Songs for the Struggling Artist

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

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The Danger of Relying on Opinions

My theatre company’s crowdfunding campaign for Research and Development of our show got me thinking about arts funding and the way art gets supported. Generally, arts crowdfunding campaigns live or die based on the response to an idea, that is, the opinions of the people funding it. If a project’s friends and family LIKE the idea of the project, they fund it. If they’re not keen on it, like they think, “I wouldn’t want to go see that,” – they won’t. This is actually, at the gut level, often how grants get passed out as well. “Is this show, art-work, dance – something I’d want to see?” If yes – Stamp of Approval. If no – Rejection.

This basically means that whether or not something gets made is connected to the opinions of the consumer. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I decide whether to support something or not based on whether or not I think it’s a good idea. But I think this is problematic and symptomatic of an overly commercial sensibility when funding the arts. If you’d pitched me some of my favorite shows just as ideas, I’d definitely not have funded or chosen them. A stage version of the film, Brief Encounter? A one man show about tribes in the rainforest performed by a white dude? If you’d asked me to fund a show about a horse who goes to war, I’d have said that was an idea that was doomed to fail. And I would have been very wrong about that.

The fact is, whether or not I LIKE an artist shouldn’t preclude that artist’s ability to make the art. I don’t like all kinds of things every day. But I shouldn’t get to be the arbiter of what gets made.

We live in a world where Spiderman The Musical got made because Marvel had money to burn on it. We had Legally Blonde, The Musical because it was paid for. And I have to bet that not many people were truly passionate about making Legally Blonde the Musical. It was not born from a group of artists getting together to create something where there was nothing. A group of producers hired a group of writers to do a job and make some money using an existing property. It has all the hallmarks of a show put together by agents to showcase people at their agency.

Do we truly want a world where agents and movies studios decide what theatre gets made and artists like us – and like so many of our peers – have to send our ideas to the Idea Cemetery simply because our friends and/or granting organization didn’t like the idea? From Broadway all the way down to the smallest company, we’re letting the market determine who gets to make art.

This is why government funding for the arts makes sense. While no Arts Council is perfect, they at least aspire to a more equitable distribution of resources. They can keep their eye on inclusion and diversity. They can fund things that people won’t necessarily LIKE but really should get made and seen anyway. I’d rather have all kinds of work I don’t like funded, knowing that there are other metrics under consideration than whether the panel or audience thinks it’s a good idea.  I mean no disrespect to grant panels or audiences – but they don’t always recognize the good ideas from the outset. They tend to respond to things that are like something they’ve seen before. And this is not a great way to innovate in the Arts.

For the arts to thrive, we need to be able to explore a wide variety of ideas. We need to chase down the “bad” ones as well as the “good” ones. Good ideas sometimes make bad art. And vice versa. We need an arts funding culture that isn’t predicated on whether or not someone likes the idea. If we could, instead, fund the artists, fund the companies and fund the places that say to artists, “Whatever you want to explore, here are some resources.” That’s the way toward a vibrant, thriving arts landscape.

And, I think, that is why my company’s current campaign is going better than any crowdfunding we’ve done before. We’re not trying to sell the idea this time. We’re sharing a process. We’re looking to fund an exploration instead of a product. No one has to have an opinion about where we’re headed or what we create. And it is liberating for both artists and funders. We’ll save the opinions for the critics.


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A Fantastic Way to Support the Arts
April 15, 2014, 12:02 pm
Filed under: art, business, education, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

Here on the blog, the picture for artists is almost never good, so I wanted to share with you some happy news. Not long ago, I got word that someone (someone wonderful who I shall not name in case they wish to remain anonymous) has paid off my student loans. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am Student Loan Free!

The gesture is extraordinary and it makes such an enormous difference. The weight of that money stacking up on the back of my Master’s degree has been heavy and has loomed large in many ways. I am now free of it, due to my donor’s generosity but I am struck by what bondage many of the other skilled artists I know are still in.

If I were in a position to start another non-profit, (which I’m not, believe me) I would create something like Donors Choose to help artists get their loans paid off. You want to give a large donation that will make a big difference? Sure, you could donate $25,000 to a giant Arts Institution and I’m sure it will help buy the paper towels there for a very long time. You give $25,000 to pay off an artist’s loans, you give that artist freedom to create. You can reduce an artist’s payments or eliminate them entirely, thereby freeing him or her to make more art instead of loan payments.

I imagine a website where artists post a little profile – who they are and what they make, and donors could choose an artist to sponsor in whatever way they’d like. I imagine a donor might then be interested in the developments in the artist’s career afterwards. Perhaps the donor becomes a dedicated patron to an artist and her circle.

Now, I’d love a website/organization to just donate to artists to live and create art, as well, but I somehow suspect that transferring large sums of money from one person to another can create tricky tax issues for everyone and generally creates difficult expectations. (“Exactly what sort of art will you be making with my money? Will you paint a portrait of my family please? In the style of poker playing dogs? I did give you $25,000 to live this year. . .”) The advantage of paying off someone’s loans is that there are a couple of filters of both the loan company and (if it existed) the non-profit. I mean, heck, you could just pay off someone’s loans without a tax break (my donor did) but wouldn’t it be great to get some benefit from donating as well?

I don’t have any money. But if I did, I know I’d prefer to help one artist dramatically than to pour money into a giant institution that eats money like candy. I have several artists in mind (and they’re not me – because Ding, Dong my loans are paid!Yippee yahoo!) If anyone with more resources than me would like to start this thing, please let me know, I’ll help you do it. Or if you’re just looking for an artist to release from loan bondage, I’ll send you some names and loan numbers.

A Story about Ribbon and Support

For the last couple of years, my company and I have been focusing almost exclusively on one project as part of a concerted effort to both create work more sustainably and work that will sustain us. At each phase, I have expended a great deal of effort to collect a few thousand dollars. Because this is such a small company and project, I have done large swaths of the work for it myself. I wrote the letters, I gathered the things, I put the stamps on the postcards. I went and bought the ribbon ($1 a yard in most places.) There are advantages to having next to no resources. It’s hard to feel them from this angle but I know that there are some.

But I recently learned what one of the advantages of actually having resources can be. Not long ago, I went to Materials for the Arts (a great resource for free materials to non-profit arts and education organizations) and came home with almost all the stuff I needed. One of those things was more ribbon. It was free! I got three bags of ribbon and I felt like a queen presented with a country full of jewels. That sense of abundance was pleasurable enough but the second phase is why I wanted to share it with you. (Not that getting three bags of ribbon in and of itself isn’t amazing.)

Once I got the stuff home and began to organize it to bring to rehearsal, I realized how much ribbon there actually was and I started to wonder. . .what are some other new ways for us to use it? Until now, every ribbon was expressly accounted for and every ribbon was allocated according to its purpose, according to its needs. Suddenly with more than we absolutely needed, I began to think about things we might not need but that might be nice. I got very excited about these new additions. I stayed up too late cutting up ribbon, taping it together, sometimes cracking myself up with some new idea.

And if I’d just gotten a bunch of ideas about stuff to do with ribbons, that would have been the end of the story. But the ideas about ribbons led to other ideas that had nothing to do with ribbon. I thought about new text. I thought about new choreography. Suddenly having an abundance of material to work with unlocked a box that had been shut tight with practical details and struggle. I think this must be what it’s like to have what you need at the start of a process, to know you have a space, to know you have the funding, to be able to create freely and bravely with the things that you need.


In the conversations around arts funding, there’s sometimes a romanticizing of those of us who make work with nothing and I wonder if sometimes that subconsciously prevents our supporters from funding us.

The bulk of non-profit donation dollars tend to go toward big institutions, because they seem important, they have the resources to ask repeatedly and directly and because they are INSTITUTIONS. In fact, all the resources in the city for non-profits aim to make us more like them, to be more institutionalized. But the odds are good, given the allotment of money there, that your donation dollars to a big fancy non-profit theatre like Roundabout, will go to pay an administrator’s salary or building maintenance fees. When you give your donation dollars to a small company, the odds are good that your dollars are contributing directly to the art in question. And resources like that really do make better more creative art. It could be directly, i.e. your donation of three bags of ribbons might create amazing ribbon art or it could kick off a series of brand new ideas just with that infusion of resources.

So support your smaller companies when you can. We don’t have the resources to ask you for your support as often. We don’t have the manpower or the stationary or the postage of the big companies but that is because we are busy making art.

And listen: If you’re looking for a small company to support, of course, I’d love it to be mine ( – but this is bigger than us. Support all of us. Any of us. Whenever you can.

Fundraising Websites - Crowdrise

And other small arts organizations? List yourselves here in the comments. . . just in case readers need more options to support.

If I were in charge of Arts Education
August 22, 2011, 11:52 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , ,

Not long ago, I was brought into several 8th grade classrooms to give a talk about my career as a theatre artist. When I polled the students in the room, pretty much no one was even vaguely interested in theatre and an average of one or two per class were interested in any other arts. Music, visual arts, dance? None of it.
Here I was, brought in by a grant to bring more arts into the schools, talking with students about my work when they have zero interest or context with which to receive that sharing. Additionally, they’d already listened to two theatre artists talking about their careers prior to my visit there. This seems to me to be a terrible mis-use of arts resources – as is much of arts education. What if, instead of paying me and two other artists to come in and talk to the students about theatre, they’d paid us to come in and perform some theatre?
As a teaching artist, I spend the bulk of my time teaching students with little to no experience with my art form. I am almost constantly in the role of ambassador and missionary for my art. It is the supposition of Arts Education that the best way to expose students to art is to have them make it themselves, whether they want to or not. This is not an entirely crazy idea. It does work, to a degree. But I can tell you right now that whatever work I can do to engage students in the art is nothing next to the art itself. Some of the work I do with classes is connected with a production that the students see. Inevitably, it is the production that enthralls, inspires or sparks up the students.

So if I ran Arts Education – students would see much more theatre. Rather than paying artists to come in and teach, arts in education organizations would pay artists to come in and perform. Rather than attempting to integrate theatre into a science unit, they’d commission artists to create work based on the science unit.
If we want a more artistically literate society, we can’t teach them about the work anymore. They have to see it. And lots of it. In the classrooms I work in, if the students have seen one play, they’ve seen more than the average. Yet, we expect them to dive right into acting or playwriting despite having never really seen what they are.
In my ideal Arts Education, we teaching artists could still teach, too. But rather than teaching English classes who would really rather not stand up in a circle thank you very much, we’d teach students who want to learn more about the form. We would only teach students who had an interest.
One of my most successful residencies ever was at a school where they brought me in for the school’s mini-course in theatre. The students wanted to learn more Shakespeare so I helped them stage a short Romeo and Juliet. These were not privileged students, by the way or even students who had much experience with acting. I’m not proposing that arts education should only happen in environments where the students are already accomplished actors or musicians or whatever. I’m proposing that the pre-requisite to learning about an art from an artist be an interest in the art.
This career talk I had to give seemed to be designed to encourage students to consider careers in the arts before they even knew what arts are. This strikes me as terribly irresponsible. A life in the arts isn’t something I’d recommend to anyone in this country – especially not underprivileged middle school kids struggling to survive. What the arts have to recommend are not sexy careers. It’s the art itself that is significant. I WOULD recommend a life with the arts, a life of engaging in, seeing, participating in, enjoying the arts – but until this country supports its artists, it would be much more sensible program to encourage students to be teachers or doctors or entrepreneurs and develop a love for the arts in them, so that when they grow up, they’ll go to the theatre or the ballet or the museum and perhaps commission the teaching artists of tomorrow to create work to share with their children in tomorrow’s schools.

We Support the Arts
July 25, 2011, 10:36 pm
Filed under: art, business, theatre | Tags: ,

I met an artist’s parents yesterday. They told me about all the Broadway shows they’d seen that week (one a day, for a week) and how they see 25 shows a year. They proudly said, “We’re big supporters of the Arts.”
Meanwhile, their artist son has been making himself sick trying to make ends meet in the middle of several big demands on his art. The last time I was on the phone with him, he had to hang up because he was hiding from his landlord. I have suggested to this artist that rather than throwing up every morning from the anxiety about how to get the $700 necessary to get him through the month, he get some help from someone. How about his family? “They’re the last people I’d ask for help.” He says. At first I thought that was pride, but I came to understand that it was some family value of self-sufficiency that if he broke, he’d be in big trouble. He’d rather make himself sick.
The easiest arts for this family to support are being made right in front of them but instead they think they’re supporting the arts by consuming them. They have this ennobled sense of helping something from spending lots of money on Broadway tickets for an experience that they want to consume. Meanwhile, a week of Broadway tickets would pay my friend’s rent and give him the mental space he needs to create. Do they think they’re helping their son in some way by vaguely engaging in his field? That’s not support. Broadway theatres are a business. Buying those tickets just makes the producers more profit.
Consuming a cultural event is, yes, a kind of support – but it’s the same sort of support one gives to one’s favorite brand of coffee. I’m still buying it and that does help encourage the production of more of my favorite brand of coffee or gasoline or clothes or whatever but I don’t think consuming stuff gives one supporting bragging rights. I think supporting the arts means supporting the artists who make it – small scale, that could be buying an artist a meal or covering someone’s rent in a difficult dry spell – or on a larger scale, it can mean providing space for an artist to work, or structures to work within. Support means support. Buying stuff you like is a half ass form of support – especially when brilliant artists like my friend are struggling so profoundly.

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