Songs for the Struggling Artist


“A True Artist – the Perfect Candidate”

Last year, I received an award that was given to another person as well. We were both selected by the committee to receive the residency in question. I’m a white woman in my 40s from NYC and he’s a black man in his 20s from the mid-west. The residency was for emerging artists (see also my post on Can We Find Another Word for Emerging?) and I was surprised and delighted to receive it, even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t what most people meant when they signed up to support this award.

Throughout our time in residence, I could feel comparison happening between us – sometimes in my favor but mostly not. I thought perhaps I was imagining this sort of outside judgment. And then I saw a post on a Facebook page about my fellow award winner and someone in the organization commented on it, saying, he was “the perfect candidate” and “a true {*Name of the award} artist.”

It probably goes without saying that I did not receive a similar comment. And it probably also goes without saying that by saying someone is the perfect candidate and the true artist, they are also saying that someone else is NOT the perfect candidate or the true artist. In addition to making it plain that he had a clear preference for my colleague, the commenter (who is a leader in the award-giving organization,) wouldn’t even look at me whenever we were all in the same space.

I found myself furious – and frustrated. Like, if you didn’t think I was appropriate for the award, a) you didn’t have to give it to me and b) don’t take your opinion about my worthiness out on me.

And for a moment I was jealous of my co-award winner. But then I realized that this is an incredibly old pattern in the history of our country. Take two marginalized groups of people and pit them against each other. Especially white women and black men. I mean – the fight for suffrage got really reprehensible once white ladies, fighting for their rights, started throwing black folks under the bus. It is a giant stain on the early suffragists – many of whom got their start in abolitionism.

So…in the face of realizing that I was about to do the same, starting to somehow feel competitive with my colleague – well, I reached out to him and asked him to let me know how I could support him. Not because he needs it (he’s doing very well) but because I needed to. I needed to make sure that the prevailing winds of dividing and separating didn’t win, even in my own psyche.

The whole experience has been an excellent exhibit of how complex things become when resources are scarce. I am not at all competitive generally. But I know when I’ve been placed a competitive environment. And I found myself stuck in a strange race I didn’t sign up for. I remember thinking “I would have chosen him, too!”

But…that’s not fair, really. There were two places and we were both chosen. We were selected together. There’s enough of whatever there is there to go around. I feel like this is important to remember in this moment, when we are all fighting for the rights we thought were ours to keep. There’s a way where we could splinter easily into my rights, your rights. I could only fight for the NEA or reproductive rights because those have an impact on me. But we will make a bigger difference by fighting for it all, by fighting for Black Lives, for immigrants, for Muslims, for the poor, for the environment, for everyone under attack.

It will always be easy to make us compete, if we are under attack, if our resources are few and we feel we don’t have enough. But I hope the resistance continues to make the more unifying choice of reaching out to those we are being set up against. My commitment to myself is to reach out as soon I notice a sense of competition this way. I’m telling you now so I don’t forget.

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Sexism Can Still Surprise Me
April 21, 2017, 11:43 pm
Filed under: Gender politics | Tags: , , , , ,

I can’t stop thinking about that story about the employees who switched email signatures and how it revealed incredible sexism. (If you haven’t read it, start here to read the woman’s account and click through to the man’s Twitter thread.) I’ve seen a lot of responses to this story that can most easily be summed up as  “No, duh.”  A lot of people (of all genders) have said, “Not surprising.” But I will confess to being surprised. Not that there’s sexism, I suppose, but that it could be so plainly revealed. And in email, too!

But, it also feels more like the fish in water not knowing its wet situation. Like, sexism is the water I swim and I feel like I understand a lot of it. I understand when I’m being denied opportunity or being dismissed or ignored or talked over or patronized or harassed or any number of things. But the specifics of this sexism floored me. You mean, men get shit done in half the time simply because they’re not being questioned and challenged at every turn?

There were aspects that were not surprising (the getting asked out, the harassment) but the TIME! The TIME! Double the time! This shocked me. And it makes me wonder what other behaviors are hiding in my experience in plain sight.

I’ve been noticing sexism ever since I was a baby feminist and I suppose I thought at some point I would know about all the sexisms. I suppose I thought I’d know the whole ocean of sexist behaviors or conditions. But I see now that’s impossible. Each new sexist surprise teaches me something new. For example – at my local bodega, a man got a little too close to me while examining the chocolate in front of the registers. He apologized and backed away. Then he returned and reached for the chocolate bars in front of me, inches from my crotch, as if it were no big deal. I was so shocked, I couldn’t react. And once I was home, thought of all the things I should have done. (Possibilities: scream. Grab his hand and move it away. Pin his hand in place with my knee. Elbow to the head. A loud, “What do you think you’re doing?” or “How about you get the fuck out of my personal space?”)  I’m prepared for the next time some dude unconsciously invades my space. But with so many surprises to anticipate, I can never be prepared for every instance of sexism.

Now, again, as in the email sexism, for a lot of people, this is a “No, duh” situation. For women who’ve had their personal space violated on multiple occasions, this dude’s hand would not be surprising – but I was surprised. This was a part of the sexist ocean I was unfamiliar with. I’ve had creeps invade my personal space before – but those previous invasions were always obvious. It’s the old man groping on the overly crowded bus scenario. But there, too, the first time that happened, I was so shocked, I did not know what to do.

Every first encounter with a new flavor of sexism is going to be surprising and those will be not surprising to the people who have endured them again and again. If you’ve been groped on a bus a dozen times, you might deliver a “No duh” to someone who reports their first grope or their friend’s first grope.

If you’ve seen explicit email sexism in action – if you, say, work in customer service and watch it unfold every day, this email story may well be a “No, duh” situation – but for the rest of us…it still has the power to surprise. And reveal something in action that I wouldn’t have even included in a list of possible sexist behaviors.

Every little bit of the sexism ocean that we light up and reveal helps the other fish swimming through it and gives us tools to fight it, too. Things I’ve learned to try from these two surprising sexisms. 1) If I’m experiencing a time wasting push back via email, I can write back from my (imaginary) associate, Jack, and see if he can’t get it done faster. 2) If anyone reaches into my personal space, I will pick up the hand the way I’d pick up a disgusting piece of garbage and say, “To whom does this inappropriate hand belong?”

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Theatre’s Loss: Janelle Monaé

From the first time I heard “Tightrope,” I was a fan of Janelle Monaé. I was head over heels for her music and her aesthetic, as well. She was musically exciting and theatrical in her style. Seeing her in concert was an incredible ride. She took the audience on a journey, the likes of which I have rarely experienced at a concert. She is a consummate showwoman and a brilliant connector. I’ve heard her described her as a contemporary female James Brown.

This year, Monaé went from making exciting, surprising music to making exciting movies. I thought she was just trying something different, building on her music career with some film exploration – but in an interview, I discovered what was news to me. Monaé trained as an actor. She started in theatre. In acting, she is returning to her roots – not doing something new. I’d been thinking about this since I learned it. Then I saw a short biography of her on Pandora. It said she trained at AMDA, did some off-Broadway theatre but then moved to Atlanta when she realized that there weren’t roles for her in musical theatre. This blew my mind. It shouldn’t have. But it did.

I mean, of course, there weren’t roles for her. For a whole host of reasons I have surely written about before. BUT. What strikes me, now that I know this information, is how Theatre Lost. We Lost. One of the most brilliant artists of our lifetime and Theatre didn’t have a place for her. I mean, I can’t help but imagine a Cindi Mayweather Musical full of androids and tuxedoed dancers – a Black Lady Ziggy Stardust for the stage. I mourn for what we could have had – how Monaé could have invigorated the entire medium given half a chance. But she wasn’t given half a chance. Her creativity was too much for the American Theatre and there was no place in it for her. This does not speak well of our art.

Unlike Office Depot, which also famously had no place for Monaé, the American Theatre could really have benefited from her perspective, skill and artistry. But we failed her.

Now – I’m not entirely sorry that theatre failed her. If theatre failing her meant that she turned to music, then I’m grateful. I’d rather have “Electric Lady” than Monaé stuck in some production of Wicked forever. But…I think it is entirely Theatre’s Loss. We had this brilliant performer, writer and creator in our midst and no one saw it. No one made space for her to create. This is a problem. Because I know for a fact that Monaé isn’t the only artist that this has happened to. The Doing Things the Way We Have Always Done Them means true innovation is always happening elsewhere. In music, in film, in technology. We have to find a better way to nurture theatrical minds. We just have to. We lost Janelle Monaé. But maybe she’ll come back to us. I will definitely go to an Android Musical and I’m gonna drag you all there with me.

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Sticky Benevolent Sexism

It happened weeks ago, after the Women’s March. Since then there have been many more marches and many more protests but I can’t stop thinking about this experience I had right after participating in that first one.

I was at a conference. We were wrapping it up with a reflection session – talking about what had been successful and possibilities for the future. Towards the end, a man stood up to say he’d been to the Women’s March and that he’d been inspired and now wanted to recognize all the women in the room. He asked us all to stand and receive applause and appreciation from the men. We stood, as requested and received the applause. And don’t get me wrong, I love applause. But this felt so so bad.

Why? I wondered. Why was I upset by this nice man wanting to honor the ladies in the room? He was just being nice. Why did it make my skin crawl? For weeks, I’ve tried to unpack this moment. And then on International Women’s Day, I felt the same feelings upon reading multiple posts and tweets and tributes.

And still, I struggled to understand. So I talked about it with my partner. I told him about the request to stand and be recognized and he seemed to instantly know what I was reacting to. “It’s like Secretary’s Day,” he said. And I said, “Yes! Exactly! Exactly that! But what is that?”

And it comes down to power, folks. We have a secretary’s day because bosses have power and they express that benevolently (if also patronizingly) via things like Secretaries Day. A man who steps forward and asks for everyone to recognize the women in the room is asserting a similar kind of power. It is claiming an authority over women. He takes on a boss role and thanks the helpers. The fact that it is outwardly benevolent is what makes it confusing. This is called benevolent sexism and it is a bear, y’all.

Benevolent sexism is super confusing for a lot of dudes. It’s why the Orange Man in Chief thinks he’s great for women. Women are also confused by it. It’s men being nice, right? But so many studies show us how not nice it can be. It can be very dark and very dangerous.

My moment of benevolent sexism was confusing for me because I like to be appreciated and recognized. But I would like to have all of those things happen due to my accomplishments and artistry. Being applauded for just being a woman suggests being applauded for my service to the real art, the men’s art. I’m getting accolades for being a good helpmeet, not being an artist, or an achiever – because that’s what we ladies do, right? We help! We make the coffee and mop the men’s brows from doing the real work. Golly, we need a day to thank those ladies!

When that guy asked us to stand, I stood. And I cried. I thought, briefly, that I cried because I was moved, because I was touched by the gesture. I know now that I cried because I felt utterly undermined and defeated. After a day of women asserting our voices and our power, we were suddenly reduced to secretaries, to helpful wives – rather than the peers and colleagues we are. Now, I think I was crying due to how quickly that feeling of empowerment can be ripped away. BUT. But…

The good news is that now I’m wise. And I won’t fall for this trick again. Next time, I will not stand. Maybe I’ll even ask the men to stand and let them see how it feels.

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If My Pen is Rockin,’ Don’t Come A-Knockin’

The bulk of my writing practice is dedicated to getting myself primed to write with the most focus I can manage. The practice is dedicated to finding a kind of flow. In an ideal session of writing, I will not stop the pen. I just go. And go. I’m sure that I look busy when I’m writing. I’m 100% sure I don’t look like I want to talk with anyone. And yet. And YET.

Several times in the last few months, I have had white men, both young and old, attempt to talk with me while I was writing. One said, after watching my pen moving rapidly across the page for a while, “Can I ask you a question?” I did not stop moving my pen and said “Not right now.” But even though I kept writing, of course, it very much interrupted my flow. It took me a while to pick my thought back up.

Another one, sitting next to me on a café bench at an adjacent table where I had been sitting and writing for 40 minutes, says, almost right into my ear, “Are you journaling?” And fury passed through me as I paused to turn and tell him “No” and attempted to resume.

Why on earth does someone think a woman busy on her own, clearly engaged with a task, wants to be interrupted? Never once has a woman interrupted me to ask an invasive question or start up a conversation. Nor has any man of color. Everyone but white dudes seems to respect my personal space and engagement.

The good news is that there is literally no activity that I am more protective of than writing. I guard my time to do it. I protect it with ferocity – so if some dude happens to intrude, I don’t fall into my usual patterns of being nice or compliant. If you interrupt me, I will not be polite.

This is also the gift of aging. I do not give any fucks about making men feel alright for being assholes. Not anymore.

But it continues to astonish me that even in personal space NYC, where we all more or less leave each other alone, dudes can take me being busy doing something as an invitation.

I suppose it is the activity equivalent of wearing headphones – and lord knows, despite sending a million signals that a woman doesn’t want to be bothered, she gets bothered anyway. I’m thinking of that article about how to talk to girls with headphones on. And the answer of course is – you shouldn’t. Unless you want to talk with a really pissed off woman.

Understanding that not all space is your space is a hard one for the white boys who are used to feeling welcome everywhere. But it is essential for not getting a pen through the eye one day when I’m really in flow and pissed off that you’ve disrupted it. To avoid a pen in the eye…no talking, dude. If you absolutely must talk to me, you can pass me a note. But I’d rather you didn’t.

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Where In the World?
March 4, 2017, 2:10 am
Filed under: art, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

For years, I have been dreaming about emigrating to Europe, where so many of my favorite theatre companies are based. I fell in love with Cheek by Jowel when I saw their (all male) As You Like It. I idolized Improbable and their three man Artistic Directorship. I drooled over Complicite – and the one man genius at the center of it. Oh, how I wanted to move to England so I could make work like my heroes!

I heard stories about the extraordinary work coming out of Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. I saw some of it, too. I was wowed by all those men making extraordinary work. I wanted to go there and join them. Perhaps you’ve noticed already what it took me a while to put together. But almost everyone of note in my theatre hero club was a man. I’ve finally put together that nearly all of the places I’ve idolized for their more forward thinking art and/or politics, are actually as sexist as the country I live in. Some a little more. Some a little less. But nobody’s got equity.

My first clues were the stats on my blog about sexism in the theatre. I’ve got views from around the world on that thing. There are international waves of people when someone shares it in their native land. My next clue was my experience of international theatre conferences, where I saw so many all male casts, I just assumed I’d be looking at mostly men whenever I saw a show. When I went to panels of artistic directors from abroad, they were 90% male.

Sexism isn’t just an American problem. It’s a world problem. And in some countries, the sexism is worse in the theatre than it is in the country as a whole. Around the world, as far as I know, there is no theatre community where the odds are not stacked against me, as a woman. So, while I admire the work I’ve seen from Australia tremendously, it would make no sense to move there, as only 30% of produced plays are written or directed by women. Similarly, England. Similarly, Ireland. Where in the world could I go where my gender won’t be a liability in my making work? I really want to know – because I want to at least go visit and see what it would feel like to work in a place that doesn’t dismiss me from the moment I come in. I want to know what it feels like to create without the entire deck stacked against me. Where in the world can a woman go to make theatre with equity?

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How to Value a Voice
February 5, 2017, 10:26 pm
Filed under: Gender politics, resistance | Tags: , , , , , ,

At the Women’s March on the 21st, I saw a sign that said, “Girls should be told that their voices are valuable.” And it stuck a chord so deep in me that it took me days to unpack it.

I don’t disagree. Girls should, of course, be told that their voices are valuable. But it’s not enough. Not even close. Being told your voice is valuable means zero if you’ve never been shown that your voice is valuable. Telling is useless.

It’s like when a customer service automated phone services says, “Your call is important to us” while you sit on hold for an hour. It’s disingenuous. It’s lip service. I have been in so many rooms where I have been told my voice is valuable but was then talked over, interrupted, ignored or dismissed when I tried to use it. I have worked in many organizations that claimed to value my voice but then made it impossible for me to express anything.

Telling someone that their voice is valuable ain’t shit without actual support for that voice. On top of that, whenever someone tells me my voice is valuable, it is almost always extremely patronizing. In fact, one sure signal to me that my voice is not actually valuable is to be told that it is.

My friends don’t need to tell me my voice is valuable to them because I know that they care what I think. My colleagues don’t have to tell me my voice is valuable because they listen to it and ask for my thoughts regularly. My family doesn’t need to tell me because they respond to what I tell them. I have even had employers who didn’t need to tell me my voice was valuable – because it was apparent from every angle.

I was at an event where I heard again and again how important it was to get the voices of the young people involved. I heard how the organization valued the voices of the young. But I never heard those voices. There was no space in the event to actually hear those “important” voices – which makes it clear how important they actually are. That is, not at all. And I heard from those young people how unheard they felt, how unwelcome, despite the constant verbal welcoming.

But what, you may be wondering, am I supposed to do if I’m leading a group of people who I want to encourage, who I want to support and/or mentor? How do I convince them to talk, for example, if they don’t?

It’s actually fairly simple. If you want to know what someone thinks, if you want to hear them talk, you’ll need to ask them what they think about something. If you want people to feel as though they’re welcome to speak in a space, you have to make space for them to speak. If you are in a position of authority, that is up to you.

One of the challenges you’d be up against is that people who have had their voices dismissed for an extended period of time – girls, for example – may be less likely to leap into empty space. Many women have learned helplessness in these situations. Women’s speech is constantly policed. Vocal fry, qualifiers, upspeak are all sins that women get bashed for regularly. Women might speak more quickly than men, hurrying trying not to be interrupted. We have less practice in speaking in groups because we have been socialized to understand that the space isn’t ours. It is entirely likely that this having an impact on your group conversation.

The same holds true for any marginalized group – anyone you’re not hearing from isn’t not talking because they don’t know how to talk – they’re not talking because while they may have been TOLD their voice is valuable, they have not been SHOWN. And you show value by welcoming, by invitation, by direct question, by listening, by affirming, by reflecting and acting on what you hear.

You value a voice by actually valuing a voice. Don’t tell. Show. It’s that simple.

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