Years ago, I came across a play called Spike Heels by a writer named Theresa Rebeck. I was struck by its frank language, it’s straight-ahead exploration of love, sex, and identity in a world of 20 and 30-something confusion. Since Spike Heels, Rebeck has gone on to wide success and acclaim, including a nod as a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. So I was interested to see an NPR article on her work in a series NPR’s done on artists and how they go about making money while plying their craft. (“How Artists Make Money“.) You’d think Pulitzer finalists wouldn’t have a problem, but as the article outlines, it’s Rebeck’s work in television, writing for shows such as Law and Order: Criminal Intent and NYPD Blue, that allows her to do the thing she loves most: theatre. Don’t cry for Rebeck, though…she’s doing fine. A playwright at the top of her game, apparently. “She’s a born playwright,” says Tim Sanford, the theater’s (Playwright’s Horizon’s in New York) artistic director. “She’s prolific, she’s great at structure, she has something to say, she’s driven to say it, it’s not hard for her.”
That last sentence says it all. Quantity, structure, voice, passion, and the ease that comes with mastery of craft.
I was also struck by another comment about Rebeck, this time by David Milch, a co-creator of NYPD Blue. Commenting on Rebeck’s expressed tension between doing good work and making a living, Milch says:
“I bridle a bit about the idea of ‘making a living,’ as opposed to doing good work. Theresa’s is the bravest kind of imagination, and I think she’s happiest when she’s doing the work in which her unalloyed loyalty is to the character and to the moment.”
Two things: first, bravery in the imagination. Funny how fear can creep in while you sit all alone with the blank page. I wrote a song a few days ago that talks about how I worry that what I write, if I’m dead honest, will wound the people I care most about. Truth is costly at almost any level. Yet, and this is the second thing, joy comes from loyalty to what the work is demanding. It’s a battle, but after all these years, I’m beginning, finally, to realize it’s the only way worth working.
The other two articles in the series are by a poet (how in the world do you make money off poems?!) and a painter. I was talking to a friend of mine this morning who is taking a painting class. He told me the teacher told them that if they are painting in a public space and someone comes up to offer to buy the piece they’re working on, stop immediately, and sell the painting. Don’t think twice. Good advice? I’m not so sure. As it turns out, the painters cited in the NPR series work through co-ops, Ebay, and non-traditional gallery venues, while the poet works mostly in the corporate world.
Bottom line (no pun intended), an artist’s financial life is going to be cobbled together from any number of sources. I’ve written for lots of venues, performed in big and little spaces, and often say that I’ll do whatever anybody will pay me to do. That’s not exactly true, but at this point in my life, I think I’ll stop saying it. It’s far too easy to switch the loyalty from what the work demands to what the mortgage, or perhaps more truthfully, the preferred lifestyle demands.
Imaginative bravery, loyalty to the work…