Songs for the Struggling Artist


Making Shakespeare Accessible

In an interview about my work in Shakespeare education, I was asked what we did to make Shakespeare accessible to the students. I couldn’t help but laugh. To me, it’s like asking, “How do we make hip hop accessible to the students? How do we make Marvel movies accessible?”

You don’t have to make Shakespeare accessible. It just is. Does everyone love it? Nope. That’s ok. Not everyone loves Marvel movies either, believe it or not. But put a really fantastic Shakespeare play in front of students and they’re just as likely, if not more likely, to enjoy it, as a fancy grown-up crowd would.

Are there tools to help them engage with it more deeply? Absolutely. I use them all the time. But the only preparation the entire student audience at BAM had for Ralph Fiennes’ Richard the Second was a 45 minute workshop from me in their classroom. And those students were INTO that show. Richard the Second! Not A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Richard the Freaking Second. They get it. They got it. It wasn’t that hard.

This is true of most rigorous art works. My friend has his students watch four hours of a Wagner opera in his class. Not all at once, granted. But despite lots of people declaring that those students aren’t really capable of engaging with complex music, they love it. They’re into it. They benefit from context, sure – certainly in the way that I’d maybe enjoy a Marvel movie more if someone broke down some of the related back stories for me before I went. But – ultimately – it’s not a special skill to be able to enjoy or engage with a work of art.

The conversation around accessibility is entirely backwards. We don’t need to be discussing how to make things like Shakespeare accessible to students, in terms of their understanding, because it is easily done. Open the door to the work. Put powerful words in their mouths, maybe just a few at first but eventually they’ll be ready for all of them. Let their bodies be animated by exciting language and the access has happened. The real difficulty of access is making sure everyone is welcome in the building. It’s making sure people with disabilities can come and experience everything. It’s making sure there are affordable tickets for people who want to attend. That’s the main accessibility issue as far as I’m concerned.

Many times, I’ve been a part of breaking open a student’s world by bringing them to see some amazing show and they fall in love with the language and the feeling and the world. But how will they return? How could they afford a ticket without the grant funded student trip? How could they bring their grandmother to see what they have seen? That’s the accessibility I’m concerned about.

I’ve seen too many students, who others have counted out, take hold of Shakespeare’s language and shake the very foundations of their school. I will never forget the student who no one wanted to work with, who was a real pain in the ass for his teacher and whose school was in real trouble – and he took hold of Launcelot Gobbo’s speech in Merchant of Venice and showed us all. He thought he was rebelling doing it by himself – because I’d structured the speech as an Angel/Devil exercise for groups of three students. But he wanted to do it alone – and was so good – we brought him to BAM to showcase his work. That speech was his. He owned it. No one imagined he could do it but he was extraordinary.

I’ve learned that the program I spent thirteen years teaching Shakespeare for is gone. First, they cut off its limbs by separating it from live performance and then they just ran a sword through it so they don’t teach Shakespeare there at all anymore. That’s how you really make something inaccessible – you no longer give students access to it.

And on one hand, I understand it – Shakespeare’s hold on the American Theatre is extreme and it prevents the work of women and people of color from rising through the ranks. It is very important that we give voice to writers other than Shakespeare. But it’s not as if this theatre, that killed its Shakespeare for students program, has stopped producing Shakespeare for adult audiences. It’s just not for young people anymore and I’m afraid it’s from some misguided idea that they just can’t get it, that they are unable to understand it. Often people with fancy degrees think you need a fancy degree to be able to relate to Shakespeare. And I’m sorry but your fancy degree doesn’t give you special powers that a kid from East New York doesn’t have. You may be able to analyze the trochees but that kid knows how that show made him feel.

I feel like denying kids access to Shakespeare is denying them a multitude of valuable experiences. Could they learn to explore juicy language, expand their sense of possibility and self, discover a sense of size and power through another writer? Sure. Of course they could. Will they though? The movement has been toward non-fiction in schools. Shakespeare was the only one left. He was the only writer named in the Common Core. Sure, it’d be amazing if schools started teaching Adrienne Kennedy all of a sudden but I think it’s unlikely to happen. Students will just get less literature in general and they’ll see less live performance.

We have decades of Shakespeare education. The culture is rich in references to his work. Giving kids access to his language means they’re part of that conversation, not excluded from it. Giving kids powerful speeches to say means we’re giving them powerful models that they may have in their bones when they run for office down the road. It may mean they have richer images to be inspired by as they write the great works of the future. The more exciting rigorous and visceral language we can give young people to say, the more tools they’ll have for whatever they do.

Does it have to be Shakespeare? No. You could try some Christopher Marlowe. I’m a big Thomas Middleton fan myself. But trading one dead white man Renaissance writer for another doesn’t really help. And our culture has done a real great job of burying women and BIPOC writers so sometimes it’s hard to find writers that a school will recognize as “literature” but you know, please teach them anyway. Find the ones that get students fired up and please show us all. But meanwhile, we’ve got Shakespeare. His work has inspired people for hundreds of years. Don’t deny kids access to that power. That’s the real accessibility issue.

Hey kids – this is a prop in one of the plays. You think you might like to see it?

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We Need Fiction in Schools

I don’t know why I think of this one classroom at a high school in Brooklyn – but every time I think of this bizarre turn that education took in which it decided that fiction no longer had a place in American schools, this moment when it leaned hard into non-fiction, I think of that classroom. It must have been where I heard that news, where I heard that this was a policy Obama supported and dropped my mouth open in shock. “Obama?! What is he thinking?”

This was a class for which I was doing workshops for the Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves, a work of dramatic fiction that the students went to see. When the student next to me gasped with recognition at something the character did and later told me it was like her family member – well, I wished Obama could have been there to see the power of fiction.

I was thinking about how important the study of fiction has been to me and to my peers and what a shame it is that these muscles have been un-exercised in many American schools. I was thinking about it because I was on a jury and the process of deliberation felt familiar somehow and it wasn’t just because I’ve had to teach 12 Angry Men a few times. One of the things that surprised me about my fellow jurors was how much they were inclined to just make things up. Several of them came up with “theories” about the case, adding events and possibilities that had nothing to do with the question at hand. Over and over again I found myself saying, “Let me read the actual question.”

If these folks had been my students, I’d have done exactly the same. I would have asked where they saw that idea or concept and what was the evidence. In literary circles, we call this practice Close Reading. When you write a paper, you need to point to the place in the text where you got this idea or information. You can’t just make stuff up. I’m so practiced in this I don’t even know that I’m doing it sometimes. I mean, I like to make stuff up more than most people but there are the things we make up and things we don’t and even fiction has rules this way.

I feel like, if we’re going to ask people to sit on juries and deliberate and evaluate the evidence, we really need to give them practice and we need to give them practice on fictional people. There are no consequences to a misinterpreted fictional character. You can’t ruin a fictional person’s life by charting out the series of events they go through in the course of a work. Your conclusions about a fictional person have no power to send them to jail or condemn them to death. Maybe you think Macbeth didn’t kill the king. You’d be wrong. But, hey, why not? Kick that idea down the road. Show me the evidence. That search through the play will be illustrative and, in exploring it, you (hopefully) will find all the evidence that he did, in fact, kill the king.

I’ve been in a lot of classrooms where some well-meaning teacher puts a character on trial. They’ll put Macbeth in the witness box and have some kids play lawyers and interrogate him. While this is fun, sure, it’s almost always a mess, pedagogically speaking, because the kids will inevitably make stuff up that’s not in the play and suddenly the whole case will hinge on what Macbeth had for dinner. (This is something that almost happened in the jury deliberations I was in, by the way, when a juror wanted to send a question down to the court to ask what the plaintiff had had for dinner one night. This was just as irrelevant to the case as what Macbeth might have eaten at any point in the play.)

As we deliberated, I found myself in a fairly active role, bringing us back to the question we had to answer over and over and, at first. I didn’t understand why I fell in to that position then. I have no interest in the law. I have no law training. I’m not even a big Law and Order watcher. (Night Court, though – big fan.) But what I DO know how to do is analyze a character and the sequence of events of a narrative. I know where to look for evidence and I know not to make things up. That’s the main thing.

Students need to study fiction as much, if not more than, non-fiction for a whole lot of reasons beyond this skill of analysis, close reading and finding evidence. (Such things as empathy, aesthetics and imagination.) But the skills of analyzing literature, in particular, are what I found particularly useful in that jury room. (In addition to the practice of working quickly in a group that I learned and practiced in theatre.) I’m still shocked that Obama couldn’t recognize this when this policy began. He studied law. I know he’d want people to learn skills to help them be better citizens, to be better jury members. Learning literature is actually vital for our democracy, I think. If we care about having careful jurors, we might want to teach some fiction again.

Is this a dinner which I see before me?
JK – it’s the banquet scene from Macbeth. But what is on the table? What are they eating? What do ghosts have for dinner?

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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Should I Try to Work with Egotistical Douchebags?
April 8, 2022, 10:50 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, Shakespeare, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , , ,

* Note – I’m going to use the word douchebag a lot in this post. Get ready. But also – for context – I used to be really wary about the word douchebag. I thought the word might be connected to some thinly veiled misogyny that I didn’t want to be leaning into. Then I read this blog post and now I am a convert. If you have any hesitation at all about this word, I highly recommend the journey this guy will take you on. Go. Read it. Then come back here and enjoy me talking about d-bags a lot.

And now – the actual post:

The minute I met the artistic director of that Shakespeare company, I thought “Oh he’s an egotistical douchebag.” Then I saw his show. I did not want to like it but it wasn’t terrible. I mean, the thing with doing Shakespeare is, the text is always interesting so as long as you don’t get in the way too much, it’s possible to put on a decent show, even if you’re an egotistical douchebag.

And the theatre business is oversaturated with egotistical douchebags, especially in positions of power. When I was really trying to make acting work as a career, I discovered that the vast majority of employers in this arena were, in fact, egotistical douchebags. I think it was realizing that kissing up to this type was going to be the bulk of this job that made me start my own company. It seemed the only way to ensure that I wouldn’t have to suck up to an egotistical douchebag on the regular.

Anyway, at first meeting, this Artistic Director struck me as someone I would not even like to talk to at a party but the Shakespeare world is smaller than you’d think so I told myself he was nervous – talking to all those Shakespeare teachers and maybe not the egotistical douchebag he seemed to be. Maybe he’s fine. I didn’t think so but I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. I was still pretty sure, though. I have a highly tuned douche-meter.

When an opportunity to submit plays to his theatre came up, I thought, “Why not? I may not be crazy about that guy but their work isn’t bad and I just can’t produce my own work the way I used to. It’s time to expand my circle. Sometimes it takes an egotistical douchebag to bring plays to the world.” I submitted. The play was rejected. No big deal. And when I mentioned it, a much respected colleague let me know, in passing, that I probably would not have enjoyed my time there had I been accepted. My colleague had some experience with this guy and reported him to be… an egotistical douchebag. They recounted many nail biting stories of douchebaggery in the trenches with this fellow in days of yore.

It’s very nice to have my first impressions confirmed. That’s the good news here. I know an egotistical douchebag when I see one! But it has made me think; Isn’t practically every dude who runs a theatre company an egotistical douchebag? If I want to see my work get made (by someone besides me) do I have to learn how to suck up to egotistical douchebags? I don’t want to work with douchebags, period. But there are so many of them and they work all over the place and there are only the smallest cracks getting made in the walls that keep them there in the seats of power. Twenty plus years ago, I just thought, “No problem, I’ll just do it myself!” But I didn’t factor in all the ways the system is designed to support egotistical douchebags, young and old, and leave the others in the dark. The light shines on the egotistical douchebags and the more light shines on them, the brighter they get and the rest of us can never really make it out of the shadows. Sometimes the only way to catch a little light is to stand next to an egotistical douchebag.

This particular company run by this particular egotistical douchebag was founded ONE year before mine. Technically, this guy is my peer, along with numerous other guys who started their companies at the same time as I did and somehow found the light to thrive. I don’t know another woman who started a company around then that is still going. I guess the egotistical douchebag lane is the only one available? I mean, I hope not.

Running a theatre company is not an easy job. There’s very little money in it. It’s a whole lot of work for very little reward. It’s possible an inflated ego is the only thing that will keep you afloat in this world. Maybe you need to be a little douchey to get things done. I genuinely don’t know. I would very much like to see my work produced by someone that isn’t me. Would I like it to be produced by a douchebag? No. Do I have a choice about that? I’m not sure. That’s what I’m trying to work out.

You know who that light is shining on? You guessed it.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Rejections as a Measure of Hope?
March 18, 2022, 10:28 pm
Filed under: Rejections, theatre, writing | Tags: , , ,

New York Classical Rejection

I didn’t submit to many things in 2021. This was the first theatre I submitted to in over in a year. It seemed such a gimmee – a Shakespeare company doing readings of Shakespeare adjacent work. I have a LOT of this sort of material due to applying over and over to the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries award at the American Shakespeare Center, a company that I used to work as an actor for and therefore know VERY well. I just can’t resist it, every time it comes around. And therefore I have a small glut of plays that are perfect for a Shakespeare company but have never been produced.

I’ve seen New York Classical’s work and met their Artistic Director while doing some Folger education work so it seemed like a natural fit. I thought that they’d look at my finalist play and snap it right up. They did not.

Back in the rejection saddle again!

That was the first in a while and since it was so short, I sat on it for months, waiting to fill this post out with some other rejections.

Now the rejections are flowing again so you know I must be bothering to apply for stuff again finally. The document where I track my applications and rejections is a real study in….I don’t know what to call it – Hope and Despair?

Ashland New Play Festival

In 2019, I applied to 92 things and in 2020 I applied to 18 things. Almost all those applications were in the first three months of the year. (Wonder why!)  I guess I was starting to feel vaguely hopeful there might be theatre again by the fall of 2021 as I did manage to submit to 8 things. The rejection for the Ashland New Play festival which I applied to in October just rolled in and I expect the others will be along shortly.

But I’ve already applied six this year, so I guess I’ve raised my hope level somewhat? It doesn’t FEEL like it but the evidence suggests a shift.

And now they roll in.

The Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference

The very first time I applied to the O’Neill, I got into the semi-finals. It has not happened since. I had never applied before my first submission. I really didn’t think I stood a snowball’s chance in hell and I didn’t want to spend $35 just to melt my snowball, as it were.

In a way, that first shocking win has made all the subsequent submissions more painful to lose than they otherwise would have been. Sometimes it’s easier to apply when you think you have no chance. You just throw your submission money down the hole with a kiss and it’s over. When you’ve had a little glimmer of hope, the rejection somehow feels a little sharper.

Anyway – this year I submitted my mash up of Jane Austen and All’s Well that Ends Well. It did not make the semi-finals.

Orlando Shakes PlayFest

(title of email: PlayFest 2022 Unsolicited Query Update)

I will say this for the Orlando Shakes fest; They are one of the speediest rejections around. I feel like I JUST sent them the same Austen All’s Well that I sent to the O’Neill and they have already rejected it. There are at least eight other rejections I would have expected first but they are very efficient over there. I applaud them for it, truly. It is so much better to get these things done quickly.

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

Hope? Despair? Just a cool work of art somewhere.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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The Theatre Theater Problem and the Intermission

If it’s not entirely obvious, I’m a THEATRE person. I am not a THEATER person, not really. This is partly a silly distinction of spelling and partly a really serious long-standing American problem.

And before I go any further with this, let me acknowledge that I now think I’m on the wrong side of this divide. It’s a side I’ve fought for, one that I reinforce every time I spell my company’s name or website or email address, and one I somehow cannot seem to let go, no matter how on the wrong side of it I am.

I started to think about this when a European friend asked what we call the break, or pause, in a performance. I’d been thinking about all the ways that theatres are set up to make people feel like outsiders when they arrive and the simple fact that we call this break an intermission suddenly struck me as yet another way our theatres create this rarified atmosphere. We don’t take a break, no, no. We take – an intermission. So many things about going to the theatre are built to suggest that it is for the elites. We’ll have no groundlings here, please and thank you. This is why we have velvet ropes. And this is not an accident.

That’s the thing that hit me full force when thinking about our intermissions – just what a purposeful positioning all this is. American theatre was designed this way and we’ve been fighting about it for some time. The distinction between theatre and theater is not, as I’ve heard some people posit, that one is the art and the other the building. The distinction is mostly just a matter of preference. Technically, THEATER is the American spelling and THEATRE is the European spelling. Every spell check agrees.

But a lot of us in the THEATRE/THEATER – just prefer this RE version. We couldn’t tell you why necessarily. I’ve heard folks say they feel THEATER must be pronounced thee-ATE-r and so THEATRE wins the day. In my case, I guess it just looks better to me. I like it. It connects me to Europe. Given how embarrassing we Americans can be, that’s a nice benefit. And in my personal case, my aesthetic alignment tends to side with Europe so it just sort of stacked up in those early days when I was picking a side. THEATRE just sounded artier, somehow. THEATER is where they do that trashy stuff. Or something. And I know now that this is some elitist mularkey. This stacks up with the velvet ropes and the intermissions and the donors’ circles and the patron’s boxes and all the things that suggest this art is not for poor people.

Now, we imagine this was an accident but history suggests it was very much on purpose. If someone had taught me this history in my youth, I’d probably be a THEATER person instead of the THEATRE person I am.

I learned from James Shapiro’s book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, that in the first bit of the 19th century, there had been multiple riots at theatres. Theatres were one of the few places that the rich and poor encountered each other and as income inequality was getting worse and worse, they clashed about it often. The poor had power in numbers and they used those numbers in theatre audiences. Theatres were one of our most truly democratic spaces in those days. Imagine.

Then in 1849, the aristocrats of NYC got tired of being shouted at and so bought themselves an opera house and designed it in such a way so as to welcome the elites and keep the poor away. They invented a dress code that featured things like dress coats, white cravats and kid gloves. They transformed “the pit” (which once held the cheaper seats/standing area for the poor right up front) into the orchestra. They numbered the seats so they could assign them how they liked. They covered the seats in red damask and put the cheap seats upstairs, through their own separate entrance. They raised the prices. In 1849, this was all new. And the people did not like it.

It came to a head in 1849, when a feud between a British and an American Shakespearean culminated with the British actor performing Macbeth at this contentious elitist opera house and the American actor performing the same role across the street. Neither side came off well in this conflict. The Brit aligned with the elite, even though his own politics were more progressive and the American’s supporters aligned with anti-immigrant racist ideology – and both actors were part of a working creative class so the spark of this thing was not as simple as a class riot. BUT – there was an infiltration of the opera house and it got shouty in there. The next night, law enforcement was standing by for violence and violence arrived. At first it was just the building that suffered with broken windows and such. Then the militia started shooting protestors and bystanders and killed twenty of them before the night was through.

What strikes me about this now is how this battle is still simmering in the soul of American Theatre. So many of the adaptations that were designed to keep out the riff raff have remained. The elites may have ultimately lost that opera house but their innovations to shift the audience away from democracy stayed. There aren’t riots in theatre any more, not because we’ve worked out our class issues, but because the elites adjusted the theatres so that they were only talking to themselves.

What blows my mind about it all is how intentional it was at the time. And how something that was an intentional tool to keep the poor out of theatres just happens unconsciously. Or at least I HOPE it’s unconscious. I have to hope that all the education programs and diversity initiatives are an attempt to remedy the bias and are not just a cynical grab for grant money and foundation funds. I suppose it could be both – a desire to “give” to poor children while simultaneously creating conditions to keep their parents from ever coming in to see a show.

Those riots from 1849 are deep in our theatre history’s bones and so are the conditions that helped create them. We are still in this clash.

And by aligning myself with the European spelling for theatre, I am, unintentionally of course, aligning myself with the elite. In much the same way that William Macready didn’t necessarily mean to align himself with the elite when he chose to perform at the new opera house, I have connected myself to the privileged. The theatre is for red velvet ropes and lush curtains. It is for orderly seat assignments and respectful silence. I’m not gonna lie. I do like some of those things. But I respect and admire the theater which we lost – the one where an American Shakespearean like Edwin Forrest would hiss a performance he did not care for. He was an actor who hoped to “bring the American stage within the influence of a progressive movement.” I wish he’d managed it.

Anyway – according to Etymology on-line, “intermission” began to be used for the pause at performances around 1854. Notice anything about that timing? The rich set about trying to push the poor out of theatres in 1849. Their innovations in that arena began taking hold elsewhere and just five years later, this long French word is what we call a break and I insist on calling it all theatre.

If those chairs could talk, they might say “Rich people only, please!”

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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The Arts Save the Children

We had a hopeful politician come to our door, campaigning, and so we asked her about what she’d do for the arts. She said she understood the value of the arts, that they kept kids out of trouble, the way sports had for her as a kid so she supports them. It’s a sweet story, really.

I enjoyed that story and I like this politician a lot but I hate this reasoning. First, supporting arts programs for kids is not supporting the Arts. It’s great and I spent many years in those trenches but Arts Education is not the entirely of The Arts. This is a common conflation, though – and artists do it as much as anyone, usually when they’re trying to raise money for an arts program.

The other part of it I hate is the way it sets up art as just a method of keeping kids busy. It’s like an after-school job or a club or something. This framing also tends to travel hand in hand with setting art up as a savior for troubled children. I’m particularly sensitive to this one because I used to believe it. I used to be in classrooms trying to SAVE THE CHILDREN with Shakespeare or music or whatever. In some cases, the people who sent me into these classrooms also wanted me to SAVE THE CHILDREN with my theatrical magic.

Nope. Nope. Nope.

I’m not saying it’s not possible for a child to discover an art and find their way to a new future that might be seen as saving them. That sort of thing DOES happen. I have seen it happen myself. But it does not happen often. And it can’t be planned for.

But it’s also not unique to the Arts. Anything could save a wayward child. It could be sports. It could be cooking. It could be knitting. It could be watching Wheel of Fortune. Basically, anything that lights a person up and gets them going can “save” a person. The arts are perhaps more likely than Wheel of Fortune to engage a child but it’s all really up to chance.

Why should we support the arts if not to save wayward children? What are they good for besides keeping kids out of trouble?

The arts are good for our souls, okay? Maybe we’re not supposed to use words like that when it comes to finding funds and government support – but that is fundamentally what is at stake. When the going gets tough, people turn to the arts. During this last year of trauma and lockdown – when so much became inaccessible – many people turned to music, turned to stories in multiple formats. It’s not a hug from your mom but it’ll do you good.

A culture is judged by its arts and a culture that doesn’t support its artists is going to lose them. They’ll emigrate or cease to be artists or their wells will dry up and the faucet that pours out stories and meaning might not deliver like it needs to at some point.

What do we need to say to our politicians so they understand? How do we help them see artists as more than an after-school program? For years, our arts leaders have been attempting to make the economic argument about how much the arts contribute to the economy and if, after this year of artistic devastation and all the economic devastation that surrounds that, they still don’t get it, I don’t know that they ever will. I think we have to just talk about the source. That arts are good for our culture, our souls and our social identity. The politician who came to our door was elected while the more Arts forward candidate lost – so now the task becomes how to help her do more than just say she supports the arts. Now we have to help her learn how to actually support them.

The Arts can do a lot but I don’t think they’ll save these boys from those bees!

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South Park World, or, Learning to Like the Boy Stuff

In 1997, I was touring the country with a Shakespeare company. There were 8 men and 4 women in our troupe and because of that gender imbalance, it felt a little like living in a fraternity. For a life-long feminist like myself, it was a pretty big challenge. I mostly stayed quiet and kept my feminist killjoy thoughts to myself.

I’m thinking about this today after reading Lindy West’s essay about the South Park guys. She’s a bit younger than I am so South Park was a thing she grew up with and a show that had a particular kind of impact on her generation. I was introduced to South Park while I was on tour with the fellas in 1997. It was a video cassette of a short cartoon that somebody had gotten from somebody and we watched it on the company VCR. It was this underground, almost contraband, video.

I didn’t love it. It felt sort of mean spirited and homophobic and it was a world of boys. But I was living in a world of boys and they watched this video cassette so often, it became an oft quoted part of the culture. By the end of the year, I had a real affection for those potty mouth boys – the ones on South Park and the ones I was working with.

Then that little underground cassette got picked up by a network and become a TV show. I watched it sometimes, in part, because it reminded me of being on tour and it made me feel like an insider and also because I’d sort of come to like it. And I want to talk about my liking it because the liking isn’t uncomplicated. It wasn’t neutral. I think it says something about culture in general.

I was thinking about how a lot of things I like, I like because to like them made me part of the group. In this case, in this company, it was a bunch of fellas and a few women who knew how to hang with a bunch of fellas. They knew how to be cool with the dudes. That is not a skill I had picked up anywhere – being the feminist killjoy that I was – so it was something I had to learn on that tour. Laughing at the same jokes is a big part of it, I discovered. You learn to find things like South Park funny as a way to survive. But what I can’t stop wondering about is what it would have been like if that tour group’s gender numbers were reversed. What if there were 8 women and 4 men? Would the men have learned to laugh at the Kathy and Mo show? Would they have giggled at their dramatization of Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Got their Periods”? Would they have adapted to our jokes the way we adapted to theirs? I don’t know. And the reason I don’t know is that I was never IN the reverse position. I was never in an acting company that was mostly women. I directed a lot of shows that were like that but I’d have to ask my actors how that was. I don’t know.

I did go to a college with a 1:3 ratio in favor of women. I bemoaned it at the time but thinking about the South Park effect, actually makes me very grateful for that imbalance. It makes me curious about the experience of some of the men I know who went there with me. Are there things they like because they adapted to the environment that they wouldn’t have responded to in other circumstance? Like – did they all become big Ani DiFranco fans when their friends at others schools turned up their noses?

The thing of it is – most of culture in the 90s was men’s culture. Most things were for the fellas with a couple of rare exceptions. You could either get on board or be seen as the feminist killjoy. South Park was no exception to that. (Are there any girls on South Park? All I can think of are some moms and a pretty offensive take on Winona Ryder.) I was struck by the way Lindy West described South Park’s aesthetic; It sounded quintessentially Gen X. I hadn’t thought of South Park that way before – but the irreverence and nihilism is classic “whatever” energy. It’s also classic Gen X misogyny and in retrospect, I’m sorry I ever laughed at it. But I learned to laugh at it. Which in a weird way gives me a kind of hope in this world where people still debate if women are funny. It gives me hope because it’s clear people can adapt to the group. The group can change. We can laugh at more expansive things and things that AREN’T cruel. We can learn to laugh with an entirely new group.

I learned from West’s essay that South Park has been on for Twenty Years. TWENTY YEARS of Kenny getting killed. (I assume. I haven’t watched in maybe 18 years so I don’t know how things have changed.) When this show went on the air, we were having a pretty big cultural conversation about how we talked to each other. We were learning that there were kind and unkind ways to talk about one another’s identities. A lot of people hated this conversation and there was a lot of railing against political correctness. South Park showed up in the middle of that conversation and farted.

And now we’re in the middle of the same conversation twenty years later, though we use different words and South Park is still farting the place up.

Like, maybe it was funny in 1997 when we were all very serious about hyphenating our identities or whatever – but once you’ve farted in a serious room once, the joke is of over, guys, Now you’re just stinking up the place while the grown-ups are trying to solve things like violent insurrections at the capital. And speaking of violent insurrections supported by Republicans, it turns out the South Park guys are Republicans. Right now. Or at least as of Lindy’s publication date in 2019. Honestly, I was surprised – not because they said or did anything to suggest otherwise – it’s just that Republicans don’t tend to be funny.

But I guess the thing is – those guys haven’t really been that funny since I saw them on a VCR in 1997 surrounded by a bunch of fellas. So I guess it makes sense. I guess it makes sense.

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Brilliant Theatre and the Pit

If you don’t work in the arts, it might be hard to understand why a really brilliant piece of work might make someone more depressed than a bad one. Sometimes, I find it baffling, as well. I mean, bad theatre can be instructive and liberating, if also infuriating, when you realize that it is not the quality of something that brings all the funders to the yard. And good theatre usually checks a box for me. I see something that was good and I say to myself, “That was good. What excellent work everyone did. I might steal that bit they did with the plates one day.” But a brilliant theatre piece has the power to move me, to make me weep and/or laugh and then, not long after it’s over, drop me in the pit of despair. This is particularly likely to happen when the brilliant piece in question is close to my interests or skillset or aesthetic. The more it feels like something I might have made if I had the resources, the more likely I am to end up in a deep hole that I have to write things like this to dig my way out of.

This doesn’t happen very often. There are not a lot of shows that have the proximity to my aesthetic to trigger a trip to the pit but lately, due to the on-line access to work I’d not have otherwise seen, there have been a few. The most recent one was Emilia. It was available to watch on-line and I leaped at the chance to finally see a show I’d heard a lot about. And it was all that the hype suggested. It was expertly crafted, written, staged, performed, designed – all of it. It was created by a team of extraordinary women and flawlessly executed by a cast of women. It was a feminist theatre maker’s dream come true.

As a feminist Shakespearean, I have been waiting for this show all of my life. It’s so aligned with my values and aesthetics, I could have written it. And that, my friends, is where the pit starts to slide open. Because I have written in this weird feminist classical theatre lane my whole writing life. Like, my WHOLE WRITING LIFE. I started writing my first play while working for a Shakespeare festival and it was inspired by one of the plays I was performing in. This is my lane. I veer out of it occasionally but I started as a classical actor and it is always in there somewhere.

I don’t want to diminish what the writer of Emilia has done by saying I could have done it but I have come somewhat close and given the chance, I think I could have made something quite similar in spirit, energy and focus. But I wasn’t given the chance and I could not have conceived even anything near it on my own. And this writer didn’t have to create this piece on her own. She was commissioned by The Globe. She was given a team and a production. Circumstances placed her in their awareness and moved them to select her for this idea about the poet Emilia Bassano Lanier. And they were right to select her. She did an amazing job. It is a truly glorious piece of work. There are some parts of it where I thought, “That shouldn’t work” but then it absolutely did, even when I could have given you ten reasons it shouldn’t have. It was expertly done. I say this to you from the bottom of my pit.

This morning I was listening to the podcast made by some theatre makers I have long admired. It is a series of interviews with the Artistic Directors of Cheek by Jowl and today it was a moment with Declan Donnellan that kindly reached me down at the bottom of my pit. He was talking about ways to harm an artist. The first was to “absolutely criticize and rubbish the artist’s work.” The more harmful method was “to totally ignore the artist’s work. It’s more passive aggressive and it’s more silent and deadly.” For the most part, the world has been entirely indifferent to my feminist classical theatre. Like, entirely.

Some days I feel that indifference more than most and ironically, the play Emilia is actually about that very thing. It is the story of a woman more or less forgotten by history. (Though not entirely, of course, otherwise there’d be no one’s history to imagine!) It is a story of battling to be heard, acknowledged, respected and recognized. It is a story I saw myself in in a way I have never seen before and I wept through it in really weird places because of that strange recognition.

The play’s marketing features many famous women proclaiming their identification with the title character. There are videos of them all saying, “I am Emilia.” And they are. They are, more than me, because these famous women have some name recognition. They have achieved some kind of notoriety in the public eye. Will history remember them? Only time will tell. But for now – certainly a lot more people know Caitlin Moran’s name than know mine. And I don’t want to be Caitlin Moran. I admire her work but I wouldn’t want to be anyone but myself. I am not Emilia either, grateful though I am for her story.

I am wrestling with myself, in my pit, over the joy I felt watching the show and the abject misery I feel at the unlikelihood of ever receiving the kind of opportunities that would allow me to make something like it.

The difference between watching an amazing show I wish I’d made in my 20s, and watching an amazing show now, is that in my 20s, I could imagine a future in which I could make or be a part of the inspiring thing I saw. Here in my 40s, I understand more about how things work and once again reckon with the unlikelihood of such resources becoming suddenly available for me. And in to the pit I go.

It’s not just that I’ve become more cynical over the years (though that has certainly happened) it’s that I have a pretty thorough understanding of how the theatre has worked in the past and will likely work again when we get it back. Which is why, intellectually, I know, that despite my time in the pit, this show is nothing but good news for me. I know that it opens up a space and a pattern that will make space for so many women in the future, including me. The fact that Emilia was a giant hit and had a successful popular run at a West End Theatre is very good news for any future feminist plays, for any future modern classical works. If that way becomes more open now, it is good news for a woman who has been busy writing such things for years. My brain knows that very well. But it is not just my rational optimistic brain here in the pit with me.

The less optimistic part of my brain is overwhelmed by the obstacles that stand in the way of my ever receiving such an opportunity. They are things like: the country I live in, the country I was trained in, the accidents of mentorship, the relationships that place one in the right place at the right time, the development of one’s work in a context wherein it can grow, one’s proximity to the pipeline.

There’s been a lot of talk of the pipeline ever since that panel discussion where an artistic director defended not producing women’s work because women were not in the pipeline. The pipeline sounds like it’s just a supply line that women need to find their way into but it’s so much more than a stream that leads to production. The pipeline is where you went to school and when. It is the internships you could afford to do and the debt you could afford to take on. The pipeline is who you happened to room with at summer camp.

But the pipeline is also much more subtle stuff than just who you know. It can go as for back as a childhood. I watched the TED talk of a much-admired choreographer, and he mentioned how his childhood dance teacher told him, when he was goofing around, that he was really a choreographer. And so he became one, one who was encouraged and affirmed at every stage, one who likely walked into his first rehearsal of his first piece with no question of his right to be there. If you’re not busy defending your right to do what you do at every turn, you sure can get a lot more art made. That’s when the way is paved for you, so you can travel with confidence without running into lots of bumps. That’s the real pipeline.

One of the things that feels complex about being an artist in a marginalized group of any kind is that it can be really easy to blame any lack of success on the prejudice that limits so many. It is better to blame sexism and economic prejudice than to blame myself. I can always assume it was sexism that closed the door for me. With a show like Emilia in the mix, I can celebrate that sexism does not always win – but it also complicates my narrative about why so few people care about my theatrical work.

I got an extraordinary thrill from feeling represented in Emilia but I fear that I am not Emilia like all those famous women. I’m not the character who stormed the stage to take her rightful place. I’m not the one who had her poems published, before becoming a footnote in men’s history books. Not yet anyway.

But I will try to access my twenty something self who still had hope of making brilliant things on stages like that and listen to my more optimistic brain and I will pull myself out of the pit to write another something, even if those somethings are never seen by anyone. A world with Emilia in it is more likely to have space for me in it than the world without it ever did. And, of course, if I have to, I am fully prepared to, as Emilia says to startling effect at the end of the show, “burn the whole fucking house down.”

possibly an image of Emilia Bassano Lanier

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

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

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More Tips on Masks from a Mask Theatre Person

Initially, I was just going to add a little note to my first Tips on Masks from a Mask Theatre Person, a little update, as it were. I thought it was going to be a sentence or two. But I got started and before I knew it, I’d written over a thousand words. So, I guess I had a few things to say on the subject, after all these months of mask wearing.

I wrote my initial Tips for Masks a few months ago when mask wearing was JUST kicking in for us in New York. According to my stats, people are still reading it and so it needs a little update. Wearing a mask every single day for six months is a very different experience than throwing one on for the first time. A lot has changed since I wrote that first post and I’ve got to make some amendments and adjustments, as well.

The first thing that is really very present, and was absolutely not when I wrote the initial piece, is the intensity of the anti-mask movement. When I wrote it, maskholes were the people taking up too much space and bumping into the rest of us. Now the real maskholes are the ones who refuse to put their masks on. I don’t have a lot to say to those folks – just, wear a mask, don’t be a maskhole.

It would seem that most people seem to be adapting pretty well to wearing these things. They don’t seem to be overly entitled and unconstrained by social bounds the way the early adopters were. I will note, though, that I notice there is still a visibility issue with masks. Depending on the mask, you might have discovered that your peripheral vision is impacted. I don’t have the science on this but I do know that we normally see our noses but are not at all conscious of them. Now you’re seeing this mask instead and it is distracting for the space-making parts of our brains. You’re more likely to bump in to stuff or just have a different sense of the space around you.

This happens in theatre mask work as well and if you can imagine it as a benefit, as we can in working in masks in the theatre, maybe it will start to feel a little less limiting.

For example, some of my favorite masks to work with are naïve masks AKA larval AKA Basal. Their eye-holes tend to be very small and the mask covers the entire face, so in order to work in it, you have to adapt to a very limited range of visibility. This, in fact, is where the comedy comes in. My mask teacher, John Wright, will usually introduce these masks by having everyone put their hands in circles over their eyes, like they’re putting on hand binoculars. (Try it! It’s fun!) Then he puts everyone in increasingly challenging situations while only being able to see through those small tunnels of their hands. Trying to get everyone into a line when no one can really see is almost always funny. Just because of the limitations, everyone begins to use more and more of the body. If you want to see down the line, you have to lean all the way out and turn, you cannot just peek out of your periphery. You have no peripheral vision. It is comedy gold.

Our pandemic masks do not make comedy gold but they do create a limitation. I’m still trying to work out the performative benefits of that limitation (aside from protecting ourselves and the people around us from droplets, of course). But I’m sure there is one. And since there are such a lot of us in these things, if we all search for it, maybe we’ll find something interesting. Perhaps we will all become highly expressive in the eyes. Maybe we will increase our acuity in sensing things with the body, rather than the peripheral vision.

But if you find yourself a little clumsier in mask maybe just recognize that that is likely a property of the mask and not that you are losing your grace.

Another thing I will note is that when I wrote that first post, it was pretty much the height of the epidemic in New York. For us, then, there was never a moment outside the apartment where it made sense to remove a mask. In less dense areas, I have discovered, there is a lot more on and off that tends to happen. You go for a walk in a small town and you can go without your mask for blocks and then need to whip it on as a pedestrian approaches. My “put your mask on and keep it on” advice is useless for you in those circumstances. So, in this on-again-off-again world, you’ll want to only touch the elastic. Take it on and off at the ears, not the front. That’s for safety and keeping your mask as free from the bad stuff as possible. But it is also true for aesthetics in mask that you don’t want to be seen touching the face of the mask.

I don’t have a solution for the fogging glasses problem, really. In the theatre, for performers, I usually encourage glasses wearers to switch to contact lens for their performances or go without. That is a lot harder in the real world where we really need to see. I can mostly only parrot what I have seen others say about the glasses problem – a lot of which seems to involve purchasing either fashion tape, bendable mask wires or defogging goop. I keep trying to just place the glasses over the mask but the glasses often slip or the mask does. The fog seems to entirely depend on the mask, the glasses and the weather. I have been experimenting, though, and I’ve discovered that if I put my front teeth over my lower lip like a cartoon rabbit and say things that begin with F, it does a pretty good job of clearing my glasses. I made up a phrase (“finicky feral finches fend for feed” ) that I found works pretty well. But somewhat more satisfying is telling corrupt and immoral politicians to go F themselves. I was originally enjoying telling Fitch FcFonnell to go F*** himself but then I realized how much more effective it was to begin with a classic, old timey Shakespeare curse of “Fie!” (The i has better glasses-clearing qualities than the u.) So while I walk down the streets watching businesses get boarded up due to the Senate’s abysmal Covid relief response, I can just curse away. “Fie, Fitch FcFonnell! Fie, Findsey Faham!” Lately, I’ve added, “Fie, Famey Foamy Ferrett!” Listen, no one needs to know what kind of witchy business you get up to behind your mask. I’ve Fubbled Fubbled Foiled and Fubbled back there quite a bit. My fillet of a fenny snake has in the fauldron foiled and faked.

Anyway, vocal exercises aside, the main tool an actor uses in mask work is actually available to anyone and that is imagination. The main skill involved in performing in mask is imagining that the mask on your face is your face. That the mouth of the mask is your mouth, that the eyes are your eyes.

One way to deal with the alienating effect of having to wear something on your face all the time is to imagine that the thing is not a foreign object – but an expressive part of your own self. You can imagine scenarios for this, if it will help. You could be an alien species with half a fabric face. You could be a warrior that has grown a protective layer of cloth to prevent you from telling secrets. You could be a cloth doll in the midst of a transformation. You can be someone new every day. I’m not going to say this won’t be challenging. It is actually a lot easier to imagine that a silly forehead with a comedy nose is your face than it is to invent a useful fiction for your new cloth mouth – but it will keep you occupied as you negotiate mask world. And it looks like we’re going to be living in mask world quite a bit longer, so, having a project that’ll last a whole year might not be a terrible idea.

I will update this post as new developments occur. I sure as hell hope we can stop wearing these things every day soon. I hate them as much as anyone. But we’ll suck it up and do it because it helps slow the virus down more than just about any other thing we can do. Wear a mask! Save a life! And imagine you’re a weird cloth monster or something.

You cannot imagine how long it took these masks to get into this line and find one another’s hands. It was very funny to watch them get here. They can barely see.
(This is from my company’s Very Serious Theatre. In the naive masks are: Julia Cavagna, Mia Hutchinson-Shaw, Brooke Turner and Ilyssa Baine)

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You Don’t Have to Write Your Lear. Or Your Venus and Adonis Even.

As soon as the theatres shut down, the King Lear memes started. Over and over, people urged us not to bemoan our sudden retreat to our houses because Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague. This was meant to encourage us to believe that it might be highly productive to be sent home. Instead, it gave a lot of people anxiety about having to produce a masterpiece while navigating the challenges of social distancing.

I suspect some historical context might be useful and since most Shakespeare scholars are busy trying to figure out how to adapt their courses for Zoom, I thought I might offer some interim thoughts on this topic.

First, Shakespeare only PROBABLY wrote King Lear during the plague of 1606. The only evidence we have is that it was produced at the end of that year. It’s entirely possible he wrote it before the plague broke out – along with the other plays that came next, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. So, it’s not, like, hard fact that he wrote those plays while people were sequestered and/or dying nearby.

Second, the Lear/Macbeth/Cleopatra plague was not Shakespeare’s first plague. During the 1592 outbreak, Shakespeare wrote poems. He wrote Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece then. In her book, Shakespeare’s Wife, Germaine Greer theorized that he wrote these erotic poems out of dire financial need. She compares the poems to porn of the time. That is, without the theatre to sustain him, Shakespeare didn’t write his masterpieces, he wrote what he hoped would sell or get him a patron. He hustled to keep his family going.

I think this is important. For a lot of us, this is our first plague. This is the plague where we worry about paying the rent (good god, Cuomo, please hurry up and #cancelrent) and resorting to whatever schemes we can come up with. This is our Venus and Adonis plague, not our Lear/Macbeth/Cleopatra plague. If we have another one (lord, please let’s NOT have another one) and we’re a little more financially secure, maybe we can write our masterpiece. Meanwhile, I think the key for this one is survival.

I mean, if you have a King Lear in you to write, by all means, write it. But most writers I know are paralyzed with fear or worry or anxiety and none of that is conducive to productive writing. Frankly, I’d be pretty grateful to write a Venus and Adonis in this moment. Or even just one freakin’ sonnet. Lear can come when I’m less worried about my neighbors dying and my friends getting evicted, you know?

And maybe you’re laughing at me writing this because you know I’m already knee deep in a creative project that I started as soon as we started social distancing. “Ha ha!” you might laugh. “You say not to worry about being productive when you’re over there producing a podcast!” Which is true. I am. But I wrote it last year. The conceiving, the writing, the editing, the dreaming all happened in a non plague time and now is the time I got practical. “Ah,” I said to myself, “if I produce it now when theatre journalists have literally nothing to talk about, it might stand a chance to get a little press.” So… it’s actually a crass practical choice, not a burst of inspiration type choice. It’s Venus and Adonis, not King Lear. Also, starting and making things is apparently what I do in crisis. My theatre company was born on 9-11. When a boat starts sinking, I grab onto creativity for a raft. That’s just my way, I’ve come to realize.


An artist’s life is almost always a mix of the fanciful and naked practicality. I think it’s important to remember that even Shakespeare didn’t write King Lear in his first plague and he may not have even written it in his second.

Macbeth, though, that’s definitely a plague play.

Just kidding – we don’t know for sure about that one either.

And listen, I don’t want to be discouraging, but Shakespeare wrote an awful lot of really terrific plays before he wrote the plague ones. He already had Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard III under his belt by the time he had to flee the plague. So, if you haven’t written your Hamlet yet, maybe don’t worry about your Lear. Get started on everyone’s favorite, Henry the Sixth.

Side note: He also likely didn’t have to look after his children or meet with his colleagues over Zoom for his day job.

Write if it helps you. Don’t if it doesn’t. It might not meme quite as well as Lear in a plague but it might get you through and that is the important thing.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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