Songs for the Struggling Artist

Would I Go Back to the 20th Century?

There’s a Reddit question I can’t stop thinking about in which someone wanted to know what life was like in the 20th Century because they were born at the top of the 21st and couldn’t imagine it. They particularly couldn’t imagine life without the internet. They asked those of us who’d been around for the previous century if we would go back to the way things were before.

Would I? Would I give up the internet and my mobile phone? Would I surrender my laptop? Sometimes I think I would. I started writing this outdoors at my local coffee shop. Just as I was finding my groove, the woman nearby got on her phone and started talking about her family life very loudly. I would give that up. I really would. People have always talked to one another in coffee shops – but there’s something about the private phone calls in public spaces that I still find jarring, even though they’ve been around for a couple of decades. Would I give up my phone? My text messages? My personal voice mail? To just have a clearer distinction between public and private space? I might. I really might.

I don’t want to get all Grumpy Old Man here and start droning on about back in my day. But back in my day we didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t have the internet. We had to go to the library to look stuff up and we liked it! We loved it! Nah. I mean. We did go to the library – and we did love the library but being able to just look stuff up with a thing we keep in our pockets is amazing. I remember when I first got a computer that would allow me to dial up and use the internet. My grandmother asked me why I was so thrilled, why I found it so amazing. I remember explaining that it was like having the biggest library in the world in my apartment. I was a little overwhelmed by it, truth be told. What should I look up when I could look up anything?

I think this must have been RIGHT at the turn of the century. I’d just moved to NYC. It was an exciting moment. The future was in the air. But it also wasn’t really the future yet. I was still sending my friends and family letters then. In the mail. Receiving letters was unremarkable but it was also, in retrospect, special.

Sitting down to read a letter was a quiet moment, separate from the hum of life. It was an occasion. There are still letters I remember reading because I remember the rock I was sitting on, the chill in the air or the feel of the paper. No email has ever been as special as even the most banal letter.

When we first got email, it was a thrill. We got email my senior year of college, something I’d been wishing for since First Year. I had a hot email romance with a friend of a friend at another college that eventually taught me a swift and important lesson about chemistry and the massive power of projection over internet communication.

But even so, I was so so excited about email. I didn’t have it after graduation but two years later, I got a Hotmail account. I was on tour at the time and every so often we’d find ourselves in a place that had internet access and the only person I remember emailing was a Canadian improv guy I’d had a little romance with in Edinburgh during the festival. We were very excited to expand our communication beyond postcards and I remember finding a library with computers in some college town that could help me do that. The first few years of digital communication for me were very romantic. Mostly literally.

I find this hilarious now because email has become such an onerous burden. No one finds email romantic. I bought a book called The Tyranny of Email because it so aptly described how I felt about it by then. A few years ago, I turned off all visual and sound notifications for email because I noticed I was having a stress response every time I heard/saw it. (Actually, I turned off the sound when someone ELSE’S email dinged a notification like mine and I had a stress response.) There was a period in which I had to imagine putting on armor before opening my email, so stressed out it made me.

The same sort of journey happened with the phone, actually, now that I think about it. Back when there was nothing but a land line, I’d get excited when the phone rang. We’d race to answer it, sure it was some good news. At the sound of it, I’d think, “Finally! My big break!” Now, when my cell phone rings, I think, “Oh no. Who is that?” And yet there is rarely a mystery; their name is on my screen when I look at it. If it’s a friend or family, I feel relief – but generally, it’s just trepidation I get from my phone. Is this due to the technology? I have no idea. Maybe it’s just me becoming more anxious and cynical in my 40s. But I wonder. And yes, I would give up my smart little phone to be excited to answer a phone again.

That feels like the crux of the changes for me, the journey from cool fun romantic new technology to tool of anxiety and/or oppression. I signed up for Friendster and MySpace because they seemed fun. They were cool new ways to interact with people. I posted my music on MySpace which was a convenient way to share it without having to pay for the cost of CD duplication. Facebook was exciting and fun at first! Look at all these people I lost touch with, now back in my life! It’s like a high school reunion I didn’t have to pay for! It was all so much fun until it really wasn’t anymore. It all goes from fun to compulsion so fast. I remember a fellow theatre maker telling me she couldn’t sign up for Facebook because she didn’t have time for it. Then came a point where she had to join because everyone else was there, if only to promote her work. That’s why I’m still there – even though the days of sending each other digital flowers is long gone.

The thing I miss most about the previous century is just a fuller sense of being present with people. When we were together, we were just together. We were with the people we were with. If we wanted to be in touch with someone who wasn’t there, we had to find a telephone, or send them a letter, or just stop by their house. These days, whenever I sit with someone, I’m sitting with them and the thousand people they’re connected to by the device in their pocket.

I remember sitting on a rock on top of a hill that my friend and I had climbed and she was thinking about getting a cell phone (because it was starting to become necessary for the theatre biz) but she was worried about it. She was concerned about being on call everywhere, about being always available, that her life would be constantly interrupted. I said that was silly – she could always just turn it off if she didn’t want to hear from anyone. But she was right. She got a phone anyway at some point and at some point so did I – but she was right to have been worried about that. Just turning it off is not a solution for most people. Not in this ever connected world.

But we can’t, individually, just not have a phone or not be connected. This is how we live now. If you want to be a part of the community of humanity, this is how we’re doing it. I’m grateful for a lot of the benefits of this new world. I’m able to maintain relationships with people around the globe. I can share my work widely and without gatekeepers. I have developed all sorts of technical skills I never imagined possible. And all this has probably made important progressive social change possible. I wouldn’t want to give that up.

But – if someone came to me with a Time Machine and said I can take you back to the previous century and you can just live there if you want, I might do it. (I mean, I would like to see a lot of other times, too. Can we go traveling first? Also, I’d probably really miss my loved ones, so can I bring them? And…this fictional time machine fantasy may be getting out of hand at this point.) It would take me a long time to readjust to going to the library and writing letters and meeting people in person, but I think I was happier then. It might be worth the loss.

Our internet was out for about a week last year and it was a nightmare, of course. So much of our lives depend on it. When you’re not on it, you feel like you disappear. But that’s because everyone else is on it, and you’re left out. Back when there was no internet (or really, when the internet was only for the privileged few) it was just quieter. Everything was just quieter. You weren’t missing anything. You just did what was in front of you. The world was more local.

So, yes, I do miss it. But I know we can’t go back. We can only go forward. So I suppose I’m looking forward to the next development in technology – the one that will feel romantic and exciting before it becomes compulsive and oppressive. And then maybe, maybe, we’ll get past this sort of adolescent stage with our devices and find a way to really be present with each other again. I hope we can figure out how to be quieter, even with the whole world in our pockets.

This pocket watch is apparently from an Arctic expedition at the beginning of the 20th century.

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Generation X – Part 5 It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

On the Stuff You Should Know podcast about Baby Boomers, the hosts (both Gen X-ers) pointed out that generations are often characterized by events that shake their collective innocence (e.g. 9-11, JFK, Challenger) They then suggested generations might as well be characterized by the technology that unites them. Boomers were the first generation to grow up with TV. Gen X was the first generation to grow up with video and videogames. Computers, too. And Millennials grew up with more ubiquitous computers and the spread of the internet. Generation Z is growing up with smartphones. So…we somehow define our humanity by the technology at hand. Probably cavemen were like, “Yeah, our young ones are the Fire Generation. They’ll never know what it was like for us before we got that life changing Fire stuff.” Probably the Fire Generation and the House Building Generation got together and sang songs at each other right over the head of the lone representative of the farming generation, who declared that all this generational thinking is bullshit.

Time magazine called us the Video Generation in our youth. Which is a little bit comical now that there’s something called YouTube (invented by Gen X-ers.) Given the amount of video in our lives now, it is hard to imagine that people were once worried about us watching a couple tapes on VCRS or music on MTV or hanging around in arcades playing Ms. Pacman. It seems quaint now.

Were we the computer generation? While I did learn to program a little triangular turtle in grade school, the only computers I ever touched until college were the ones at school. I went to college with a typewriter and left with a Mac Classic II. I understood that computers were powerful and a little bit scary. The bad boys with keyboards could both start a nuclear war AND prevent one. And neither computers nor videogames were really for girls.

There was an interesting anxiety in the air as we watched the Computer Age roll in. Before we all had our own, computers were sort of magical and mysterious, dangerous and exciting. In a movie a lot of us saw, two nerds created a fantasy woman in real life by programming their computers. What would have once been a magic spell was now Weird Science. The nerds of Real Genius used their good computer skills to save the world from evil weapons computer stuff. It was good versus evil but with computers.

I re-listened to Kate Bush’s 1989 song “Deeper Understanding” which was about computers and found myself astonished at how directly it relates to all of us now. In an interview about this song, Kate Bush said she was surprised by how many people assumed she was into computers because she wrote a song about someone into computers. But this is the funny thing about that: at the time, we used to think about computers like this. Computers were an interest, like parasailing. Some people were into them, most people weren’t.

But those that were into computers were busy imagining a wide open world. I didn’t know it at the time (because I was one of those who weren’t that into computers) but Gen X computer kids were full of possibility. They imagined a world in which we could talk to anyone anywhere in the world, in which anyone with the skill could build anything. Gen X kids who were into computers were talking to each other on their computers long before the rest of us. They made virtual spaces out of their imagination that were endlessly flexible and modifiable. For Gen X computer kids (and some OGx-ers like Jaron Lanier) the way we use our technology now is anathema to what they intended.

While those of us who weren’t into computers were fine to have our options streamlined, to have our websites more user-friendly, to not have to learn the skills to make our own, those who did have the skills were horrified as they watched the wide open world of tech be reduced to a “click yes or no” world. They aimed at freedom and we got convenience and those of us who “weren’t into computers” don’t even know what was sacrificed for that ease.

An iPhone will only let you put apps on it that are Apple approved. And many of the websites that are changing the world aren’t customizable at all. They create paths for us to walk down in which we can only make one choice at a time. For example, Facebook makes most decisions for its users. It gives you only six options for your feelings when it would be just as easy to have you create your own reaction emoticons. Its algorithm chooses which posts you see when Facebook could easily make it possible for you to design your own. But it doesn’t. Its algorithms remain a closely guarded secret and it controls which of your friends you see and which you don’t.

As the years have gone by, we have been trained not to wonder about what it is behind the technological certain. We trade our privacy for connection and ease. We leave the decision making to big corporations or big data.

The promise of a wide-open world where anyone with know-how can do anything has become a world full of walled gardens. From meadows and mountains and plains and oceans, our technology became a series of small plots of land, gardened by a chosen few, on the estates of big corporations. And while the gardens inside have clear paths to walk down and very specialized flowers and hey, all our friends are here! – the walls don’t seem to help keep out the jerks. Now instead of wide open space where we might run into a jerk sometime, we are locked up in the garden of Twitter, for example, with torrents of jerks. As one Gen X-er who has always been into computers said, “The people who weren’t into computers won.”

That is, while we now all have tiny super computers that fit into our pockets, the computers in our pockets are often structured to limit our choices instead of expanding them.

We all have computers but we don’t know (or care) how they work or which corporation has access to our data. The Gen X-ers into computers are understandably a little upset about this and it would appear that Gen X-ers are at the forefront of helping us figure out how to integrate technology into our lives responsibly, wisely and consciously. Gen X-er Manoush Zomorodi hosts a podcast that leans into these issues with a characteristic Gen X questioning of accepted norms. Gen X takes nothing for granted. We know that infinite possibilities include some possibilities that are a real bummer.

Gen X programmers built new virtual spaces – things like Friendster, Google, MySpace and Twitter. This may not have been what they imagined back when they first got into computers but they have changed the world. I think we need Gen X technologists more than ever to help us return to the idealism of the Open Source dreams, even as we adapt to the inventions Gen X let loose on the world. Gen X may have been seen as nihilistic and cynical but that is partly just the shadow side of the deep vein of idealism that runs through most of us. If we’re cynical, it’s because we think people can and should do better.

While most generational discussions I’ve seen point to the Challenger explosion as the most influential historical event in Gen X’s youth, I have yet to meet anyone for whom that event loomed particularly large. We remember it, sure – but it doesn’t seem all that formative. What I do think may have been formative was the constant very palpable threat of nuclear war. I was reminded of how real this was for me after I watched the episode of The Americans, in which the family watches the TV movie, The Day After. I don’t remember the movie itself but I do remember the feeling I had that I would not be safe anywhere. I could not be safe under my desk or in my bed. I remember hiding under my covers for some time, knowing it would never be enough – that if someone pushed a button (and it seemed very possible that someone would), none of us would be safe.

The events of the movie Wargames felt like a very real possibility to me and I think most of Gen X had to adapt to a world that might explode at any minute. We had to acknowledge that it might be the end of the world as we knew it and we had to find a way to feel fine. Recent political events have brought this feeling back to the surface and Gen X finds itself once again in a world where some guy pushing a button could end it all for all of us.

When I started watching The Americans, it was an exercise in nostalgia for my childhood. (They used that “Nobody bothers me” ad! We sang that all the time in the 80s in Virginia!) Now watching a show about Russian spies undercover as Americans in the Cold War feels like current events.

I understand the impulse to categorize a generation by its technology or its unique historical events but I suspect that what binds a generation together more is the atmosphere that pervades – it is a collection not just of the music we hear, the movies and TV we watch, but also the politics and the objects that surround us.

Generation X was surrounded by some meaningful bullshit and we thought the world was probably ending but we felt fine. In a world of infinite possibilities, there was a small chance we might get out of our youth alive. And if you’re Gen X and you’re reading this – Congratulations! We did it! We already lived much longer than we ever imagined.


This is Part 5 of a multi-part series. and

You can read Part 1 here Part 2 here  Part 3 here

Part 4 here Part 6 here Part 7 here Part 8 here

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Devices in Auditions and Rehearsals

My company’s auditions for our project were meticulously planned. I did a group audition because I care about how people work together. I started with drawing, because it’s a script-flipping task that tends to calm jumpy actors down and it tends to signal that we’re doing things differently. I did a bunch of low exposure group acting explorations to get a comfort level going in a room full of strangers and then I had them play with materials to take everyone out of the context of performance and into creating.

Then I took a break. A long one. Because I wanted the group to have some time to chat and get to know one another without someone controlling their experience. It’s useful for me to see people with their masks off for a minute while they talk about their cat, or whatever. As in rehearsals, a lot of the art actually happens in these cross-pollinating moments.

But. In my recent auditions, this whole plan went completely off the rails at this point because rather than chatting and getting to know one another, almost every single actor took out their cell phone and sat against a wall. The room was silent. I was shocked. And scared for the future.

Technology has changed all of our lives in so many profound ways but until this moment, I hadn’t noticed it intruding on my art-making experience too much.

I think this is because in smaller groups, it is less obvious, this disconnection. When working with one or two other people, when someone steps away to take a call or write a text, it is an event. Someone says, “Excuse me, I need to check on my son,” or something like that. And when they return, there hasn’t been a major break in our momentum.

When everyone’s first impulse at a break is to unplug from the group and plug in to Facebook or emails or whatever – the entire momentum of a process shifts.

Theatre making is delicate. When I make something, I work very hard to create an experience that takes people out of the every day and into the world of the play. I want my shows to have this quality and I want my rehearsals to have it as well. Every intrusion from the outside world is a disruption. At our break, one actor checks Facebook and sees that an ex is getting married. Another gets an email about an audition next week that makes him nervous. And so on and so on – and so on everyone’s mind is somewhere else – and it takes effort to bring them back.

This isn’t a judgment on my actors. I fully understand why in an awkward moment, surrounded by strangers, everyone reaches for a phone. It is almost automatic. And I suppose it is that automatism that concerns me.

Back when I was an auditioning actor, no one had a cell phone to turn to in a break, and so we turned, however awkwardly to one another. I made some life long friends this way.

And those relationships led to making more art which led me here to auditioning new performers – and their phones. It’s like everyone’s a package deal now – the actor and everyone they’ve ever known, to whom they are connected via the internet. I am curious about how others handle this landscape. How do you negotiate the phones in your art-making midst?

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

Why my Tech is Like my Life in the Arts
March 13, 2016, 11:41 pm
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I finally caved and got myself a smart phone. I’d been happy with my texting and phone capable phones for years and would have remained so if I’d been able to find such a phone when I had to quickly replace it. This new phone does a lot of cool stuff that my old one couldn’t do. It can find me on a map. It can tell me when the bus is coming. But it’s a little buggy. I had to do a back up and restore. The advantage of this new phone, I’d been told, was that it would back up everything to Google – so even if I lost my phone, it would all be there. And despite having lost oceans of data before, I trusted that this was happening. I clicked back-up and restore and re-started my phone.

Then, I went to call one of my best friends and found that her phone number had vanished from my phone, along with my mother’s. Apps I’d deleted had returned and the most important things had disappeared. If I’d had my wits about me, I’d have been more suspicious of this backup/restore myth. I’d have copied out all the contacts that were really important and put them in a safe place. But I did not do that – not this time – nor did I do it the previous time when I’d lost my phone and had to find so many phone numbers. I continue to place my trust in this device that has continued to be unreliable.

And not just this device either. When my computer got a spill on it, the guys at the the shop erased all my data to give it a good hard start and fix it. I wasn’t worried, because I’d been backing up my data automatically with Time Machine. I was pretty pleased with myself for actually keeping that on track. So I hadn’t manually backed up anything in a year or two.

Turns out this re-install of the operating system they did at the shop meant that I couldn’t access many of my Time Machine files. I lost contacts and calendars, photos – all sorts of things. And so it was that I lost all the reminders of my friends’ birthdays and so I missed one I hadn’t missed in the twenty years I’d known my friend.

And what do I do I to solve these failures of technology? Do I get a paper calendar again – get print outs of everything? Do I get an old school address book? Not yet. I keep trying to get technology to help me with my technology problem.

How is this like a life in the arts?

Well – my life in the arts is equally unreliable and equally un-give-up-able. The only solution for art problems is more art. You know it is likely to fail and that failure may cost you connections with loved ones. You know you really should have a back-up life – some more traditional paper version of your life – but no matter how much you mean to back up your life, you just never seem to find the time.  And you can’t pretend to be surprised when it fails – like your phone, failure is built into the system. And like your phone, you stick with it anyway. Maybe some of you are better about backing up tech and maybe, probably, you’re also better at backing up your lives. Me? Not yet. But I will keep trying.


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