Gypsy Rose Lee, another powerful woman with theatrical talents.
This is an email I received yesterday from a very close friend. I was inspired by it and wanted to share it with you for the reasons I express at the bottom of my response to her (below).
What you should know is that this friend is brilliant and one of the hardest workers I know. She majored in theater and history at Northwestern, attended Harvard for law school, and is now working in the DC Public Defenders office, where she has pretty much always dreamed of working. Sadly, like many dreams, it’s not going quite as she planned. I’ve offered her my words of support, but if you have your own, please share them in the comments. I think we all need to encourage each other to make these kinds of life changes 🙂
Our conversation last night caused me to spend the first hour of my waking life this morning lying around thinking. Which is something I have not done in a long time, really. And I feel that, being in the pensive state you are in, you’ll be thrilled to hear all about my musings.
I am trying to pick a new career, and place to live. I don’t think my career is good for me for several reasons. One is that I have no life and I don’t like getting out of bed in the morning. The other is that it doesn’t help people the way that I had hoped it would. Our criminal justice system is despicable and disgusting and when my clients are like, “How can the system be this way? Isn’t there anything we can do about it? Can’t you tell the judge that it just isn’t fair?” And I’m like, “Well, no, it doesn’t work like that. The Supreme Court already decided that it’s OK, so now, you’re just stuck in it.”
So now I’m looking for two things in a new job. (1) I would like a job that doesn’t make me want to stay in bed in the morning. High bar. (2) I am looking for a job that will actually help people, and make some small difference in one of the many arenas in which the U.S. provides completely different treatment to rich people and poor people, to black people and white people. It’s crazy and totally unacceptable.
I am also, however, exhausted of thinking about this stuff. I could just go live in a nice small town in Colorado not too far from my family and join a small law firm that does land issues and spend the rest of my career being paid more than decently and writing legal memos about whether someone is allowed to use the water from a particular river or not. I could volunteer to tutor kids in my spare time, and buy a house, and have babies, and see my family members, and die happy. And my selfish little self is like, yep, that sounds good to me.
But I’m not going to do that because of my white guilt.
I also have been struggling a lot lately with whether or not pursuing something artistic is selfish. One idea I had is that I could do some kind of non-profit bringing theater and/or dance and/or music to public school kids. Denver is cutting most of their arts programs pretty severely right now.
P__ says that he thinks that is not that useful a contribution to society. I find this very upsetting because I would love to spend six months teaching theater and putting together a cabaret. I love cabaret. I love performing and I love artistic things. I love reading novels, which P__ would probably argue is a huge waste of time. I love the arts, but I can see his point that a lot of artists are just drifting through life trying to “experience” it and make art about it and are not really thinking much about having any effect on others, or indeed, even thinking about whether their career choice SHOULD be one that is helping others in some way.
On the other hand — art can make a social movement happen. Art is where a lot of the good ideas come forward. Art is often political. Hello — all I have to say is “Brecht.” And P__ and I watched this fairly bad movie about the federal art project, which I didn’t even know about, but which was started by FDR during the depression and put all these actors and producers to work making theater (so cool), and apparently they made these really political plays about labor unions that were of course deemed Communist, and then our American government shut it down because we don’t really believe in free speech in this country.
The point is that it was very political. And then I was thinking, right — Hollywood was a huge target of the McCarthy Communism hearings, because artists are liberal, political people. The problem being, of course, that a bunch of liberal people living in huge houses and making movies like Father of the Bride are not exactly doing anything with their liberalism to help society. Steve Martin is no Brecht.
So, artists have huge potential to effect society in positive ways, it seems to me. But do we (or they, I guess I don’t know if I count as one) actually do it?
After all these musings, I had an idea. We know a lot of very artistic people. Fuck, our reunion alone could write a paper, put out a book of short stories or a novel, put on a play, make a movie, make a CD, create a photo exhibition, and probably teach a bunch of kids to do the same. And then we could write reviews about all of it. 🙂
This kind of talent should not go to waste.
I was thinking of some kind of organization or co-op or something for artists who are dedicated to producing art that encourages or effects social change. Maybe not all of their art — everyone likes to do a good show of Gypsy that has nothing to do with social change — but some of their art.
Maybe it starts out as just a group of people with a website who sign on to a pledge — they will do one creative thing a year that they put forward for the purpose of creating social change. And they pledge to assist the other members of the group in doing the same. Maybe some of the members are artists who are just promising that at least one of their works will have that purpose.
And maybe some of them are artistic doctors and lawyers who promise to use whatever lost artistic talents they abandoned for their new career to do something artistic and socially changey each year. For those people it serves the dual purpose of keeping their creative sides alive and doing something useful. Maybe it starts out as just a support system but it becomes a place where people can help each other to find grants and funding, where people collaborate for bigger projects, where we put together a showing or yearly event that actually draws some attention…
Or maybe I’m a crazy person driven by guilt. The collaboration idea was born of my plan (made this morning) to become a teacher and teach a class to urban kids living in poverty about theater that did, or tried to, effect social change. It’s kind of like teaching kids how the topic can be useful. And then letting them put on a play, which is also fun and keeps them off the streets. If only someone would let me do this.
Organizations like this, of course, already exist.
This one seems to be based in New Jersey: http://www.artistscollective4socialchange.org.
This one seems to have no clear mission, like most artistic groups: http://projects.tigweb.org
Apparently there is something called ArtCorps, which looks awesome, but is not what I’m talking about: http://www.volunteerabroad.com/listingsp3.cfm/listing/64538
And that concludes my musings, because I am late to go to a crime scene, go visit a child at the kiddie jail, and go to the jail to see my incarcerated clients. Which is how I spend my Sundays. I would definitely rather be writing a lesson plan or a script for a documentary about the horrible situation in DC public schools. Or, you know, going to brunch.
First off, let me say that I’m in tears. I’ll also say this happens to me a lot more often now than it used to, but the point remains — this brings tears to my eyes because a) you are doing something so hard that is making you unhappy, b) you have the absolutely best intentions, and c) it seems that you’re really ready to move on to something that both fulfills you creatively and makes the world a little bit better, which is pretty much what I am trying to do right now and what I hope my blog does for people.
Second, I don’t know who this P__ character is, but if I did I would give him a solid piece of my mind. This idea that our society has that artists are somehow selfish, that art doesn’t make any difference, drives me nuts. Anyone who thinks you get into the arts to be famous and make money has obviously never tried to do anything truly creative in their life. It’s incredibly hard and generally pays shit. You’re 100% correct about the incredible, political power that art has had and continues to have in our society and I’m so excited to think that someone as smart and dedicated and talented as you wants to put your efforts into developing that further.
There are a lot of ideas in this email (thank you for sharing, really, I’m honored), and I don’t have time to address them all. But, in a general sense, I think that you finding a way to use your passion for theater to create a career that is sustainable for you and also helps kids in the way you want is totally doable and a noble ambition.
I like the idea of an online support network, etc. but right now I think you should focus on you. BE SELFISH. There is nothing wrong with it. You have to learn to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people. Period.
If I were you, I would pick the place you want to live, find a school or district that is cutting their arts, put together a program, look for some funding, and run the shit out of it yourself. I have seen you create big things out of nothing but your own perseverance and I think this would be no exception.
Then, when it’s a big success and everyone loves you, you can write up some documents about how to do this in other communities with other arts, and export that, probably on the web, and get bigger grants, etc. The details are not important here; I just think you should not try to go too big, too fast — a tendency I think we both share 😉
I love you and totally support all of this. Call me any time if you want to talk more.
P.S. Just something to think about…I would love to publish your email (with a few edits for anonymity sake) and my response on my blog. I’ve talked to several people recently who are making life changes like this and I think it really helps to share them with the community, so other people stuck in jobs that make them not want to get out of bed in the morning have the courage to take the leap and find something else. Feel free to tell me, hell no. Thought I’d put it out there 🙂