money

8 Steps To Actual Actual Innovation in Arts Funding

A few years after I first started working in theater I ADed under a director who used this phrase that I love. When he was trying to uncover something about a moment, get at what the character was doing, he would say something like, “So what’s actually actually happening is…”

I love this turn of phrase, actually actually, because I think it speaks to the layers of honesty with which we communicate. There’s a way in which we might say we’re doing something but actually actually we’re kind of doing something else. Like when I say that I’m working all day on a grant but actually actually I’m equal parts answering grant questions and distracting myself with games on my phone or reading emails that I don’t really need to look at. It’s not malicious, this uncovering of my real activities but it does show the ways in which we label our actions in ways that aren’t always inclusive of all the forces working on us. I’m not on the internet because I don’t want to write the grant, I do, I just also am tired and really enjoying unlocking the secrets of Dwarf Complete.

Actually actually is a manifestation of our actions in the most literal and concrete sense of themselves. It strips them of their highfalutin’ intentions and gets down to the nitty gritty of their real intents and their actual (actual) effects. It shows that our motives are often more complex and human than their purest descriptions.

Sometimes I wish I could ask arts funders to tell me what they actually actually want.

In my anecdotal experience, when people give away large amounts of money there’s what they say they want in their beautifully crafted guidelines and then there are the means by which these funds are dispersed. And a lot of the time, the stated want isn’t actually actually best engendered by the means in which things are executed.

I don’t, truly, honestly, think this is malice. I know as artists there are times it can actually feel that way. But I really don’t think it is. That said, I think it’s useful for us to remind ourselves of the difference between what is said and what we feel like we actually actually see. It keeps you sane. It keeps things in perspective. It allows you not to get caught up in rage when you feel like you are held to a standard or desire that’s not always what is shown on the surface.

This isn’t true across all my experience, and it certainly exists at a lot of levels of divergence from that first actually to the second. The one that most gets me though, the one I find the most often frustrating, is the call for “innovative” art. Innovation is a tricky work. It is grounded deeply in risk. It requires, by definition, newness and the encountering of the unknown. It is something encountered for the first time. All of which is very hard to explain in a clear and delineated narrative six months, a year, two years before the innovative thing is going to take place, before its component pieces are thoroughly explore and identified, before its map has been charted, before experiments have been conducted to test hypotheses. By the time these kinds of things are known, the actual innovation is already over.

You can court the unknown, or you can have a steadfast plan carried out without alteration. You can scientifically journey into unfamiliar experimentation or you can seek the rigorous and practiced craftsman to execute his skill. These are both interesting and potentially worthy things. But in actual actuality they are a non-overlapping Venn diagram.

I understand the desire to know things, I do. But you can’t have it both way my darlings. Or rather, you can, in a way, if you pretend it’s possible and leave it to those actually executing the thing to try their damnedest to pull those two circles toward a tiny space of intersection. It’s a lot of work, that pulling, work that I’d say is better served elsewhere, like actually actually implementing some innovation.

My guess is things won’t change soon. But if someone else’s giant pile of money were up to me, here’s how I’d actually actually propose to get there:

 ADRIENNE’S LIST OF FUNDING PROCESSES FOR ACTUAL ACTUAL INNOVATION IN THE ARTS

1.   WHAT: Give $5,000 to the first 25 people under the age of 30 that ask for it. No questions asked.

WHY: First off, in the grand scheme of things, this is nothing. This is one not that large Pew grant. For reference, my very first show, THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL, was made with $1,500 and it launched my career into an entirely new orbit. Think about what 25 upstart artists could do with 5K. Plus, if they ask first they’re likely the most shit-together folks of this age set.

2.    WHAT: Rent a rehearsal studio space for a year and give away 20 hours worth of time to anyone that asks for it.

WHY: Space is one of the first thing that starts costing you money fast and it’s especially hard when you are at that stage where you’re in total blank canvas mode. It feels decadent and wasteful to sit in a room you paid for without a plan so often this time, which is actually the most important, happens in the cracks and spaces between “real” rehearsal.

3.    WHAT: You want fancy video work samples for grants? Hire a staff videographer and pay for them to shoot and edit the work of people in the Philly arts community.

WHY: The cost of a staff person like this is likely akin to one big grant to a large organization. Pay for this instead and you will get better work samples. You won’t have to keep telling artists we’re not spending enough on videographers. You won’t have us waste our time developing the skill set of videography and editing when we could be making stuff.

4.    WHAT: Democratize the grant writing process. Hire a staff that crafts the language submitted to the panel or board for every applicant. If you need to offset this cost have them work on a commission basis commensurate with budget size.

WHY: It is true that an individual artist might have a project as worthy of funding as a huge non-profit. But the chances that a solo creator has a whole paid staff of grantwriters is nil. So in essence, a huge part of what you’re actually measuring in the grant process is the monetary reach of the applicant and not the actual artistic ability. This is campaign finance reform 101. If everyone has the same writer, then the projects will actually be presented in a fair and equal way.

5.   WHAT: Fund an entirely “research” based phase with no require showings or products other than to document what happened and share that with the artistic community.

WHY: This is the thing that the academic weight of science has over the arts. People believe that research for research sake is valuable WHETHER OR NOT IT BECOMES A VIABLE PRODUCT. Scientists know this. They know negative results aren’t failures. I think artists know this but they get so beaten down about it that they forget. What if we got to go and sit in on rehearsals for each other or read papers about the questions other companies are asking and the methods they use to do so? What if we had a peer to peer exchange system the way that the scientific world does? I bet we’d all be a lot artistically richer for it.

6.   WHAT: No project grants. For 5 years. Only operating support.

WHY: Seriously. You all know. I don’t even need to explain this one.

And while I’m at it:

7.     WHAT: Stop dictating how to spend the money. No required areas. No explaining if you have to shift money from one place to another.

WHY: Do you know about these folks: https://www.givedirectly.org/operating-model.html? Their aim was to benefit the extremely poor across the globe. There are lots of charities that decide how exactly poor people across the globe ought to make their lives better and allow people to give them a cow or build a school, or whatever. In most cases the funder is telling the person who could use the funds what method would be best for the person to improve the person’s life. Sound familiar? These folks thought to themselves, “Hey. Who knows better than the actual person how they could best make their life better.” In other words, they assumed that person was as intelligent and capable as they were, just in need of the funding. I think we need to start imagining a world where artists just get to use money for their art in the way that they see most efficient towards making their art. Because if we believe they are smart and capable creators, why would we assume they don’t know where the resources toward their work ought to be best used?

And lastly:

8.    WHAT: One year, forget about trying to define “excellence” and just give all the money out by random lottery.

WHY: It was a real lesson in what a little but of status can do when my recent War of the Worlds collaboration was picked up as the mayor’s selection into the Bloomberg Public Art Challenge. Comparing the way people talked about the project with my collaborators and I before and after someone decided it might be worth a million dollars showed that so much of the perception of “value” and “quality” is intensely subjective. If we could just try democratizing this for a year, we might end up with people that would never ever seem like they would deserve that money, but absolutely blow us away with what they are capable of.

I’d even propose that if we took one major funder’s pool and did this instead of what they currently do, we wouldn’t even need more money. But I bet we’d have a whole lot more actual innovation

That’s all for now…

A

Cross Pollination Unveiled

spLOGOIs there anything lamer than quoting a David Foster Wallace commencement address to help make a point about artistic awareness?

Probably not.

Which I guess means I’m going to do one super lame thing today. And right after, do something else that’s super not-lame to counterbalance.

Ready for that quote?

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,

‘What the hell is water?!’

The point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about…

– David Foster Wallace

As artists, working in different genres, sometimes in sub-sets of genres, sub-sets of sub-sets of genres and so on, there are lots of givens about how we work that we take for granted. There are times when the way our work is made seems so self evident that it is almost as natural as breathing the air around us.

Sometimes our working methods can be like the water.

One of the greatest gifts that came from my time a few years back as a Live Arts LAB fellow was to have the chance to talk to my fellow fellows who were dancers. There were more than a couple sessions as a group where it actually blew my mind a little to learn that some of the assumptions I make about creating were totally different than theirs. Things that I take for granted were sometimes just not part of the conversation these other amazing artists were engaging with. Sometimes things were the same but employed in different ways. Sometimes the focus and priority were radically different.

There were times these conversations reinforced my assumptions about art, made me that much more sure in why I did things the way I did. Other times it inspired me to shift my own process and just try what it would mean to create without certain conventions about narrative or structure or audience responsibility. In all cases, these conversations made me more aware of the water around me. Gave me choice about what kind of givens I was swimming in.

I finished that LAB period thinking:

“Wow. If the creative process for two mediums that are almost identical in most aspects can be so different and thought provoking, what would it mean to have this conversation with creators who are even less alike?”

And also:

“Can a visual artist teach a singer something about music? Can a chef give a dancer a chance to unseat their idea of what it means to move? Can a light designer change the way a writer thinks about their words?”

And then finally:

“I really want to find out the answer.”

And luckily, thanks to the Knight Arts Challenge, I found a means to do just that. The result is something I’m calling Cross Pollination. It’s a project that actively seeks a way to dump water all over the floor. It’s a chance to explore without the pressure of a full performance or product. It’s a chance to get paid (and reasonably well, I might add) to open up one’s horizons and cross breed with another artist. It’s a chance to find some crazy mutt hybrid mash up that the world has never seen before. It’s a chance to find out more about the water you’re swimming in.

And I’m so so so excited to begin.

Want more details? Click below. It’s all in there…

Cross Pollination Artist Application

And if you ever need to quickly get to that application without searching the blog just CLICK HERE!

And of course a HUGE thank you to the John S. and James L Knight Foundation for making this amazing project happen.

Enjoy!

– Adrienne

Crowd source the grant of the future!

Hey friends!

First! I wanted to tell you that there’s big news coming your way from Swim Pony. This coming Monday we’ll be unveiling our next project: Cross Pollination. Cross Poll will be an awesome exploration of artistic mash ups. If you’ve ever wanted to see what happens when comic artist meets a dance company, this project will be right up your alley. So stay tuned for the info on all the details and the artist application to get involved.

And a huge thank you to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

knight-logo-300

for supporting the Knight Arts Challenge Philadelphia. Trust me, you’ll be thanking them to when you see what we’re rolling out on Monday….

Second! I wanted to follow up and say that one of the most popular posts this month on the blog – the one in which I laid out a proposal for a results-oriented grant for gender parity – is gathering some steam. This is a project I am really hoping to make happen for realz in the relatively near future.

Most grants when being developed go through an extensive panel process. They have a lot of people reading and writing and then re-reading and re-writing the application guidelines. They examine the goals and expected outcomes. They look at the metrics that will be used to assess the project. And they think about who will enact these suggestions.

I want to create a grant that has just as much of a review process. And yet, I am just one human with my singular human brain. But what started happening informally after I posted about this the first time was that people started emailing me their suggestions. They asked questions about how things might work. They proposed ideas to make it stronger. And while I know that I wouldn’t implement all aspects of every suggestion, I also know that each one gave me a new perspective on how to think about shaping the thing. They were all super helpful in getting me to think like someone on a review panel.

It makes me wonder if this might be something worth asking for more of.

So here goes. I’ve re-listed the original guidelines proposed below and if you have thoughts about them, let me know!

What are the questions you’d have if you were to apply? Tell me the things that might seem difficult to interpret. Give me suggestions for things to expand that you’d want to know more about. Think about your work and how it might be assessed for this thing and let me know if you see a potential change to make it clearer or easier to take part in.

Think of this as your chance to crowd source the creation of a grant for the artistic world we want to see.

AWESOME LADIES GETTIN’ WHAT’S DUE (ALGWD for short)

Proposed guidelines:

1)   The ALGWD team announces to the Philadelphia-area theater community that starting next season any company, of any size, with access to their own non-profit status or a fiscal sponsor is eligible for an award at the end of a three year period.

2)   The funding awards will be made in two categories:

  • $25,000 will be awarded to 5 companies with the highest percentage of women artists represented across three artistic categories (see below).
  • Any company that achieves 45% female representation across all three categories is eligible to receive $10,000.
  • PS – You have to hit the minimum in all three. No exceptions.

3)   Female artists represented will be calculated based on a statistics over three categories:

  • Number of women playwrights
  • Number of women directors
  • Number of women actors

4)   Other rules and guidelines:

  • Companies will submit their statistics and then have them validated by the grant committee in order to be eligible.
  • The statistics must include all artistic output by a company.
  • Artistic outputs included must be open to the public.
  • A company must meet a minimum of three public works to be eligible for consideration.
  • Funds are string-free. You can use them for whatever you want.

5)   And maybe we could also add this as a bonus:

  • A $1,000 in additional funds are available for any company that can also show an equal parity across all categories of theatrical design regardless of whether they reach the above minimums.

Throw your comments in below. Or send them to swimponypa@gmail.com

You might just get what you asked for…

– A

PS – A big thanks to all those already super engaged in responses to the original post. I’ve definitely been keeping them in the mix!

Some days I’m just tired of talking about money

There’s a moment in Inside Llewyn Davis that absolutely slayed me when I saw it on Monday night. The movie, which follows a young folk singer from Greenwich Village in 1961, shows an artist struggling to survive. There’s plenty of emotional twist and turnage that make this film an engrossing one, but the moment that gutted me, that hit awfully close to my own heart’s home was one about two thirds of the way through. The protagonist has taken an arduous journey from New York to Chicago in hopes of impressing a music mogal named Bud Grossman. Llewyn Davis arrives in Grossman’s office looking beaten. He asks for… what? Recognition, money, help, something he doesn’t even quite know how to ask for, for an opportunity it seems he already believes he has no shot at.

Grossman looks condescendingly at the record he has just been handed, one bearing the same name as the movie, and says something to the effect of “Well show me what you got. Show me what’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

So he does.

In a dark, half lit room, the character nervously sits with this man who holds the potential to change his future, a man who sits like a stone staring, unblinkingly at him.

Here Llewyn Davis sings.

Sing beautifully, achingly, heart-breakingly open. The camera moves so little, it is one of the closest things I have felt in film to the real spirit of live music, to being that close to someone who is filled up with song. For me, it felt as if I was witnessing someone doing the very, exactly, and absolutely necessary thing they were put on the earth to do.  It felt that for Llewyn Davis music is the language that he as a person is truly intended to be speaking to the world. And the song, which I barely remember, is itself almost besides the point. The singing of it, and the feeling of doing it, is what’s really worth watching, and in the act is contained a beautiful kind of holiness.

At the end of the song there is this thick and vulnerable silence that feels like nakedness.

The man with the power looks at the one without and with all the casualness and ease of a Hawaii vacation, with all the finality and solidness of a period at the end of a sentence, says to him:

“Well I don’t see any money in that.”

Sucker punch.

In the heart.

With a spear.

Made of ice.

I’ve thought about that scene for days now. I’ve repeated this line to myself over and over and somehow, it only makes it worse the more I think about it.

Why does this injure me so much? Why does this wound to an imagined artist from 50 in the past get to me so much? Why does the reduction of one person’s lovely song to a lack of dollar signs get in me and stomp around? I keep asking myself these questions. And I really do wonder why, in a life where I spend so much time and effort fretting over and raising and dealing with and paying out and worrying worrying worrying about money why this stupid little line in this movie has got me so twisted and tangled inside.

This happened to me, this moment, in almost exact verbatim.

I was sitting across a table from someone proposing a production of my work. I was asked to describe the project that I wanted to create. I talked about the legacy of a movement and the music that it produced. I talked about the textures of peeling walls and echoing voices down a 200-foot corridor. I spoke about the sweeping grandeur of becoming a legend and the power of watching and listening and singing as the eye bounces between the living humans and the decaying space that contains them. And for once, happily, when I finished speaking I really felt that I had captured it, this vision of my future creation, at least in part, at least enough that I believed I had spoken about it with honesty and truth and sincerity.

And at the end of speaking, I too found myself in a moment of silence, thick and vulnerable, waiting in a kind of nakedness.

“I don’t think we can get enough chairs in there. I don’t know how we’ll be able to cover the costs of this thing.”

Same story, different medium.

And you know the funny thing?

I felt bad for having done it. I felt stupid for bringing such a proposal in. Preposterous, even, for wanting to do something so commercially unviable. That I came to that meeting kind of knowing and not really caring that the thing wasn’t ever going to make money, that it was an inordinate amount of work for such a tiny number of potential audience viewers, but that I didn’t care and wanted to do it anyway. That I believed in its value despite this.

Here is a true statement: I am not a religious person. I was not raised in a tradition of faith.  But sometimes when I make something it opens up a space that is larger than myself. And that space it is the closest thing I know to belief in something higher, bigger and more powerful than me. The moment of creation is the moment in which I feel the distinguishing line between the tiny bits that make up me and the tiny bits that make up the clothes on my body and the tiny bits that make up the people in the room and the lights above my head and the sound that passes between us and the floor that we rest on and the building we reside in and the whole rest of the world, all those tiny pieces become one part of one big thing that we all share together for the moment that the feeling passes through all of us.

Eventually I did end up making that piece that didn’t have enough chairs to make it monetarily worthwhile.

But I will never forget that moment: when you hope that the person sitting across from you, by virtue of being so close to the thing you have committed yourself to will understand, when you dream that they will see the world and the thing you show them with the eyes with which you also see it. When you imagine for a just a moment that it might be as easy as it was before you had to start selling the things you’ve made, things that in truth you would rather give away freely for the sheer love that the creation of them affords. It is the definitive nonchalance with which that hope is shattered, the tedium with which the deepness and sanctity and need you have for what you make is disregarded. This misunderstanding of what the art’s usefulness is, what it is there for, this is what punctures the chest.

It is not intended as cruel, this act of refusal, this alternate measure of art’s worth, but it is presented as truth, which to me is so incredibly much worse. Because it makes one feel that such a feeling is so thoroughly beside the point, and that you the person feeling it are silly and small in doing so.

It’s negotiating the massive space between a dollar sign and the thing that lights you up inside and makes you so much bigger than you were before. It’s taking that thing and then having to figure out how you can push and poke it so that 50 chairs instead of 40 fit inside your vision of it.  It’s taking the most beautiful song that you know how to sing, the one that comes from way way way deep down inside you and being told, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world, that it will never make any money.

It is the definitive and inflexibly casual insignificance of the artistic product when it is unable to be shaped into commodification.

This is the thing that hardens the soul.

This is the moment of singing that song, Llewyn Davis, and I feel it with you.

You can

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.

Look.

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.”

Look.

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.

A

The way we think about charity is all wrong

I’m not usually a re-poster of videos and I’m usually especially loathe to re-post TED  videos. Too often it’s just too easy to pass along another person’s great ideas in place of the far more difficult task of sitting down and coming up with one’s own. Too often it feels as if such videos are a way of saying, “Here in place of original and provoking thoughts I had to wrestle and wrangle myself is a shorthand to someone else’s.”

But today I make an exception.

I want you to watch this. All the way through. It’s 20 minutes and it encapsulates so many of the feelings I’ve tried to express in this space that I felt like I need to pass it along.

Mr Pallotta eloquently expresses how our current conception of what a non-profit is and how the current system actually hurts the causes they claim to be protecting. Here are just a few responses to the five points he lays out.

1) Compensation: The quote from this that struck me most: “We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people.”

He then follows with: “You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of WIRED magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself.”

It’s funny. I still have an internal sensor that goes off when I think about that statement. I believe artists are important. I believe their work matters. And when I think about an Artistic Director making half a million dollars a year, but first instinct is to think of them as stealing. This “ethical” stand requires those of us who imagine going into such a field to make a trade off between doing good for the world in general or doing good for ourselves in particular. Wouldn’t it be better if we could incentivize the future’s most brilliant thinkers away from working for oil companies and towards making the greatest art possible?

This is not a theoretical conversation for me. I did not think I would go into the arts. And if I hadn’t, I would be making a lot more money than I do now. Not a lot like 20 or 30% more. A lot like 10, 20 maybe even 50 times more than I do now. My chemistry degree is one I could have parlayed into a career at places like Dow or Dupont. I could have gone to a grad school that someone would have paid for. My very first year out of college I could have made triple what I currently earn. That is a long term sacrifice. And I think that as Pallotta says in the video the “stark and mutually exclusive choice” can at times seem like a crazy thing to have done.

There’s a graph he shows in the talk that looks like this:

compensation

Is it any wonder that the best and brightest are NOT staying in the non-profit arts world?

Terry Nolan, for reference, the AD of one of the largest theaters in town was making just under $101,000 for the year 2011. Amy Murphy, the Arden’s managing director, was at just over $88,000. Do those numbers of first blush make you angry? They might, because we’ve been taught that our work is intrinsically rewarding and therefore not worthy of payment. It is up to us to think about how we can recalibrate this expectation. I don’t know either of these two terribly well. But guess that these figures are nothing close to what they could be making for similar intelligence and hours applied to other fields. And this is the very top end of what’s currently being compensated in Philly.

I found both of these numbers, by the way, from a 5 minute Google search. Because if you’re a high paid member of a non-profit, you are legally required to publish to the world, exactly what your salary is.

2) Advertising and Marketing

This section is especially interesting to me in thinking about my work as a performance medium. Pallotta cites 2% of GDP as the figure at which charitable giving is stuck. I thought about at different 2% – the percentage of people in the Philadelphia area that go to see theater. Does your theater company convince 2% of the population to come see your work? I doubt it. Could it? Would changing the way with think about investing in marketing help? Once we reached those people once could we fundamentally increase the participation in the art form as a whole?

3) Taking Risk

“So Disney can make a 200 million dollar movie that flops and no one calls the attorney general.”

In the arts in particular this topic hits incredibly close to home. Pallotta’s talk is mostly in relation to risk based on revenue generating ideas and that does ring true in the arts, but the micro-managing fatigue I hear in others and feel in myself is particularly pointed in the arts section. Creating new work is inherently a risky business and I’ve written before about the ways in which current funding structures don’t reward innovative or unanticipat-able process that result in real revolution in art making but instead encourage all aspects of a project to be figured out ahead of time.

“When you prohibit failure, you kill innovation.”

The larger culture praises the Googles and Apples and Facebooks for trying 100 crazy of ideas in the hopes that one of them changes everything about the way we think about the internet or phones or email. Artists are by their very nature programmed to be doing this kind of out of the box thinking. By definition they are masters at bringing into being things that neither  they or anyone else has yet been able to conceive. So why do the systems for getting them the resources to do that so often require overly controlling and specific explanations of process and outcome before they’ve even begun to create? It’s a recipe for non-visionary work. That artists manage to succeed despite this is a testament to their creativity and power, not a message that the system is a good one.

4) Time

“Amazon went for 6 years without returning any profit to investors.”

Artists know exactly how long it takes to hone and build craft. But were we to ask for the kind of time and investment of funds towards a project on the order of 6 years we’d be laughed at.

5) Profit to Attract Risk Capital

This is a major difference in the way for profit art mediums – record labels, movie studios, Broadway theaters – work compared to the non-profit. I’m not saying that we should all become corporations but it might be worth thinking about the ways in which entrepreneurship and traditional business structures can help revitalize the way we think about raising money in the arts.

Lastly, he goes into the point that the question of funders wanting to stick to project based work and keeping overhead low. This again, is an area that most artists I know are constantly up against. So much work needs to happen before a project is conceived and in the in between spaces to continue to keep the company going that we end up with overworked, under-resourced administrators and creators who when they finally get into the room are so distracted and tired they aren’t able to make the work they’ve been spending all the time preparing for. What if ALL funding was “general operating”? What if artists had TOTAL control over how they funded their art making process? I bet after a few years of adjusting to the shock they – the folks who are making work every day and see how and where that implementation would be most useful – would be more productive than anyone would imagine.

Are you interested in this? I am. And I want to open up this discussion with other artists. Maybe if we can all get on the same page, we can codify the way we’d like things to be and share that vision with the people that could help make that happen.

If you want in, hit me up?

– A

PS – Thanks to Brendon Gawel for passing this along to me in the first place.

Production “Values”

I’ve talked in the past about how we make choices with the money we have available to us for a given creative project, how we can sometimes justify undercutting people in the present by imagining a vague future in which we’ll have more money and therefore more ability to give people what they’re worth.

If you read this blog you probably know that I don’t agree. You probably know that I think no matter what level you’re working it, your value system should be in place. That I would posit that at these smaller levels, when no one is watching or expecting anything of you, it’s even more important, because it sets the tone for the maker you will be. I think we lean quite heavily on production and not enough on personnel. Which is why audiences don’t know that actors and designers and directors costs anything, because we show them through our actions that their money is best spent on fancy sets and stuff and not more rehearsal hours.

I have seen innumerable large companies in town decide to cut a week of rehearsal for a show and present it with no noticeable dip in set “fanciness” (that’s the technical term).

I see that and I say, “What the hell? Are you serious? I came to see a play, not an expensive paint job.”

I am not maligning design here. I love design. But I hate design that is not integrated and necessary and I hate design that says “This play is expensive” in lieu of “This play is about something.” This results in what I see as a culture of under-rehearsed, high production value pieces of bleh. In these shows, the actors seem unspecific, insubstantial and boring next to the detail and “quality” of the space they perform in.

And in the face of such a wave of underwhelming work, I ask if you have little time to develop anything past a first idea (and good or not, a first idea is still a first idea) what are you really accomplishing? Is that the art you want to make? That just because it’s done, but was it worth doing?

I know there are people who think that’s cheating  audience out of the money they spent on tickets to give them the finer production things in life. That viewers need to see where their cash has been spent. I think that’s all wrong and that making this kind of display a priority says you’re in the wrong business. Theater’s ultimate goal cannot be the delivery of luxury. Because then it undercuts our ability to say things we want to say in our artwork that are not pretty or luxury or expensive. Theatre’s real purpose is in its ability to make humans engage with each other in acts of communication and communion. And the vehicle by which we do that can be expensive or cheap depending on what you’re trying to say but ultimately the job of the artist is to make sure the work is delivering the message. If your priority is to make an expensive thing you stand to lose making a meaningful one, and risk your audience treating what you do like an expensive thing that they should evaluate the value of. They will treat you like a latte.

The problem is of course from the inside and in process you can see money when it’s spent on stuff in tangible and immediately obvious ways. And you have to feel and guess and test it when it’s put into the intangibles like time and people. But didn’t we all go into art to chase just that feeling? Don’t people come to see us because that feeling is something they can’t just go out and buy? I really think higher ups at many of these theaters think audiences notice when the set is smaller or simpler but that they don’t when actors have barely gotten blocking under their belts. But it’s just not true. An audience member may not be able to articulate the difference, but they feel it. If we really believe all that stuff most of us say – the stuff about connection to audience, and the deep respect we have for the viewer, and our love for them supporting our work – than we shouldn’t be the ones to assume they can’t tell when something is surface level deep. That thinking says it’s more important that you make it look like quality versus actually containing quality. But I would wager that a producer who consistently looks at a too small pot of cash and puts the money in the personnel instead of stuff will have far higher actual quality of artwork over the long run.

In short: Pay big bucks for the designer not the design. Because a brilliant designer does a lot more for you and your show. A brilliant and well compensated designer will make something that really serves the work.

Ok fine. Agree with me there or not, there’s actually another assumption that I don’t know that I agree with. And this is one that I think we’re all making on an even larger level in the community: that expensive and high production value  makes the work better. More and more, I really don’t know that I agree with that. More and more I wonder if all that stuff doesn’t just get in the way. Not simply because I want to put the money where the people are, but because I think sometimes all that fancy makes the work worse.

Last year I worked with local company The Berserker Residents on our co-produced piece, THE GIANT SQUID in a re-worked, re-mounted version from it’s original in 2008. For those who haven’t seen their work, this is a company that is scrappy, spontaneous and hilariously DIY. Their work is smart and sophisticated and it soars best when you feel like the whole giant spinning comedy machine might fly off and smash into you at any moment. It took me time to understand this as a director. I had to realize that much of the job was finding where the crafting and detail work was useful and where the scaffold was all that mattered, and that other moments needed enough room for the show to bounce without too much rigidity. I had to realize that over crafting some of the directing got in the way.

There were lots of things that we wanted to fix in terms of structure, plot and character in the show. And of course, as one does with a remount we looked again at the design world. Everything in the original was funky and silly and made by our own hands. And truth be told, it was a huge part of the conceit of the show, that these characters had made this thing they were showing to the audience themselves and that these people were not experts at the making. It made it endearing and human and real. And halfway through the new process as we started “updating,” I began to get nervous. I started thinking about some of the changes we were making, changes that were more polished, more professional by any traditional standard, and I wondered if we were undercutting the spirit of the thing. In many cases, I made a point not to let the show over polish certain aspects, not to make things look to beautiful. Like my directing I had to resist many impulses that seemed obvious because though they made the show look more expensive, they didn’t actually make the thing a better play. Some things we did update, because it was useful, and in some cases a tech upgrade actually improved a moment, but in many cases we kept the thing exactly with what had worked before.

During that show I realized just how much there is an unspoken assumption that more money equals better art. And if I, who had built this thing from scratch and stood to gain the extra money saved still had the impulse to update and fancify, then clearly something external is pushing me towards that. And for the first time I really saw how hard I would have to work now, with some amount of success and more access to resources to really keep that voice in check. I realized that some times that is true, that more money for something can give you access to more choices, but just as often, nay maybe way more than we realize, the work done at a smaller production scale is just as compelling (and much more sustainable).

I have this pet theory that perhaps you’ll indulge me in sharing:

Have you ever heard of the uncanny valley?  This, in a nutshell, is a theory used mostly in things like robotics or animation, says that there’s a relationship between realism of representation (in the original case of the human form) and our emotional response to the thing.

So a rock. Not very human. We are essentially indifferent to it. But put two googly eyes on it and suddenly we like that rock a whole lot more. Why? Because it’s humanness has increased dramatically. This relationship, the making a thing more and more like us resulting in an increases our affinity/familiarity for said thing, continues but only to a point. And then, the more realistic it becomes the more we actually start to dislike it. So much that there’s actually a point where a thing is so similar to us, but not exactly the same that we find it totally alien and repulsive. Think creepy mannequins and robots. The differences are so small but because of the similarity become so much more noticeable.

Ok. This is a really specific theory to human recognition of other humans, but I think that the same general concept might be applicable to this discussion. Here’s how: For realistic representative theater, naturalism is an assumption. And I think for a long time in our careers, the closer we get to naturalistic and realistic settings, the more impressive our shows seem. And so we put more and more money into making bigger and more professional looking work. But somewhere along the line, that impulse can stop serving us.

At the biggest and most moneyed theaters,  I think we been able to let this tendency impulse run so unchecked that we get these “real” spaces that are actually pretty creepy. Or at the very least distracting. I don’t need to see every detail of an intimate drama. I go to art to have the world focus and crafted, not simply presented. And for me, and I bet there are others out there who feel this way, just a table and chairs allows me room to imagine a space whereas a full kitchen with detailing on the tile and ceiling panels with weathered aging just makes me notice all the ways in which your set actually isn’t the thing you are trying to make me believe it is, actually just makes me see that there’s something fakey about your wall’s water stains because when they are so damn literal I get annoyed that I can tell you used a painting technique to make them.

It makes me focus where you’ve put so much attention. And when you’re drawing the eye to things that aren’t really the main focal point it obscures the larger picture entirely.

Maybe more on this soon…

A

PS – Thanks to all who’ve reached out. Things with my Dad are much better, as best as they can be for the moment.