Songs for the Struggling Artist


Thinking About Respectability in Law and Theatre
August 27, 2022, 11:09 pm
Filed under: Acting, Justice, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Mostly I don’t worry about respectability. I’m aware that I work in fields that lack a certain respectability and that by operating at the margins, I do not rank high on a lot of people’s respectability scales. I notice it particularly in the comments on anything that proposes providing support for artists (for housing, basic income, anything – “Why should we help these people who don’t even do a regular job for a living?”). I have made a kind of peace with my lack of respectability and can sometimes even revel in it.

Recently, though, I found myself thinking about it – after wrapping up jury service on a civil trial, spending hours watching lawyers. Lawyers, despite all the jokes to the contrary, experience a high level of respectability. Often, immigrants want their children to grow up to be lawyers (and doctors!) so that they know the children have achieved something like respectability. No one shakes their head regretfully when they hear someone is going to law school. It’s a sign they are entering a respectable social class, a genteel profession. There may be a lot of jokes about how terrible lawyers are but no one will be disappointed if their kid becomes one.

After sitting through a week and a half of a personal injury lawyer trying to gaslight us into punishing a doctor for something he didn’t do, I really don’t think law is such a respectable profession anymore. I may not make a lot of money but I don’t try to convince people of lies. I may do things that a lot of people don’t understand but I don’t waste people’s time and attention on spurious situations. I don’t take advantage of vulnerable people and expose their innermost life details to groups of people for no good reason. I do not find the guy who does this kind of work respectable.

The other lawyer, the guy defending against this case didn’t strike me as all that much more respectable, honestly, even though he at least had truth and science on his side. But this man spends all his time pushing back on the specious claims. He’s participating in it, too. If this lawsuit had not been brought, he would not have had a case. None of it struck me as particularly respectable. And yet.

It made me feel my own lack of respectability keenly in a way. I do not usually pay much mind to such things but I thought of all the actors I know, tired of being asked “Oh, where do you wait tables?” when they tell someone they’re an actor so they just decide to go to law school, just to get some respect for a change.

I read a quote from Uta Hagen recently where she explained why she called her book Respect for Acting. Her sense was that there wasn’t enough respect for the work and she hoped to foster some. (I’ll put the whole quote below. It’s bracing and inspiring.) There’s even less respect now than there was when she wrote the book and I suppose I’m thinking about it because it is not easy to live in a culture that does not respect what you do. Being exposed, at length, to the work of a job that IS respected and find it, instead of respectable, somewhat reprehensible is a kind of an unpleasant turnaround. I know this particular kind of law isn’t the only one and there are many many lawyers whose work I admire and am grateful for. (I think of the heroes who showed up at JFK airport the day Trump implemented the Muslim ban.) But – as a whole? I don’t know. Maybe we could treat artists with a little MORE respect and the vast field of law with a little less. It’s not all respectable.

I called the book ‘Respect for Acting’ for a very clear reason. I did not call the book ‘Delight in Acting’ or ‘Love of Acting’ or ‘The Fun of Acting.’ I called that book what I called that book because of the shocking lack of respect that was creeping into both the teaching and the practicing of acting. Now? Forget it. We have allowed so much to recede or languish that I don’t know what I could call a book today. ‘Demand for Acting’ might work. …There was a time when people became bored and they took up bridge or golf; ladies had an affair or had their hair rinsed and joined a book club. Now they want to act. And there are fools with no standards who allow them into classes and theatre groups and tell them to live their dream. I don’t care about dreams. I care about work and responsibility and truth and commitment. You can see how old-fashioned I am. When you are bored or depressed, you might be advised to visit a museum, to look at the art. You are not, typically, advised to pick up a brush and become a painter. It is understood that this is a rare gift, and foolish to presume it might be yours. If your soul is crushed, it might be suggested that you listen to classical music or submit to opera. It is not suggested that you audition for the Metropolitan Opera, or even your local, provincial opera company. You haven’t had the training. But acting? All you need, it seems, is the dream, and there are doors–doors that once meant something and once housed some standards behind them–that fly open and embrace you. And it enrages me. If there is some small society that calls itself amateur or community or whatever, and they want to get up and do plays, that is fine. I’ll contribute money and I’ll support you in the joys of understanding plays, but do not call yourself an actor. Do not think that your dream is similar in weight or meaning to the years of training and commitment that I and all the many actors whose work I love and respect and envy have invested in this art. Respect what is an art. It is not a pastime, and it is not something to get you through a bad time, and it is not something that should be taught to everyone with a dream. The term seriousness of purpose comes to mind. Apparently, only mine.

 Uta Hagen/1996. 

Uta Hagen is doing some highly respectable work on that stage. (She’s Desdemona and look how she’s THIS close to dropping that hankie.) And this production featured Paul Robeson as Othello so it is respectable feast.

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The Theatre of the Court
July 13, 2022, 10:49 pm
Filed under: American, Justice, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

In one of the videos they play for jurors, the narrator explains the Court as being a lot like Theatre. He explained the roles and the conflict, the set and the setting. I was intrigued by this explanation because, as a theatre maker, I would not assume people understood theatre any more than they do a court.

If court is a show, though, it is not necessarily a good one. One thing that surprised me, in serving on a jury, was how willing to bore the audience everyone seemed to be. There were multiple moments where I thought, “Are they trying to win this case by boring us to death?” The first time I thought this was when the Plaintiff’s lawyer interviewed his hired-gun medical witness and had him slowly answer medical questions and read medical records for over an hour – both of them speaking incredibly slowly with very little inflection. The second time I thought this was when the Defense read the plaintiff’s description interview onto the record. It went something like this:

QUESTION: Where did you live then?

ANSWER: I don’t remember.

QUESTION: You don’t remember?

ANSWER: I don’t remember.

It was the world’s  driest dialogue read dryly by one dry lawyer. And he read “Question” and “Answer” each time, too. I’m a professional actor and I feel like I could inject some zest in almost anything but I would shake in my boots if I was challenged to read this dialogue.

The third time I felt this way was during the plaintiff’s lawyer’s closing statements wherein he pulled out a stack of medical records, chose the one from the top, flipped to the back, slowly found the doctor’s name and then read it, followed by their description of the patient’s complaint. It was the same phrase over and over, the same procedure, over and over, one stack of papers after another, for maybe fifteen minutes? The reading I could handle. It was the minutes of searching for the page and then slowly pulling out the next one. My god. If it was a show I’d have left it.

The last time I felt this way was during the judge’s “charge to the jury.”  We were warned by the officer that it generally took 50 minutes for him to read this thing so we were prepared but wow. The judge did his best to zhuzh it up but the material is long and dull and I cannot imagine an actor who could make it work. Maybe Mr. T. Because every show would be improved by the presence of Mr. T.

But, of course, all these exceptionally dull and tedious hours are not for theatrical purposes. No theatre maker would DARE bore their audience like this. But then –  a theatrical audience is not compelled by law to sit there and listen. Maybe that’s the major difference.

The architecture of this particular courtroom was also really not effective theatrical space. I was Juror #2 so I was seated at this odd point of convergence of the space wherein absolutely everyone spoke directly to me. There were five other jurors in the box but almost every single person on “stage” looked almost exclusively at me while they spoke. I imagine that’s mostly to do with the way the space is arranged but I also know that I am a well trained audience member so I am easier to talk to than most. I am easy to read and incapable of cutting off the channel of a “performer” who needs it. This is why I prefer not to sit in the front row of a show if I can help it. It’s a lot of work for me to be that channel! I kept wanting to tell the folks in the courtroom to work the ROOM, not just me.

This was not a situation of being at a concert and being convinced that the singer is singing just for me, though I have certainly experienced that phenomenon.  At times the lawyers were directly in front of me, maybe a foot and a half away, looking directly into my eyes. It was EXHAUSTING.

If court is a show, it is an incredibly tedious one, with dull performances and awkward acting. It’s overly long. And you’re not even allowed to talk about it until it’s all over.

Was it dramatic? No.

Was it comedic? Briefly, for a moment or two. The way a joke at the DMV is a nice break in the atmosphere.

Was it romantic? Can’t imagine how. If there was ever a meet cute in the jury room. I’d like to hear about it because it is not a meet cute atmosphere, that is for sure.

Was it action packed? No. All events happened six years before. All drama was long past.

If courts are theatre, they’re very very bad theatre. Which came first? Courts or theatre? Or did they evolve alongside one another? I suspect courts have a different lineage. The first courts were part of the Court and it was mostly just going along to see the king and hoping he’d see things your way. It feels to me that the courtroom is designed more like a king’s court than a theatre. Our court system is certainly better than a king’s authoritarian rule (though it might not feel that great lately!) – but it is not good theatre, that much I can tell you.

Certainly if the judge came in dancing with some show girls, that might give it a little extra something.

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

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Men Most Macho in the Theatre

When I saw Ray Liotta had died, I was shocked and saddened. I was a fan of his work and he seemed like a good human. In his honor, I listened to an interview he did with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast a few years ago and enjoyed learning more about him and his journey. It did make me think, though. And it did make me wish for change in the way we do show biz. Apparently, Liotta had no real interest in acting when the opportunity to do it presented itself to him. He got talked into auditioning for a show because of a cute girl and stuck around because a teacher encouraged him. Nothing too crazy there. I’ve definitely heard this sort of story before.

But it’s the reason that Liotta theorized that his teacher encouraged him that got me thinking. Liotta had always been a jock and, it sounds like, a fairly macho guy. His teacher responded to him because they didn’t get a lot of guy’s guys there in the college theatre department. He saw a kindred male spirit and a kind of rare bird that they needed on the stage. Liotta really wasn’t that keen on acting in the beginning but he got to play some very juicy roles at his university and it’s not just because he was good. I’m guessing Liotta’s college decided to do A Streetcar Named Desire because they had a guy who could play Stanley Kowalski. They did Taming of the Shrew probably because they had a guy who could do a macho Petruchio. Liotta got to learn how to act by doing some of the best roles in the canon and the college got to do some shows on its list. All very reasonable. Many a school will choose their season based on who they have in casting pool. I get it on all levels.

But it also troubles me – because while I’m glad we had Liotta’s talents to enjoy on the screen – the way the path was smoothed for him (when he gave not two figs for it at the start) and the way it is not smoothed for so many others, just doesn’t feel FAIR to me. The way the American Theatre (and Cinema) fetishizes macho men is disturbing, really. There are endless roles for them, despite the fact that the theatre is largely populated by women and gay men. “Fellas, is it gay to be into theatre?” Maybe a little bit! Yet in spite of the inherent queerness in the form, or maybe because of it, the macho man is embraced, encouraged and given pride of place over and over again.

The American Theatre is dominated by macho plays and macho actors. How many revivals of American Buffalo do we need? A lot, apparently. I loved True West the first time I saw it. And even the second and third time. Then there was that time I assistant directed a production of it at a college of 75% women. Enough’s enough. Anyway, Liotta wasn’t in the theatre for long – because this pipeline between the theatre and film was built for men like him. Macho men from the theatre get snapped up into film, which also has a high demand for men who could be mobsters and so someone who had no interest in acting at first could be swept up into one of the most prestigious careers around. And I’m glad that it happened to Ray Liotta because I’m happy we had him while he was here but I can’t help feeling sad for all the people who LOVED the theatre, who ate, slept and drank it, who would have done anything to have a shot and no one ever took them under their wing and helped them to a wide range of opportunities. No one ever chose a season based on their presence in the casting pool. No one saw them in a play and put them in a soap opera. No one ever saw them in a soap opera and put them in a prestige film. I hate looking at a class full of actors and knowing that the person most likely to find success will be the man most macho, no matter how much more talented or dedicated or passionate his peers might be.  Sorry, ladies, non-binaries and gays, the theatre is dependent on there being thousands like you but it will always choose the macho fella who doesn’t care about it first. The theatre loves a cool disinterested man who can help it grapple with masculinity, I guess. Anyway – RIP Ray Liotta, even if I am a little mad about how your success came to you. One day I’d love to hear a story about a woman who just didn’t care that much about theatre but some teacher just had to have her in the show anyway and she became a big big star.

I mean, I get it. I’d cast this guy too – even if he wasn’t Ray Liotta yet.

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

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Confusing Art with Money

With a couple of decades in the indie theatre trenches behind me, I have some complicated feelings around money and art. I believe in paying artists. I think it’s important to give value in a monetary form to people who create. I fight hard to make it happen as often as I can. But I would much prefer to work with a group of people who aren’t doing it for the money. As soon as money gets involved, there’s always someone who starts treating me like I’m PepsiCo and makes demands, defines rigid terms and sets intense limitations. It feels lousy every single time. I find I usually have a more satisfying artistic experience with the people who signed up when they thought they were getting nothing and are happily surprised when I present them an actual check. They get paid either way but in one way the context is clear for everyone and the one with money involved makes things muddy. When I offer money from the start, some people are doing it for the money.

But this is so complicated because I really believe that it is okay to do things for money. Teaching, for example, is full of people declaring they love it, that they’d do it for free but they wouldn’t actually and when I do it, I’m not going to lie, I do it for the money. I’m good at it and I’m not doing it for love. I’ve done acting for the money, directing for the money and writing, too. So where do I get off wanting to have my artistic collaborators not do it for the money? You know? They’re allowed to only want to do my show because they want/need the $200 I have to offer them. That’s okay. Except for art is this delicate vulnerable creative sensitive endeavor and when I smell a mercenary, when someone starts to engage with me like I’m a Hollywood agent, I get a wave of anxiety and despair.

If I have $200 to give someone, it’s because I probably cobbled it together in $20 increments from my uncle, my college buddies and fellow artists. I don’t have more. I’m not out here trying to get something for nothing. I literally just want to make art and make sure folks get at least a little gesture of value for their work. That’s all it is. But almost every time there will be one or two people who make it clear that this art I think we’re making is a business transaction for them. It always confuses me and it makes me feel bad. I know it comes from their history of being taken advantage of or having to chase after payments from shady vendors but it feels so lousy to be lumped in with those people in an art context. It always gives me pause and makes me think, “Oh, I’m doing all of this wrong. They’ll know I’m not built for the business.” But it’s also possible to see it as this person doesn’t understand the context. This person doesn’t understand the world I come from. But even then it makes me question my own judgment in bringing them into my quiet little circle. It’s a real tornado of an experience. When it happened recently, I had a little meltdown and my friend talked me down off the “I can’t do this” ledge by pointing out that I really need an Executive Director for a business manager – someone who can talk the business talk with my collaborators and then send them to me for the art part. But when you’re a one person band like I am, there is no offloading these interactions. They are part of it and I am working very hard to not take them personally.

Most people I work with in the arts have mastered the context leap. They work with Network Executives and agents differently than they engage with tiny indie theatre producers. There are ways of engaging that are fundamentally different when you’re working for PepisCo or for a fellow artist. The folks who don’t work that out don’t last too long in the business. Or they don’t last too long in the art. Whichever one they’ve not nailed the special mores of. Or both.

For many artists, more important than actual currency is social currency and you start to damage that when you lean into the business side of things. It’s confusing for me, too – but it’s like, I want to pay artists but I don’t want to talk to artists about money (unless we’re doing a show about it, which I did) and if they’re doing it for the money please don’t let me know that as I need to believe my art is the best and only art and that you’d do it for free even though you wouldn’t, okay? It is a fragile relationship.

If you’re wondering whether the job you’re about to do is business or art, think about how vulnerable to flattery the creator is. Me? Totally vulnerable. Three of the five people I cast recently let me know how much they liked the show and I don’t think I cast them because they liked the show, or even because it was clear they did some research, but it did tell me that they understood what I was trying to do (it was apparent in their work really) and that all makes a difference. Let me just say a person writing ad copy probably isn’t too concerned whether or not you understand his artistic vision. He just wants to know you can read it correctly and on time.

The thing is, I’ve been at this art making business for decades and I still don’t know what to do when someone starts engaging with me in business mode instead of artistic mode. I get absolutely flummoxed. Their business concerns are fair, of course – but it always turns me around. No, you’re right, it isn’t a lot of money. No, my uncle doesn’t have another $20 for you, I’m sorry. If you need my uncle’s $20, this is probably not the gig for you. Please don’t do it for the money. Or if you are doing it for the money, can you just pretend you aren’t? Just for the illusion. This is theatre after all, we traffic in illusions. Please help me maintain mine!

Sometimes the way to do it is to make Art ABOUT Money. I’ve tried this too!

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

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It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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

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

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

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

And now – the actual post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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

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

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In Praise of the Monologue

Despite having written and created an audio drama podcast made up entirely of monologues, before now, I’d have told you I hated monologues. When casting actors, I would never ask for a monologue for the audition. I felt sure they could tell me nothing about what an actor would do in a show. I know I have delivered a few rants on the subject before. I could not fathom why preparing one classical and one contemporary monologue became a norm. As a director, I found them useless. My feeling was a monologue performance could only tell me whether that actor could do that monologue performance and not much more. It told me nothing about what they were like with other people, what their choices might be like for my show. Why did training programs rely so heavily on them when most directors I know prefer to see sides of the work they’re casting?

Today, I finally get it. I find myself intensely grateful for the way theatre trains actors with monologues. I feel like I finally understand why everyone bothers.

Because I’m in the middle of casting the second season of my audio drama, I have gotten a fresh perspective on what theatre folk do and what it takes for us to do it. This didn’t happen with Season One because every single one of the actors was a theatre person (among other things, of course). But the main thing was, I could give them pages of text and they could read it back into a microphone in such a way as it all made sense, that had a rhythm and a music to it. Every single one of the actors gave their work a shape and an arc and a series of beats. You would not believe how little direction I gave these people. I did not need to. They all just did it naturally. I thought at the time that it was just because they’re all good actors, but I think now it is specifically because they are good theatre actors.

Because Season Two is set in another country, I have to draw from an unknown acting pool and I began to listen to a lot of acting reels from voice over actors. They are incredibly skilled. They can do animated character voices. They can make a bank ad sound like silk. They can stretch sound into moments you would not believe. I have found myself impressed. Believe me, I have tried reading ad copy before – it is a lot harder than I ever imagined. These folks have skills. But do they have the skills I need?

I’ve dipped my toes into the film world a little bit more this year and one thing I’ve noticed about the difference between film and theatre is the rhythm of the making. Most everything in film is in small bits. You do one line in a multitude of ways (or the same way over and over) and then you move on to another one. If you had a long passage of text (unlikely in a film, but, just for the sake of argument) you wouldn’t shoot the whole thing all at once, you’d get two lines here, two lines there, another from the other side and so on. The rhythm of the speech would happen in the edit. It only matters what each individual line is like, not the whole. The whole gets created later.

In the theatre, however, you have to say the whole thing, all at once. You need a plan of attack. You become a one person band, orchestrating the speed, the tone, the ups, the downs. When you’re giving a speech in the theatre, it’s all you. You’re it. It is a much more sustained experience.

It turns out that reading a monologue is more than just saying the words in a reasonably correct way. It is taking an audience on a journey and that is what we train actors for. That’s why we teach monologues. I apologize for every bad thing I ever said about monologues. It turns out that training actors to deal with large swaths of text is exactly the training I need as a creator right now. It may be one of the theatre’s defining characteristics actually.

Theatre educators – thank you for continuing to teach actors to do more monologues, even in the face of cranky people like me who didn’t understand the value before. Please keep doing it.

This isn’t actually a monologue. But it LOOKS like a monologue and that’s the important thing. And, like a monologue, if I gave it an actor to read, they could handle all that text without too much trouble.

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

New York Classical Rejection

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

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

Back in the rejection saddle again!

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

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

Ashland New Play Festival

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

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

And now they roll in.

The Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference

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

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

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

Orlando Shakes PlayFest

(title of email: PlayFest 2022 Unsolicited Query Update)

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

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

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

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The Theatre Theater Problem and the Intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Reboot Sucks
February 13, 2022, 11:15 pm
Filed under: American, art, economics, pandemic, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I guess I never imagined a dystopia would be so dull. Dystopian novels are full of marauding bands and dramatic battles. This is like sitting in the waiting room of a corporate marketing agency, waiting to join a focus group you really don’t want to join but are hoping they’re going to pay you enough to make the trip worthwhile. Just sitting here. Waiting for someone boring to call your name. In a mask.

When the pandemic hit NYC in March of 2020 – and all of the performing arts shut down, when nearly everyone I know here lost work, when everyone fled to the country or back to their parents’ houses in other states, I imagined this decimated arts landscape might be radically reconfigured when we got back to it. I thought we might experience the good parts of the post-pandemic life, like in the novel, Station Eleven, with fewer horse drawn carts. I thought – oh – maybe the city will return to its kind of dirty, gritty, scrappy, sort of affordable form like in the 80s. Sure, there might be a parallel crime surge or something – but I did start imagining a future like in After Hours or Madonna’s life in Desperately Seeking Susan – but in theatre, of course. Downtown would rise again. We’d put on wild buffoon shows or cartoon craziness like we used to. It wouldn’t cost a year’s tuition to just put on a little something, so we’d get out there and make some old fashioned passionate cheap art.

It’s not like that. I mean, the pandemic is, for sure, not over – but even from here I can tell we’re not going back to a more artist friendly time. We’re already leaning harder into all the things that sucked before. Some shows came back but only the giant machine sort of shows can afford to run in this environment. So mostly that’s all there is. When and if I did get back in the game of producing shows, I would now have far fewer venues to choose from and the spaces for rehearsal would also be much diminished. Will they be cheaper to rent? I doubt it. Every single one of these places has had to endure total shut downs for nearly two years, without any significant support from government. They couldn’t possibly be cutting prices in that kind of environment.

It feels like everything that sucked about the performing arts world has not only remained – but gotten much worse.

And it’s not just theatre, of course. The wealth gap has widened enormously, not just because the poor have gotten poorer but because billionaires have gotten 62% richer. And we get a new billionaire every day. This was a problem before but now it is much much worse. I’m guessing this is true for most things.

Are the arts elitist and only for the most privileged to find success in? Now more than ever. Were there few opportunities to pry open the closed doors before? There were very few before and now those are even fewer. Was it hard for artists to make a living before? Yes! And now it’s ten times as hard! And might you need a day job, my sweet artists? Well – Teaching Artist jobs are almost non-existent. Food service is a highly risky dangerous environment. Many of the fantastic, affordable restaurants frequented by nice people have closed because it’s mostly assholes out there at the tables now. Your favorite little home away from home is probably gone but that asshole factory is doing great! Offices don’t tend to hire temps to work from home. I would imagine that dog walkers have lost business because their clients are home and happy to walk their pets themselves.

Our current mayor ran on beating back the crime wave he felt was happening and I guess others agreed with him because he won. Maybe this is naïve – but I wouldn’t mind this city getting some of its old school crime back. Everyone just seems too comfortable to me. I saw a guy put his computer in the back of his car, leave the hatchback OPEN and then walk way to get something in his apartment. He left a COMPUTER ON the STREET in New York City and you know what? It was fine! Nobody stole it. I was tempted to – just to prove a point, just because – you SHOULDN’T leave your shit out if you don’t want someone to take it. We apparently now live in a city where people don’t know that anymore and I don’t mean to be a cranky “back in my day” kind of person but I don’t really like this version of New York.

Because all this “safety” is of course, an illusion. And the people in need have been pushed by this city’s fucked up economics farther and farther to the margins of the place in more ways than one. The more divided our classes become, the more likely it becomes that actual violence will break out. The fact that someone could leave a computer on the street here without consequences suggests to me that we have too uniform a population where I live. No one would steal that computer because we all have our own at home, which is nice for us but terrible for those who can no longer afford to live here and who certainly don’t have a computer at home.

Is there more crime? Maybe? A little. I mean – the drugstore locked up the toothpaste (and the soap and the deodorant) the porch pirates are active and my local gourmet corner store now has a security guard peering over folks’ shoulders at all times – but these are all signs of economic strife, more than anything. People are mostly stealing hygienic items and food. Maybe if folks could get a little economic relief out there, those things would even out. But what do I know? I’m just an artist who hasn’t set foot in the place of my primary art in almost two years.

Back when I had a band – and this was 20 years ago so take this with a grain of salt – we sometimes rehearsed at one of our band members’ studio apartment in the East Village. We couldn’t imagine how he managed to afford to live there because the rents were so high. (I tremble to imagine what they are now.) But on the street were also the Hell’s Angels’ headquarters, numerous old school grandmas and grandpas and families that had grown up there. Our bandmate was the anomaly on that street. The street’s culture was old and established. I haven’t been on that particular street in a while but I know, as a whole, the atmosphere of the place has changed dramatically. A young person from elsewhere is the norm there now, not the families or the Hell’s Angels. Now the norm is for people with money to burn, now the culture is for the new arrivals, most of whom wouldn’t think twice about leaving their computer on the street. All I’m saying is, I’d trade the safety of that computer for a richer culture and more affordable living for everyone.

Could we have both? I don’t know. I guess that would be nice?

I guess I was hopeful for a minute that the crisis would lead to a beautiful rebirth and now I’m looking at a world that is putting itself back together with all its worst features. Not a horse drawn performance stage in sight.

No, this is totally fine. Just leave your computer anywhere. No one will take it. Perfectly safe apparently.

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The Women’s Lane

Rebecca Solnit recently posted this essay that Mary Beard wrote back in 2014. It’s about women speaking in public and the ways classical culture was built around telling women to shut up. Also about how that trend has continued.

It’s brilliant for all the reasons Mary Beard is often brilliant but the thing that feels like new information for me is the bit about women generally only being allowed to have a voice on matters that pertain to women. The one exception to the impulse to silence women is when they speak of things that are in their lane. Women are (sometimes) permitted to talk about women’s rights but not about the war.

This makes me think about Phyllis Schlafly. Or at least the Schlafly that was depicted in the (somewhat problematic) TV series, Mrs. America. Schlafly was very interested in foreign policy. One might even call her an expert in it. While I certainly wouldn’t have agreed with her about it, she did seem to know an awful lot about these things. She ran for Congress twice. And lost. But then she gained fame by campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). That is, when she started focusing on women’s issues, then folks took notice. (Much to the detriment of American women.)

I’m trying to figure out how this concept of a women’s lane applies to my own writing practice. I haven’t seen a lot of success on any subject, really – but I have seen a relative spike in recognition on subjects related to women, usually some wrong that’s been done to me or to women in general. In other words, I get listened to the most when I’ve been the victim to someone or something. I’ve always assumed that I’m just at my best when I’m fired up about feminist issues but now I’m not so sure. Is my furious writing on women noticeably better than my fired-up writing about artist’s issues or, say, PDFs? I’m not sure it is, frankly.

As a woman who struggles to be heard, to be noticed, to be recognized, I am always alert to what factors might be supporting my visibility and what factors obscure me further. I have often felt that my tendency to write plays about women, with a bald-faced feminist slant, is what has kept me shut out of the pipeline. My sense has been that theatres don’t tend to want to produce overtly feminist work. But this doesn’t square with what I’m learning about this women’s lane. Or does it? I guess, in the theatre, it’s the women’s plays that are explicit about their woman-ness that cross over into the mainstream: The Vagina Monologues, ‘Night Mother, Crimes of the Heart, Uncommon Women.

Now that I think about it, this does help me to understand something that has often felt mysterious to me. How did a play like The Vagina Monologues break through when so much of American Theatre is so hostile to women and women’s work? How was it that theatres put on seasons of almost exclusively men, and also The Vagina Monologues? It’s very logical, I realize now. You cannot get more in the women’s lane than The Vagina Monologues. It’s a kind of apotropaic magic, a spell against feminist criticism. You put on The Vagina Monologues – which is cheap to produce and markets itself and no one can excuse you of sexism for at least a few years. It is the perfect balance for your Mamet season. Most theater companies would rather produce The Vagina Monologues many times over than to produce a woman’s play about something not particularly womany.

Maybe I just need to write a play called The Woman Woman. I mean, The Women is a fabulous (and very successful) play from the 30s. Maybe it’s really just a matter of laying out the category in the title? It’s something to consider. Look forward to my upcoming trilogy: The Woman Woman, Girls and Women and Girls and Ladies in Ladyland. It can’t be so simple, can it? Honestly if this worked, I’d change so many titles in a flash.

My play about Medusa could be called Girls Getting Stoned or I could just rename any old play Women’s Bodies. Or Boobs. My next play is now called Boobs.  

This is an illustration from Oscar Wilde’s Salome. If he was a woman, he’d just have to call it Boobs.

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

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