February 15, 2017

Starting With Why

Whew! It's been--wow!--damn near two years since I touched this blog? That's a long time. Sorry for the long absence. It'll probably happen again, but let's enjoy this time we have together, shall we?

If you've read this blog before, you know that articulating my purpose as an artist occupies a lot of my energy. What do I actually do? Why? How?

Recently, my rabbi gave me a reason to revisit this TED Talk ("Start With Why"). It's a good thing I did because I sometimes get stuck with explaining why it matters that I do the work that I do. I find that, when talking about what we do and why, it's not enough to talk about excellence, quality, or professional. I don't know any artist who wants to make work that is boring, shitty, or unprofessional. Even the most frivolous-seeming stuff has a certain rigor to it.

"Start With Why" tells us not to start with what we do and then try to work our way to why. That's a recipe for making your work seem dull and meaningless. Instead, we should start with the belief that drives us to do the work (the Why).

Here's an example: my own sweet self. First, let me show you the way we usually do it.
WHAT: I wrote stories.
HOW: I offer representation for women, people of color, LGBT people, and other minorities in my work.
(WHY: So you can buy my stuff.)
Uninspiring, isn't it? Maybe if you're looking for what I've got to offer, you'd be excited about it, and maybe you'd intuit the why hidden between those parentheses. Then again, your eyes might just glaze over. You might have been on board with me, but that up there might just make you nod off to sleep. If that What and How don't matter to you? Pffft! I've lost you at the first three words.

Now, let's try it a different way. Pardon me for shamelessly ripping off Sinek's summation of Apple, Inc.
WHY: Everything I create, I believe in challenging the status quo. I believe in thinking differently.
HOW: Challenging stereotypes about women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBT people, and religious minorities.
WHAT: I just happen to do it by writing stories.
This is not the final form, but wow! That's a lot better, isn't it?

Now, I'm not just pulling in people who like to read stories and/or challenge stereotypes about marginalized groups. I'm pulling in people who see themselves as rebels, outcasts, and innovators. People who see themselves going against the grain and bucking conventional wisdom. And you know the fun part? These are the people I want in my audience!

Try it for yourself. See what you get.

May 9, 2015

My artistic mission

I've been reading a lot of Seth Lepore's stuff lately, especially now that he's writing stuff for HowlRound about a sustainable life in the arts that has all kinds of synapses firing in my head. Via some posts on his blog, I came across Artists U, which is where I found Making Your Life As An Artist, an e-book I think anyone who wants a career in the arts should read. (If you can afford it, do get the physical copy.)

The whole thing was valuable, but the part that sticks out the most to me is how it has you re-imagine your mission: instead of simply calling yourself an artist or a writer, or a dry grantspeak that nobody understands, Andrew Simonet has you talk about your work in a way that gets the point across in a way that's both vibrant and easy to understand.

When someone asks me, "What do you do?" I now have a little elevator pitch that's short, sweet, and exciting. It conveys my passion for storytelling, the things that matter most to me, and the things I write about.

Regular Person: What do you do?
What I Used To Say: I'm a playwright.
What I Say Now: I’m interested in creating works of fantasy that takes the straight white male default and turns it on its head. I’m looking at how I can create a space in the fantasy genre for myself and people like me--queer Black women who love magic and elves and witches but don’t get to see ourselves in stories like that. I’ve written stories about a famous person crawling out of a television, a Black lady pirate falling in love with a Latina sorceress, a Black woman who is lured away by the Elvenking, and a white cop who shot an unarmed Black teenager and claimed that the boy was a werewolf.

That's probably not the best I can do, but it's not bad. It's quick, clear, and doesn't pretend to be something it's not.

I could do a lot worse than this.

April 22, 2015

How much would it cost to pay a cast minimum wage?

This is an exercise I've done for the Community Dish, waaaaay back when, and now that Actor's Equity has updated the 99-seat plans for LA theaters (aka, theatre for the little guys).

It's not meant to be an argument for or against imposing minimum wage rules. It's more a gauge of how our budgeting would have to change if we want to pay actors a fair wage.

So, when taking into account the $9 per hour minimum wage, how much would it take to hire actors for one of my plays? Say, Encanta.

It goes without saying that a good chunk of the price would depend heavily upon how much each actor needs to rehearse. However, for a rule of thumb, I'm going to use a guideline of 1 hour per minute of running time.

As a play, Encanta can run anywhere from 80 to 100 minutes, so let's aim for the middle at 90 minutes. There need to be 90 total hours of rehearsal. And, if we are adding tech rehearsal, that can easily get to 100 minutes. That's a nice, round number we can use without cutting it too close.

Now, Encanta has 6 named roles and 3 to however many background roles, meaning at least 9 actors. They are:

  1. Penzima
  2. Katrina
  3. Juan
  4. Rico
  5. Maria
  6. Mob Leader
  7. Mob of Haters

The scene breakdowns with estimated running times and characters are below:

  1. Scene 1.1 (10 minutes, 10 hours of rehearsal): Penzima, Juan, Rico
  2. Scene 1.2 (10 minutes, 10 hours of rehearsal): Penzima, Juan, Rico, Katrina, Maria
  3. Scene 2.1 (10 minutes, 10 hours of rehearsal): Penzima, Katrina, Maria
  4. Scene 2.2 (10 minutes, 10 hours of rehearsal): Penzima, Katrina, Juan, Rico, Maria
  5. Scene 2.3 (10 minutes, 10 hours of rehearsal): Penzima, Katrina
  6. Scene 3.1 (5 minutes, 5 hours of rehearsal): Penzima, Maria
  7. Scene 3.2 (10 minutes, 10 hours of rehearsal): Juan, Rico, Mob Leader, Penzima, Mob of Haters
  8. Scene 3.3 (10 minutes, 10 hours of rehearsal): Katrina, Penzima, Juan, Rico, Mob Leader

With those scene breakdowns, the total rehearsal time (roughly) for each part is:

  1. Penzima = 75 hours of rehearsal
  2. Katrina = 50 hours of rehearsal
  3. Juan = 50 hours of rehearsal
  4. Rico = 50 hours of rehearsal
  5. Maria = 45 hours of rehearsal
  6. Mob Leader = 20 hours of rehearsal
  7. Mob of Haters = 10 hours of rehearsal

So, with the $9 per hour minimum wage, this means that each actor should get paid at least the following just for rehearsals alone:

  • Penzima = $675
  • Katrina = $450
  • Juan = $450
  • Rico = $450
  • Maria = $405
  • Mob Leader = $180
  • Mob of Haters = $90 each (minimum 3, so $270)

For performance days, the same minimum wage applies. For 12 performances of 2 hours each (including setup and strike), this means that each actor gets $216 for being on stage, which brings the minimum pay for each actor to...

  • Penzima: $891
  • Katrina: $666 (ha!)
  • Juan: $666
  • Rico: $666
  • Maria: $621
  • Mob Leader: $396
  • Mob of Haters: $306 (minimum 3, so $918 total)

This makes a grand total of  $4,599, so rounding up to $4,600 (or $5,000 to give wiggle room) on top of all other production costs.

For a small production, that...isn't actually so bad.

January 15, 2015

Dusting off this blog

 I know, I know, I've been bad.

I've been neglecting this blog for so long.

Sorry about that.

Anyway, I come bearing news and thoughts.

First of all, I eagerly await my return to NYC. Although Queens is cheaper, I love Brooklyn, so if you know somebody with an affordable, peaceful, critter-free apartment they'd like a roommate for, let me know.

Now, onto the writing stuff.

As you know, I'm shopping around "Encanta" to just about every open submission for full-length plays of the appropriate length, genre, and content.

I did a rewrite of a ten-minute play, and I've also completed a first draft of a one-act play.

Strangely enough, I find that I like the format. Much in the same vein as I prefer short stories to novels the vast majority of the time.

Something about the one-act format gives me time to flesh out an idea while at the same time not taking forever and a day to get to the point.

But there is still something inside me that rebels at not giving people at least 90 minutes of entertainment for their $10, $15, $20, or $25 (no more than that, mkay? Money is tight).

I suppose if I were more prolific, and wrote all these short plays I have ideas for, I could easily put together a showcase of 3 or 4 such plays to give people an idea of who I am as a writer and theare maker.

Other than that, it's been good, albeit frustrating to not yet be where I wish to be.

June 11, 2014

My artistic values (part 1 of however many it takes)

I'm participating in Adam Thurman's online e-mail marketing course, and it's been a real treat. One of the things that I am being asked to do is to think about the values I bring to my art.

Now, Busy Adult Me just wants to get this over with, wants to look smart and capable in front of all the other Busy Adults who also just wants to get this over with and look good in front of all the other Busy Adults. Busy Adult Me wants to use words like "excellence," and "quality." Busy Adult Me wants to say things like, "creativity" and "diversity." Busy Adult Me might want to get really sophisticated and come up with, "authenticity" and other big words for simple things that makes me look educated and feel like I belong with the big kids on the playground sipping expensive-sounding wine and nibbling gourmet cheese.

But Real Me won't let that stand. Real Me tells me that I need to stop pretending and start looking at why I need to be an artist, why I'm completely and utterly useless for anything else. Real Me says that I need to talk about the things I really care about and quit acting like I'm ashamed of being passionate.

Real Me asks, "What matters most in your art?"

So I sat down and thought about it and realized that there are 4 things that always stand out.

What's the difference between art and marketing, or art and advertising? They use words; I use words. I'm creative; they're creative. But what's the difference between a one-minute play and a one-minute commercial ad? What's the difference between a short story and a case study used for direct mail?

In a word: truth.

Art tells the truth about life. Marketing and advertising, by and large, don't. That's not to say that marketing and advertising is an industry of bullshit. I know too many honest, ethical people in marketing and advertising to make that claim with a straight face. But when I look at the dividing line between them, for art, truth is a requirement; for marketing and advertising, it's optional.

That truth-telling starts with telling the truth about myself. If I can't be honest about what I think and feel, about how I experience the world, about what matters most to me, how can I begin to tell any kind of truth about life and humanity? Even when I wrap it in fantasy or farce, there must be a core of truth in there, some thing that someone looks at and says, "Yep, I've been there," or "Yeah, I've done that."

But my ability to speak my truth depends upon the freedom I have to pursue it.

As long as I am beholden to the demands of commerce, of politics, of convention, or the status quo, my ability to tell the truth will always be limited. So I must have absolute artistic freedom. Whatever form and content I need to tell my truth are the ones I should be able to use, within the bounds of what is safe, consensual, and ethical.

This doesn't just mean the freedom to say what I want to say or do what I want to do, but also the freedom to be wrong, the freedom to fail, the freedom to change my mind, the freedom to not be the same person today that I was five, ten, fifteen years ago.

Truth and freedom are requirements for the work I do, but there is more to my work than this. Yes, my work features many women, people of color, and LGBTQ people as protagonists and major characters. The temptation is to say that this is because I value diversity, but I find that term too lukewarm. It sounds too much like having more choices on a menu.

The fact that I write about women, people of color, and LGBTQ people (and often people who are all three) is not about diversity. It's about justice. It's about who gets to define and represent truth, goodness, beauty, and humanity. For too long and in too many places, that person has been white, male, straight, cisgender, affluent, able-bodied, and/or neurotypical. For too long and in too many places, those of us who are women, people of color, LGBTQ, disabled, and/or poor or working class have been actively and passively excluded from that, so much so that our simple presence as full human beings is often seen as outrageous.

I don't write about women, people of color, and LGBTQ people because our lives add flavor or spice to men, white people, and cishet people. I don't do it because their lives are more interesting or entertaining with people like me are in it. I do it because we deserve to see ourselves as fully human.

Which brings me to the fourth value: passion.

If it hasn't been made clear by now, I don't do what I do merely because it's interesting or thought-provoking or fun to talk about. Yes, it can be those things, but at the same time, that's not all it is. It's not just something I do because I have nothing better to spend my time on, or because it scratches an itch. Even at my most whimsical and escapist, I care about what it means to put my work out into the world. It all matters very much to me, even if I can't always say why.

And when I think about who I want to work with and who I want in my audience, passion is where it's at for me. I want to work with skillful people, and I like smart people in the audience, but without passion, I may as well replace them with dry white toast.

Truth. Freedom. Justice. Passion.

It's not sophisticated. It's not sexy. It doesn't sound like "innovation" or "collaborative creation" or "community engagement." But in everything I do, those things are there.