to learn, the less likely it is to get you into trouble. And this is why working in education isn’t really my bag anymore. Bring me in to teach your students and I will encourage them to be bold, to take risks, to be silly, to be loud, to look for mischief, for the game, for the spirit. I trained in clown. I am inclined to make a mess. That’s probably why you don’t bring a clown into your classroom.

If you want order and quiet, I would suggest an educator instead of an artist. I fall firmly on the side of art and will always privilege the artistic choice over the orderly choice. Arts in Education these days seems to always privilege the orderly one. I want the work that young people create to be controversial, to be disruptive, to be volatile. In the past, I did a complicated balancing act of trying to keep things status quo for teachers and administrators and arts organizations’ education departments while still honoring my revolutionary impulse. But I think somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to compromise this way and can only express delight at the irreverence, at the art that might accidentally pry its way into a classroom and cause all kinds of trouble.

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The Quiet Revolution in Theatre
July 7, 2013, 9:41 pm
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, is said to have a started a Quiet Revolution. As one of the quiet people, I could not be happier about this new world in which I can come out of the introverted closet and finally declare that sometimes, I just don’t want to declare anything.

I am an introvert (though I can absolutely pass for an extrovert when I want to) and I am ready for a world that makes space for people like me. I have, I confess, grown a bit weary of pretending to be extroverted. I am signing up for this revolution! But my big question is: Can the revolution extend into the theatre?

The form is full of extroverts and so much of theatre training is essentially training in how to be more extroverted, how to get it all out there, how to DO before you THINK, how to lose your inhibitions. Is there a place for introverts in the heart of the extroverted fortress? Can you love both solitude and theatre? I do but it isn’t easy.

Introverts tend to thrive in quieter environments, working well on our own, thinking things through, speaking less but processing more. We mull things over, we chew on them. We are interested in ideas. We relate best one on one, can hang back in a group. We are lousy self-promoters. In the theatre, these things are rarely assets. But I wonder how we could make them so.

I think the American theatre suffers from an imbalance of extroversion. Evolutionary biologists suggest that introverts and extroverts (of all kinds of species) evolved as a survival strategy. The extroverts charge ahead, the introverts hang back and each strategy encourages the survival of the other. When I go to the theatre, I feel like I see almost nothing but thoughtless charging forward. I often hear myself saying, “Didn’t anybody think this through?” and also, “All that shouting up there is exhausting!”

I think we need more introverts in theatre and not just the ones that are good at pretending to be extroverts. We need the actors that take things in slowly and then surprise us with their wisdom. We need directors that can hang back and look at things clearly. We need writers that listen very carefully before distilling thoughts into words. We need designers who are able to listen and to make surprising, thoughtful connections. We need less shouting, on stage and off.

If you have any ideas about how to instigate a Quiet Revolution in Theatre, please share them. Let’s take some time to think about this (as we do) and then, Revolution! Theatrical Introverts Unite, very quietly!

The Open Secret of Non-Profit Arts Organizations

Here’s a fun activity: Choose your favorite arts organization. Maybe one you work for occasionally.  Go to the Foundation Center 990 finder (Foundation Center 990) and type it in. Download their form for the tax year of your choice. Check out Page 5, 6 or 7, Compensation and Key Employees. Then think about what the artists make.

I did this recently with a company I work for – a company where artists’ fees (already below average) were cut last year because of tough economic times. This is also a company (like many others) that has ceased paying artists for their yearly orientation because they “can’t afford to” anymore. In reading their 990 –  I found out that they paid a consultant $120, 000 in 2007 and that the Executive Director made $154,000 a year plus benefits, with a yearly increase of about $4000 to $5000.

Excuse me? What? You’re asking your artists to work unpaid; You decrease their substandard hourly rate;  You provide no guarantee of employment and no access to health insurance and your executive director makes $154,000 a year plus benefits?!?

I really can’t believe the gall. Here’s another fun activity. Do it backwards. This is actually how I was introduced to this delightful little secret. My boyfriend looked at this company’s 990 and then asked me if I recognized some names. (I didn’t know most of them. They were the top earners at the place I work, why would I?) Finally, he found a name I  knew. He said, “You know this guy?”


“You have some idea of what he does?”

“A vague one. I see him at meetings and stuff. He gets CC’d on my emails.”

“How much would you think would be fair to pay this guy?”

I think for a while.  I guess, “I don’t know. Maybe – $45,000?”

“Triple that and you’d be a lot closer.”

It’s a fun game. Aside from the fact that it made me cry. I mean, this Executive Director makes more money than an investment banker in a non-profit dedicated to putting arts in the schools. The “product” that this “factory” makes is Art and the makers of that Art, are us, the Artists. So far this year, I’ve made $5,494 at this organization. No benefits. And after working for these folks for years, I’ve never even met the other people in this agency making 6 figures.

Now, I’ve got no problem with people in the arts and non-profit worlds making a lot of money. We should support the people who do this sort of work, of course. But the ridiculousness of the gap between the artists (scraping to survive in the months when there is no work, everyone I know is looking into food stamps at this point) and the executives who are making big bucks on what we do needs to narrow. I really don’t know how this organization has the nerve to lower artists’ fees and ask for free labor when its Executive Director got another $4/5K raise last year. I really don’t know how they manage to look us in the eye. Oh, wait, they mostly don’t. I’ve only met one of the four top earners in the company.

I haven’t done this with my other employers yet. I’m not sure I can. Once the scales fall from your eyes, it’s hard to put them back. The next time I see that guy who makes over $154,000 a year, I’m only going to see a dude who makes $154,000. It’s going to make it harder for me to smile and nod, which is something that I am required to do in order to continue getting work each year.

What is to be done in this case? I have no authority or power at any arts institution I work for. Because I’m not hired anywhere, no one would have to fire me to get me out of their hair; They can just easily NOT give me any more work and that pesky artist who asks too many questions would be gone for good. So, I’ll be smiling and nodding at meetings as per usual. But, I’m writing this now to let the rest of you know what’s happening. Maybe knowledge can be power instead of making me cry. Let me know what you find.

Side note: Sometimes the 990 finder is a little picky about the name of the organization. I spent forever trying to find an organization and got foiled because it was all one word in the system. Also, lots of organizations file their taxes under a different name. Apparently, Mark Morris Dance Group is AKA “Discaled.”  If you can find the organization’s EIN number, you’ll have a much better shot at tracking them down.

This will help, too. It tells you how to read the 990.

990 Tutorial

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