Songs for the Struggling Artist


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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Want to help me survive the plague?

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Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

Or buy me a coffee on Kofi – ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis



Toilet Paper and Art

My improviser friend used to talk about his craft being toilet paper – that you pulled off a square and then threw it away. It was impermanent and that was its appeal. It was a uniquely disposable craft.

In our new toilet paper obsessed society, I’m not sure this analogy works anymore. No one is hoarding improvisers. They’re stuck at home like the rest of us – their skills going wanting.

But I had already been thinking about this analogy fairly often, even before the coronavirus made us fetishize toilet paper. I was thinking about it in relationship to things made on the internet, which often feel like toilet paper art as well. That is, we make something, we put it on the internet and the internet does whatever it’s going to do with it and then it gets washed away in the flow of whatever happens next. Almost nothing has a sense of permanence.

The first website I was a part of making was back in 2002 and it really felt like we were constructing a building. Our designer created a bit of art out of the art we had made and we felt it would be around forever. When I made a MySpace page, I thought of it as a place – and a place people would visit and spend time in. I thought they would click around and listen to everything.

I continue to have this old fashioned view of what happens on-line. When the virus sent everyone home, I thought, “Oh, now’s the time that someone will start reading the back catalogue of the blog. Someone’s about to go very deep into the library of Songs for the Struggling Artist.” But, of course, no one’s doing that. They’re not even reading the most recent blogs. In fact, the views on both my blogs have never been lower.

I suspect that this is mostly because everyone is panic reading all they can find about the virus and shutdowns and quarantines and such but ALSO because everything on the internet is disposable. We don’t go looking for interesting corners to click around in anymore. We don’t read anyone’s entire oeuvre or listen to anyone’s entire repertoire. We just watch the stream of information and ideas go by and pick out whatever looks interesting to us. Sometimes something comes up from the past – but for the most part, we consume our internet in an ever present present. It’s all toilet paper now.

As a person who makes things that live in this digital space, I don’t love this. I don’t find it encouraging. It’s hard to put one’s heart and soul and sweat and skill into something and watch it sink into the stream never to be seen again. It can be just as discouraging to, say, put on a play and have not many people come to see it – but at least in the live medium, you have the moment, you have the exchange. One of my favorite performance experiences ever was a show we put on for one audience member. No one showed up but her but we didn’t cancel and it was extraordinary. In remembering watching her watching it, I am transported to the sense of wonder on her face. That look is sustaining, even all these years later, in a way that a few likes on a post that disappeared into the internet ocean are not.

And now everyone’s livestreaming because what else can they do? It feels like you could fill a day with all the live concerts and performances that are suddenly popping up in a Facebook feed. Now, it seems, with everything shut down, the disposable nature of making things on the internet becomes even more disposable. We do it today and forget about it tomorrow.

The endless scroll of many social media sites makes it feel like the internet happens in front of us and it is seductive and hard to break free of. I know it’s hard for me to stop watching the flotsam go by to go purposefully look at something more permanent that I want to know about. But I suppose that’s my plea, that while we’re stuck at home, largely on-line, that we all go clicking around in the weird places on the internet like in the old days. Go investigate somebody’s entire web comic. Watch all of a choreographer’s recorded dances. Explore the back catalogue of someone’s writings. There are so many stories that got placed hopefully up on the web never to be seen again. It’s not like watching someone’s live performance in a theatre by yourself, of course, but taking a deep dive in some artist’s pool might offer something a little different than what floats by every day. It might all be toilet paper but some of it has been carefully sculpted into something wonderful somewhere. There are a lot of undiscovered treasures that have sunk to the bottom of the internet ocean, hoping to one day be revealed. Go diving, if you can.

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.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

*

Want to help me find a more permanent place in the internet ocean?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

Or buy me a coffee on Kofi – ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis



Performing Arts Going Dark

Have you all read Station Eleven? I mean, don’t, if you haven’t. Even the author recommends waiting a few months to read it. It’s a little too relevant right now. It hits a little too close to home. It begins with a pandemic that leads to the radical upending of civilization. You can see why you might want to wait a minute to get into it. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week – not just because of the pandemic – but because of what happens after the pandemic. The heart of the story is a traveling Shakespeare company that tours the devastated country. When nothing is left, we have the arts.

At the moment, with all the performing arts cancelled, it can feel like our work is unimportant or inessential. Suddenly, it is, technically, palpably dangerous to do what we do. Suddenly, it has become reckless to gather people in a room and share things with them. Suddenly, the very thing that makes the performing arts so magical is the thing that makes them dangerous. Almost everyone I know in New York works in the performing arts in some capacity and almost everyone I know is in a state of absolute disarray. As show people, we are built with an intense drive for the show going on. We are used to pushing through any numbers of difficulties in order to make it to the stage. To have the stage pulled out from under us is counter to everything we feel in the very fiber of our beings. The show must go on! It can’t be cancelled! It goes on! Isn’t it better to do a show? Isn’t it always better to do a show than not do a show? Won’t the arts save us all? Not in this case, no. Not in the way we’re used to.

What’s happening for us is not just a crisis of economics (though it is that and quite a serious one at that) but also a crisis of faith. If the shows don’t go on, who are we? What is all this for? How can it not be good to gather a group of people together and share art with them? To laugh? To cry? To tap our toes to the beat together? To have our heartbeats sync up as we watch? How? How? How?

But, of course, in a pandemic, it is very bad for us all to be in a room together. I am interested in the connections we share with other things that have had to shut down recently. Sports and religious gatherings are experiencing the same unilateral canceling. We are all shut down together – all the things that bring people together, that unite us, are dangerous.

But this does not mean they are inessential. Things that bring people together, like the performing arts, like sports, like religion, are key to our survival, to our thriving as a species. It feels to me that in losing that ability of being all together in a unified state, I’ve come to appreciate it anew.

Sometimes, you may have noticed, I get a little cranky about theatre. I see shows and they make me angry and sometimes I tell you about it. I get mad – partly because I want shows to be better and partly because my ability to make shows has been hampered over the years so I get mad about shows that have a lot of resources and squander them.

But here we are in the middle of a pandemic and almost all theatres have been shut down. And it becomes instantly clear that I would rather watch the worst show there is (It’s Bike. You know it’s Bike.) over and over and over again than have no theatre at all.

For all my ranting, I do love the stuff and I’m sad for even the worst show that has closed. It suddenly feels very important to me to know that shows are running, even ones I’ll never see, even ones I hate.

I hope that when this is all over, there will be a renewed appreciation for the performing arts and their important place in our culture. We were all shaken by how quickly the entire theatre business was shut down here in New York. It was as if someone flicked a switch and thousands of people lost their jobs and thousands more lost their dreams. Like that. In an instant. But this doesn’t mean the arts are a frill that get dropped in a time of crisis. It’s just that being with people is what the performing arts are all about and suddenly being with people is dangerous and so the performing arts become the most dangerous. And not because theatre people are some of the most touchy feely people out here, either. It’s because a bunch of people breathing the same air is the heart and soul of the work – and right now that air is treacherous. So we have to stop.

But maybe, once this has passed, we can come to appreciate what we lost when the theatres went dark.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be as extreme as Station Eleven – where survivors form a community building Shakespeare company. Maybe we don’t have to wait for the destruction of civilization as we know it to support the performing arts. Maybe we can support them right now so that theatre spaces will be able to open again, that shows can continue their runs, that freelancers can survive this terrifying downturn. As this article in Vulture says, “As concert halls, theaters, and museums around the world go dark, we all need to move quickly to ensure that when it’s finally safe to emerge from our lairs, we still have a cultural life left to go back to.”

Personally, I’ve come up with a project to keep some theatre folk creatively engaged with a project that we can do from our homes. I was working on it prior to this disaster in another form and it just happens to be possible this way. So I’m just rolling forward on that and it’s already delighting me.

The skills that help us bring people together in real life are stepping up to help keep us together while we are separated. Here are two that I know about – The Social Distancing Festival and Musicals from Home. Many many theatre folk are going to find this social distance thing very very difficult (as I’m sure most people will – but I think it hits our community driven community especially hard.) I feel quite certain this will drive a lot of them to become very inventive to create distance community and whatever those inventions are will benefit us all in the long run.

There will be theatre when this is all over. And concerts. And dances. And hopefully we will all appreciate them and being with each other all the more.

Look at all these theatre kids touching each other. We can’t do this right now. And it sort of made me tear up just looking at them. Photo by Mauricio Kell via Pixabay

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.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

*

Want to help me get through this no theatre time?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

Or buy me a coffee on Kofi – ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis




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