Tuesday, September 24, 2013

In the presence of greatness

Margaret Atwood photo by Scott Hill
Last Friday evening I was fortunate enough to attend a pre-National Book Festival "event," billed as an intimate talk and book signing, with Margaret Atwood. I was quite looking forward to hearing what she had to say, and to receiving an autographed copy of her latest book, MaddAddam.

You have likely heard of Atwood--after all, she is an incredibly prolific author who has won just about every major award. If you read The Handmaid's Tale when you were an emerging gown-up, especially an emerging female grown-up, then she became one of your personal icons, the literary equivalent of a Rock Star.

You may also know that Atwood has made her reputation with biting satire, stinging observations, writing about humankind's inability to be kind to fellow humans, and about life in chillingly possible dystopias. Her voice is the opposite of warm. You will never find a soft landing anywhere in her world. (I say that with a caveat: I have never read any of her children's books; they may be very different).

So I expected someone who was a remote tower of intellect, distant, perhaps more than slightly disdainful of her "fans." Possibly judging us all behind that sly smile. Someone who would pontificate from behind the barrier of the podium, setting herself apart, aloof from the audience. Someone who felt no need to connect.

Imagine my surprise when she stepped up to the podium looking like a cross between your adored great-aunt and your favorite professor. She was gracious--and, yes, warm! Atwood is Canadian, a nationality perhaps best known for its general niceness. But she was not just generally nice. She was connected and in the moment--open to our questions and comments. When she made passing mention of her high-tech invention and commitment to environmental sustainability, it was not to brag (humble-, or otherwise), but to establish credibility. She really does know how objects and systems could work in the fictional worlds she creates. She has seen the future--and, through many of her novels, she has taken us there. She has one of those minds that you can almost hear working. The evening was fascinating!

I was enthralled. But what really struck me was how she, a famously brilliant woman with a decades-long career, leaned over the podium and listened to questions. She did not rush to answer, rolling off a litany of talking points, but took her time framing responses. And, she actually answered the questions asked. It was a very refreshing evening here in Washington, D.C., where often speakers are too insecure, or are too busy pushing their own agendas, to let the audience share their spotlight. It's been a long time since I have seen an Honored Guest bridge the divide and actually invite the audience to join her charmed circle.

Maybe it is only the truly Great Ones who have the confidence and maturity to stop posing and just BE. But it is something I urge all my clients, students, colleagues and friends to strive for. Talk about presence!

Friday, September 13, 2013

After the curtain comes down

A year ago tonight my play Becoming Calvin opened in Washington, D.C.  It was a thrilling evening! And I had worked so hard to make it all happen. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that I fund-raised, directed, and produced this play as a labor of love.

The play had been commissioned in 2008 for a series of readings in 2009 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Those readings went so well that I dared to dream of a production. There is an active professional theatre scene in Washington, but I was not already affiliated with a theatre group, did not have an agent, and thought I might as well just go ahead and do it myself. You know, find a barn and put on a show. Isn't that what show-biz (not to mention start-up) spirit is all about? Anyway, fundraising was grueling but not impossible, thanks to the 501(c)3 of the commissioning organization. I applied for a dozen grants and got a small one. I had some incredibly generous benefactors. And I was blessed with performers willing to work for the lowest scale the union allows. And a brilliant set designer who created magic out of a hat on a shoestring budget. And one friend who designed the music as a favor, another who ran the box office so she could be part of the magic of theatre. And a husband who did double-duty as House Manager, Company Treasurer (and my greatest cheerleader).

The production went off without a hitch. Indeed, audiences were surprised, some astounded. We played to overflowing houses two nights. Attendance at the other seven performances was respectable. I made a small profit, after all was said and done, which I paid myself for the hundreds of hours I had put into the project as producer/director. My plan was to take a breather, let the dust settle, put my communications consulting business back on the front burner, and a)market Becoming Calvin, and b)start the next play in my planned trilogy about John Calvin and his legacy.

One year later I have ditched the idea of historical play #2, and decided that contemporary play #3 will have a largely female cast, a unit set, and a running time under two hours. I have been doing market research, you see, as I have been shopping my script around.

It is good I have had some kind of positive outcome from this exercise! Though I do remain hopeful, I have found that the mere fact that you have written a good, solid play that takes an "original, refreshing" look at one of history's most important figures is not enough. As is often the case, the art I created will die in obscurity without the right combination of connections, luck, drive, unlimited time and energy to pushpushpush for its survival. Theatres that claim to be committed to bringing new works to audiences, it turn out, want new works by established playwrights. Universities have their every-other-year "new works" slots filled for the next five years, even if they were interested in a costume drama ("no thanks, but good luck!"). And on and on.... 

I am not alone in this. Many playwrights I know are singing the same song. I am determined to find a way to get this play in front of an audience again. And I will. But it takes time, and I am swimming in uncharted waters.

As a country we do not support individual artists, and many worthy arts organizations go under for lack of funding. The prevailing feeling is that the arts must support themselves. But while I am supporting my artistic self by spending time on my business, the art gets short shrift. Any efforts I make to market my play must by definition be part time and slapdash. The world of a working artist, believe me, is not like what you see in TV and the movies. We don't just wait tables/bartend till The Big Star discovers us noodling around on the bar's piano (see Smash, season 2). No one I know has had a moment of discovery by someone who can "put your name in lights." It is a hard slog. 

So next time any artist buddies of yours complain, be supportive. Do not make them feel they aren't doing enough to get their art published/exhibited/performed. And for goodness sake do not suggest that the quality of the art is to blame. Those of us who struggle for a foothold know all too well that a lot of lesser-quality work manages to find its way to the marketplace, so obviously that's not it. Art World is a place where being excellent is sometimes not even a qualification. You have to be at the right place, at the right time when someone who has money and/or connections decides to lend you a hand. It is the way our country has prioritized pretty much everything: those at the top are staying at the top, and it is getting harder and harder to join them.

BUT -- someone will find a way to out of this conundrum. Eventually, we creative types can pretty much figure anything out!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Let's hear it for Labor!

Labor Day is here again, and for many of us that marks the end of summer, though here in Virginia we expect the weather to be hazy, hot, and humid for a while longer. But this day is about more than the end of "official" summer (a.k.a. fun relaxing time) and the return to our regularly scheduled programming. Labor Day is the day set aside to officially celebrate the working men and women who made our country what it is. Today, as you dive into the pool, or serve up burgers from the grill, take a minute to celebrate Labor on our 119th Labor Day!

I am an entrepreneur with my own business, as well as a card-carrying union member: Actors' Equity Association  (100 years strong)  SAG-AFTRA (born from a merger 17 months ago), and SEIU. So I have a unique perspective on worker's rights. I know some unions have been riddled with graft and corruption in the past, but so has just about every other entity in modern times: business, government, religion... I won't supply links here because I would be doing internet searches all day. I am sure you can think of your own favorite institutional scandals. The fact of the matter is unions protect workers. Few can argue with that--though I keep crossing paths with people who try. But once you throw in a few facts and personal stories, those argument wither.

A year ago I was "management" as a producer of my play, Becoming Calvin, here in D.C. Many people told me what I already knew: I could cut my budget significantly if I hired non-union actors. But the play was my baby, so I wanted to make sure she was cared for by the best. I spent a disproportionately large part of my budget hiring the right people, and I was glad I did! Sure, non-union talent might have been available for longer rehearsal hours, but the professionals I hired showed up on time and always completely prepared to work. There may be a surfeit of talented actors and stage managers out there, but the ones who have worked hard enough to obtain their union cards really are worth it. Every penny you pay them, every dollar you put into the union pension fund, every form you have to fill out. Professionals. You get what you pay for!

And I wold be remiss on this Labor Day if I did not tip my hat to SEIU, which now covers my employment as Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at American University. Thanks to the recently ratified collective bargaining agreement with AU, I will now be paid a higher "terminal degree" rate that recognizes my academic rank as a Master of Fine Arts. The non-arts department I am teaching for had a hard time figuring it out, ("How can you be terminal? You're not a Ph.D!") but the SEIU agreement was pretty clear. I am sure without that backup I would be teaching for whatever rate the department deemed sufficient.

Go Labor!