How To Maybe Be a Generative Artist

I’m a generative artist. I think I even know what it means. I’m an actor, a writer, a musician. I take photos. I write essays, interview people, work a bit in journalism. And I use any combination of those skills to make new, personal work.

I’ve written and performed works that are autobiographical (The Skype Show), and created installations that combine art and activism (The Female Playwright Project). Because You Are Good, the current piece I’m devising for the East Side Stories Festival, has been different; I am working in a biographical way with another person’s story. Someone I respect, with an important history, legacy, and future.

In January 2013, I interviewed Ruth Maleczech for HowlRound. I didn’t know at the time that Ruth was sick and would pass away later that year. I actually didn’t know Ruth well at all, but I admired her. I had just seen her play Lucia Joyce in Lucia’s Chapter of Coming Forth by Day. I was instantly taken with the production. She was funny, smart—and she was sixty-nine. She was playing a woman I had heard about but whose story I didn’t really know. At the time I was wondering—and still wonder—how you make a life for yourself in the arts and play powerful, fearless women at all ages. And even more importantly, I wondered how to begin doing that immediately without waiting for anyone to give me permission to do it. When the League of Professional Theatre Women asked me to interview someone for an initiative about female theatre artists, Ruth was the first person that came to mind.

I’m realizing through this process, more so now than ever, that being a generative artist is nothing new. And that’s a relief. There is a long history of people doing this kind of work. There is a long history of women doing this kind of work. And that is necessary in order to tell the kinds of stories that need to be told.

When I asked Ruth what her current projects were, she told me she had begun working on The Imaginary Invalid with Clove Galilee, her daughter. I wasn’t familiar with Clove’s work and wondered why were they taking on this play now, but as I did more research it became clear. And as Clove explained last month when we spoke, “She was in the hospital and I said, ‘You know, you should do a play. Why don’t we do The Imaginary Invalid? It’s all about the medical industry, about being doctors. We could do it right here in your hospital room.’”

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Clove Galilee. Photo by Quincy Stamper.

I was speaking with Clove because this February, I received a commission from Metropolitan Playhouse for their annual East Side Stories Festival to write about a person with a living history of the East Village, create a script culled from transcriptions, and perform it. Mabou Mines, where Clove is an artistic associate, is one of the most important theatre companies in the history of generative artistry. The company is rife with brilliant women who perform and direct through a feminist lens including Joanne Akalaitis, Sharon Fogarty, and the aforementioned Ruth Maleczech, who co-founded the company and famously played King Lear. When I was thinking about the next generation of Mabou artists who continue this legacy, I finally saw an opportunity to connect with Clove. I wanted to know what it was like to grow up in Mabou and on the LES. How she’s become the artist she is today, and if she had any advice on making work.

We started out by chatting about growing up in the East Village, running and playing in the streets, beat cops (police officers that patrolled a specific neighborhood, were generally known, and created positive, personal relationships within that community), Joe Papp, her work with Maria Irene Fornes in Wickets, Friends Seminary (a private school on the LES), dancing at the Pyramid Club, her choreography and major works both in and outside of Mabou Mines, working at Café Orlin, getting high in the ‘80s, shaving cream, how to begin . . .and how to begin again.

This piece I’m devising is about Clove, but it’s also not. It’s about everyone. It’s about you reading this. It’s about me writing this, about what it means to be a generative artist, about agency, about realizing that there are no new stories—there are only our personal reactions to them. It is this reaction that then perhaps creates something unique.

Or as Clove said,

At a certain point I think you have to take control of “it” and make it this vision. So whatever is made will be good, because you’re good. That’s what Ruth would always say to people. “Trust that it’ll be good because you’re good at what you do.” And she would also say, “allow it to be bad for a very, very long time. It has to be bad for a very long time before it can be good.”

I’m realizing through this process, more so now than ever, that being a generative artist is nothing new. And that’s a relief. There is a long history of people doing this kind of work. There is a long history of women doing this kind of work. And that is necessary in order to tell the kinds of stories that need to be told.

It’s not only the types of stories being told—it’s the way they are executed that makes them personal. It’s not only artists creating their own work that makes them generative, it’s seizing a place, instead of becoming part of a cycle that asks you to wait to get funding to do the work that represents you. It’s about just doing the work. And when you finish, beginning again.

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In your piece, first and foremost, this stood out to me: “There are no newstories—there are only our personal reactions to them.” Isn’t that freeing?When starting a piece, I know I feel this anxiety that it has to be new, neverseen before. I realize every time I write something new or work on a new pieceof theater that by being personal, I can change the experience of a place orsituation. Your touch on a story will always be unique. And your story isnecessary. I also am really caught up by the idea of women having done this kind of work for a really long time. Especially when the stories out there don’t describe the world you see, the world you experience, getting out there and telling your own is revolutionary. I’m inspired by this call to create a space for yourself at the table rather than waiting for someone to make space for you.