Songs for the Struggling Artist

Checking in with 2004 (self-mentorship, time travel and jealousy)

Not long ago, I had an opportunity to watch a video of a show I made ten years ago. The video began with my introduction to the show. This was a window on who I was in 2004. This version of myself is idealistic, enthusiastic and very passionate about her work but she’s also very concerned about being likeable. She’s performing a very particular brand of femininity as if she’s hoping some boy in the audience will fall in love with her charms. Ah, sigh. I am glad to be free of that impulse. One of the benefits of age seems to be a waning sense of giving a shit about what other people think of you.

I look at this version of me from a decade ago and there are dozens of things I want to share with her, dozens of tips, dozens of insights. I’m sure the version of me 10 years from now would look back at 2014 me and want to do the same. I want to be my own mentor. If only time travel would let me.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the current me wants to go back to 2004 and mentor my art in addition to my personal self. And this for me feels the most poignant. The piece in this video was one I was very proud of. It got our best reviews, including our one and only NY Times review. Watching it now, though, I’m shocked by some of the choices I made. Some of it holds up. There are still some good moments but there are so many things that I would never let stand now. Why, for example, did I choose to use a shitty audience chair when it really wouldn’t have been hard for us to bring a decent looking chair to that theatre?

There are dozens of wonky transitions, some odd timing choices (not all of them can be due to the electricity problems I know this particular show to have suffered.) In watching it now, I see it as a show with a great deal of potential but not the finished product I thought it was at the time. In watching it now, it is clear as day that this writer, this director needs a mentor.

And I happen to know she’s never had one. Not the kind she needed. She did, not long after this show, go to graduate school for directing – hoping to find that guidance. But it didn’t quite work out like she’d hoped. See, I want to mentor myself as an artist because I’d know how to do it. I’d know how to tell myself what I’d need to hear without hurting my feelings. It is a very delicate balance.

But this post is not about the mythical mentorship I wish I’d had. I mean, yes, it is, yes it has been. . . but I’ve been chewing on this experience for some time, wondering what to make of it.

Then, I saw a show by Catherine Wheels, out of Scotland. The piece was relatively simple but it was made with such care, I could feel that every word and gesture had been given careful consideration. It was clearly made by a group of artists who were really paying attention and considered every angle – and by a company that gave them the resources they needed to make that consideration. I imagined that there’d been a lot of experimentation, a lot of investigation, a lot of trial and error and a lot of reflection on what was working and what was not. What I imagined I saw in that show was a community of theatre-makers, a dedicated culture of excellence. It was really very beautiful to see the net of all of that under a 50 minute piece for young people about friendship.

And it made me insanely jealous. Because that is ACTUALLY what the 2004 version of myself needed. Not just a mentor who would tell her not to use that awful chair but a whole community of people who are listening to each other and trying things out and reflecting in respectful ways. I imagine that the Arts Council provided funding to do an extended R & D process for that group of people. For those weeks, there was a safe, open space for those artists to play in and that time and that support gave them the wherewithal to really consider all of their choices.

The 2004 me needed that like nobody’s business. And the 2014 me does, too. We both of us long for a real community of artists striving for excellence – most of us here in NYC can’t afford to get to excellence and have to settle for survival.

As I watched the show from Scotland, I thought of that VHS tape of my show in 2004 and wished so hard that I could have developed that piece in the bosom of a company like Catherine Wheels, instead of all on our own as we did.

I wished I could have had the confidence that these young men had, when I was their age. Instead, I was too concerned about my character’s likeability to actually embody the excellence I knew I was capable of. Ah, for a time a machine and the ability to mentor myself! Or just a European passport. I’d take one of those, too.

astronomical-clock-475445_1280Photo by Peter Kraayvanger via Pixabay

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Time Travel for Artists
July 29, 2013, 8:59 pm
Filed under: art, business, dreams, education, theatre | Tags: ,

When I asked what I could do for him, he suggested I go back in time to his nine year old self and “Explain things to him.” He was thinking that if he hadn’t chosen music, he wouldn’t have ended up where he is now. And nine is apparently where it started for him.
It was around then that I became an artist too and I understand the impulse to divert the streams of time. I don’t know if you’ve seen these ads. They’re meant to be funny, I think. They’re supposed to warn kids off the arts in a ploy to encourage them. But a part of me takes those ads very seriously because I’ve seen art destroy many many lives. Not the way drugs or alcohol would (that’s why the ads are amusing.) But still, on the days that poverty and hopelessness seem the only end, it feels like art is just as dangerous.
Would I go back in time and find a way to keep my nine year old self from falling in love with theatre? I’m not sure. Would I go back in time and find a way to keep his nine year old self from falling in love with music? Not a chance.
Because as miserable as an artist’s struggle can be, it is the music in him that I love. Who would he be if he’d fallen in love with something practical? If my time machine somehow kept him from music and funneled him to electrical engineering, would he be the person he is?
Ultimately, if I had a time machine, I don’t think it would even be possible to divert the streams of an artist. If you took theatre from me, I’d have turned to music, if there were no music, I’d have turned to writing, if there were no words, I’d have turned to drawing, if there were no drawing, I’d have turned to dance and if there were none of these things, I’m not sure I’d want to live in that world. I know I wouldn’t actually.
I mean, heck, if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t use it to crush a young person’s artistic dreams. I can’t even do that in real time with the young people I actually teach.
No, if I had a time machine I think I would just become a Time Bandit and find a way to secretly fund the struggling artists I love. You know, the way Time Traveler’s do.

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