Making Conversation: The Creation of Art in Our 30s

Jan 1, 2014 by

making conversation logoHappy 2014, Everyone!

There’s a new moon in Capricorn, it’s the the year of the Horse according to Chinese astrology, we have a pope who hasn’t even hit his first pope-iversary yet, and I’m in the winter of my 30th year.  This is the season when people get reflective, nostalgic, and sometimes discouraged when we compare where we thought we’d be with where we are — every winter has the potential to be the winter of our discontent.  I’m guilty of it myself, as much as I try to remember to let go of competition and comparison, both with my colleagues and with the fantasy version of my life, in which I get paid to make Important Plays, and teach at NYU, and live in the West Village rent-free.  This discontent, this feeling that my life should be MORE or DIFFERENT or SHINIER, is as old a complaint as art itself, and has spurred far better creators than me to make and do some of the most captivating works in history.  So why, then, is it so uncomfortable?  Why can’t I just relax into the feeling, and let it drive me forward to new and better things?  Why, when asked last night by a fellow playwright what my New Year’s resolution is, do I come up blank?

I think that the biggest cause of this problem, of feeling stuck instead of motivated by the Divine Discontent, is that I am fundamentally unfamiliar with how to make art in my 30s.

I know what it means to be young and scrappy and in your 20s, making theatre with no money, self-publishing books that no one will read, doing open mics and cabarets you don’t get paid for, and loving every single blistering second.  But what happens when you have a mortgage?  When you can’t, in good conscience, max out your credit card renting rehearsal space, and tell yourself you’ll figure out rent later?  What happens when getting paid for your time and creative contributions isn’t just a nice idea, but something you’ve actually come to depend on?  When you expect to get credit and have a certain amount of creative control, and it isn’t so easy to go along with the group and hope everything will turn out amazing in the end?  Is it possible to sustain the pace of making art catch-as-catch-can past your 20s, and if it is, should you really want to?  Or does trying to do the same things in the same way you always have lead ultimately to burn out, and disillusionment, and despair?

I remember yesterday, loves, and it was glorious.  Long nights, low budgets, grand ideas, and big loves.  I wouldn’t trade those years for anything, because they made me who I am and they gave me everything I have.  But how are we making art TODAY?  What has changed, what have we lost, and how far have we come?

These are the questions I am asking myself, and for the next year, these are the questions I will be asking my 30-something artist friends.

That’s correct — new project!  Once a week (at least), for the year of 2014, I will be publishing an interview with an artist I admire, who is in his or her 30s, who is doing work I think is important, and who has something real and illuminating and, I hope, entertaining to say about what it means to do what we do as we are now.  One year from today I will be 31 years old, and I hope I’ll have more insight and ammunition with which to approach this next decade of my career and my life.  And I hope I’ll have a New Years resolution.

neil gaiman quote

I’ll start off the year with a short interview with myself.  Because it’s really not fair to put others on the spot until I’ve done a little soul-searching of my own.

1.  How does the work you’re making today differ from the work you were making 5 or 10 years ago?

I hope it’s less myopic.  In my 20s, especially my early 20s, I was writing a lot about the navigation of romantic and family relationships, removed from a greater context.  That’s what interested me, and that’s what my friends were absorbed in as well, so that’s where I focused my work.  “Our apartment, our problems.”  Now, I hope, my work is expanding to include a larger social view, a larger historical grounding.  All plays are about relationships, but I’m much more interested now in how characters live with and around each other when everyone’s viewing the world through their own lenses of class, race, gender, time, upbringing, etc.  I hope that makes my plays more far-sighted, and the new challenge is to balance them, that so the work is still about people, and not preachy talking heads.

2. What percentage of the time do you get paid for your work?  How do you feel about this?

I get paid for my work, for pure playwrighting, about 10% of the time.  90% of the work of mine that is produced garners no financial returns.  In any other industry that would be ludicrous, right?  If you combine playwrighting royalties/commissions with teaching writing and getting paid to direct, that makes up about 60% of my income.  My husband’s art-making (sound design) makes up 100% of his income, which is pretty uncommon.  The fact of the matter is that I’m in a profession that I’m not sure supports anyone.  Tony Kushner told TimeOut New York in 2011, “I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.”  If Kushner doesn’t support himself with his plays, I find it hard to believe that anyone can, or that I ever will.  It’s really hard to reconcile the idea that I’ll never be able to make a living wage doing this, with the “American Dream” of a big house and two cars and 2.7 kids with braces, because I want those things.  And I think artists deserve to get paid!  I think you reach a point in your life where it’s a matter of self-respect; gratitude and appreciation are wonderful, but they don’t keep the heat on.  And really the only way to improve the percentage of how often I get paid is to ask for money more often, and negotiate.  So my artistic life is constant mental compromise.  I will always have to have some kind of ‘bread job,’ or teaching job, and luckily, I really love teaching.  Some artists don’t, and that makes things even more difficult, because so many of us have to teach to survive.  I keep reminding myself of something my sister — a Catholic nun who has no income at all and is the happiest person I know — often tells me: “Having no money is not the worst thing in the world.”

3. If you could give advice to a young playwright in his or her 20s, what would you say?

I do give advice (qualified or otherwise) to theatre artists in their 20s all the time, specifically ones who are moving to Chicago because that’s where I spent my 20s making theatre, friends, and bad decisions.  My advice is simple, but sometimes it can be hard to swallow.  I think a lot of 20-something artists believe if they’re just amazing enough, someone will notice and they’ll be pulled up the ladder into the spotlight.  But there’s so much legwork that goes into it that has absolutely nothing to do with your work.  My advice speil, in a nutshell, goes like this:

a) Find out about the companies and people you want to work with.  Connect on social media, read mission statements, look at past seasons, talk to other theatre folks, listen to the grapevine.  Find companies, playwrights, actors, directors, designers, etc whose aesthetic compels you and excites you and makes you want to make work.  Incidentally, connecting with companies on social media is a great way to find out about free tickets, ushering, $5 previews, etc.  Some of the companies making really exciting work have very low advertising budgets.

b) Reach out.  Go to the shows.  Go on opening night, because the director and/or artistic director will be there.  And after you see the show, if you liked something, be vocal and sincere about it.  Ask someone in the lobby after the show to point out the director, and then introduce yourself and say what you liked.  Or the lighting designer, or the playwright, or an actor, etc.  Don’t be embarrassed — no one doesn’t want to hear that you liked their work!  And you don’t have to lie or pretend.  If you hated what you just saw, just leave.  Go to another show tomorrow night.  Talk to those artists.  If everyone announces, “We’re going to ___ bar after the opening,” GO TO THE BAR.  Talk to people.  Socialize.  Theatre is collaboration, and when you show up at an audition or send in a script, and you can say, “I want to work with you because I saw ____ and I loved ___ and I think we’d be a good team because _____,” you are much more likely to get hired than a person who is just looking to take whatever job they can get, who doesn’t care about the specific work these people are making.

I have a list of questions I have already formulated, and I’ll be adding to/amending it all year.  Do you have any questions?  Ideas?  Thoughts?  Recommendations?  Please leave them in the comments!  I want these interviews to be interactive and spark ongoing conversations, so your constructive input is and will always be most welcome.

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  1. I love this. Thank you for exploring this topic. I look forward to reading more!

  2. Jean

    Great project! Looking forward to it!

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