Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An Apology Letter to the NEA

White Woman In Progress, at 7Stages Theater
 through April 9, 2017
After another typical night at Agatha's (Murder Mystery Dinner Theater), Ryan and I sat at the bar chasing scotch with more scotch and discussing our show.  It was a typical weekend.  Or maybe it was a Wednesday.  As a self-employed actor, a week has never looked the same to me in the past 20 years.  Nights are showtime, mornings are a chance to finish emails, and days are a muddle of auditions, gigs, meetings, and unpaid prep time.  So knocking back a few fingers of scotch is almost mandatory - you gotta find some way to calm yourself down after a 4 hour evening of entertaining random audience members, quick-changing out of a mustache/fedora and into a giant gingerbread cookie costume. Now that we're in our 40s, I suppose there's a hint there too of washing down the shame - what grown adult makes a living dancing around a dining room in a neon green afro and elf nose?  But I'm pitching an idea to Ryan for the next show: I'll call it Hawaii Five Uh-Oh, and this time we'll use one of those inflatable samurai suits - the audience should love that... but what if it pops?? These are the kind of real-world issues I struggle with as a working actor/writer/costumer/etc. So I guess its no wonder that I balk at using the word artist to describe myself, and instead opt for the word "entertainer".  And when an AJC theater critic inferred in his shining review of my current one-woman show that the bulk of my career is 'illegitimate,' I was in total agreement with him. He used those ubiquitous "air quotes" to lend a nod to a belief system so well entrenched that it is literally championed by the very people it represses! We all get it, though, us actors. It's a system that protects us from the crazies, after all. If acting was a real  job - everyone would want to do it! But thankfully, there are actually very few jobs out there that are considered 'legitimate' - and those are almost universally defined by the paycheck that they deliver.

But this morning I woke up thinking about those air quotes.  And I can't stop thinking about them. My whole life I've shunned the title of artist.  I've discredited the bulk of my performances in one way or another: Improv?  Silly make-em ups or skits. Stagecraft?  Nope, its just a little play, community theater. Voice-overs? Mostly romance novels, and one-off local radio spots. Movies and TV? Blink and you'll miss me. I wouldn't dare put myself on a level with Broadway, or the Silver Screen, or even the Alliance (our big Equity house here in town). Sure I carry a SAG card, but I don't make enough money most years to qualify for health care.  I'm not a REAL actor, and I'm certainly not an artist. This is the way I've seen my whole career, for which I've given up just about everything else - and I never questioned that... until I decided to put on my own one-woman show. Now that could reasonably be considered artistry.  It's like the hardest thing I've ever done! And I'm truly creating something from just about nothing! So yeah, I can't avoid the title, and I don't want to. In my mind I've finally earned it. So when Mr. Osborne introduced me as an actor only occasionally doing "legitimate" theater, I smiled and nodded - Dude, we're on the same page. This time it actually counts.

That night at Agatha's, as the last of the audience got their parking tickets stamped and filed out joyfully reminding each other of their favorite moments - a lone couple in their late 20s shyly approached us.  We were out of costume, our duties fulfilled, we'd already thanked the guests and now we were off the clock.  But we didn't mind, cause we're actors, and we're lucky enough to eek out a living telling jokes. So we turned to acknowledge them. They were in tears.  "We wanted to thank you," the woman said. "This is our first night out since our 1 year old son died four months ago.  We never thought we'd laugh again. You saved our lives." 

As our administration attempts to gut the National Endowment for the Arts, I realize that I have willingly participated in the system that allows our society to dismiss and discount any art that doesn't make money, that doesn't make sense, that doesn't doesn't make a huge sweeping impact. But that is unfair, inhuman, and suicidal. Art is vital. Art is undefinable. But most importantly - ART IS LEGITIMATE. Please tell your representatives. And if you have time, come check out my art - all of it. 


Unknown said...

Thanks for this amazing blog, shared with me by my nephew, David H.
I am coming with friends to see your art at Seven Stages

Unknown said...

Thanks cuz. I needed that today. Long read tho. Btw Wilson passed its OK I had him for 14 loving years.