Tag Archives: an artist’s life

Finding Meaning

by Chelsea Sutton

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Here’s the thing. We all want our plays to mean something. In political times like these (or, if we’re being real, at just about any political time ever), the writer stands at the precipice of a canyon of noise and anger and disruption. And we think – how can I possibly make a blip in this mess?

As both a marketing person and a playwright, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people about why a play is “relevant” – and more than that, why theatre is “relevant” – and why they should spend this amount of money and this amount of time buying into a false reality and be moved in some way, to be challenged or questioned.

It is exhausting.

In our struggle to be “relevant” (a word I might actually despise right now) – we playwrights sometimes produce “message” plays – plays that tend to hit on a topical conversation (gay marriage, terrorism, gun control, abortion) but not only hit on it, hit it right on the damn nose. There’s usually a moment when the playwright-thinly-veiled-as-a-character has a speech that describes why their view on the topic is the correct one. We all have one of these plays because the topic is important to us, because we are trying to be heard above the noise, because goddamnit, art can mean something.

The problem with message plays is that they tend to preach to the choir. My opinion is not going to be changed because you deliver a monologue in my direction. Chances are, if I’m in the audience of your message play, I already agree with you. It’s the algorithm. It is everywhere.

But, I will question my point of view if you give me characters I can relate to and love, a situation that is relatable or complicated and tense, and a slice of humanity that perhaps I had never considered before. Show me the grey area I’ve been ignoring. I might not change my opinion, but perhaps now I can see through the clutter and the postulating, all the way to the person on the other side.

Theatre has to work harder, to be more than a Facebook or Twitter argument. Give me a message, but dip it in character and setting and poetry and beauty and darkness and comedy first. Coat it on thick, pull all the threads together, and make me swallow it with a smile on my face or ugly tears in my eyes. And I will digest that message over the next day or week or months or years – I will feel it there, even if the words don’t come right away.

I don’t want a thesis statement. I don’t want to be able to describe in a sentence what your play was about after I’ve walked out. Make me feel it, show me what its about. Audiences are smarter than you think. Make them work. Even when they are being entertained, put them to work. This is not a passive art. It is not a passive life. We cannot be passive.

Here’s the thing. There are plenty of people out there who say that art is irrelevant (and plenty of those people are in power right now), or that they don’t take meaning from art and that art is not there to mean something. But art always means something, even if you don’t realize what it is telling you. We consume stories and art constantly, even if we never step foot in a theatre.

So I suppose all plays are message plays. But it is how we choose to frame it that makes the difference. Take your message and frame it in different ways. See what life it takes on.

Pick a frame.

We cannot measure our worth as writers based on the number of minds that are changed after two hours of the theatre. Minds are far too stubborn. Instead, we should challenge ourselves to let our hearts explode onto the page and the stage, and hope somehow, somewhere, a shard of the heart lodges into another person, and you are intrinsically linked for the rest of your lives.

The world is changed by marches and strikes and wars and protests and hitting the pavement, but also by one shard of one heart in one stranger.

Here’s the thing. It is exhausting. It is indescribably messy.

And it is always relevant.

 

Getting Organized

by Kitty Felde

      It all started when I missed an appointment.

These days, I produce a podcast called the Book Club for Kids. A trio of middle graders discuss a novel, there’s an interview with the author and a reading from the book by a “celebrity.”

Last month, I blew it. I was a no-show at a scheduled taping. More than a dozen young readers were waiting for me that Sunday afternoon and I stood them up.

I could use the excuse that I was jet lagged, arriving after midnight the night before from a cross-country flight. Or I could plead that Sundays I take a tech Sabbath, not looking at my phone – and its calendar – at all. But excuses didn’t make any difference to the dozen or so disappointed young readers awaiting their chance at podcast stardom…and their angry parents who’d driven for miles to get their kids to the bookstore for the taping.

It was then that it became very clear that I needed to get organized.

I’m not the only one – particularly at this time of year. You can’t even go in to the Home Depot without stumbling over a display of 2018 calendars for sale. At Fed Ex, pickings were slim among the display of pretty, fat calendar books with floral motifs. Even my husband gets into the act every December, watching the mailbox for the one thing on which he spends an absurd amount of money: the new filler for his portable paper calendar book.

Then I stumbled across Bullet Journals. There’s an enormous cult following for “BuJo” as the aficionados call them. Invented by a digital designer named Ryder Carroll, Bullet Journals seem to have captured the imagination.

The basic idea is simple: a blankish book and a variety of colored pens and perhaps a ruler are all it takes. I say blankish because “BuJos” prefer blank pages with dots that they can use as grid makers to create weekly or monthly pages full of “things to do” lists and food diaries and weather reports and words of the day.

Things get more extravagant after that.

Some “BuJos” fight on social media about page thickness and the bleed level of pens. They proudly show off their collection of highlighter pens. (Who knew there was a gray highlighter pen?) There’s a debate about whether stickers are appropriate. I counted eight different groups on Facebook devoted to Bullet Journals, including the Minimalist Bullet Journal group that still seems overly complicated to me. Pinterest, as you can imagine, has hundreds of pictures of Bullet Journals.

Buzz Feed has an article to tell you what your style of Bullet Journaling says about you. I realized my style says I am not a Bullet Journaling kind of girl. I can’t draw. I never scrapbooked in my life. And why would I spend hours drawing in the dates of a 2018 calendar when I can get a perfectly good one at any store in America?

I think the BuJo serves the same purpose for visual people as my Morning Pages do for a word person like me. Julia Cameron’s classic “Artist’s Way” assignment has always helped me untangle my disorganized brain. Sitting down first thing in the morning to scribble away for three pages in a cheap composition book – part diary, part writing ideas, mostly things to do lists – grounds me and helps me sort out what’s important in my life and what to let go. Obviously it wasn’t enough to keep me from missing an important appointment.

So I bought a nice, light paper calendar that fits in my handbag. I’ve started marking it up with travel plans and podcast tapings. More important, I vowed to look at it every day. Even on my tech Sabbath.

What about you? How do you keep organized? Please share your secret!

My D-bag Writing Partners

by Korama Danquah

I hate my writing partners.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Oh my goodness! Korama! That sounds like a personal problem that you and your writing partners should discuss together.” Ordinarily you would be right. I’m an adult(ish type person) who likes to handle my problems in a (mostly) adult way. Talking to my writing partners would be the adult way to handle any issues. Except that they aren’t just my writing partners – they’re your writing partners too.

“What?” you just exclaimed “I don’t have any writing partners.” Or perhaps you wondered “Why does Korama think Lewis and Clark are d-bags?” (Side note: This imaginary conversation thing is really amusing to me) The particular writing partners I’m talking about are not of the human variety, but the nagging-voice-in-the-back-of-your-head variety; I’m talking about self-doubt and insecurity.

Everyone has self-doubt and insecurity in varying degrees, but the effects are most felt by people who do creative work. You can doubt yourself when you do a spreadsheet, but at the end of the day the spreadsheet reflects facts and figures, not your thoughts and feelings.

I have a particularly hard time with these silent partners – maybe it’s because, despite the fact that I consider myself a creative person, I am most comfortable with facts and figures. I am very clear with right and wrong, black and white, good and bad. Subjectivity scares me. I start to doubt that what I am doing is good or worth anything at all, like Semele started to doubt what she previously knew to be true.

For those of you who need a refresher, Semele was one of Zeus’ many lovers (not to slut-shame him, but good god, who wasn’t one of his lovers?). Hera, jealous of her husband’s human lover (who was pregnant with Dionysus the god of theatre!), disguises herself as an old woman, befriends Semele and convinces Semele to confide in Hera/Old Human Lady that she is banging Zeus. Hera then plants seeds of doubt in Semele’s head. She asks her how she can know it’s truly Zeus if she hasn’t seen him in his godlike form. On the one hand, that’s a valid point because dudes could totally be walking around pretending to be Zeus in an effort to bed women. On the other hand, douche move on Hera’s part because she knew exactly what would happen next. Semele asked Zeus for a favor and he promised, no swore, he would do whatever it was. She asked to see him in his divine form. Zeus reluctantly agreed and obviously seeing him in his true form killed her.

The story has several morals, the strongest of which is that doubt will literally kill you.

It’s hard not to succumb to self-doubt and insecurity – they are strong opponents. What I do these days is remind myself that I’m stronger. I’m not Semele or Hera or Zeus, at least not completely. I have a little bit of all of them: Semele’s humanity, Hera’s ingenuity, Zeus’ strength. All of these things are what makes me, and my writing, special and unique.

It’s easy to get comfortable with the right/wrong, good/bad dichotomies of this world, but if everything is one thing or another it loses part of its rarity. Walt Whitman once said “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes)” To allow yourself to exist in the spaces between black and white, to contradict yourself at turns, is to contain multitudinous, enormous beauty. I won’t allow doubt and insecurity to squash that, to make my work ugly with fear.

So screw you, writing partners. I’m working on my own from now on.

On Writing and Sadness Bouts, Part 2.

Carrying on from Part I
There’s a good amount of evidence to suggest that creative people may be predisposed to have depression or depressive tendencies.
I have a theory about this – I don’t necessarily think we’re all predisposed. But I think the actual, repeated practice of creating and sharing our art can make our emotions go haywire.
In two ways –
    1. The Process: The same instinct that makes us good writers – the ability to self-edit, to sift, to weed out the bad ideas from the good, in short, to critique – is what can also make writing so painful. Because as we write, our inner editor is chomping on the bit to tell us how this draft is terrible, how this idea is pointless, how no one will ever want to do this, how it’s a waste of our time and (let’s take this to the logical end) how we’re a fraud and will never write anything good ever again. We all hear this nasty voice in our head from time to time – the trick of course, is to rein it in, to allow just the right amount of self-critique into our process, perfectly calibrated to the needs of that particular draft.But wow, that’s a really hard thing to ask of ourselves, isn’t it? And in addition, the madness inside our heads isn’t caused by anything we could call “real”. We’re miserable because we can’t figure out the solutions to problems that we made up for characters and situations that don’t exist. It’s hella weird.

 

  • The Production: So as playwrights, we deeply care about our audiences. We write a play as a gift to be shared – not just with our collaborators, but with living, breathing human beings who gather in a room together, who’ve plonked down money and found babysitters and driven out and given up their evening to spend with our stories. So we really care about them.In speaking just for myself, the audience is always top of my mind, from the first draft through to opening night. Yes, it’s important that I’m happy, that my artistic team is happy, but by god, I really want the audience to be happy. I want them to have such a good time in the theatre. The fact that I care so much is one of my strengths, and it shows in my writing.

    But once the production is up and running, I can’t turn this off. So when the reviews are out, I’m setting myself up to be a complete emotional mess. Sarah Ruhl recently said, so easily, that she doesn’t read anything written about herself. Lauren Gunderson has said she only reads the good reviews. I wish I could pick either lane. But no – I can’t turn off that instinct to care about what people think, even at the stage where I have no power to change anything, even if I wanted to. That’s not healthy.

 

So basically, my theory is that both the inside of playwriting (the process), and the outside of it (collaboration and reception) are fraught with triggers. And ironically, the further I progress in my career, the more frequently I face these triggers, and with higher stakes each time.
  • The more I learn about playwriting, the more plays I write and see, the harsher my inner-critic gets, because now I know better, and I know what I’m up against.
  • Commissions are the best, but they bring out my inner-critic in full force, because now there’s that additional, awful fear of letting someone down.
  • The more production opportunities I get, the more reviews I’ll get, and the more people will have things to say about my work. Google will be my nemesis forever.
I know that I should hopefully arrive at a sort of equilibrium at some point. As I mature as a writer, I’ll be able to tamper that inner voice. The more I recognize my process, my patterns, the less I’ll freak out when I think something isn’t going well. And maybe one day I’ll achieve Sarah Ruhl levels of poise where I exist in a transcendent bubble of perfection (I love Sarah Ruhl, this is me being totally straight with you. Also, she’s never gonna read this.)
But until then, I would love to hear from LAFPI readers on how you manage these issues, and what tricks you have to get around these emotional speed bumps, these exhausting obstacles as we all try to navigate a happy, balanced, and productive life in the theatre.

On Writing and Sadness Bouts, Part 1.

Hello, LAFPI readers! I hope you all had a lovely weekend.

For my first post this week, I wanted to talk about writers and depression (isn’t that an auspicious beginning.) Mostly because I had read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s amazing op-ed in The Guardian about her journey with depression, and it’s been rattling around in my head for several weeks now.

So I had no idea about the kerfuffle that ensued after I had read that piece – apparently it was published without Adichie’s permission, which is just awful on so many levels, and was retracted from the website. However, she did then give this wonderful interview to the blog Olisa.tv, about the article and its ramifications, and I would highly recommend reading it.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Source: Olisa.tv
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Source: Olisa.tv
The thing that I’ve been trying to figure out about her article was actually my own reaction to it. It was the question that popped up – why is she depressed? To put it far more crudely – what does she have to be depressed about? Adichie is one of our greatest living writers, beloved around the world, achieving incredible success in a field that’s notoriously hard to break into, especially for women of color.

I also had a similar reaction when I read this piece in the New Yorker a few years ago – about therapy for working (and often consistently working, i.e. successful) screenwriters. What do they have to complain about?

It’s a terrible attitude, and one that I turn on myself too. I thankfully do not suffer from clinical depression or similar chronic health conditions, but I do get sad sometimes. When I am sad, I feel absolutely powerless. The same question surfaces – what do you have to complain about? – but even as I intellectually understand what it means, engaging with the question does nothing to affect my mood. If anything, it makes me feel worse. Most of the time these bouts last for a few days at most, and then I’m fine. But last month, my ‘bout’ lasted three weeks, and it was awful. It also came at a time when I was on vacation, in my parents’ home in India, with all my needs taken care of and all my wants attended to by my loving family. The incongruity of my feelings with my actual situation was almost too much to bear.

I’m back in a good place now, but what those weeks gave me was (hopefully) a permanent shifting of my perspective, a good dose of empathy. Being sad is scary. It’s lonely. Most of the time, it’s beyond our control. The absolute wrong thing to do is to question the validity of someone’s experiences because you think they shouldn’t be feeling a certain way. How ridiculous!

Upon looking back, I have found that my sadness bouts are usually intimately tied to my writing process, and to the struggles of crafting a career as a playwright. I think a lot of readers of this blog may feel or have felt the same way. For my next post, I’ll be writing more about the unique challenges of controlling our emotions, when paradoxically, our lives as playwrights require us to be open, receptive and porous to the world and everything that it throws at us.

In the meantime, be sure to read the Adichie interview! She’s amazing. And I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments – it’s a tricky subject and I’m always open to learning more and understanding these issues in a better way.

[Continued in Part 2.]

Insurance for an Artist

by Tiffany Antone

A slightly medicated post from post-surgery land…

A little over a year ago I was diagnosed with Grave’s disease, which involves an unfortunately over-active thyroid messing up all kinds of metabolic function.  I didn’t have insurance at the time I was diagnosed, having let it lapse due to my near-impoverished status at the time.  Once diagnosed, I was able to reinstate my insurance, but with the policy’s insanely high deductible, it did little to curb the cost of necessary tests and specialists visits.

At the time, doctors recommended I get the thyroid removed, but I couldn’t even imagine doing so because I’d have to cover the first $8,000 of any operation out of my own (empty) pocket due to my $5,000 deductible/$3,000 co-insurance policy.

So I went on anti-thyroid meds and set my sites on the ACA rollout date as a bastion of insured hope.

Last week I finally got my thyroid removed.  I received excellent medical care.  My deductible was only $500.

(cue choir)

I’m an artist, and an adjunct faculty member at a community college.  I am also a substitute teacher who writes for an online magazine.  I produce a female playwright festival and I teach youth workshops. None of these pays very well, and not a one offers me insurance like I’m able to get through the ACA website.  I work hard at all these under-paying gigs because I enjoy the work and because I believe I will one day find a full-time teaching position at a university (the power of positive thought!).  In the meantime, the Affordable Care Act really changed my life in a huge way.

I’m still a little groggy as I recover from the operation, but I’m also really grateful for all the fight that went into making it possible for artists like myself to get the medical help they need.

I just wanted to share some of that gratitude here.  I know I’m not the only one.

~Tiffany Antone

 

On the road again

I’m looking forward to Tuesday.  That’s when I’m stepping on a plane to Rhode Island where yet another college is producing my war crimes play “A Patch of Earth.”  I’m looking forward to the talkback session with the students.  They always ask the hard questions.

I’ve been very fortunate with this particular play to find exactly the right audience.  It premiered at the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo, where it won the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition.  But it’s not exactly the most commercial thing I’ve ever written.  As my pal who runs MetroStage in Alexandria puts it, “it’s hard to sell tickets to a show about slaughtering Bosnians at Srebrenica.” 

But it’s exactly the right play for colleges, a place where young people spend hours debating moral questions.  The play is the true story of Drazen Erdemovic, a Bosnian Croat who ended up fighting for all three sides during the Yugoslav war.  He says he never killed anybody until his unit was sent to a farm outside of Srebrenica where they were instructed to kill busloads of men.  He said he didn’t want to shoot, but was told if he felt so sorry for the victims he could stand up there with them and be shot himself.  And then his compadres would go back to his village and shoot his wife and child. 

It’s a story with characters around the age of college students, a story that happened in most of these students’ lifetime.  The play has a big cast (at least 9, as many as 30) with lots of good female roles.  Perfect for college productions.

And it’s had those college productions in Detroit, Pretoria, Costa Mesa, New Jersey, and now Rhode Island.  (It even had one high school production last year in England!)  “A Patch of Earth” was even published by the University of Wisconsin Press. 

I don’t write all this to brag on myself, but to remind myself that not everything I write is destined for the Taper.  Or the Geffen.  Or the Pasadena Playhouse.  That doesn’t mean the script doesn’t have value.  In fact, it might affect more lives by being the perfect script for colleges.  Or for community theatres.  Or for young audiences. 

Write the play that’s calling you to be written today.  Worry about the audience it’s written for after you’re done.  Because plays that need to be written seem to find their own audiences.

Time management

There really are only 24 hours in a day.  And on a night like this, where I’m just getting home at 8:30 in the evening, the last thing that I want to do after dealing with words and sound bites all day is stare some more at my computer and deal with words and dialogue.  If I were a better person, I’d go to bed earlier and get up at the crack of dawn and write.  But I’m not that better person.

I’m giving myself a pass this week.  I knew it would be a stressful week at work, what with threats of a government shutdown.  Plus, my Skype partner had another commitment and couldn’t make our once a week playwriting lab.   So no new pages for me. 

But just giving myself a week off gave me the space to actually send out some query letters and submit a couple of plays here and there.  And my brain has been working on rewriting the LA Riots play.  So I haven’t completely given up my identity as playwright. 

I’ve had a hard time finding a regular schedule for my writing – partly because of the unpredicability of the day job, partly because both my husband and I work out of an 800 square foot coop.  And he’s a writer, too.  There’s something about that other person sucking all the creative energy out of a place. 

When I was working on the many, many rewrites of “Gogol Project,” I found that if I could set aside 90 minutes a day, I could write a play.  That resolution has fallen away. I did manage to finish the first draft of a new play in spits and spots.  But after more than two decades of writing plays, I wish I knew a more efficient way to do it.

I’m curious about your writing habits.  Do you have a sacred place and time?  How long do you typically sit down to write at a time?  Is caffeine a requirement?

Over-Extended and Under-Funded: an Exercise in Remembering to BREATHE

Breathing… Breathing…

I have to remember to breathe.

I’m producing a Young Playwrights Festival, and although I’ve headed up smaller such things before, all the people (and kiddo) wrangling has got me feeling a tad overwhelmed.  I mean, this is quite a bit different than wrangling characters and inventing location… this is tangible, frustratingly human, manuevering…

And it’s got me cringing at all the variables.

Which is why I need to remember to breathe… that it’s all going to be just fine…  That ultimately, all the worrying and fretting don’t actually do anything except make you miserable.

But I am sitting here, wondering how in the world I got myself so mightily committed overall – I mean, I’m earning a 19-hour a week paycheck at my “job” and probably logging an additional 25 a week for non-paying endeavors:  There’s the Festival (Gah!) and rehearsals for the show I’m directing, and the countless emails from the other directors and committee members and… woof!  Then there are my blogs – I have a personal space that allows me to pontificate periodically on anything from cat-hairs in my breakfast to the agony and love-lust of art – plus I edit a larger scale Los Angeles-centric blog-collective with a bunch of other writers (Ahem, and might I say, we’re always looking for more people to blog for us, my fellow scribes!)  And then I have my playwriting log – which consists of an ever increasing list of characters and plot-lines banging down my mental door, demanding to be paid attention to…

No wonder I’m tired!

So I’m sitting here, in the midst of things, wondering just when the heck I’m going to be able to pay Visa back (and Mastercard, and Discover…) from all my below-the-poverty line living, and actually manage to eek out some sort of existence that doesn’t land me gasping for air and sanity every Friday night as I clutch my empty wallet in shame over my under-funded dinner…

Woe. Is. The. Playwright.

And yet…

I can’t fathom having a laundry list of over-compensated-for tasks that looks like an accountant’s sheet… I can’t imagine finding happiness in a full-time paycheck if it was sans-flexibility for these things that alternately drive me crazy and flood me with joy… I NEED to be able to flit from project to project; writing, directing, producing, editing… I NEED THE UNCERTAINTY!   I just want to get paid better for it 😉

So… as I sit down at my desk and hammer out a few fumbling sentences here, I’d just like to tell the universe that I’m not complaining – not really.   I am so thankful for my life – I’d just like my life to start paying for itself so that I can afford the massages I need to soothe the worries my over-committments manifest and to move out of my parents house and into some big-girl living once again.

But until that happens, I guess I just have to continue to remind myself to B-R-E-A-T-H-E.

Now What?

You know that idea, the one that rolls around in your head whenever you don’t want to concentrate on the project you actually should be writing?

Then one day someone gives you time and resources and says that idea sounds great for a workshop. At least, that’s how it happened for me.

Now what?

Nothing is written, perhaps some notes jotted, an image folder created on my desktop but still sparse: this is the state of that project.

I start by collecting source material, images, and just seeking as much research on the topic at hand as possible.

How do you start a dream project?