The Myth of the Emerging Artist or Why I Love this Collaborative Experiment

While some artistic directors seem unable to find artists who happen to be women to include in their season, Women’s Project Producing Artistic Director Julie Crosby, and Associate Artistic Director Megan Carter have found fourteen. For one show. Not including designers and actors. That’s seven playwrights, four directors and three producers to be exact. For one show.

With continued downsizing, greater financial constraints, lack of funding, and the feeling that we as artists are spread thin—that we are fighting for the same limited pool of resources and have to continually try to explain and defend the “necessity of theatre”—the decision to give the members of the Women’s Project 2010-2012 lab, a group of emerging artists, the third slot of a season complete with contracts and a main stage production budget does not make sense. Or does it?

Eight doll-like silhouettes
Original illustration by Skye Murie.

Emerging artists are like the moles of the theatre community, dwelling and creating in underground, off-the-grid spaces for who knows how long until some day, who knows when we will emerge into the light and into more legitimate theatre. There is no timeline for this emergence. I could be an emerging artist for the rest of my life.

I’ll be honest, this whole idea of being an emerging artist drives me crazy.

  1. It assumes that I am working in some liminal space—some pre-professional netherworld, between intern and real live theater maker.
  2. It allows my work to be undervalued—literally.  In the time-money continuum, emerging artists tend to donate their time and spend their own money on their project.
  3. It implies that there is someplace—some magical, legitimate theatre place I need to emerge to in order to matter. At the end of the day this idea of being an emerging artist puts the emphasis of my work onto a place that I have to get to to be considered accomplished, rather than looks that the work I am currently doing as accomplishments in and of themselves.

Don’t get me wrong—there are institutions that I would love to work at. I imagine making new artistic homes and families. But I am a working artist right now and my collaborators and I are making art right now. And I reject the notion that I’ll be a theatre artist when someone else tells me I am. I have already emerged.

I am a working artist right now and my collaborators and I are making art right now. And I reject the notion that I’ll be a theatre artist when someone else tells me I am. I have already emerged.

I left teaching history to pursue theatre and directing and early on I kept waiting for that staged reading or short play that would lead to the phone call or email that would lead to the thing that would open the door! The proverbial door that leads to all the good things! But what if the good things are already here? What if I really like the work that is happening around me? What if I see possibility, potential, imaginative thinking, and grand ideas in the room that I am already in and rather than seek a way out, I prefer to continue to invite people to support the work that is happening right now.

Right now—I am a director. I spend most of my time in rehearsal, and in conversation with actors, designers and producers. Sometimes I have a budget. Sometimes I am thankful for garageband. All of the time I am amazed and humbled with how much talented, creative, committed people do with so little. “Make it work” is more than Tim Gunn’s a catch phrase from Project Runway. It’s a way of life. It’s a habit. It’s how we make magic.

Right now, I am collaborating with Charity Ballard, Alexandra Collier, Elizabeth R. English, Jessi D. Hill, Andrea Kuchlewska, Manda Martin, Dominique Morisseau, Kristen Palmer, Sarah Rasmussen, Mia Rovegno, Melisa Tien, Stephanie Ybarra, and Stefanie Zadravec. These women are some of the most talented, generous, and ferocious theatre artists that I have ever met.

We Play for the Gods is a theatrical experiment that has institutional support. It is the culmination of ongoing dialogues, most of which took place during our Women’s Project Lab meetings about our concerns and aspirations. On June 1, We Play for the Gods, the brand new, full length, play created by fourteen women began performances at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. This is happening because a thirty-four year-old theater company gave us the opportunity for a production and supported our creative process with institutional resources. This is a decision by an institution to view the women in the lab as artists rather than apprentices, or artists-in-training. Rather than using our membership in the lab as some sort of calling card to get work in the future, we have been invited and encouraged to collaborate right now. The idea that we have an artistic home has been affirmed and that home has become a place where we are invited to take risks.

It is astounding that this invitation was given along with the belief that fourteen people could find a way to collaborate together. Even though the ultimate product would follow a more traditional rehearsal, tech preview, opening calendar, we did have the liberty to experiment with our process. We have had the liberty and support to engage in a really difficult work in progress. We have learned to be flexible, to make adjustments, to listen, to let go of ideas when necessary, to articulate why some ideas are worth our fight. In other words, we are making it work. Because that’s what emerging artists do.

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Thank you for your post! What a gift and affirmation! I am a choreographer and your post and everyone's comments truly resonate with what is happening in my field as well. I just applied for a space residency as a mid-career artist because I've been making work for a good ten years even though my status as a choreographer could be categorized as "emerging" because I have focused on just getting the work done without much time for capacity building. I have depended on fiscal sponsorship etc. I know that I need to do that in order to grow and support the work but its very difficult financially. There are so many sacrifices. After I had my daughter I had to stop the freelance work and got the day job in order to support my family. Anyways, thank you and everyone for the posts. I'm not sure what can be done but raising the conversation with grant-makers and presenters is a great first step.

Loved the insights of this article. In response August Schulenberg-- yes, what is another word? For royalty, soothsayers, magic makers recognized by some and invisible to others. For those who have incredible impact and gift ever-unfolding lessons to those they come in contact with, but lack the support needed to reach all they need to reach. I love Nicole's articulation of inviting people to support, participate, experience work that is happening now. Perhaps one option is "Existing" artists vs emerging? After all despite all the challenges we face. despite the disintegration of whatever meritocracy (as Brendan McCall refers to) was in the performing arts. despite it all-- we refuse to disappear-- we continue to exist.

Nicole, thank you for this post and for your great work on WE PLAY FOR THE GODS - I had a wonderful time! It seems to me that the title "emerging artist" originated from the laudable desire to help theatre artists who deserve greater support and attention. Because of the Matthew effect (accumulated advantage), our default is to bestow opportunity on artists whose successes we already aware of, and emerging artist opportunities are designed to swim against that current. The value of the language is not in defining the comparative worth of artists, but in reminding those in positions of power to step outside of their comfort zones and engage with unfamiliar yet deserving work.

I agree, however, that the words now mean something else to most people, and rather than serving to improve the lives of artists, they carry painful connotations of playing in the minor leagues.

Do you think we need new words for what "emerging artist" used to represent? Or have we evolved past that, and the important work of supporting less-heralded artists can be accomplished by just calling us, well, artists? I don't know.

Thanks again for the post, and the fascinating and funny show!

As someone who prominently uses the term in a project that is very near and dear to my heart (NJ Emerging Women Playwrights), I can see the repercussions of the sloppy thinking behind the term. Persuasive. Guess I'll have to change the name.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most nourishing and exciting posts I have read in a very long time. I have been in a similar position - when I talk about my work Off Off Broadway (or, with New York Independent Theatre), I'm either ignored, or, even worse, I'm told 'yes, but I'm talking about people who are getting paid to work.' We so-called 'emerging' folks are constantly told, implicitly and explicitly, that we don't count. And yet, consider this: in national conversations about how the new-play aesthetic has been streamlined, playwrights no longer have imagination (look at Dylan Southard's post), about how we need to decrease the "supply" of theatre in lieu of smaller "demand" (Landesman), if the independent theatre artist were considered, if production companies that fell outside of the TCG/TDF radar were brought into the conversation (outside of the ones that are convenient enough to fit into the very end of London, Pesner, and Voss's (excellent, but incomplete) book, we would see an explosion of new theatre, with statistics telling us that despite dwindling funds we are able to make it work. We don't have to defend ourselves, nor do we have to defend our art. We only need to remove the labels that try to bar us from feeling a sense of belonging.

Best,JpB (PhD, MFA)

I LOVED THIS! And really wished in a way that the people sitting enjoying it had also seen its beginning point because then the glorious arc of its process would also have been part of the experience. Kudos to Julie, Megan and all the members of the Lab who were able to synthesize their various talents and abilities into this rather delicious, imaginative and moving ride of and through women at work...I will confess I never thought it would get together and it so did! Congratulations all! Leap of courage and faith that is rarer than hens teeth today...

The majority of artists in the history of the world have not climbed a ladder, even when there was one to climb: there is no common experience or surefire way to be successful and I doubt there ever was or will be. The problem is, we have a commonly accepted definition of success, and it seems to be "able to quit your day job." Which is pretty limiting, if you ask me, as most of us will never be able to truly quit our day jobs, and oh, yeah, that doesn't exactly have anything to do with artistic merit, does it? I'm not saying we shouldn't be well paid for our work and able to quit our day jobs- we should and I still hope one day I will be able to- or rather, have my art be my day job. But in the meantime, I long ago stopped defining myself as emerging and I definitely stopped defining success for myself based on money, fame, critical response, etc. For me, being able to create work I am really proud of is pretty much the bottom line. The rest is gravy- delicious gravy- but it's not the substance of my life and so my sense of self is based on that value system. For years I have answer the question "what do you do?" with, "I'm a playwright and director." If someone then asks, "is that your day job?" I say, "no, but it's my career. I also do some FILL IN THE BLANK to make ends meet." It's a subtle difference that some people don't ever pick up on, but it makes a difference to me.

You emerged a long time ago, lovely Nicole. I was lucky to have you helping me make a (not great) show many years ago.

Thank you for this essay, Nicole. The notion of "emerging artist" is obsolete, if it was ever applicable. The term seems to come from a time when people would "do summer stock, do a showcase, and BOOM, you get discovered, and work on Broadway forever and ever." Does this really happen to anyone anymore? How many years since that has been a common experience for any theater artist in America?

Today, and for the past 20 years (or more), the theme has been Do It Yourself, make your own opportunities, create your own work, and watch your own back....because it is unlikely that anyone else will. Resources continue to dwindle, and competition continues to rise, and the choices before audiences on what to see during their ever-shortening free time only grows. People do their own work out of necessity, and to call this majority of artists "emerging" is ridiculous. "Emerging artists" are the 99%.

THANK YOU. I could not have said it better, and I've been mulling these falsely-tiered terms "emerging" and "midcareer" over for a few months now myself. Like, how do I label myself? My resume is extensive, but I don't get paid enough money to live on so I still straddle the day job while rehearsing.