Songs for the Struggling Artist


Be Quiet. You’re Disturbing the Movie.

They were doing a screening of Roma in my neighborhood so I went. The theatre was dotted with audience members – so everyone sort of had a little bubble of space for themselves.

About two rows behind me sat two elderly Latino men. They were possibly the only Latinx people in the place. Once the movie began, they spoke to each other in Spanish. In a movie that is so much about atmosphere, their voices added to the experience. I was only sorry that my Spanish is not good enough to eavesdrop a little.

But some guy on the other side of their row was not happy about their conversation. He shouted at them to be quiet. His shouting was very jarring. And he did it again about ten minutes later. He was really mad about those old guys talking. The third time, he shouted “Be quiet. You’re disturbing the movie.” Which was ironic because to my mind, it was him who was disturbing the movie. (Also – it’s a movie. It doesn’t care what happens out in the audience. I think you mean the movie going experience.) I turned around to glare at him and of course he was a white guy. He was a white guy who was convinced he was being a white guy hero. However, I’m a white lady so I used my disapproving white lady glare to hopefully disabuse him of that position.

I don’t know if it worked or it didn’t work. He shut up after that. If it was my glare, I wish I’d used it sooner. And I don’t know if I ought to have said something to the shouter who was disturbing the movie by declaring the movie disturbed, I somehow didn’t feel like more white people shouting would help the situation.

But I did find it ironic that this white guy had decided to come to this movie about a working class Latina and did not want his experience disturbed by actual (I’m assuming) working class Latinos in the theatre. It felt a bit like all the folks who love tacos and nachos and celebrate Cinco de Mayo but are fine with separating Latinx children from their parents at the border.

It’s all of a piece, it feels to me. It is a control of the space, any space. This attempt to keep spaces like theatres and movie houses quiet and in control is an attempt to exclude, to state who is welcome and who is not. The attempt to dictate how we experience culture is generally classist if not explicitly racist. I’m thinking of that story I just heard on This American Life about a group of kids going to see a movie on a field trip and getting kicked out of the theatre because they had a visceral response to what they were seeing and no context for it. And the racism that they encountered on their way to their seats didn’t help either.

I’m particularly sensitive to this because of my previous work as an arts educator wherein it was my job to prepare students for whatever they were about to see in a theatre or on a screen. Performers loved our audiences because they were vocal and responsive. But if they were ever mixed in with a general audience, the general audience became a problem. It’s almost as if we ought to have been leading workshops for the adults in how to be less classist, racist or uptight before we let them watch a show with a bunch of kids. (Watching shows with bunches of kids is great. People should pay extra to do it.) The kids generally just need a little context and a heads up about stuff that’s going to be new for them. Adults usually need far reaching lessons in cultural imperialism.

In the end, back at Roma, I was more interested in what the two old guys thought of the movie than the movie itself (that’s another post, coming soon) and I definitely hoped to never have to see (or more importantly, hear) Mr. White Savior again – especially at the movies. He very definitely disturbed that movie for me.

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Harry Potter and The Hangover

We watched The Hangover one night, when it seemed like a couple of dumb laughs might be just the remedy for the world’s cruelties. A couple of dumb laughs were about all we got out of it in the end and half of them were from us about what extraordinary stereotypes all the “killjoy” women were. We cracked ourselves up adding lines, “That no-fun bride is mad we lost her fiancé right before her wedding. God! Women are so annoying!”

My friend could not get over how conventional and conservative it was. It seems like it’s this crazy hair-brained tale of wild excess – but in the end (I don’t think this needs a spoiler alert,) really all that happened is that the guys got super drunk and gambled. Sure, they also stole a tiger and one of them got married but the crazy things were all sort of socially fine. All sexual behaviors were within appropriate Hollywood bounds – that is, they ogled and groped the strippers but didn’t have sex with them. Even the one who got married to a stripper only cuddled with her. It was a crazy night in Vegas for which there was always a sort of reasonable explanation. When it’s all over, everyone could return to his conventional suburban life without incident. It’s just a little release for a couple of days in Vegas.

The most transgressive thing that happened, really, was that Zach Galifinakis’ character carried a purse and was not bothered about it’s not being manly.

It made me think about one of the theories of comedies that I studied in college. The Hangover wants to be one of these pastoral comedies where the protagonists go into the woods and lose all social convention and then can return to their more conventional lives with new information, having shifted what may have previously seemed unshiftable. Rosalind has to go into the Forest of Arden dressed as a boy to get the man she loves. And by the time she’s done, the rightful Duke has been restored to the throne and four marriages have been performed. The Hangover apes this sort of structure in that four guys go into the woods (Las Vegas) and by the time they emerge – one of them has broken up with his abusive girlfriend. Otherwise – everyone’s lives are pretty much the same. There’s no real release in this release comedy. Back to the Suburbs everyone – until the next time we get drunk! Conventional. Conservative.

Which brings me to the Harry Potter play. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a lot better a play than The Hangover is a movie. It’s funnier, too. But like The Hangover, it is remarkably conventional and conservative.

There are a lot of reasons this is surprising. 1) It’s about magical people. With magic powers! In a magical land! They could be so much more interesting than us! 2) It was made by some of the most skilled, creative theatre makers we have. 3) The author of the books (and the story on which the show was based) is in a position wherein she does not need the money or the prestige from this show. She can afford to take some risks that the rest of us might not.
And yet. And yet.

Now before I break down how/why this show is conventional and conservative – I want to acknowledge some of the ways it was successful for me.

1) Cape choreography (Note to my theatre-making self: All future set changes will now require cape swirling. It is a very satisfying way to disappear a chair.)
2) Whatever that time shift tech was, it blew my mind. If I’d seen it on screen I’d have thought nothing of it – onstage it was miraculous
3) It is no small accomplishment to keep an audience interested for over five hours of theatre.
4) The staging was A+, likewise the design, performances were on point.

If you’re going, I think you’ll find something of merit. It’s a better time in the theatre than a lot of things I see. However – fundamentally – it is the story of a father and son who just don’t seem to understand each other. This is perhaps the most common story in the Western Canon. Honestly, plays about fathers and sons trying to negotiate their differences are the top of the most produced stories. And in this case, there really wasn’t even any clear reason for this difference between father and son. It seemed to just be that Harry Potter’s son got sorted into Slytherin and wasn’t as popular as his dad. That’s it. At the heart of the play is just a difference in …fraternities?

The other important relationship in the play is the friendship between Potter’s kid, and Malfoy’s kid. They’re best friends and even though the play sometimes hints that there may be more there, it never allows these two boys to actually be gay, or even entertain the possibility.

It feels like, the whole time, cranky old middle aged Harry Potter is just reacting to his son’s gayness without his son ever actually being gay. A play like this has the potential to open up worlds of possibility and it pretty much just said, nah, they’re two best friends who fight through time and space to stay together – but they’re just best friends. And you know – I’m hip to that sort of story, too, for sure. My best friendships are really important and I like the idea of a play about that sort of dedication. But I didn’t buy that in this story. I felt like they were gay and the writers just didn’t want to talk about it. They didn’t want to alienate the anti-gay Potter fans!

Conservative. Conventional.

Also. This was a man’s story all the way through. Sure we had a few women in it – but we basically had an old conventional daddy issue play with some magic tricks. All the women were sidelined.

Hermione was particularly hung out to dry. Despite having the most prestigious job in the magical world, she can seemingly get no one to listen to her and is constantly interrupted by men. In an alternate time line (spoiler: There’s time travel!) she has become a nasty old maid spinster teacher stereotype just because she failed to marry a man she loved. O boy. It’s only the love of a man that keeps a witch from turning into a mean old witch apparently. Conventional. So conservative.

Listen – if your play has the ability to travel in time…why not entertain truly exciting other possibilities? You don’t have to hop from one conservative time line to another. There has to be some time line where things can be truly shocking and maybe even queer, in more ways than one.

I’m 100% sure that there is some very daring fan fiction in this vein and how I wish I’d seen even a hint of it in this production.

It’s interesting to see a play that has such a long reach of a following. The generation behind me grew up on Harry Potter and the commonality of experience they have around it is extraordinary. There’s nothing like it from my childhood. The amazing thing about making a play about a series of stories that everyone knows is that everyone’s an insider. It is actually very exciting to be in a room full of people who are so pumped up and so uniform in their responses. Any references to the characters or events in the book get giant responses from the audience. It’s the “I know what you’re talking about” laugh. I mean, just a mention of Neville Longbottom drew applause from the audience. He makes no appearance in the play but he got applause anyway. It’s like a band playing a phrase from their hit song in the middle of a new one. I guess it’s bound to be a hit. There’s no real risk there.

And speaking of phrases from a hit song – almost all of the music in the Cursed Child was actually bits of the instrumental tracks of Imogen Heap’s hit songs. Now – I love Imogen Heap. I want her to make all the heaps of money she’ll get from being the composer of this show. But it seems to me they just used her instrumental tracks for their early movement rehearsals and just decided to keep them. That’s not so much composing as recycling old hits in a new remix.

And that’s sort of what this show was – a recycling of old hits in a new frame. Using theatrical techniques pulled from more experimental works to tell a conventional story with a recycled soundtrack.

I mean. It was a reasonable day in the theatre. It knew what it was doing and made use of some of the best theatrical tricks in the book. But it made me think of The Hangover.

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

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You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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The Velvet Rope

After the show, we went to the lobby to wait for the actor to emerge after her performance. The lobby was pretty busy. There seemed to be a little reception in progress, featuring sparkling wine and chocolate.

The party was cordoned off with a velvet rope.

We were on the other side of the velvet rope.

The party, we guessed and later had confirmed, was for donors to the theatre. We had been given to understand that the actor would be appearing here eventually. We had been told to look for her here. On our side of the rope.

As the theatre emptied out, only a handful of us stood on the peasant side of the velvet rope. Among us were the actor’s family and her friends.

You might wonder why we didn’t simply unhook the rope from the stanchion and go in. Well – this theatre had thought of this, too. It was so important to them to maintain this separation between the donor class and us plebeians that they had an intern on duty to police it. He dutifully unhooked the rope to allow donors out and did his best to look forbidding to those of us on the outside. He made it clear that this party wasn’t for us and we were not to be included.

For a good long while, this theatre’s lobby featured a small party of about 24 people drinking prosecco inside a velvet rope and seven people standing around outside it, policed by an intern and his boss.

The “party” proceeded like this for some time – that is, until I spotted and made complicitous eye contact with the actor – who, after all was the woman of the hour and finally I just unhooked the velvet rope and ran in, to give her a hug.

Seeing the actor showing me such warmth, the woman in charge of this party, who had clearly found our presence distasteful before, now invited us to eat and drink. We had all been brought inside the rope. There was no one left outside it.

I don’t know what happened to the actual velvet rope after that. It had been designed to keep the riff raff out and once the riff raff was inside, there was no purpose for it anymore. As someone now on the inside, the rope was no longer of any concern to me. I expect that to those who had been inside all along, the velvet rope barely registered their attention. Did they know it was there? Once I was inside it, it ceased to be important to me – but before I got inside, that velvet rope and the people policing it were my primary focus.

This exercise in absurdity seems to me to be the perfect allegory for the American Theatre and maybe for American Art in general.

The theatre where this happened states, in their mission statement, that they “seek to create broad public access and to bond the diverse New York community” and yet, with a simple velvet rope and a zealous gatekeeper, they created division and diminished access – right there in their very own lobby.

It’s not just them. This absurdity plays itself out through almost every arts organization in America. A few years before, just down the street from this theatre, at another arts organization I used to work for, a crowd of artists sat in the lobby while the party for us went on upstairs because the gatekeeper would not let us up. And that’s just a literal example.

The whole field seems to be arbitrarily divided up by absurd velvet ropes. Once you have been invited inside, you can enjoy the prosecco and chocolate and opportunities but when you’re outside, you just sort of stand there awkwardly trying to make eye contact with any friends you have inside. And woe to the person trying to get in to the party without any friends inside.

Trying to make art in this country is like trying to get inside the velvet ropes without any friends inside. There are multiple forces at work that are actively trying to keep you out. There are things like submission fees, onerous grant application processes and requirements for references from well-known persons (this is a way to prove you have a contact inside the party.)

There are ways to increase your chances of getting past the ropes – depending on your field. Getting an MFA might introduce you to an insider (that’s indirectly how I met my insider at this donor theatre party) or interning at the right spot might help you rise up the ranks but your best shot is being born into a social circle or with access to someone who knows someone.

And of course, just making it inside the ropes for one day, for one party won’t really help you in the long run. You need to be a regular insider, to become so used to the prosecco and the chocolate that you don’t even notice them at the party. In order to stand a chance of having your art produced, you need to be so far behind the barriers that you forget the velvet ropes entirely.

The difference between a struggling artist and one who has made it lives in those velvet ropes. The struggling artist is acutely aware of where the ropes are and who is guarding them. They are, after all, designed to keep us out. In a country that prides itself on its egalitarian values, this exclusion is particularly galling. That is made worse by how easily and quickly the barrier is lifted and also how entirely unnecessary the barrier is to begin with.

There was so much prosecco and so much food at this donor party that the staff had to take boxes of it home to prevent it being thrown away. That velvet rope made me feel that that this theatre would rather throw their chocolate away than let me have it. Then I got a nod of approval from an insider and suddenly I could have all the chocolate I could have wanted.

There was no difference in my quality on one side or the other of that rope. I was the same person on both sides of the barrier. Inside, I had approval. Outside, I was a nuisance. It is not nice to feel like a nuisance and yet, because I am outside the rope most of the time, I do feel it a LOT. I made myself go talk to a famous actor recently. While I was telling her how much I admired her work in the show she’d just done, I felt fine – like the metaphorical velvet rope between us didn’t matter at all. But as soon as I tried to hand her the play she’d inspired me to improve and keep going on, I felt the velvet rope pop up – whether on my side or on hers, it doesn’t really matter – the point is, it showed up. I felt like a nuisance and an idiot. The sense of humiliation was profound – even though there was no actual rope.

Part of what is so difficult about being a perpetual struggling artist is constantly bumping up against that rope. If you have a well-connected friend or two, you may on occasion find yourself on the other side for a moment but a well-connected friend will not protect you from all the other velvet ropes that arts organizations put up to keep out the riff raff.

At the heart of the velvet rope distinction it feels like those who are on the inside are just better people. If you’re a writer with an agent, then you must be a better writer than one without. If you know a famous person, you must be cooler than your average person. It is not so far from the American sense that money makes you better – that the rich are rich because they worked hard and deserve it. They’re just naturally inside.

What’s ironic is, I would wager you a bottle of prosecco that the donors inside the rope don’t care a bit about keeping out the riff raff. It is the gatekeepers that are concerned about it. And very concerned they are indeed. Also, ironically, riff raff-wise, everyone in that lobby with me had a degree of privilege already. The tickets at that theatre are quite expensive – so the separation is not between top-hatted monocled millionaires and fingerless gloved ragamuffins – it’s the difference between someone who can afford to donate a building and someone who can afford to enter it. The riff raff are people who can pay to see esoteric theatre for an average price of $75 a ticket.

In the case of this theatre, with its mission to bring people together, it was a literal velvet rope – but arts organizations put up metaphorical velvet ropes every day. If you run one, look at how and where you put up barriers to access. Anything you put in place to reduce your submissions, for example: that’s a velvet rope. Obviously, you can keep it there if you want to – but if you’re only including the agented, the recommended, the degreed or the submission fee’d, you’re sending a message that you are only interested in privileged artists, that you prefer your donors to your audience, that you only want insiders. Your velvet ropes say that you only want to give that prosecco to the people who have a case of prosecco at home. If, like this theatre, you aspire to create broad public access and to bond your community, you have to let your velvet ropes go.

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The Tribal Boost

As a theatre maker, I think about group dynamics a lot. When making a show, I think about how to create a cohesive ensemble of actors and an inspiring team of designers who can all bring out the best in each other. When performing a piece, I think about how an audience behaves – what makes them decide to laugh together, to clap together or to stand together.

Humans are tribal people. We look to one another for cues about how to behave – sometimes to our detriment. I’m thinking of that experiment where the participant sees smoke but does nothing about it because the others in the room fail to acknowledge it. Tribes can be centuries old or as temporary as a room full of people and if the tribe decides there is no fire, everyone might just burn up.

Tribes of people – temporary or longstanding – have preferences, aspirations and group behaviors. They have personalities. Audiences are as individual as individuals – as any performer can tell you – and they have ways of welcoming or excluding others.

At a comedy club, for example, when a man like Louis CK turns up, the audience is usually eager to hear what he might have to say. Even now. Even after his fall. He got a standing ovation when he came out at some comedy club he turned up at recently. When a woman turns up to do some comedy, the tribe is a bit skeptical. They aren’t primed to hear her. They might even be actively hostile.

I started to think about this while reading Deborah Francis White’s book, The Guilty Feminist. She talked about how Louis CK thrives in an environment that was built for him and others like him. And she’s noticed that the tribal energy at tapings of her podcast is sometimes the opposite. Her audience is mostly female and feminist so when a man turns up onstage – the audience gets a little wary. The room gets an atmosphere of “All right…we’ll hear you out, white man.” And what is interesting is that some men respond to that skepticism – perhaps the first they have ever really encountered – by getting smaller, maybe even with some nervous sputtering. (Very like a woman on an all male panel, she says.)

There’s an exercise we theatre educators often use to illustrate status that involves the players holding a playing card to their forehead that they can’t see and then trying to work out where in the hierarchy they stand by how they are treated. Kings work out that they are Kings rather quickly.

In addition to teaching differences in behavior of a King and a Two, this exercise shows how the status of a person really comes from the behavior of the world looking at them. Treat a King like a King and he becomes a King. But a Two who tries to become like a King will always be put in their place by the tribe, no matter how hard they try.

The thing is, when it comes to leadership, the world has been saying to women, “It’s up to you! Lean in! Be more confident!” The world looks at women as Twos but yells at us to be like Kings. The change is in us, the world says. But really – the change needs to happen in the tribe. The group needs to treat women like Kings instead of Twos.

For so long, tribes have cleared the way for men, have treated so many as though they were potential kings. It feels as though when a man turns up to lead, the climate of a room tends to say, “Yes! He’s here! Let’s make sure he has a place to sit and a nice megaphone and good lighting. I can’t WAIT to hear what he has to say!”

When a woman turns up to lead, arms cross, eyes narrow and the climate of the room says, “Well, we’ll give her a chance, I suppose. We’ll see what she has to say. Maybe she’ll be able to find a place to sit. Maybe she’ll be able to be heard over this din.” And some women stride right in, make space for themselves and get themselves heard and seen without too much fuss.

As someone with an interest in leading, I have always had trouble with this. If I come into a room and feel that no one wants me there or wants to hear what I have to say, I’m much more inclined to turn around and find another room than to stay in that one to fight it out. I’m really only interested in leading when I have a room full of yes. I’ve never been too keen to try and convince a room that thinks I’m a Two that I am really a King, or even just, like, a Nine.

I’m seeing now what a fight it has always been to lead. To have to convince everyone of my right to be there before I even begin is more work than I am willing to do anymore. And what is making me furious now is to see how, for so many men, the mantle of authority is just given to them even if they don’t want it or deserve it.

It starts so young, too. In schools, I’ve seen groups of riled up children get instantly calm when a man walks into their classroom. Triple that effect if he’s wearing a tie. And that effect magnifies over time. And I think it is how we’ve ended up with this horrible political situation – and the slowly awakening realization of this bias is what’s slowly shifting it. As a tribe, we have to examine who we clear space for and who we challenge, who we defer to and who we are skeptical of. Sure – internalized misogyny has been a factor but it is also a lifetime of patterns that our tribes repeat and repeat.

In her book, Deborah Frances White shares an anecdote about driving. She’d heard that London drivers were aggressive but when she drove her employer’s SUV for the first time, she experienced everyone getting out of her way. She thought, from this experience, that London drivers were extremely polite.

Then she drove a small VW Golf. She discovered that, previously, her way had been cleared because of the large vehicle she’d been driving. People had been getting out of her way due to her barreling through the roads in a big car not because they wanted to. As she puts it: “I thought everyone else was polite. Turns out, I’m an arsehole.” She makes the analogy that this is how privilege works – the “arseholes” don’t know they’re being “arseholes” – they think that others are just polite and they think they’re being polite too.

This is the thing – the SUV’s way is always clear and the little VW is always trying to squeeze in where it can. To create a sense of balance, we probably need to treat VWs like SUVs an occasion. We need to treat Twos like Kings. We need to shift the group dynamics to open up and welcome the people who have had to fight for their place.

The group endows the leader with their power or their lack of power. The group sets the tone of welcome someone with an enthusiastic yes or a skeptical no – or even just a qualified skeptical yes. Western ideology always credits the leader with changing the group but I think it’s rather the reverse. The group changes the leader. The leader becomes who they are and leads how they lead because of the group. There are a lot of interesting examples of this in the American political landscape at the moment. Donny Twimp just repeats the lines his audience likes. He explained that’s how “drain the swamp” became a thing. The people in front of him liked it so it caught on.

No way was cleared for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before she started but she famously wore out her shoes clearing a way for herself. And now, she is challenged at every turn. But simultaneously, those who elected her and admire and support her, buoy her up with our enthusiastic yes. That helps her negotiate all the SUVS that Republicans keep trying to park in front of her.

But American politics aside, this is all happening on micro levels as well. There are rooms women are welcome in and those we are not and no one needs to say anything for us to feel the difference. In theatres, for example, women are welcome as ingénues and chorus girls but not as leaders. (Actual thing said by an Artistic Director to some writers I know: “Oh, we don’t hire women directors. They can’t hold the room.”)

If we want to make changes, we’re going to have to bring our enthusiastic welcomes to women, especially in rooms where they have previously been met with hostility. If you’re an airline – maybe roll out the red carpet for your lady pilots. Throw them parties. I don’t know. And actually more than special treatment, women (and other people who find themselves less welcome) just need the group to have faith and confidence in them, to uncross their arms and smile and expect to be dazzled.

Having my leadership questioned and challenged at every turn in my graduate program for directing made me question my skill and has made all subsequent leading fraught with self doubt. Having been, frankly, a little bit traumatized by the tribe, I have found it harder to feel any subsequent group’s welcome, harder to distinguish what is actually a challenge to my leadership and what is just the usual workings of a tribe trying to figure something out. This is still a factor in everything I do now and led to my, more or less, giving up directing. I’m guessing that we lose a lot of women (and trans and non-binary) leaders this way.

But the group could turn it around I think. The group is powerful. The group can say “yes” enthusiastically if it wants and carry its leaders ahead. The group can welcome new leaders together, new voices, new ideas. The group can lift up all the previously under supported, under appreciated, under heard people and make a more equitable world. And it can get everyone out of a burning building when someone smells smoke, too. If the people around you don’t believe you when you smell smoke, or they aren’t lifting each other up, maybe start looking for a new tribe or even just a new audience with which to watch a show. And help that tribe give a boost to someone who needs it. It could change everything.

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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

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of February for the second album, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

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In Which I Try to Defend My (Seemingly Terrible) Choice to Dedicate My Life to Theatre
January 28, 2019, 11:43 pm
Filed under: art, musicals, Quitting, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Theatre is part of me. It has been since I first learned about it in pre-school. My pre-school teachers were actors and there has never been anyone cooler – before or since. Even if I quit theatre making tomorrow, I’d still be a theatre person. It’s almost a physical characteristic at this point – Oh, she has blue eyes, curly hair and theatre.

Other people who have theatre in their bones know what I mean. They know how inevitable it feels, how compulsive, how deep.

The people without this quality cannot fathom why theatre has so much power over us. Why do we continue to do it, despite the heartbreaks, the inconsistency and the hopelessness of the whole enterprise?

Oh, how I wish I knew the answer. Theatre is not logical.

It may have been once – back in the old days when it was the only place a community could really gather, when it provided the only drama or comedy around. But now, when we can get our stories on screens of all sizes, it no longer has the urgency it once did. Why gather in person to watch something if we can gather virtually?

If you have theatre in your blood, as either a theatre-goer or maker or both, you know why. If you don’t, I’m not sure how to capture the magic spell the rest of us are under. Why do we go to it? Why do we sacrifice for it? Why do we dedicate years of our lives to its charms?

A few years ago, after a friend’s benefit for her theatre company, a few of us were out for dinner afterwards and a friend said to his wife, “Why does she still do this? Every year. She keeps going and going and it never gets anywhere.” Even though he was talking about our friend, not me, I still experienced the words with the heat of a white hot poker.

“Why does she still do this?” Fact is, this is a question I used to fear that people were asking about me all the time. Every time I sent out a fundraising letter I’d hear that voice saying, “Why does she still do this?” Every time I promoted another show “Why does she still do this?” Every time I’d have to ask a new round of people for assistance, “Why does she still do this?”

When we first started our theatre company, people responded with great enthusiasm. They were sure we’d be the next big thing. As were we. As a culture, we respond to the new. I’ve seen this happen to other fresh faced theatre companies when they first get started. Folks on Kickstarter love to fund that brand new project for someone to follow their dreams. But just the first dream. Maybe the 2nd. After that, everyone expects you to have MADE it by now and begins to resent your asking. But the truth is, in contemporary American Theatre, almost no one “makes it.” And even if you do “make it” (i.e. you’re produced on a nationally recognized stage and get publicity and stuff,) because we have no national arts funding to speak of, you will still be asking everyone for money. In fact, you’ll be asking for more and more money as your budgets will get bigger and bigger the more “making it” you are. Why do we still do this?

My worries about hearing “Why does she still do this?” have faded and the question has now become “Why do I still do this?” The longer I keep at it, the less I worry about what other people might be thinking. Now I ask myself – whenever I return to the theatre, to the work, to the heartbreak. Why do I still do this?

I know why I WANT to. I know how it starts. It starts with inspiration, with an idea I want to see realized. It’s this ridiculous thing called Art that calls to me, where I cannot help but do it, no matter how little encouragement I receive. Many of us cannot be talked out of our art by the forces pressing on it. The sheer numbers of painters, sculptures, writers and composers who died unrecognized, with no assurance from the outside world are staggering. We count among them many of our greatest. . . but no one wonders why Van Gogh still painted. Why Kafka still wrote. They made things because they had to make things. Not to make it but to make. I’m the same. So is my friend who “never gets anywhere.”

I started this essay a decade ago and I am still making theatre – no matter how much it breaks my heart and seems to not be worth it sometimes. As time goes by, the putting on of shows becomes harder and harder to do, more and more draining. It feels less and less sensible to keep at it. Is the satisfaction of seeing my inspiration realized enough? Is it worth the agony to get my ideas to the stage?

I’ll be honest with you. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it is not worth it. So I got my idea up on stage. So? So? A handful of people saw it, a small percentage of them were moved. So?

Grantmakers measure a company’s worth in how many people were present, that saw a piece of work. My company does not get those grants because we do not reach a lot of people. Maybe that means I should just quit. Sometimes I really think I’m going to. I can do so many other things, after all. Perhaps I could be satisfied with fiction, with music, with writing about art. But…

We could just go on, dreaming of our future audiences who will, one day, understand what we were trying to do, while they miss it today. The major difficulty is that because our medium is live and ethereal, as theatre makers, we don’t really stand much of a chance to be recognized when we’re gone. But it doesn’t matter. We still do it because it is what we do. Van Gogh painted because he painted. Kafka wrote because he wrote. We put on shows because we put on shows. And that is why she still does this.

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 a previous one on Anchor, click here.

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 the blog? Why not help support it?

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

Or buy me a “coffee” at Ko-fi. https://ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis



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.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

 



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.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

*

Like theatre? Want to support someone who makes it?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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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