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Tagged I’m an Artiste Dammit

Browsing all posts tagged with I’m an Artiste Dammit

A brief overview of hustling for too-weird artists

I’m in the middle of doing and booking and prepping for shows right now, looking ahead for a few months, six months, next summer, okay, what do I have for Edinburgh Fringe 2019 (yes, of course I am thinking about that, I’ve been thinking about that since before the last Fringe was over, it’s part of the reasons why I’ve been away from here for so long).

I’ve been whirling around like a dervish for weeks and weeks, doing shows and traveling and doing more shows, and that pattern will continue for some time, it looks like, which is hilarious because one of the feelings I carried with me from EdFringe 2018 was that no one was ever going to book me in any normal way because I am Too Damn Weird.

"Too Weird" is a hell of a load as an artist. On the one hand, I think most artists with any background in fringe would feel a little proud of that, or at least pretend to be proud, like, yeah, motherfuckers, I’m punk rock, I’m so fucking edgy, bookers don’t know what to do with me.

From a practical point of view, though, "Too Weird" does make it a lot harder to make a living. I mean, you can’t live off radio silence from venues, and you sure can’t make a pull quote out of it for your marketing materials.

In terms of emotion, too, it is hard and confusing as hell, because here’s the thing: I feel totally reasonable and normal in my performances. Of course I do. This is my world. The audiences respond well, and in the case of Smut Slams, we are creating a good and exciting experience together. How is this weird?! I think. This is the way the world should be! But righteous indignation is not a sustainable state of being.

So I’ve been wrestling my way through all of that—processing, some people call it, I just call it bulldozing—and in the meantime, SHOWBIZ. I send emails and meet up with potential collaborators and make Smut Slams happen and book spaces for this next thing, and things just tick on ahead. A couple of months ago I looked at my calendar and realized, hey, it sucks that no one else is willing to produce me yet, but I think I’m doing okay, kinda, hanging in there and producing my own damn self. I have to. If I want to keep doing it, I have to DIY it.

Take Smut Slam, for example, because that is a lot of what I’m doing these days and making it happen is hard work, especially when I’m going someplace new. Gotta find the right co-producer for a new city, someone who is not doing it as a favor to me or because they’ve got a blank spot on the calendar, but because they see the radical potential of the event and they want to be a part of it.

Judges, can that co-producer find the right judges? What about prizes? What communities do they know there? What communities do I know there? What about a venue, can we find the right one, the right size with the matching vibe? Is it private enough for the vulnerable intimacy of sex stories? Do they have booze? Do they have good chairs?

Some things I can only really assess once I’m in the performance space, but in the meantime, the show must go on and it takes at least 4-6 weeks to get a show up and running. So I squint at bad photos of the event space, and ask my performer friends for recommendations, and listen at length to these co-producing partners. I send the thank-you notes, and schedule in follow-up dates and set up skype calls. I listen to my gut, and then back it up with spreadsheets.

This is just Smut Slam, mind. It’s a different set of considerations for every other show that I do, if I’m traveling with it or not, if I’m doing it solo or working with other performers, if I’m working with a university or with a scrappy feminist festival run on a shoestring and chili cooked by the co-op. Every single performance possibility, I’m checking through the logistics, running the numbers, and ultimately seeing how well the event answers two questions:

  • Does it help me make a living?
  • Is it an event or experience that shapes the world for the better?

Producers and bookers would help me with the first question. But they wouldn’t have anything to say about the second, and they certainly can’t help me figure out where the balance must be struck between the two.

So yeah, as much as I wish someone else would produce me, as much as I know my work is worth picking up, I know it’s a long shot. The great part is, though: I don’t have to wait. I can keep doing it for myself.

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I want to sell out

“Sold out” is supposedly a neutral term, in a box-office sense: your performance venue has sold all the possible seating it has available that doesn’t violate fire code. Some festivals have different and more precise parameters for this; for example, I think in Edinburgh Fringe if you sell 95% capacity, the show qualifies as “sold out” for slapping the designation on your marketing materials. Either way, these are easy enough to define.

Hang out with any group of Fringe performers long enough, though, especially when they have had a few and they’re talking about their Fringe run, and you will quickly sense the second meaning of “selling out/sold out,“ which is quick to plant itself in the conversation. Selling out your venue is a good thing, but underneath that is the faint echo of “sold out”: made artistic or ethical compromises, greased the wheels with an unseemly amount of money or networking or something other than artistic input, committed to working with other folks who are not interested in the art but only making money or some other tradable commodity.

I don't think that this is an actual, inevitable part of selling lots of seats, and making lots of money. But I think many artists are afraid that it is. I know that I’ve been carrying that second meaning around as the primary meaning for a while. It’s certainly a less humiliating view on the problem of not making enough money on one’s art, if one posits that the art that does make money is less artful in some way.

But this year at Edinburgh Fringe has pulled me up short around this subject, when what I think is my best work to date, nerdfucker, has been a serious box office underperformer. I’ve been wrestling with this, and my urgent need to make money, for weeks, months, maybe a couple of years now, and it kinda came to a head last night after Smut Slam, when I was hanging out with a couple of artist friends and I half-jokingly said that next year at Edinburgh Fringe I wanted to sell out. I think I made a smile or a wink that indicated clearly I meant making money and probably doing something that was not a purely artistic effort.

One of those artists, who had been nose-deep in a pint of beer, sat up and set the glass down on the table with a snap. “I’m tired of that phrase, ‘selling out,’” she said. “It makes it sound like there is something wrong with making money, with creating works with an eye toward making money. Artists need to eat.”

You’re right, I said, of course you’re right. I guess I mean commercially viable.

“Okay,” she said, settling back down into the hotel lobby chair. “That’s fine.”

Theatre companies of a certain size have followed this pattern for a long time: produced guaranteed money makers—usually around Christmas, like A Christmas Carol—as well as more surefire productions (what I would consider conservative offerings), then occasionally something that is a little more groundbreaking or confrontational for their audience.

Solo performers and tiny companies maybe don’t do that so well. Not as a matter of course. And I'm going to change that for myself.

Previously I had written works that “felt like they needed to be written”; none of these works have yet gone on to more than moderate festival success, even including Phone Whore, which is the most visible and “popular” of my plays. So, next year I am going to turn my hand to a work that “needs to make money.”

I don’t know how this is going to go yet; I’ve never approached this issue from the start of a project before. It will be fine, eventually. I am just not quite sure, right now, how to do it. I’m already finding myself second-guessing working titles and content and outreach. But I’m hoping I can push beyond that quickly and get to the nitty-gritty of the work, which is writing what I want to write and what I feel the world needs to know, while giving it to people in a way that they can handle. When selling out, the second part of that equation has to take precedence.

I’ll be honest, gentle readers: I don’t know what to do otherwise. As my friend said, artists need to eat. That is to say, I want to feel comfortable in my life, be able to plan ahead, not always scramble and fight to keep the wolf away from the door. Just as importantly, I want to be able to give myself room to create the less financially viable stuff and not have to worry about whether those will survive.

Because nerdfucker and Phone Whore and Hearthcore (my next non-commercially viable serious play, don’t worry, you didn’t miss it) are good plays. In my mind, these plays do need to be done. But I don't have family money; I never had a great job. So until such time as I get the commissions and grants and government subsidies, I need to learn how to subsidize myself, with things like Smut Slam and Sidewalk Smut and next year’s sell-out commercially viable comedy show (announcement coming shortly).

I have to reassure you, and also myself: my sell-out work will still be my stuff. It’ll still be about opening up space to talk about sex and other awkward shit in a really authentic way. It just won’t have a title that has to be censored just about everywhere; it’ll be a little more accessible to more mainstream audiences.

Selling out can mean lots of people are seeing what I want to share, and paying money for that privilege. Lemme see if I can wrap my head around that for a while.

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Fringe essays and origin stories

Fringe season has started, and with Fringe come the requests from publications who want to look like they’re being oh-so-active in covering Fringe productions, but all they’re basically doing is sending us lists of awkward/precious questions to answer and email back to them.

It’s Fringe essay season, in other words. I’m never in the mood for it, because who has time to introspect about process at the point when we're done creating and have actual performing to get through? But the truth is, these “interviews” offer us artists the best chance of getting our own actual words into the piece, and I have to really think about what it is that I do. It’s remarkably clarifying!

For example, this fellow in Edinburgh runs something he calls the Dramaturgy Database. One question there is: How did you become interested in making performance? It's good for me, right now, when I'm struggling to establish myself in a new location... It's good for me to remember my roots.

I first started creating works for plus-sized dancers 16 years ago, because I had started dancing myself and was tired of feeling completely left out of the creative and performance part of the dance world. After the very first dance recital I was in, at the age of 28, I was told that I had a very compelling stage presence. I had had so much fun creating a couple of partner moves with one of the other dancers, and that experience of creation, combined with the positive reinforcement of that praise and the adrenaline rush of the performance itself, led me to want more.

Over the course of the next years, my works for the company went into more narrative-driven pieces—dance musicals with a plot—and at the same time I began working as a phone-sex operator. I found myself wanting to write a solo play about that, because my experience as an actual sex worker was not really represented well out there in the performance world. (Again, representation matters.) When I toured Phone Whore and found that people wanted to hear what I had to say, and that I was good at it, a whole new world opened up.

Now, sever years after that first terrifying tour of Phone Whore, it's very clear that I love performing. I've also realized that part of my internal pressure to create my own works is that if I didn’t, there would be nothing for me to perform in, as a fat person. The roles allowed to us are limited and boring. I create the works and the characters that represent me, in some way, and what I want to see out in the world.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” That’s part of how I became interested in performance: I want to make a world where I have room to create, as a fat middle-aged woman. The other part of it is just something I picked up from two years at Burning Man. They don't have many rules there, but this is on: “No spectators.” In other words, don’t show up to Black Rock City expecting other people to entertain you. Become part of the pageant, as a performer or a caretaker or a technician or as an active, generous audience member. I’ve heard that Burning Man ain’t what it used to be, but I will always be grateful to it for that one concept. In terms of my creative work, I don’t wait any longer for other people to start the party; I bring the party myself.

I want to bring the thing that makes people move inside, that demands thinking and maybe some uncomfortable reflection on one’s own actions. My work ends up being both activism and art. I want that mix, I’m good at both, and in performance is where that finds a home.

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Trying to become more “sex aware”

I’ve been on the sex-positive train for a long time, as a writer, performer, and sometimes-educator. People out in the world seemed quite happy and ready to pin that tag on me when describing a Smut Slam, for example, and when I looked over my own past, specifically the stuff that had made it into my autobiographical plays, “sex-positive” seemed about right, in an almost literal way. I had emerged from a religiously repressive upbringing, done a lot of exploring, and found that good sex was important and made me happy. Sex? Positive.

That all started to change when I was driving back from a Smut Slam with my lover last spring. It was the first time he had seen a slam—he had cheerfully agreed to be timekeeper for the evening, so he was right at the front, right in the thick of it—and I was eager to hear what he thought of this, one of my cherished artistic babies.

“It was wonderful,” he said, “but I felt left out. Everyone was talking about how good they were, or how many people were at the orgy. I didn’t feel like there was room for less experience, or unhappy endings.”

I wanted to protest, to argue the point, to defend the Smut Slam culture that I had unconsciously been cultivating. In this sex-negative world, those who flock to Smut Slams are drawn to spaces where we can luxuriate in our triumphs and abundance and sexual joy. But I sat with what he had said, and realized the truth pretty quickly: there is more to sex than that. The stories and truths that sex digs up can be infinitely more complicated, more diverse, more broad-ranging than simply a joyful romp. Hell, even a joyful romp will have some crumbs in it.

I needed to make room in my work for all of it.

Somewhere around that time, I arrived at the phrase “sex-aware” as a way to describe the way I wanted my work to be. I don’t know if I read the phrase somewhere, or if I just coined it, but as soon as I began writing it, I could feel the space, not just for the atmosphere that I was trying to create at the Smut Slams, but also for my own dramatic works as well.

My fourth and fifth plays—The Pretty One and nerdfucker—are not autobiographical, and they don’t deal much with the happy sexy fun-times. Some of it is harsh; in nerdfucker, for example, sex mostly just hovers in the background as a unspoken motivator in my character’s often bad decision-making. The sex in these plays represents a whole range of experiences.

The only thing I can say is, the sex is there. I don’t want my audience to look away from it, however it manifests. Nor do I want them to imagine that the work is only about sex. It’s just there, as another experience that can change things or not. It’s not on a pedestal, nor dragged through the gutter. Rather, it could be, in a specific instance or story or memory or action. But generally, sex just is. It is there for many people, and I want my audience to be at least somewhat alert to its influence on relationships, on self, and in society as a whole.

Hence “sex-aware” as the descriptor I want to claim for all the work that I do. It leaves room for a richer exploration of different types and amounts of sexual experience, and it also leaves room for my work to not always explicitly center sex in the action.

Audiences and reviewers still call my stuff “sex-positive,” and I’ll take it, because I think I know what they mean and it's fine. But I'm finding more to strive for as an artist doing sex-aware work.

When I make room for all the kinds of sex, and/or when I don't make it the subject of some kind of Odyssean quest, there's so much more room for life.

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My truth is a weapon, and it cuts both ways

I have spent the last eight years peeling my life open for public scrutiny, through my blogging and the plays and the Smut Slam and the Facebooking… you’d think I’d have no boundaries left, if I had any to begin with.

You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. I’m finding boundaries I didn’t even know existed, thanks to my efforts at relocating to the UK. People who are stuck in the visa and immigration pipeline don’t get to keep boundaries, not in the UK, certainly, and nowhere in the world. You learn right away to set those aside, because you have to answer those questions and you cannot hedge or hesitate.

I keep thinking this shouldn't be a problem for me; I strive for transparency and honesty in my work and personal life. A lot of what I’m doing is building a bridge out in front of me, hacking through the underbrush and not knowing where that path goes. But being honest about not knowing, being real about not having my ducks in a row, that is not the kind of honesty that wins me friends at the borders to countries. They want to know my path, and they will push me right out onto it, onto some path, even if I’m not ready.

They precipitate decisions, these moments in the queue at the airport, and when I still don’t have clarity and still manage to get through, I am left trembling in front of the baggage conveyor, wondering what I am doing with my life.

How did I end up here being lectured by someone whose uniform includes a jumper with epaulets, who in spite of that still has the arbitrary right—which they reminded me of at least seven times during a 20-minute conversation—to restrict my global movement, event though my paperwork matches up?

I guess that’s what makes these people perfect border guards: they see staying-in-placeness as a thing to strive for. They question fluidity and shifting and change. They don’t understand how I could have been married and still fallen in love with someone else (don’t even try talking about polyamory), or if they do understand, they call it something else with a sleazy, disbelieving sneer. They don’t really believe that I make enough on my theatre and emceeing to get by over here; “that’s not a real job,” I can see it in their eyes.

Most challenging of all, in terms of my path, is that they don’t believe that it’s possible to have more than one purpose in being in a place; my being in the UK is suspect because I dare to both have professional ambition AND the love of my life here. I must be using the first to avoid going the marriage-visa route. I am skirting the spirit of law, they said as much, and I have to stand there and flush hot under their scrutiny.

I told them about UK Muse because one doesn’t lie at the border, and I thought for one wild minute, maybe radical honesty is the way through. Yes, I want to be with him, and yes, I am working toward that. At the same time, yes, I want to make it with my performance work, here in the UK, where it’s actually possible. But this transparency of dual purpose becomes a weapon in their hands, and now I am left thinking, why is this not enough for you people? I am bringing you the best I have to offer. I am bringing you whatever skills and passion I have for the work that I do and the life that I live.

I am telling the truth, the whole truth, but it’s messy. Sorry, visa and immigration folks—and you might be reading this—but at this stage in my life there’s no way of making this tidier. My life and my love are sprawling and grand, and there are always going to be some glorious bits that end up straying outside the box.

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SHOW REPORT: the second most awkward performance of Phone Whore ever

I have performed Phone Whore probably close to 200 times, if not more. I have performed it a lot, in packed 100-seat theatres and in the basement of a pub with three people watching. For a frowny, arms-crossed crowd in a women’s bookstore, and for a room that was half-full of sex workers. I have a lot of experience to draw from, in terms of assessing audiences, but the show this past Saturday night was something special, and by special, I mean, AWKWARD AS FUCK.

All’s well that ends well, and I am here to tell the tale. We pulled it back from the brink, and it was a nice, tight show, performance-wise. But it started like a smoldering trash heap, oh Christ.

To start with, my front-of-house volunteer, a bright-eyed young theatre person who had checked in with me on the two previous nights when he arrived 15 minutes before house opening… well, he didn’t check in with me this time. I texted him at 20 minutes to show: no answer. I peeked out the doors at 15 minutes to show—when the house was supposed to open—and he wasn’t out there. I couldn’t understand it, he had been talking the whole weekend about bringing his dad, and then the night before he said he was bringing his mum, too, they were huge theatre fans, “don’t worry about it,” he said. And he had just pushed the show on Facebook. What happened?

I came back into the theatre and said to my technician, right, if he’s not here by five minutes before show, we lock the doors and have the drunkest, most leisurely load-out in theatre history. I was fully ready to cancel. I had already clocked out. It had been a challenging weekend, and if nobody showed, not even my door person, that would be the perfect icing on the bad, bad cake.

As I was getting ready to lock the doors, I looked out one last time and… there he was, smiling and leaning against the desk out there, and waving out me. And there were people out there. Not just his mom and dad, but, like, three other people.

I turned to the technician. There are people out there, I whispered. We have to do the show. And then I whirled back around to the volunteer, with my eyebrows lifted significantly. Can you come in here for a second? He walked in, and his family followed him in. By yourself, I hissed at him. They can’t come in yet. He hastily gestured his family back out into the lobby, I gave him a quick pointed briefing about CHECKING IN with your BOSS when you arrive for your volunteer shift, and told him to let the audience in.

It was a small house—six people, including the volunteer and his mom and dad—but not the smallest I’ve ever had. Not noticeably more awkward until I started doing my normal pre-show crowd work. You’re Joseph’s mom? Oh, you are? Okay, and you’re also his relative? You’re his AUNT. Excellent!

I extricated myself from that as quickly as I could, and slid down the row to chat with the straight couple a few seats down. And how did you find out about the show?

“We saw the poster.”

You… eeep.

It wasn’t as bad as that: they were visiting from Glasgow and staying at a friend’s flat nearby for the weekend. They had swung by the pub the previous night because they heard it was a good one with good entertainment upstairs. Nothing on this week except Phone Whore, so they looked me up and decided to come on closing night. “Yeah, when we googled it, a bunch of 4- and 5-star reviews came up, so we thought we’d take a chance.”

So, okay. At least 33 percent of the audience was informed about the upcoming work.

Joseph finally closed the doors and the first phone call came on. The audience missed the first laugh checkpoint, so I was prepared, but damn, they were quiet. So very quiet. It was the quiet of paying attention, not the quiet of “we’re hating this,” so I plunged on ahead, but still AWKWARD, and about to get more so. In between calls 1 and 2, my character talks about a couple of clients, including one guy, “he’s an ass men, he’s a real sweetie, a real Southern gentleman.” Whose name is JOSEPH.

FUUUUUU…. It didn’t even hit me until I spoke that paragraph out loud, and then I was like, oh. Right. I wonder if his family will ever let him live that down? I wonder if his family will ever talk about this play, ever, was actually what I was thinking, because they saw the whole thing. They stuck it out. His mom, dad, and maternal uncle were sitting right next to him and I did that full-out mommy-fucker call, and then of course Call 4.

I did say I survived, right? And so did they. Everyone in the house hung around for the Q&A; the energy was fine in there, good questions, etc. Afterward, though, I asked my tech how the show felt from up in the god box, and he said, “It was a good run, but I had to stop watching toward the end.”

What, the play?

“No, the audience. During Call 3, I started covering my eyes, and I hid behind the desk for all of Call 4.”

Folks, when the tech says it’s awkward, it’s AWWWWWKWARD.

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Creating a new show and the taxonomy of terror

Last night was the opening night of the showcase run of nerdfucker; not the premiere, but the preview, where my director and I get to see what it feels like doing the play for an actual audience in an actual theatre space, as opposed to doing it in my large but still nontheatrical living room for just him and the dish rack and the huge indifferent eye of the washing machine.

So, even though for publicity purposes the full-out premiere is at the Montreal Fringe Festival in a month and a half, the emotional truth is that last night was the premiere. Yes, I was nervous. For a couple of weeks I’ve been nervous. No, years. I meant to say years. I have been nervous about this play for a couple of years. It’s entirely possible that it took me this long to write because I was nervous about it, and it’s been really interesting, almost clinically so, to watch the different kinds of nerves develop.

For example, yesterday, when I was sitting outside of my flat having a cigarette 45 minutes before leaving for the theatre, I realized that I couldn’t feel the afternoon sun, even when I tried to focus on it. Huh, I thought with a sort of bemused detachment. That’s interesting. This must be an out-of-body moment.

I can catalogue my theatre terrors now.

The jumbled panic of mid-script line-learning. The stoic, chronic yet low-grade clicking of expenses adding up. The trembling awe of wondering if anything I do ever can live up to a really good show title. The cold looming shadow of growing older and staying poor in pursuit of my art.

These are all valid anxieties and fears; I say this as much for a needed self-affirmation as for any of you who are struggling with the same shit. But oh, Christ, I’ll be honest: some days I long for simpler fears, like the kind I had when I was getting ready to perform Phone Whore for the first time, in February 2010.

My first solo play, my first solo tour, hell, my first solo performance longer than 4 minutes and 35 seconds … it was all so new that I hadn’t learned to discern the differences in my feelings. Everything just coalesced into a giant leaden mass inside my chest: WHAT IF I CAN’T DO THIS?

The question was big, bold, and simple, like chunky words carved from cartoon blocks of stone and landing with a boom in a children’s TV program. And the answer was similarly simple: then I won’t do it anymore. I had nothing invested in it, if I couldn’t do it. I was just trying it out. I had no way of knowing until I did it. Empirical, simple, done.

Six years later, I know. I have many ways of knowing. I have my own experiences to draw from, five plays, three recurring events, countless gigs and media interviews and promo stunts… I can look at all of it and have a pretty good idea of what’s going down, what could go wrong, and what rough spots lie ahead. I know where I want to be, personally and professionally, in a year, five years, maybe even 20, and I have an increasingly clear idea of what it’s going to take to get there. I know how much posters cost to print in 50 cities around the world. I know what red flags to look for in co-producers. I know what the air in a theatre feels like when an audience is bored, and when it’s on the edge of its seat.

As my self-knowledge grows, so grows my taxonomy of terror. That sounds like a geek horror movie, but really, knowledge is power. It’s how I can have those moments like yesterday, when I couldn’t feel the sun on my skin, but managed to avoid a secondary freak-out of WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME. Ah, I nod my head. This is another manifestation of nervous. And when my fingers could not stop shaking for the first half of last night’s show, I didn’t beat myself up for it. That’s where the stage fright is going, I thought, not my lungs but my fingers. Okay.

I don’t get any more scared than I was six years ago. I just get different kinds of scared. I’ve developed discernment, which helps me better sort out solutions and coping mechanisms. I’m not going to downplay it: some of the fears are seriously primal, survival-level shit, especially the stuff to do with money. But at least now I know what’s happening, I know what these feelings mean.

And breaking the fear down into its component parts changes the basic question from WHAT IF I CAN’T DO THIS to HOW CAN I DO THIS.

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