Songs for the Struggling Artist


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 anyone.” 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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My Harrasment-versary Part 2: Progress Report of Women in American Theatre
October 19, 2013, 12:49 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, theatre | Tags: , , ,

The thousands of views of my blog gave me a great deal of hope for the theatre and women’s place in it. I felt like there was a surge forward, that progress was being made. In many corners, I saw growth and renewed commitment to equality. Resources like 50/50 in 2020, Guerrilla Girls, How Sexist is this Show?, League of Professional Theatre Women and Works by Women (in both NY and San Francisco) came to my attention. People around the country are fighting the good fight.

Two women won Tony awards for directing, which was entirely unprecedented. An all female Julius Caesar is at St. Ann’s Warehouse and many theatres did notable work toward producing work by women. It’s possible that gender equality is on people’s minds more than ever before.

There are bummers in the news too. Lots of theatres totally tanked their gender statistics in terms of writers and directors. (And I don’t even want to think about the gender ratios on stage.)

But that’s the slog, I guess. We just keep at it until the good outweighs the bad. Whether or not there’s been a systemic change, the one thing that is palpable and measurable on a personal level is that I am back out and proud to be a strident feminist! And I find I am more often in company in that position than I used to be. The people around me (men as well as women) are much more vocal and willing to talk about gender discrimination. That’s the sort of circle that expands, I have to hope.

After so many people expressed interest in my writings on sexism in the theatre, I discovered how much I enjoyed talking about it. I wrote and wrote about it. Then, inspired by Caitlin Moran and all the journalism about women in the UK, I thought I should write a theatre column for a feminist magazine or something. I wrote to them all but what I realized as I did is that I didn’t have to make a case for being a feminist; I had to make a case for theatre. Not one of the feminist pop culture outlets has a theatre column. I began to realize that no one, besides those of who work here, really gives a shit about whatever sexist or racist or ageist or able-ist or whatever-ist shenanigans are going on in American Theatre, because no one outside of the theatre really gives much of a shit about theatre. Which may explain how so many outdated structures can continue to thrive in our field. I feel like I had things backward, that I’m in the minority because I’m a theatre artist not because I’m a feminist.

And I’m not sure what to do about it. But I wonder if we’re in an All Boats Rise situation. That is, we’re ALL on the periphery of American Culture. Maybe to clear up some of our equality issues we need to get a bigger lens on what we’re doing on stages across the country. Operating in the shadows, theatres get away with all kinds of nonsense every day. If more people were watching us, maybe we’d all behave a lot better?

I don’t know. I give a shit about theatre. I want it to be better. In many ways. Mostly I just want to work in it without QUITE so many odds stacked against me. Probably that’s what we all want fundamentally and working in a field that is so liminal to the culture makes EVERYONE who works in it feel like the odds are against them.That makes it hard to be generous with each other or be generous with opportunities or to expand our contacts beyond the immediate circles we operate in. It is difficult. But it is something to aspire to. A rising tide lifts all boats.

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Postscript 1: If you’re inspired to support some theatre made by women, I’m going to shamelessly plug my own feminist show here on my blog. Director, creators, performers, designers and stage management are all women and we’d love to get a crowd in to see it. We run through the 27th of October.  Link here for Messenger Theatre Company’s As We Like It 

Postscript 2: I asked my feminist theatre group for good news or bad news of the last year and this is what they posted. You get to determine which news is which! And please add your own in the comments!

http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/sep/14/shakespeare-women

http://www.sfbayareaactor.blogspot.com/search/label/100%20shows

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/venus-in-fur-to-dominate-in-american-theaters-this-season/?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0

http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/the-power-1000–londons-most-influential-people-2013-imagineers-theatre-8824912.html

http://www.cleveland.com/onstage/index.ssf/2013/09/laura_kepley_named_ninth_artis.html

http://www.vulture.com/2013/09/norbert-leo-butz-on-big-fish.html

https://sfshakes.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/holding-the-mirror-up-to-nature-casting-shakespeare-for-todays-audiences/



It’s my Harassment-versary!
September 23, 2013, 12:33 am
Filed under: art, business, feminism, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

One year ago, I posted this blog about my experience of sexism in American Theatre. The response it got was overwhelming and generated a whole host of other thoughts about my experience. (Here, here and here, for a start.) A year later, the initial post still gets a view or two a day but mostly the dust it stirred up has settled.
So I thought I might kick it up again because the past year has given me a great deal to think about. Because there’s so much, I’ll be celebrating my harassment-versary in installments.

Part One: The Job

Many people wanted to know what happened with the Job. The immediate effects are recounted here but what came after is trickier to sum up.

Short version: I haven’t worked there since.

Long version: After the initial phone calls from the managing director in which he expressed hopes that I would continue working there and in which he let me know what actions were being taken, after all the teaching artists suddenly received employee handbooks (including a sexual harassment policy) and after plans for a sit-down with the big bosses of the organization and the man I’d called out were made (for a future date, sometime before my next meeting there): nothing much happened. Due diligence by the organization, lawsuits averted, asses covered and then it was a matter of waiting.

Months went by before I was scheduled to come in for the next round of work and I realized that if I was going to have this promised meeting, I’d have to arrange it myself. And I found I did not want to work there enough to do that. So I skipped that first work commitment (this is the advantage of working At Will) and I had enough work elsewhere to turn down the next round of work, too. Given the choice between working at a place where I’d experienced sexual harassment and working at a place I hadn’t (yet. . it ‘s never too late!) I went with the place I felt welcome. And while all of this lacks the dramatic punch that many readers longed for (“Did you get a heartfelt apology?” “Did you sue?” “Did you quit in a blaze of glory?” “Did he get fired?”) I think it’s likely that this is how a lot sexual harassment stories go.

I’ve done a lot of reading and listening and thinking about women in the workplace in the last year. One thing I discovered was that women are a lot less likely to report sexual harassment than they think they are. That is, every 8 out of 10 women who read my blog and thought “I’d totally report that guy!” probably wouldn’t have in reality – for a lot of good reasons. (But my hat’s off to those who have!)

Why is this sort of culture so pernicious? There are dozens of reasons but one likely contribution is a psychological concept called Learned Helplessness. That is, people who encounter a failure enough times will simply become unable to do anything. (Watch the video at the end of this great article about the idea.)

This makes me think about the myriad ways women encounter sexual harassment throughout our lives and how we learned that it’s just a part of the culture so there’s not much we can do about it. Girls are fetishized as sexual objects before we are even aware of what sex is and the culture constantly reminds us that we are only as valuable as we are sexually desirable. After a lifetime of being unable to stop the wolf-whistles, cat-calls, unwanted touches, aggressive innuendo and inappropriate jokes, many of us have learned to feel helpless when someone crosses a line. Because someone crosses a line almost every day of our lives and if we spent all our time fighting it, when would have time to do our hair? (Ha. Kidding. I mean, when would we have time to become brain surgeons!?)

But the Learned Helplessness effect isn’t just a factor in the initial response to harassment. In other words, it’s not just in whether or not you say something in the moment, it’s also in what you choose to do later. And it doesn’t have to happen to us personally for us to learn the consequences of speaking up. Women in my generation saw what happened to Anita Hill as we were growing up. And every day now you can see what happens to women who speak up about injustice. When Lindy West talked about rape jokes, she received a barrage of threats of both rape and death. Anita Sarkeesian became the target of an organized on-line hate campaign just because she decided to make videos about women in videogames. Silence becomes a much safer response to all of this in a culture of trolls.
Should I have stayed and fought? Maybe. If it were a job I really wanted, I would have. In my case, the frustration and disrespect that plague my profession as a whole are such that I’m doing everything I can to get out of it and get my own businesses off the ground (this and this.) I don’t have time to teach one guy and one organization how to handle me and my case better. I have better things to do. (Like my hair! Ha. No actually, seriously, we have a photo shoot for my show and the hair takes a wicked long time.)
My suspicion is that many many businesses lose their women this way. A work environment becomes hostile or just uncomfortable and rather than making a point of why they’re leaving, women will just go. More and more women are starting their own businesses, becoming entrepreneurs. That’s exciting on one hand and a wake-up call on the other. If I were a big business, I’d be concerned about a culture that encourages women to leave it.
Did I do the right thing? For me, I did, yes. Did they do the right thing? For the most part, yes. Could they have reached out to me again? Yes. Would I still be working there if they had? Maybe. Do I want to be? Not really, no. So it’s all fine. I mean, aside from the fact that the dude has what is probably a six figure job and I’ll be lucky if I clear $20,000 this year. But I’ll save the post on the economics of sexism for another day.

Next up: Part 2 of my Harassment-versary Special:
Progress report on Women in American Theatre




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