Songs for the Struggling Artist


My Blog-a-versary! A Decade of Blogging.
October 9, 2018, 8:18 pm
Filed under: writing | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Ten years ago, I reluctantly came back to NYC from London and in the first few weeks of that return, I started the blog. I think the seeds of the blog had been planted months before but it took the displacement of the move to really begin growing.

In retrospect – there were two, maybe three, inciting experiences, that led to this blog that I definitely never imagined I’d still be doing ten years later.

One of those was a lunch I had with a friend from high school with whom I’d done some community theatre. She had pursued a high-powered business career but had always wondered about her theatre path not taken. I pursued theatre without question, though with a great deal of angst and hearing about the realities of my life choice seemed to make her feel better about hers. At some point in the conversation, she suggested making a magazine for struggling artists. She seemed really interested in the ins and outs of the lives of those of us who made this other choice. I took her suggestion seriously. I’m not sure I’d be blogging today had I not had that conversation.

Another factor for the blog’s beginnings was my attempt to reconcile my compulsory return to the US. I’d been greatly inspired by theatre in the UK and I was devastated to have to return. I felt I wanted to try and bridge the gap – to try and bring a little of what I learned in London back home. Some of my earliest posts were part of a series called What I Wish American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits. At least one of them actually happened. (Nothing to do with me, I’m sure. And if I could have only chosen one to come pass, it would not have been that one.)

Another factor in the blog’s creation was my interest in returning to music – it’s why the blog was called Songs for the Struggling Artist. I linked the posts to tunes in my Reverb Nation account that no one had ever heard. This was a practice I quickly abandoned. But it is funny that in the podcast version of the blog begun a few years ago, I returned to the songs. Sometimes the future of a thing is buried in its beginnings.

A few things I’ve learned in a decade of blogging. One – the market for work about struggling artists is really small, like so small, you can’t even believe how small. So, ultimately, that magazine my business friend suggested would have been a flop.

If my stats are any indication, people care about sexual harassment and maybe feminism a little bit – but the people who care about issues effecting struggling artists are few. My perspective on this was completely skewed because it felt to me that EVERYONE was a struggling artist but that’s because almost all my friends are struggling artists. To me, the world is full of ‘em. But there aren’t nearly as many of us as I thought. And certainly a magazine for us would never have flown because struggling artists almost certainly couldn’t afford to buy such a thing.

And struggling artists weren’t the only niche market, I discovered. Because I’m a theatre maker, I wrote about theatre fairly often – but theatre, too, is very niche, I realized. I discovered this when I began to explore the idea of writing a feminist theatre column somewhere. In my years in the theatre, I’d thought feminism was the niche market – because within theatre, it is. (The feminist revolution has been VERY SLOW to ARRIVE in theatre.) But when I began to investigate how to pitch this column to publications, I realized I’d have to reverse my thinking entirely. Whereas I’d initially thought I’d have to make a case for feminism, it was really theatre that I’d have to make a case for. I thought about writing for Bust or Bitch – both of which have feminist culture critique. But theatre is not TV or Film or Music. Theatre was just too niche. I’ve had this sense of this confirmed by a friend who edits a theatre publication. Theatre is niche. Theatre education is even nichier. Struggling Artists are niche.

But to my small community, occasionally, I get the privilege of expressing something unexpressed. I get to illuminate some thing that had once been in niche-y darkness. I may not really speak to the mainstream but really, that’s what a blog is for.
Blogger Paul Jarvis summed this up in his most recent post this way:

Content on the internet currently is designed for scale, for sharing, for the masses. This runs counter to blogging, which is for a specific niche, a specific group, a specific interest a few people might have.

By chasing the current state of content we can lose what made the internet awesome in the first place: unique voices, sharing specific ideas, for a tiny subset of folks interested in them, clicks and viral-ness be damned. Writing for everyone really means writing for no one. It means using shock and outrage, changing every few minutes, to create share-worthy rage but nothing else. It means clicking through 19 slides to realize the information presented was designed more to get you to see an advertisement than to share something useful with you.

And as niche-y as this blog may be, it is the most popular thing that I do. By a long shot. I’m very grateful to it for giving me a space to share my thoughts and to make a difference. It has become a support for me via Patreon. It has become the vehicle for my intro to podcasting and led to the creation of two podcasts – the Songs for the Struggling Artist blogcast and Reading the Library Book. It has led to the creation of five albums worth of music and thereby brought me back to something I loved and abandoned. And I’m especially grateful to the people who have read the blog, heard it, heard me, helped me have confidence in my own words, my anger, my ideas, my voice.

Thank you for the last decade. Let’s see what develops in the next one.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read the previous one on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Want me to write for another decade?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 

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Theatre Is Not a Training Ground or a Compost Bin
September 10, 2018, 9:28 pm
Filed under: art, theatre, TV | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A few months ago, this filmmaker told me that someone had told him his screenplay would work better on stage, that he should turn it into a play. I thought that was ridiculous and I told him so, too. Why would you want to produce something designed for the screen on stage? The other way around, I understand. But in probing the question further – it sounded as if his screenplay was very wordy and they were trying to dismiss his work by sending it to the theatre, where they thought dialogue would be more welcome. This made me mad.

Theatre is not here to take your shitty film cast offs. We value words, sure, but if there’s not a reason to put those words on a stage, live, in front of people, in the moment, it doesn’t need to be there. If the piece is just a couple of people talking, make a radio show or something. Podcast that shit. It just felt like some film folks thought of the theatre as their compost bin, where they could throw their scraps and maybe have something to spread on their garden.

And this guy, with his dialogue heavy screenplay, had thought, “Maybe I should turn this into a play.” But he had literally no idea what went into producing a play. He thought it must be easier than producing a film. Don’t worry; I dissuaded him from that idea pretty quickly. His screenplay was a two person kitchen table type scenario. He could easily shoot it with a couple of actors and an iPhone if he wanted to. He could do it for almost nothing. To produce those same two people at a table in a reputable theatre in NYC would cost thousands upon thousands of dollars. AND – there’d be no particular reason to see it onstage. It wasn’t meant for the stage. It would bring nothing to the medium. The medium wouldn’t improve it.

I tend to believe that theatre should have a reason to be live, to be theatrical in some way. If it’s not necessary that an audience be in the room with it, I don’t really care about whatever is onstage. That’s my particular taste, of course. But yeah, film dudes wanting to offload their dialogue on our stages don’t make me happy.

Not long after this conversation, I met a student who wanted to work in animation. She had been advised to take some theatre classes to help her with this goal. She had no interest in theatre. She did not particularly want to do it – but she was open to exploration. And you know, that’s fine. Explore away. But I found myself irritated by the teacher who’d advised her to study theatre. I felt similarly about this as Mr. Screenplay. Like, if you want to do animation, do animation! Draw! Make silly voices! Put voices to your drawings. Put drawings to your voices. And sure, theatre can help all kinds of people with all kinds of stuff but it feels a bit, I don’t know, condescending. No one sends people to film or animation classes to improve their theatrical skills. Like, if the training in your medium is insufficient, work on that! That’s the issue, not some strange sideline investigation into an entirely different art form.

And I don’t mean to sound snobby about this. I am so happy to have people explore whatever kind of art they want. If you’re a banker who wants to study theatre, I welcome you! If you’re a nurse who wants to learn to be a clown, come on over! Join the theatrical party! But I’m not so keen on this using theatre to substitute for training in other art forms.

Theatre is an art all by itself. It is not training wheels for film or TV or animation or video. It’s just not. And it’s not the place to send cast offs from those arts either. There is, of course, great value in experimenting with other forms to improve your work in your own. In college, I studied a little printmaking and drawing and I think it gave me some perspective on my work in theatre. But broadening your horizons in other forms is very different than trying to use a form as a stepping stone either toward or away from your own. Explore, by all means. Experiment! Discover! I just hope that everyone who dips their toes in a new form gives that form the respect it deserves, in and of itself.

Does this sound a little defensive? Maybe it’s a little defensive. As someone with a lifetime commitment to theatre, I have a lifetime of people assuming I’m aspiring to film or TV. I have hundreds of experiences of telling people I work in theatre and instantly being asked, “Have you ever been on TV?” It’s not the same. It is not the same. Some people, yes, go back and forth and more power to them. TV will make you a whole lot more money than theatre ever can. But theatre is theatre. It’s not practice. It’s not training. It’s not a stepping stone. It’s not a compost bin. It’s not here to try and be something else. Theatre is theatre.

 

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Like theatre? Want to support someone who makes it?

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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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



Don’t Step On My Exit

This guy I’d never met before was being kind of a pretentious dick about the theatre we were standing in. He clearly felt he gained some status and authority from working as an usher at the place. What he didn’t know (because this is a big old organization) was that my friend and I had also worked there for over a decade in the education department so I told him. And it gave him pause, which was the desired effect. I’m not a big fan of the status game shit (Unless it’s an actual status game in an improv context – those status games I love!) but I’ll play if I have to.

As the evening went on, more talk of the theatre we were in emerged and when I was asked how I happened to no longer work at this fancy theatre, I joked that I stormed out in a huff. To be clear, this is not the case. It was a playful re-framing at my own expense, not the expense of the institution. It was my hope to make it clear that I left with a sense of righteousness and my dignity and that it was not some other kind of parting of the ways. But this little joke came back to haunt me over the course of the rest of the evening.

The first time was when he told someone my parting of the ways was acrimonious. I corrected him immediately. I said explicitly that it was not acrimonious. All parties were respectful and measured and no one bore anyone any ill will at my parting. I told more of the story. I emphasized that my “huff” was my own sense of self-righteousness and nothing anyone did to me. Not to say that the things I was mad about weren’t justifiable – but I recognize that I was the active agent in a moment. I saw my leaving as heroic and to hear it re-framed like a messy divorce made me mad. But I corrected the mistake and then moved on to enjoy the drinks at the bar.

An hour or so later, I heard him report, once again, to a new arrival to the party, that I’d had an acrimonious parting at this theatre. I corrected the implication again for the new arrival but I recognized that this guy was going to talk about my “acrimonious” parting forever – no matter what I said.

And here’s why I hate that and why I wanted to tell you about it. It felt like such a clear example of someone changing my story – something that happens all the time, especially to women and people of color and changing it in such a way where I was no longer the hero with a powerful exit. I thought I had a story like that air steward who pulled the escape hatch and slid down the inflatable slide to quit, but now I was in a story where I was just a pain-in-the-ass ex-wife.

And the fact that this guy still works at that theatre and seemed to enjoy the telling of the story he made up made me worry about all the people I still know there with whom I have good respectful relationships. I know how these stories get around.

I’ll explain my concern with a story of another job I quit. When I was in my early twenties, I was working at a theatre that suckered me in by telling me I’d be playing a leading role in a big play and then, when I arrived, stuck me into the box office 6 days a week, with a small chorus part on the occasional evening. It was one of those theatres staffed almost entirely by similarly suckered young people and in the house we all lived in, the others told the story of the one who came home for lunch one day, packed up their stuff and never went back. This person was a legend. Everyone seemed to admire their heroic departure. Everyone told the story again and again.

I left that theatre myself after two weeks, though not in a cloud of mystery. I spoke to the Artistic Director. (Yes, the one with the veil of rumors about his behavior with young women.) I talked with him once after the first week (when he told me I should meditate) and then again when I’d definitively decided I was leaving. Even though the Artistic Director tried to get me to stay, he finally conceded that if I was going to go, he couldn’t stop me and to get on my horse and ride. I packed up my car and drove out of there. It was a sexist and racist place to work and I was glad as hell to escape into the sunset.

Fast forward to my next acting job in a different state. In the new company of actors, there was an actor from the city where I’d left that shitty job. I told him I’d worked briefly in his city at that shitty theatre and he said, “That was YOU?! You’re a legend.” This was a year after the fact. And this guy didn’t even work at THAT theatre. Stories stick around. They can spread and grow until they cease to have anything to do with the source. And you know – I liked how that exit story came back to me from the other state. This actor’s story about me supported the vision I had of it. His story was like mine in which I was the hero who rode off into the sunset inspiring others to follow.

But back in the present day – this new story of my acrimonious split at the usher’s theatre makes me angry because it takes away my agency in it and it does not reflect my experience of leaving a place to make a stand. It frames me as a woman in Fatal Attraction instead of Karen Silkwood or Erin Brockavich. I left that theatre on principle and I’m hearing it reflected back to me as a spat. Repeatedly. No matter what I say to correct it. And he will tell his version of his story at work and he might tell it often and I don’t know what it will be by the time it comes back to me.

And this happens to women’s stories all the time. All the time. Wondering how it is that no one believed women when they came forward with their harassment and assault stories? This is how. This is how.

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The Beginning of Authority in Theatre (and Beyond)
July 31, 2017, 12:48 am
Filed under: advice, Leadership, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

At the end of the evening, the young actors were hanging on his arms, pleading for an audition for whatever he did next. He had just joined a company four months before and directed his first show in the months previous. The last time I’d seen him, a year before, he’d asked me for advice about beginning. Now he was asking if I wanted to be his assistant. I have had a company for 16 years and a Master’s Degree in Directing. But no young actors hang on my arms or tell me they will stalk me until I let them audition.

My friend is a white man with an authoritative air. As an actor, he is at his best when playing ridiculously rigid authority figures. If you’re casting a buffoonish General, he’s the best man for the job. He exudes authority. I do not. When I’m returning to acting, I like to perform with this authoritative friend because I enjoy playing characters who subvert authority – the more restrictive the authority figure, the more fun it is to subvert them. My friend is a genius at playing this charismatic authoritative type and it is tremendous fun to be his subversive second in performance.

I understand that I am not an obvious leader. I don’t think anyone would pick me out of a crowd to lead them. But while I don’t project power or authority, I do lead. I can lead. I make space for people and make things happen. I am not a novice at this – and I am happily finding that there are more and more new models for my style of leadership. Jill Soloway is probably not an obvious leader either but I’d follow her anywhere.

I’m thinking about this because I’m thinking about how these kinds of patterns replicate themselves over and over. How men who project a certain kind of authoritarianism are not just taking power but are also given it. This creates and recreates the same authoritative structures in theatre that we’ve always had and all it takes to replicate itself is one charismatic authority announcing himself and a few people to agree to that proposition and enlarge it with adulation and obsequiousness.

The young actors hanging on the arms of my friend wanted to make theatre like the show they’d just seen and they asked my friend if he made work like that. He said “not really no.” But they didn’t care. They just wanted to work with him, whatever he was doing. They could see he exuded authority and they wanted in, no matter what he was doing, their own interests aside. What is ironic is that I DO make work like the show they’d seen and I am always looking for actors are hungry for it. But they weren’t looking at me. And I didn’t need them to. I have zero interest in the fawning.

I suppose I’m writing this now to help those young actors think more broadly than the obvious. Who knows what other connections they failed to make because they were busy responding to the most authoritative voice in the room?

Extrapolate this out a bit and you can see how we ended up in the political situation we’re in – many Americans saw an authoritative charismatic white guy declaring himself to be the greatest, despite the fact that he had zero experience – and they hung on his words and his arms and swore a sort of blind fidelity to wherever he would lead them.

An authoritative person is not always the best authority. It is a kind of gut response to authoritative behavior, I think, to give over to someone who declares himself a leader. It is probably a primal response that is worth investigating with a more reasoned part of the brain. I mean, evolutionarily speaking, there was probably once a good reason to follow the person who stood up, shouted loudly and said, “Follow me!” I’m not an evolutionary psychologist, so I’m not sure what that reason was. But now, given all I’ve learned, I’m less inclined to follow anyone who claims to have the answers. From the Dunning-Kruger effect, to the No True Scotsman fallacy to Confirmation Bias and the Optimism Bias, social science shows us that our instincts, our gut responses are often way off base. Authoritarianism works, not because someone is a good authority, but because people are so willing to follow someone who declares their authority. It’s time to open up what it means to have authority. This passage from Douglas Adams says it best:

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

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The Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

At a recent festival, the audience favorite was a show that re-told a fairy tale – one that featured a king reckoning with his power. It won an award, people loved it so much. But it made me furious.

I don’t blame the creators, really. The source material was tried and true and they tackled it well. The aesthetics and storytelling were expertly executed. But. In watching it, I thought to myself, “I never need to see a story like this again. In fact, maybe I should make a list of stories I don’t need to see any more.” In this case, a show about the difficulties of being a young white male king just didn’t resonate with me. I have seen a lot of these in my life. Maybe because I spend a lot of time in the trenches of Shakespeare, I feel like I’ve heard this story just about as thoroughly as I’d ever hope to and with much more scintillating language. And who knows, one day I might want to see one again.

However, meanwhile – I never want to see another story about how a young man should assume authority. Young men know how to do this. They got it. There are tons of models. If you want to show me a story about how a young woman assumes authority, I’m all about that. Extra points if she’s a woman of color. But I don’t need any more authoritarian stories. Please.

I think, too, this particular show triggered my fury because it did a lot of things at the beginning that made me think something else entirely was going to happen. I thought we were going to go in and subvert authority. I thought we were going to understand our power as a group. I thought we might even learn how to overthrow a king and become a true democracy. These are all lessons I actually need right now. That’s the show I needed to see and I didn’t get it. That’s not the company’s fault. They didn’t know what show I had in my head.

At the start of this show, we all practiced our bows for the King we were due to meet. I played along, because it’s fun to play. But I really don’t need to practice bowing to authority. Too many of my people are already too good at this, metaphorically speaking. Bowing to authority is one of the things that got us into this current political mess. What I’m seeking are lessons in resistance. I need people who can show us how to refuse, to resist, to make change.

I’m now trying to work out how to write the show I wanted and didn’t get. But there are very few models in this realm. I can only think of one or two. If you know of one, please send it along, I need some inspiration of radical democracy, of collective power.

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You’re not Just a Theatre; You’re a Movement.
December 15, 2014, 12:00 am
Filed under: art, Creative Process, theatre, writing | Tags: , ,

Not long ago, I had the second in a series of meetings with an arts organization consultant about my theatre company. These meetings are an extraordinary gift of an opportunity to get feedback and insight from someone who has seen the births, lives and deaths of many theatre companies, large and small. After a long discussion about mission and purpose and values, he said something that made my mind split wide open. It was something along the lines of “You’re not just a theatre, you’re more like a movement.”

And I wouldn’t have expected to, but I loved this idea. I think this is because theatre companies come and go. Fifty were born just today in tiny apartments around NYC but Movements. . .Movements have a lasting effect. Movements slip in and make a difference. Movements can empower people, can shift the balance of things, can show people things they hadn’t seen before. Movements can be political, sure – like the civil rights or feminist movement but they are also revolutionary artistically – like the impressionist, the cubist, the futurist, the modernist movements. Movements move things. Or maybe more than things, they move people. They move the landscape, they move the conversation.

That is for me. I’ll sign up for that. And somehow framing my work in this context helps me weather the storms of art-making a little bit better. If the establishment doesn’t give me its resources or its prizes – no problem. I’m a movement, the establishment isn’t supposed to like me. If I find myself at the margins of things, no problem, that’s where movements thrive.

When I have trouble marketing my work well? As this advisor said, “For you, it’ll be less about marketing and more about spreading the word.”
And that is music to my marketing-weary ears.

What I will now do with this new perspective on my work, I’m not yet sure – but what is clear to me is how buoyed I feel by this idea. It feels as though I had a great anvil untied from my feet and now I’m free to bob in the sea, free to let the movement move me.

“You do not become a ”dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”
Václav Havel

I’m not yet at the Enemy of Society Stage yet but I guess that’s how I know I’m not at the end.

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Ashes and Light
September 11, 2014, 4:32 pm
Filed under: art, dreams, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

It is the 11th of September, 2014. Thirteen years ago, the smoke blew over Brooklyn, where I was nestled, safe from harm. This is an anniversary for so many awful things but for me, it is also a reminder of something powerfully great and the two are inextricably linked in my mind.

That morning, even before all the damage was done, my friend Shannon called to make sure I was okay. (I was. And still in my pajamas. And remarkably, she got through to me via the phone when so few could.) Shannon and I had been talking for months about working together on a play. We’d bandied the idea back and forth and Shannon, who was living in California, had been toying with the idea of moving to NYC to do it. When she called that morning, I thought, “Well, that will be the end of that! She’s not going to move to New York now, not now that the city is under attack, not now when rubble is falling and smoke is permeating the air!”

In fact, it was quite the opposite. The horror of the situation seemed to galvanize her and she said, “That’s it. I’m coming. We’re going to do this.”

For me, that was the real birth of our theatre company. It was that moment when the world was falling apart, when destruction seemed to be raining down on us – and we decided to make something.

It felt then, and still feels, like the only response to destruction is creation. And while that first show we made had nothing to do with 9-11 or politics or even destruction – it was, in a sense, a response to all of that. It was, for us, an assertion of the power of creativity in the face of death.

I find myself newly moved today, when I think about Shannon’s fierce choice to come here and make something with me. It got me thinking about how our little company, that was born in a difficult moment, has survived throughout all the subsequent difficulties.

If feels like this theatre was born out of ashes and it helps to remember that when it seems too hard to go on, when it’s so challenging to keep making things with so few resources and so little encouragement. Today, I’m reminded that we were compelled to make a bright thing in a dark time. And as we go on, I feel like the darker the moment, the lighter we are compelled to shine, even when the odds are against us.

Today, I’m remembering both things, the ashes and the light and I will carry both of them forward to the next marker in time.

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