Is it just me or do people seem tired lately?
I don’t mean standard issue Festival post-partum malaise. I mean an industry-wide heaviness that is seeping into a majority of the conversations I have with people these days. A lot of people seem really weighed down, overwhelmed and ready to cut and run. I’ve been thinking about this weight, the sadness I sense in others and creepingly in myself. I’ve been thinking about how to tackle it and where it comes from.
First, a story, or a confession rather.
About a year ago, I was on the relationship rocks. Not through any kind of infidelity or betrayal. No, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with my partner and I. That said, through nit-picking and bickering, through the penumbra of apathy and assumption that LTRs can sometimes attain, I’d found myself in a place where nothing felt particularly right either.
I was bored, I felt trapped and I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted my future to look like.
The long and short of all this was that I had to ask myself some hard questions. I had to be honest about whether I was actually living the way I wanted to. I had to really own up to whether the choices I’d made were ones that I really wanted to continue with.
Basically, I had to decide if I wanted to stay or I wanted to leave.
Here’s the thing: as scary as that realization was, it occurred to me for the first time in a long time that I had a choice in the matter. Having to contemplate the very real possibility of not assuming the things I had would always stay that way meant that I really looked at them closely.
And for the first time it occurred to me that some of them were things I really didn’t want to lose. And it also occurred to me that there were things I was doing that were not making that terribly easy. In the midst of this very dark time I had to look at some choices I was making and some habits I was holding onto that were working against some of the things I professed to want. Contemplating whether I really wanted these things kicked me in the ass a bit about getting in gear to go get them.
Another confession, while this was happening in a lot of areas of my life at the time, the LTR I was really most worried about was with my identity as a creator.
We’ve all found ourselves in the midst of a lot of work that we don’t much care about for, work we don’t really even seem to like. And in those moments it’s easy to say to yourself, as the proverbial Talking Heads saying goes, “How did I get here?”
I, clearly, didn’t throw in the whole towel. But I did throw out a few things and I gave myself some mandates on what had to change. I decided to let go of some things that were making me tired. And I decided that when I get to the end of a project, as I have done just now, I’ll have to think not only about what the outside world tells me in terms of whether the work is good or bad, but whether it’s making me happy, whether I’m really doing what I want.
Another full disclosure: I really liked working on The Ballad of Joe Hill. There were a lot of great things that happened for the show.
But I’m pretty sure the Festival wasn’t the right vehicle for the piece.
That’s hard to write.
It’s hard to write because I spent years courting them and building my reputation as a creator worthy of presentation. It’s hard because there’s a measure of success that comes with being presented by a big name. It’s hard to write because without something like the Festival, I’m on my own to find the people I want to see my shows.
But I still think it’s true.
I’ll give the required caveat: I really appreciate everyone that came out to see Joe Hill. A lot of people really responded to the work. I am thankful to them. I appreciate them. I am happy that they came.
But I still don’t know that they are the people I wanted to reach. And I still don’t know that I totally achieved what I set out to do.
That’s even harder to write.
But I still think it’s true.
What I set out to do what get people that might never see a “play” to come and see this thing that I made. I wanted to find the folks that are a little rowdy and rough around the edges. I wanted to find the people that are into a dare, a risk, a potentially strange, dare I say, unsafe experience.
That’s what I really wanted. Because that was the promise the 2006 version offered to me all those years ago when I first made the show. That was the LTR that I signed up for: an off-road practice of the theatrical experience. A chance to honestly and actually shake up an artistic medium.
What I wanted out of Joe Hill was to get actual NEW theater audiences into the seats. To pave the way for a future definition of theater and theater audiences that are more in line with the ones I want to make.
And I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t get that this time.
Which doesn’t take away the success the show did achieve on other measures of success. It doesn’t take away the pride I have in what I made. But it also doesn’t excuse me from what I really want.
And unless I want to end back up in the heavy place, I need to keep reminding myself of that, and I have to be honest next time I start thinking about where I want my work presented whether it’s going to have a fair shot at getting me where I want to go.
See, there’s nothing wrong with failing. But you have to be honest at the get go about what the goals are and whether you’re really working towards them. And when you aren’t, you have to be ruthless, even when it’s hard, about pointing yourself back towards the where you want to head. This is the divining rod we all carry around in us as artists, that magnetic pull that tells us whether we are truly inside the truth of our work. And sometimes fear or failure or poverty or allure of praise can push us off that course. Sometimes a compromise isn’t a bad thing. But there are times when it isn’t what we really want and we can feel it, deep down, when when it’s actually at odds with what we really need to be making.
Look, if you’ve already made it as far as a life in the arts, it’s pretty clear that no one is forcing you to live any way but the way you want to. Last I checked, there was no theater artist acting with a gun to their head. And the bold, startling, scary but ultimately empowering truth is this:
No one in the world will be a stronger advocate for your work than you will be. No one will better articulate and know what you need than you do.
Which means you have no one else to blame if you aren’t doing something you love. Which means that if you feel your work is selling out or getting too middle of the road you are the one that is letting it get that way.
But which also, happily, means that the only thing stopping you from exactly the work you need is yourself.
“But the money Adrienne! The Money!!!” You cry.
“Really?” I reply “Is it really the money? Is the money so good that it’s worth it?”
I just don’t think so.
“But the structure! The company! The audiences! I’ve worked so long and hard to get it to this point. What will I do if I have to leave it all behind.”
Pew doesn’t know your work. Fringe Arts doesn’t know your work. Independence, William Penn, that big name donor, that huge fancy festival, that amazing company artistic director, that opening night party tray sponsor, your viewers, even your long term collaborators, not a single one of them know your work better than you do.
Only you know the work you need to make.
They want a lot of things all those people. But for you to want them, you have to, have to, have to also want to be doing the thing that they want or your collaboration with them will always be you wishing you were doing something else. And no matter how happy or supportive or structured or monied these things get you, it still won’t be worth it.
I think this is the fatigue. I really do. I think it’s years and years and years of trying to ignore that the difference between what we have and what we actually want to be doing. You can feel the honest to god joy when you really fucking nailed it on the goddamn head with exactly what you were meant to be doing and who you should be doing it for. And you have to chase that shit like there is no tomorrow.
You do not have to take that role if it’s stupid or offensive.
You do not have to apply for that grant if you hate the terms of agreement.
You do not have to have expensive costumes if the fundraising stresses you out.
You do not have to seek out wealthy audiences if they aren’t the folks you really want there.
You do not have to do any of the things that others tell you. You can do what you want to do. And only when you do that will you start figuring out if and how that is possible. And it is possible that it isn’t possible. But at least you aren’t pretending that it is and that you’re actually doing it. At least then you can decide if you want to do something else. Or maybe, maybe likely, maybe amazingly, you’ll take that incredible wealth of talent and actually figure out how to do that thing you really wanted to be doing.
Too often I hear my peers talking about work they don’t love with companies that don’t pay enough with people they don’t really want to be around. This is what’s making us tired. And I’m tired of it.
You don’t like the work you’re doing. From now on, it’s on you.
Because you can change that.
Your leverage is your presence in their company.
Your leverage is your work in their festival.
Your leverage is your name on their grant.
Your leverage is your kindness and intelligence and heart in their life and you CAN use it to stem the tide in the opposite direction.
You may say to me, “But my leverage is nothing. They don’t care if I leave, they’ll just find someone else.”
To which I say, then is that really the system that you want in on? A world in which your presence has no value whatsoever? A place in which the uniqueness of what you bring to the table is completely devoid of significance? A system in which your abstention on the grounds of monetary or moral grounds doesn’t mean anything?
Is that worth giving up your happiness for?
No it’s not.
And if they don’t appreciate it, maybe especially if they don’t, if you don’t feel satisfied, if you aren’t getting enough to make the thing worth it, it’s up to you to use that leverage in the other direction. To show the folks what you’re really made of.
You can, nay, you must.
If you don’t, no one else will.