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Holler

The Tortoise-Artist & the Hare-Hack

Essay by

Hi again Holler readers! Thanks again for your questions and comments. I hope everyone has made it safely through the storm. I’m sharing today a letter from a self-identifying “tortoise.” Is slow-and-steady the way to go? Or is there something systemically wrong when the best and the brightest don’t advance? And as always…Got issues? Of course you do. Keep’em coming—write to me at holler@howlround.com.  

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Dear Holler,
Since this is anonymous, I can be blunt. I think I’m better* at what I do than my peers, but I see them advancing in their career’s faster. What gives?
Yours truly,
Tortoise-Artist Not Hare-Hack

*Ok, I suppose I should get a little more specific when I say “better.” I think I make more thoughtful, clearer choices. Audiences leave my work feeling stimulated and fulfilled. I’m all for experimentation, but I could name some peers whose obtuse, concept-laden work renders people hollow and confused, and yet they’re the ones getting higher-profile gigs! Also, it must be said: I think I conduct myself like a gentleman when it comes to the networking/competition side of things, and not like a fake, career-obsessed asshole, and yet I consistently see our field positively reinforcing the absolute shittiest behavior. Ok, now I'm done.

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Dear Tortoise-Artist, 
Man, I hear you. And I am so so grateful for your letter—you are voicing something here that I've felt deep in my gut many times. Especially that part at the end about shitty behavior being reinforced. Why do we do that? It sucks feeling like one’s gifts go unrecognized. Sometimes no good aesthetic choice goes unpunished.

I get it on a deeper level: It's not the really the recognition at all, or even the paycheck, is it? You just want to do your thing, and instead you feel left in the dust. But, I have to say, I think the field is stronger for people like you. We need artists who are brave enough to ask that question that many of us are scared of: In a field in which we are told to believe that we ultimately cannot expect to control what brings success, how much does raw ability factor in? And what about (to use your word) gentlemanliness? And if those things don’t amount for much, then why nurture them at all?

We must constantly challenge the structures that determine professional advancement. Just as we must ask if ours is a field where people will want to spend their lives, we must also ask if those who do make that choice are continually supported, developed, and challenged. But none of that really helps you out right now, does it? None of that soothes the pang when you open your email and see yet another colleague, one who in your view is less skilled and more un-mensch-like, has landed a plum gig. What is in your power right now, Tortoise, is how you chart the path you’re on.

I remember a story about a little boy, let's say eleven-years-old, who wrote into an advice column frustrated that he couldn't get any girls to like him. The girls in his grade were all obsessed with the jocks and the “in crowd,” and as just a regular guy, he couldn't turn any heads. He wanted some advice on how to get a girlfriend now. Be more aggressive? Try some crazy antics to get attention? The advice that came back was not what I expected. The columnist told him to stop worrying about getting a girl at age eleven. Better he should spend a few years becoming an interesting person that would turns girls' heads at age sixteen, age twenty, and beyond. “Why would you want an eleven-year-old girl to fall for some stunt today,” the columnist asked, “when you could attract a really amazing sixteen year-old-girl in five years if you spend that time reading books, visiting museums, and developing a sense of the man you really want to become?”

I love that advice. It really challenges me to realize that by trying to “win the day” I actually fail at the long game. I always thought that you won the long game by winning the most days, but it doesn't work like that in grade school romance, nor, as it turns out, theatre careers. I remember I was once in a directing program with six other directors. At the end we presented a short play. I felt like you—my finished product was by far the “most best”—the audience favorite. But it took me years to realize that I won the day in that situation by choosing easy material and knocking it out of the park. The result was that I didn't show anyone (least of all myself) that I was capable of or interested in taking on big challenges. Even though their work that day was uneven at best, my colleagues proved that they were willing to fail gloriously. To my surprise and disappointment, in the end, I got the least mileage out of that showcase.

Stay in the safety zone, and you might get really good at what you already can do, but never find out what else you’re capable of. If you leave the safety zone, the rewards are potentially richer, but you have to take on the stomach-dropping risk of failure.

Those who were asking the big unanswerable questions received both external and (aha!) internal rewards. Because you know, that’s the hidden positive outcome of following that columnist’s advice: No matter what happens with the girl, you’ll have spent five years engaged in this wonderful, enriching process of self-discovery. That investment of time will pay you back for the rest of your life. Stay in the safety zone, and you might get really good at what you already can do, but never find out what else you’re capable of. If you leave the safety zone, the rewards are potentially richer, but you have to take on the stomach-dropping risk of failure. So in terms of your theatre career, Tortoise, I think it is completely understandable to question why it seems all those Hares are hopping over your head. We all have those moments (or those years). And, on the macro scale, maybe some of those questions will eventually help to improve the field—we need rabble-rousers to make sure this is a place where we want to continue working. But, on a more intimate scale, perhaps you can see this as an opportunity to check-in with yourself and ask if you are doing everything you can to enjoy the journey. And hey, after all, the tortoise does win in the end…

The Bottom Line: It’s not a bad thing to ask how the field can improve. But don’t forget that it’s your own journey—either headed breathlessly into the rapids, or kept safely close to shore—that you must stay most focused on traveling.

With love,
Holler

Thoughts from the curator

A monthly advice column to help advice the many conundrums theatre artists can find themselves in.

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Holler: What a thoughtful, gracious, and instructive response. Thank you for that, because your reply nourishes me in my own occasional questions and concerns about how to best move forward in the exploration of and participation in the 'professional arena.' Especially when I consider the fact that I don't have any degree in theatre [let alone an MFA in playwriting], am 61 years old, and didin't start writing until 4 years ago. Of course when it comes to artistic endeavors it can be easy or tempting to have a 'quick' opinion'. My favorite flavor of ice cream is Vanilla. To some [many?] that can seem very old fashioned, boring, somewhat predictable [let's face it Vanilla has been around for years] as well as NOT very flashy. Bubble Gum Mint . . . now THERE'S a flavor! I could expound on the virtues, nuances, and distinctiveness of Vanilla until I'm blue in the face, and if the public [and ice cream stores of course] are selling and buying Bubble Gum Mint, Rhasberry Pepperment Mocha Swirl, Peanutbutter Gooseberry Delight, etc, etc . . . then that's what they're doing. Something to consider: I might actually expand the horizons of my taste buds by investigating those flavors to see what is, or might be. interesting about them - what i might even learn from them. And who knows, that experience might expand my world of flavors AND, miraculously, could also enrich my appreciation of and relationship to Vanilla. This is a very inadequate analogy, but nonetheless I'm having a bit of fun with it.

I like to think of myself as someone who is somewhat intelligent [what playwright doesn't] and there have certainly been times where my mind [but hey it's only my mind] chimes in with an aesthetic outrage [how could this ever have been produced!]. I could come up with all kinds of insights, reasons, why it's an example of inferior workmanship. Now if this kind of mental activity is undertaken from an intention to clarify one's understanding and perspective of 'craft' [that includes what to do and not do in writing] - then that could be a worthwhile activity [although possibly still a very opinionated one], however, how many of us really take the time to investigate that level of self inquiry in relation to another's writing? So I come back to what for me is the basics. How can I stay true to myself? How can I stay true to my writing? What can I learn from this experience? What might be another approach I haven't considered? And it also assists the healing of any momentary psychic/emotional wounds that a playwright might be sensitive to, to remember that I am not responsible for another individual's taste, including what I discern as poor taste. I mean I still don't get the DEGREE to which America buys into and is apparently ENTERTAINED by the drek of reality TV . . . although I do like Project Runway and a few others - but I'm human so I'm also inconsistant. Maybe it behooves me [behooves? - such an odd word] anyway, behooves me to ask myself "Why am I so engaged in judging someone else's taste? Perhaps it serves me more to simply get on with my writing. And luckilly, as we haven't all disappeared off the face of the planet on the 21st, it looks like I have some more time to do just that.

Holler: I appreciate your considered response.

Tortoise: It's difficult to convince anyone of your abilities as a writer--even here--when you punctuate poorly and follow your self-considered "gentleman" conduct with epithets to describe the bar you rise above: "fake, career-obsessed asshole," ..."absolute shittiest behavior." No question, you've made your point, however.

Love it. So many (successful) theatre artists I have met since coming to New York believe devoutly that if you just keep doing your thing and it really is a good thing and you really are talented, you will get noticed. I wonder sometimes (by which I mean, continually) if that really is true, or if this writer is correct in feeling like flashy shows and brownnosing are the only ways to get ahead.