Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Advocating for the Right Reasons

I've had Barbara Kingsolver's High Tide in Tuscon: Essays from Now or Never sitting on my To Be Read pile for, oh, five or six years now. I picked it up after reading her essays on farm life, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, but then it got shuffled into the stack and sat there, waiting. As usual, the Universe knows the right timing.

When you start advocacy, you need to have a pretty clear idea about exactly what it is you're advocating for. When it comes to increased support (financial and otherwise) for artists, I've long been back and forth in my thinking, not really certain what tactic was best. I mean, do we focus on the "arts for arts sake"? (And really what does that even mean?) Do we show how the skills you develop pursuing any of the arts help you no matter what your career path? Or do we talk about the return on investment for municipalities in their artists and arts businesses? Because I'm so close to it, I can argue many different angles about why the arts are the best thing ever. I mean, it's not a huge exaggeration that my friends call me the "Leslie Knope of Arts Administration." (Goddess, I love Amy Poehler in that role.)

So it is fitting that I'm now coming across these beautifully-penned lines from Kingsolver:

"Art has the power not only to soothe a savage breast, but to change a savage mind. A novel can make us weep over the same events that might hardly give us pause if we read them in a newspaper. Even though the tragedy in the newspaper happened to real people, while the one in the novel happened in an author's imagination." 

It's no surprise that the Federal Theatre Project's main program was called "The Living Newspaper."

"Art is the antidote that can call us back from the edge of numbness, restoring the ability to feel for another. By virtue of that power, it is political, regardless of content." 

As opposed to mass media, which, in my opinion, is solely trying to numb the populace enough to let those who have power continue to rule the world. There's a reason "Stay Woke" is a popular phrase these days. (And why I shudder every time I think "Bread and Circuses.")

"We have all heard plenty about each other's troubles, but evidently it's not enough to be told, it has to be lived. And art is so very nearly the same as life." 

I once heard the phrase "art is that which makes you stop and look again." My favorite photographers are Annie Leibovitz and Henri Cartier-Bresson because I can lose myself in their art. I know the subjects purely through their photographs. Art is life.

"Art is entertainment but it's also celebration, condolence, exploration, duty, and communion."

I would argue that Kingsolver has it backwards here. Art is first about emotional connection between artist and audience. But it can also be entertaining.

Tactical arguments overlook the underlying importance of what we're doing this for: So that we may have more communion with each other. If that doesn't inform the basis of all my advocacy, then I need to step away from the work.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Cultivating A New Arts Writing Format

I'm a sucker for non-fiction books
about women's friendships,
or compilations of letters,
or North Carolina history.
So this book hit all three.
March 1974

"The Observer dropped my column several years ago. They wanted the space for a staff member to do a how-to column. He calls me to ask the answers to the questions. I was heartbroken at first, because I found to my amazement that a weekly column is the most delightful way to write. You don't have to hold yourself down to any lengthy subject but you can go into whatever interests you at the moment. Then I learned so much, by being asked about so many things I didn't know, and having to find out. And the instant response is so stimulating; I would go to St. Peter's at eight, and someone would already have read the morning paper, and would comment or disagree, or have something to add."
~Elizabeth Lawrence

I couldn't help but chuckle when I read this passage in 2 Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters, a collection of over twenty years worth of correspondence between Katharine S. White (editor and writer at The New Yorker and wife of author E.B. White) and Elizabeth Lawrence (A Southern Garden author and garden columnist for the Charlotte Observer).

I loved the whole thing and could go on about any subject, but the reason I chuckled at that particular passage has to do with my own writing, both as the editor and a columnist at The Marbury Project, hosted by The Clyde Fitch Report*, and here on my blog.

You see, I agree with Elizabeth's feeling that a weekly column is the best form of writing for the public. And that writing within a given area--but given complete freedom on particular topic--is a fantastic way to learn and grow. Today, Elizabeth might be an avid garden blogger: answering questions from readers, posting pictures of her daffodils on Instagram, keeping a running Excel spreadsheet with flower dates submitted by avocational growers across the country. She did all of this on paper, in long-hand, and published in the newspaper fifty years ago. (She also wrote many books on gardening, on which she often collaborated with other gardeners and illustrators.)

I grew up in newspaper reporting; my high school and college experiences both included stints writing and editing for the school newspapers. But I've always thought about blogging as not like newspaper reporting. Either a blogger is too personal, the blog serving as a sort of public diary, or the blog is a "how-to column," 5 tips for this or 6 easy steps for that.

Both types of blogs have their place, absolutely; I've written them. But the writing I enjoy doing (and reading) is the newspaper columnist style: a lot of research to educate the reader about a topic, with a liberal dose of experience and personality thrown in to make the reader feel like a friend.

Most of the theater or arts blogs I read regularly (or try to, anyway, there are so many) fall into the latter category: how-to do [insert arts focus here]. And quite a few of them are... let's say they leave me discouraged about the field. I am a bit Pollyanna-ish when it comes to the power of the performing arts to change lives, so to read writing that bemoans the state of affairs without giving positive stories as well leaves me drained (and turning to gardening books to take my mind off of it).

I do want to start writing here regularly. Perhaps Elizabeth's old once-a-week column format would serve me well. Katharine edited quite regularly but only wrote every few months, much like what I do over at Marbury. I'll stick to the performing arts (mostly). I'll start doing a bit more research. I'll even throw in a how-to piece every once in a while.

And if you know of another overly optimistic arts blogger I should follow, do let me know! Or if there is a particular question you have about theater in North Carolina or women/mothers in the arts, drop me a line.

*I should note that most of the monthly columns at The Clyde Fitch Report are in the journalist/columnist mode. So very well worth reading, every one, and I'd say that even if I didn't work there.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The 3 People You Need On Your Team

If you want to get better at your art, you need a master practitioner to give you critical feedback (a "personal dramaturg" is what one friend called this person, to frame this relationship in a positive supportive way. Mentor, coach, etc etc).

If you want your art in front of a lot of people, you need a personal champion.

A lot has been written about the former: the student/teacher relationship. Within the context of the "10,000 hour" rule, the sometimes-overlooked half of that is "with a master teacher" portion. You become a master not simply by doing something a lot (but that's important) but by doing it a lot with someone who is better than you giving you insight, support, and correction.

I've read less about the notion of a champion.

The pervasive myth is comprised of bootstraps, and DIY, and the "overnight success," at least in America anyway. Especially within the past twenty years, when the means of production and distribution have flattened and been put within everyone's reach, we are primed with

"if we promote our art enough, we'll be successful"

OR "if we follow the path exactly as it's laid out, we'll be successful."

Truth: we don't have to wait to be picked, we can create our art and put it out there and build relationships and find our tribe.

And yet, we still need a champion. We still need a neutral third-party who says to a fourth person, "Have you seen this artist? I like this art." The telling is the key. A champion is not just a tribe member: they bring other people into the tribe for you.

The champion used to be the picker. The book editor who said "this book will be published" or the producer who said "this play will be on our stage." Even a wealthy patron who said "I will pay you, particular artist, for your art."

Then we went the other way and all became our own brands, publicists, and marketers. Bootstraps.

It strikes me that journalists used to play this role to some extent. But in these days of "pay to play" local story writing and the sheer amount of information available across media, it is unlikely that they are brandishing any one particular artist's work before that artist is already famous in their own right.

But we haven't lost the need for champions. While we've likely built a relationship with this person, they are not our best friends, they're not in it for the money, they don't do it because we've asked them to. They like our art and want others to experience that same joy.

Doesn't have to be someone famous [to whatever degree]. Doesn't have to be someone who is wealthy. It could be someone who shows up at every show and always brings new friends who then come with their new friends. It could be someone at the next level adjacent who gives you a hand up the ladder. It could be someone who has all the connections and convinces people to donate to your organization (this is the one area--capital campaigns--that I do hear about champions on a somewhat regular basis).

Champions are the ultimate raving fans. You can't buy them, you can't hire them, you can't steal them. But they are as critical to your success as any other member of  your team.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

An archaeological dig into theatrical past

1990 doesn't seem like that long ago. I can remember that far back. 

Twenty-five years ago seems like forever. I can't remember what I was doing twenty-five years ago. 

I'm working on a book about the history of independent theater in the Triangle of NC, roughly titled "Like Mushrooms on a Log: 25 Years of Independent Theater in the Triangle, NC" (catchy, huh (Don't answer that. I said "roughly.")). I've bracketed my research from 1990 to 2015, for numerous reasons which I'll illuminate later. As with most research of historical incidents, nothing stays that neat. 

I'm going to blog about interesting things I find along the way: tidbits about the area, things I don't know actually fit into the book but I don't want to lose, insights and questions I have about myself that arise. Maybe even one day I'll publish actual portions of the writing here. I just need another place to get stuff out of my head. 

But back to 25 years. I do remember 1990. It wasn't long before I myself got started into the theater scene. But going back, trying to immerse myself in what is now very murky waters, is simultaneously depleting and energizing. There's a puzzle to piece together, which I love; there are people who are still around--many still working--who were there then, but many others who aren't. Or, worse yet, it'll be a major archaeological dig to find information: tracking down leads to only find a 2-year old piece of pottery that was made to look like an old dinosaur bone. 

Good thing I enjoy hunting. (see also: my 10 years experience as a propsmaster in Triangle Theater. A separate but equally as entertaining book yet to be written.) 

Friday, March 18, 2016

They called me an expert so it must be true.

I totally forgot to mention I wrote an article back in December, '15 for the Triangle's Indyweek newspaper.

It was supposed to be a response to their choices of Indy Arts Awards winners, none of whom were theater-related.

At first, I was mad about that, because I get irate every time theater is left out of a discussion. But the more I sat with the madness, the more I realized,

dammit, they were right. 

So, here, then, is my response.

I received the usual portions of praise and criticism.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Whose Responsibility Is It?

, And
I'm in the throes of an "do I or don't I" quandary.

Decisions are easier to follow when they're somebody else's responsibility to make.

Perfection paralysis. Second guessing all the possible outcomes. Each answer has a catalog of additional questions that go along with it.

If you're lucky, if you've cultivated the right relationships with people you trust with your decision, you can ask for advice. But if you're the one-in-charge, it's still your decision. You can take input, you can build trees, you can create iterations, but the decision is still yours to make.

"How to be" productive or successful articles talk all the time about removing low-level decisions--what to wear, what to eat for breakfast--so that you open your decision-making bandwidth to the high-level, change-the-world decisions. Be commercial and take investors or stay nonprofit and cultivate donors. Give your product away versus charging all the market will bear.

Empower your frontline employees to make their own decisions or give them carefully-worded handouts on what to do in any situation.

Joy and autonomy versus cog in the machine.

That decision seems to be low-level. You're leading an arts organization.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

3 Things the NC Visiting Artist Program Can Still Teach Us

Every shaded county had both a community college and a Visiting Artist.
So, on the one hand, I am totally in awe of the Visiting Artist Program, which ran from 1971 to 1995 here in North Carolina. The program was a collaboration between the fledgling NC Arts Council and the Community College System, then under the Department of Public Instruction. With a lot of moxie and limited resources, these groups were able to place over 330 world-class artists from all disciplines into each of the 58 community colleges across the state at the time. Since the goal of the community college system was to make an "affordable, excellent post-secondary education available within commuting distance of every North Carolinian," the Visiting Artist Program--with its inherent stipulations of community service and continued artistic growth--meant that "each citizen in the state was also within commuting distance of a professional artist (and vice versa) and free, open-door arts programming that resident artists delivered."

I mean, can you IMAGINE such a program today? The VAP PAID artists, provided housing, gave them room and time to focus on their art. The artists were also mandated to be in the community--the vast majority rural--providing workshops, master classes, hands-on demonstrations, engaging school-age populations in classical music, drama, playwriting, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, and everything in between.

Today, we can't even get school systems to agree NOT to cut basic arts education classes.

And yet, on the other hand, how many local artists/local culture was overlooked or not given estimation because the "Professional Artist" was there? Look, I understand that what we really need is both. That artists who are university-trained and artists who simply picked it up along the way are not necessarily better than each other. That communities need both: to celebrate (or hang on to) their own local (indigenous) arts/crafts/music/culture* and to see what else is out there, what else is possible. And MAYBE even where those two things can learn from each other.

Found this book at my local library in Carteret Cty,
which is still home to at least 2 of its Visiting Artists.
There are three clear things from the 20 years that the program ran well (the last few years saw only a handful of artists, due to mortally-wounding gashes in the appropriations in the legislature):

1. There was a time in NC that we were ahead of the pack, both artistically and educationally. 

We had leaders at all levels--from state senators and representatives to local community college presidents and all the arts councils--who understood the INTRINSIC VALUE OF ARTS TO A COMMUNITY. That simply breathing the same cultural air, being exposed every day, having the art imbued in the neighborhood was beneficial to the community.

2. The very nature of the expectations of the working artists still impact NC today. 

In my own field of theater, looking at the list of Drama/Directing/Playwriting Visiting Artists, there are so many who remained in NC. They resuscitated or formed out of whole cloth new theater companies or performances that are indelible to what the theater community is today across the state. To name but one of many: Haskill Fitz-Simons, long-time and beloved Artistic Director at Raleigh Little Theater, was the first Drama Visiting Artist at Vance-Granville Community College.

And I'd imagine that all of the other artistic disciplines can recount similar stories. The public art in communities, the pride of place that bubbles over in residents when they talk about such things, so many of these are direct outcomes of the VAP.

3. No one can accomplish this artistic immersion alone. 

Try as we might. This program took the time and talent of so many people. It was truly a mini-system functioning in the greater cultural eco-system here in NC. The set-up through the community colleges; the screening by the state arts council; the community hosting with the local arts council; the sponsorship by the local community coordinator; the advertising throughout the country for artists; the residents welcoming in the artists; the artists willing to take a chance to help not only themselves but also a new home.

Today we struggle to get our arts message heard over a million different causes, each of them good and honest and important in their own right. Add to that the number of people who won't hear above the din of the television and the people who simply haven't been given a reason to care, and it makes arts advocacy that much more difficult.

At one point, everyone in the state had a reason to care. If it happened once, I have to hope it can happen again.

*Yes, I do realize that "culture" is a lot more than artistic expression.