Vanity

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille."

"You've Got Some Balls Expecting Me to Read This."

It’s happy hour at Art Bar, my friends and I have commandeered a couple of squashy couches, and the Prosecco is half-price. Of course we are talking about theater. And of course we are talking about what we’ve seen, what we’re planning to see, what we loved, and what we hated. Agreeing, disagreeing, and generally having a fine time. Then we hit this: 

“It’s a vanity production. It was really just that Actor X and Director Y wanted to work together and decided on this play.”

And I asked, how is that different from regular season planning? And we sat there, stumped. Really. How is that different from regular season planning? Are all self-productions “vanity” productions? We fiddled around with the question for a while, and the best we came up with boils down to this: a vanity production is a self-produced show that is bad. We came up with plenty of examples of self-produced excellence, and plenty of examples of well-established theaters going on record that “we like so-and-so and wanted to work with him” as the basic rationale for choosing a project (results ranging from garbage to great). And I’m sure we can all name more than a handful of productions at every level that happened because the producer was sleeping with one of the principal artists (again, results ranging from garbage to great).

I have to say, I’m pretty vain. I have no rational basis for my confidence and self-esteem. I regularly send out my work fully expecting people to like it, despite knowing for a fact that some people won’t. How do actors show up to auditions or directors to interviews--all of us with enough vanity to think we should be produced, cast, hired. And what about the vanity of producers, who figure “Hey, I like it so it must be good and I’m going to produce it and hire a marketing team to tell everyone how great it is.”

Modesty doesn’t really have any place in a theater career.

Humility, yes, but modesty, no. They’re not the same thing. I can have the humility to recognize other people’s talent and mastery. In fact, I’m vain enough to think I’m pretty good at spotting other people’s talent (mastery tends to be obvious to everyone). 

But does plain old vanity have a place? Where do I draw the line between “look at me!” and, well, look at me. It seems to boil down to a completely subjective equation of good taste vs. obnoxiousness, talent vs. lack thereof, success vs. failure. That is all. We applaud the true talent who won’t take no for an answer and gets their work out there and we cringe when someone we don’t respect does the very same thing. Perhaps the thick skins we develop in this business blind us to when we ought to dial it back. Then again, the insecurity this business is good at fostering can stop us from going for it. Either way, I think vanity is getting a bad rap. I don’t want to go all “mirror mirror on the wall” but being proud of my work and happy to share it are not bad things.

Unless you think my works stinks. In which case, you can enjoy trashing it during happy hour with your theater friends. It’s still a win.

A Bigger Pie

Just take my word for it on the pumpkin-chocolate combo.

From the Department of Half-Baked Ideas

Diversity 101 practice is to save a slice of the pie for a woman or a minority, and if you can score a two-fer and get a minority woman, you’re golden. But just that one slice. Do a couple of seasons where you give away three or four slices of pie, or hell, the whole thing, and you induce panic. What if there is never any pie for me? What if I was born too late to be entitled to any pie? Goodbye, Diversity Slot.

There is no way out of this power struggle as long as all you’ve got is one small pie. You can slice smaller pieces, handing out readings instead of productions, but that inevitably leaves people hungry. We need a bigger pie. We need a radically bigger pie. Divvying up this little pie is already contentious, and will get more so. The Powers That Be being The Powers That Be, it could take a century to achieve true diversity in this allot-a-piece-of-pie fashion.

How do we make the pie bigger? I'm not the only one wracking my brain on this one. The Jubilee proposal is a radical pie-redistribution project for the 2020 season. It's a provocative proposal, and boy has it stirred up reactions.What can I do, as an individual artist? I wrote a response to the crazier Jubilee responses. I make sure I talk up shows I’ve seen and liked. When you see something, say something. I’m doing more to see Off-Off Broadway productions this season. And when someone tweets “Guy! Seriously! Go See This Now!” how about...going to see it.

That’s all I've got so far in my quest for pie-expansion, but I’m committing to it. When I get too discouraged by The Count, all-male seasons, and the presidential campaigns, I remind myself I've got high-class problems. For those whose concerns are more basic, I'll be donating to City Harvest this year.

The Dark Side

Taking a dark pleasure in the ominous.

The days are getting shorter.

October. The harvest is in, the daylight is shrinking, it’s getting colder, and the spooks are preparing to roam the earth. If I were taller, I’d buy a long black cloak and stalk the Lower East Side at twilight, whipping around corners and scaring the children. (Hey, there’s a Quidditch team that plays delusionary matches in the East River Park on the weekends. I could referee.)

As energizing as the autumn can be, especially with the new theater season fully launched, I am inclined toward some Victorian malingering this year. I have some new work brewing in the back of my brain, and it’s making me weird. When I’m not taking those long, brooding walks in my cloak, I want to be draped limply across a velvet chaise lounge, perhaps toying with the locket at my breast in a melancholy, Steampunkish way. (I don’t have a chaise, or a locket. My home is actually quite ridiculously bright and cheerful. But in my mind, people, in my mind.)

Somewhere in there, in my cerebral cortex or buried deep in my entrails, is a New Play. It’s not ready yet. It doesn’t have a form. It’s just out of sight and out of reach. But it nags. And this state of things seems quite perfect for the season. What would the costume for a half-baked idea look like?

Usually, when I have a half-baked idea, I’m bursting with energy. This time I’m on a slow simmer. It’s grimmer, and grittier, and has that horror-movie sense of long hallways with doors one should not open. But you know you will.

You know you will.

Beyond Self Production

A heavy lift.

Get your jalapeños off my set.

Self-producing taught me like nothing else that I don’t play well with “laid back” people. The kind of “laid back” people that think they’re running a theater but have no idea what tech is. “Laid back” people that decide to string jalapeño Xmas lights on the set twenty minutes before the house opens. Not so laid back when ordered to remove them.

We can trade stories sometime over a very strong drink.

Self-producing taught me a lot of things, not least of which was when it is and is not a good idea to embark on producing my own play. For several years now, I can say it has not been a good time for that kind of project. But I haven’t been content to merely wait for someone else to produce my plays. There’s a lot of territory between waiting on other people and doing everything myself. And that’s good news. Because two options are not enough.

What else can I do? I’ve taken classes. I’ve set up table reads of my work. I’ve participated in other company’s “open house” opportunities (mostly EST’s First Brew, but other companies that do this include Naked Angels, NY Madness, and Flux). I formed a group with some fellow playwrights to co-mentor each other along the way (The Geese) and reached out to similar groups like Artists U. I read scripts for a theater. I went to a conference. I kept writing like a fiend.

Liberation Theater Company recently launched an artists salon that operates both in-person via quarterly meetings and on Facebook to connect theater artists between gigs in an on-going discussion. Artistic Director Sandra A. Daley-Sharif describes the LTC salon as a place “where artists of all disciplines in a free flowing format can share their work, have conversation, support, and network.” As for the Facebook page, she says “We’d love for folks to think about what they may need from a community such as ours and also what they can personally contribute. We hope for collaboration. It’s a place to vent. A place for feedback on work. A place for appreciation and support. All that and more.”

It doesn’t cost a lot of money to do these things. It takes some time, the willingness to pull something together (no where near the level of organizational skills required by producing), and a generosity of spirit. Take the risk to join in on another company’s open offerings. Reach out to a few friends and colleagues and start your own. Throw a potluck and read a play out loud. Host a happy hour to meet new people.

There is a lot of satisfaction and community and career-building to do in between the poles of sending out scripts/auditioning/interviewing and fully-producing your own work. Both those things have a place. But they can’t be the whole story. You’ll go nuts.

And speaking of nuts, the time does come when you want to put something up or even just produce an evening of shorts. If you’ve found yourself looking down that road, get some tour guides. A couple of very specific and generous men to start with: Roland Tec (AKA the Membership Director of the Dramatists Guild) and Seth Lepore. Roland is very approachable via Facebook and gives workshops on self-producing for playwrights that have great word of mouth. Seth blogs and writes for HowlRound on the topic of artists as entrepreneurs and producers of their own work, and he has literally written the book on the topic. If you're standing on the diving board you'd do well to chat with/read these fellows before you jump.

Happy artistic lives are busy and full of fun, people, work, and discovery. Don’t wait.

Refresh

Mint. Condition.

Hit the Pause Button.

Refreshment. Cold water. Iced tea with lemon. A dip in the pool. A cool breeze. A cold beer. The sound of the ocean rolling onto the sand. It’s not too hard to think of ways to physically refresh. A good night’s sleep. A shower. A long massage. A juicy slice of fruit. A crispy salad. To re-fresh, fresh it up, freshen. It’s not too hard to extend that physical refreshment to our environment and visuals. Clean the house. Flowers in a vase. Wash the windows. Change the sheets.

But what about a stale brain? Luckily, a physical refresh and an environmental one often pulls the tired mind along, refreshing our thinking just because the place has been dusted and there’s cucumber water in the fridge. Other times? Not so much. The sheets are cool and clean but the brain remains cluttered and agitated.

  • Are you there? Word of advice: stop watching Netflix. Don’t even read. Ditch the words. Go see. See some art, see some dancing, do some dancing, smell the flowers, literally. Go outside at night and look up. Empty your brain, fill your senses, just stop for a day or three or a week or so.

Ahh…
That feels better.