Songs for the Struggling Artist

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.

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The Stumbler, or, F**k Around Fridays

Listening to Laraine Newman talking about her pre-SNL days made me think about all the stars that had to align to give her the extraordinary life and career she’s had. The one that popped out for me was this quality in her youth of just messing around – just trying stuff out. She never took aim at something and strapped herself onto a rocket, she just tried stuff out, followed what she liked. Her sister was a folk singer. She followed her into the arts. Her sister did improv which Newman found that she liked so she stumbled into co-founding The Groundlings – a company that is now foundational for American comedy. Lorne Michaels came to see The Groundlings so then she stumbled into Lily Tomlin’s show, then Saturday Night Live Stuff just happened for her. And surely it still might work that way for some people but these days, for most – just stumbling into things is entirely beyond reach. This is because a) the bar is so high b) the competition is so fierce and c) everything is so expensive.

Let’s say you wanted to start a sketch troupe like The Groundlings today. First of all, you’re going to need a place to rehearse. If you’re in New York, a decent sized rehearsal room is going to cost you at least $30 an hour. If you’re not doing exclusively crowded elevator sketches, you’ve got to have some space. Then you’re going to need a place to perform. Sorry, buddy. We lost two comedy venues in this pandemic. You might need to rent a theatre. Well gee whiz. You can get this 23 seat black box for a cool $2500 a week! Hope you have a trust fund! But okay – your uncle left you some insurance money – so you rent the space. How are you going to get people to come to your show? You could make some postcards, hand ‘em out to your friends, make a Facebook event or whatever. Heck, you could even be a real pro and send out a press release. But I’m sorry to tell you – that without a huge group of friends who love to come see sketches or a professional publicist, you might be hard pressed to fill that 23 seat black box you paid $2500 a week for. There are probably 200 sketch groups in the city all competing for an audience. You’ll need some help cutting through the noise. At every step of the way, someone who’s a stumbler will have stumbled away from this experience. The more determination and drive it requires, the more obstacles that get thrown in the way, the less likely it will be that an artistic dabbler will stick around. What I’m saying is that a young Laraine Newman in these times would not start the Groundlings.

I think this is a big problem. Not because I’m a stumbler. I’m not. I have been a rocket-strapped-to-me aspirational theatre maker since the first day I stepped on a stage. I am the kind of dog who will not let go of the stick, for any reason. I rented that $2500 a week theatre. But the way arts get made now means that only the most privileged or most fiercely tenacious people are left and I don’t think that makes for good art. Some of my favorite people to work with are first timers. The product designer who made his first stage set. The software developer playing guitar in a play. The film producer turning to theatre. You don’t get many first timers in an art scene of attrition. You don’t get folks who just want to try stuff out. You don’t get the lightness of possibilities, of experimentation, of exploration. The more money you have to raise, the more pressure gets put on a project. People don’t want to fund your group to just fuck around on Fridays. They want to fund your trip to Edinburgh. They want to fund your development deal to Broadway.

Also, you shouldn’t have to fundraise to fuck around. You should be able to just fuck around somewhere, if you want. Let me tell you, fucking around is better for art than just about anything else but no one will ever pay you to do it. Just messing around in a place where it’s possible to mix it up and do whatever is so good for creative thinking. Someone could just stumble into your space where everyone is just fucking around and make the fucking around even more interesting.

Groups of artists are best when there is a healthy mix of people. If everyone in the group is a super tenacious ambitious striver, the group is going to be terrible. You need variety in a scene. You need someone who fiercely chases the dream, sure – but you also need the person who just stumbled in there. Maybe even a few of those folks would be nice.

It’s harder now – even than it was twenty years ago when I started my theatre company. It was bad then, sure. We had to raise money to rehearse, sure. But I happened to have a big living room then. And rehearsal space wasn’t QUITE as outrageous. But I’ve watched something that was hard, to start with, became nearly impossible. And I’ve watched all the lovely stumblers stumble into more welcoming fields. These days, I end up working a lot with people who ALSO have companies, who ALSO have hung on tightly through the storms. They are lovely and amazing – but we’re really missing the stumblers. I long for a lightness of process, of participants, of just letting a breeze blow through to make a thing. I definitely miss having a living room big enough to rehearse in. But really – one thing I’d love to see when theatre returns, is space for the stumbler.

These girls are ostensibly playing a ring toss game. But I prefer to think of them as just fucking around on a Friday.

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 iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.


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


Want to help me fuck around on Fridays?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page


If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

Or buy me a coffee on Kofi –

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