Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Artist Statement - From Playwrights to Artistic Directors, This is What They Said...

I was passionately and meticulously crafting a couple of artists statements (translation: staring at a blank page with self loathing and fantasies of binging on the last season of Nurse Jackie, Transparent or fill in the blank) when it occurred to me that I was probably not alone (hello Theaterspeakers) so I asked a handful of theater professionals these two questions: 

1. What makes a good artist statement and/or 
2. How do you approach writing one?

The following is what they said. I hope you find it helpful and may it deliver you from paralysis and into passionate, self-loving/accepting artistic revelry (really, it's ok). And if you're still feeling tortured, I'll just pass on what my friend likes to say, which is: "Get off the cross, we need the wood."  Enjoy.

THE ARTIST STATEMENT

Jose Rivera
JOSE RIVERA:  I haven't written that many over the years but I've done longer manifestos and essays and the same idea applies. Everyone has very personal reasons for being in the arts that has to do with anything from being mentored by someone, or childhood experiences, to falling in love with theater - that kind of thing. It's the unique experience that brought me to the art; that allowed me to commit to it - like a love affair to commit to, because it can break your heart everyday. It's like a marriage vow - why you're committed, what you plan to give to it. It's your core beliefs as an artist. That's the formula I've used in the past.

So many people write them. You want yours to stand out. I use quotes to at least give it some class, like Rumi or Pablo Naruda. It shows the reader where you're coming from, who inspires you, what your commitments are. Once I had a conversation with the theater director Peter Sellers who said, "I'd ask every writer, does the world need your play? Why does the world need your play? Or need you to be the artist to create it?" And then be specific in answering that.

In a play you can wear a variety of masks, but in an artist statement you have to take the mask off, at least for ten minutes, at least when you're applying for money. They're looking for clarifty and truth in what you're saying so the more you can reveal about your fundamental motivations and core beliefs, the better. If you believe art is decoration, or that art is for political change - the point is let it be your truth. You shouldn't ever write a statement crafted to what you think the people want to hear. People can sniff that and it comes across as inauthentic. The most authentic emotional, intellectual statement you can put forward is best.

JOSE RIVERA is a two-time Obie award-winning writer living in New York.

LIZ FRANKEL: A good artist statement allows the reader to get to know you better as a person and an artist. We read hundreds of them as we consider applications for our Emerging Writers Group (at the Public Theatre) and the ones that stand out reveal something about the writer that we couldn’t glean from their resume and also couldn’t guess. As we ask each applicant to submit a play and a resume, we want the statement to help us to get to know them; we can get to know their writing through the play and their
accomplishments through their resume. This said, though, the key thing is the play. If we were on the fence about interviewing a candidate but their statement was really compelling and made us want to meet them, we might call them in. But if we loved a play and wanted to interview the candidate, we would still do so even if their artist statement was bland or generic. We know that a great artist statement is hard to write!

LIZ FRANKEL was the Literary Manager of The Public Theater where she ran the Emerging Writers Group.  She is currently the Director of New Work at the Alley Theater

Susan Bernfield
SUSAN BERNFIED: The same thing that's hard when I write in my own artist statements is the thing I like to read when someone sends one to me: direct and unpretentious.  Jargon, no!  Highfalutin crap, no!  As in
any good writing: active, yes!  Verb density, yes!  It's just so easy for big ideas to be not quite gotten, misconstrued, or frankly just skipped over cause they look long and complicated cause the writer felt an obligation to look smart  (like you're not smart...) and add those extra syllables (rarely found in the verb of the same word) and stuff that seems like artsy fartsy terminology.

I just keep trying to whittle it down: in everyday words, what do I actually MEAN?  Am I sure the predicate of my sentence isn't actually the subject, will that feel more direct and less explain-y?  How can I move from speaking abstractly or conceptually about my work (a great step toward articulating what I want to say, but can feel unspecific to a reader) into shorter, clearer, dare I say funner, more personal or idiosyncratic details the reader can latch onto? 

At the very end of the process of writing these things, I usually have a moment where I go, Oh.  Right!  There's my personality as an artist!  Why the hell did it take so long, and why do I never remember that's the goal before I start?

SUSAN BERNFIELD is the founder and producing artistic director of New Georges, an award-winning nonprofit theater company in NYC. She is also a playwright and solo performer whose plays have been presented or developed at, among others, O'Neill Playwrights Conference, Playwrights Horizons, HB Playwrights, New York Theatre Workshop, Magic Theatre, Adirondack Theatre Festival and, of course, New Georges.


NATHEN YUNGERBERG: Writing the artist statement makes me want to scream, yell and break things! I find it very difficult to explain why I do what I do because sometimes I get bit by intense creative inspiration and the story possesses me and I just…have to… get it out.  My biggest snag is obsessing about what “they” want to hear rather than focusing on my personal truth. I have tried several different approaches, I even hired
Nathan Yungerberg
another writer to interview me once and create the statement out of my free flowing speech, which I thought would be more “truthful”, but it ended up sounding like a sappy dating profile. I have finally resolved to just throwing a bunch of ideas (without judgment) onto paper and rewriting like I would a play. I then reach out to a trusted friend who KNOWS me and is good with editing. The last time, we sat on the phone and combed through my artist statement line by line as she questioned me for clarity and I was able to incorporate several of my gut reactions in the place of my contrived answers that sounded phony and canned.

NATHAN YUNGERBERG is a Brooklyn-based playwright. Nathan Yungerberg’ s work has been developed or featured  by The Playwright’s Center, The Brooklyn Museum, The Lorraine Hansberry Theater, Brava Theater, The Lark, The Fire This Time Festival, 48 Hours in Harlem, The National Black Theatre, The Hansberry Project, The National Black Theatre Festival, The Classical Theatre of Harlem, Blackboard Reading Series, The Dramatist Guild,  Flashpoint Theater and BBC Radio Afternoon Drama.

ROLAND TEC:  I’m sure I’m not alone in this but, gosh do I HATE writing artist statements. Oy! I never know what to say and almost always end up striking a tone that is so at odds with who I really am, it’s kind of alarming. In person, I am serious but also warmhearted with a pretty dark sense of humor. On paper in
Roland Tec
the form of an artistic statement, I turn into this pompous and somewhat stiff and confused idiot who takes himself way to seriously. Why is that? I wish I knew. It’s funny because I often think we should rent ourselves out to each other for just this sort of thing because I’m sure most of us would be pretty eloquent if asked to write about the work of a close friend or colleague. Somehow when it’s about myself, I just freeze up and lose all sense of flow. And that’s one of the reasons I so rarely apply to things that require them and when I do actually get accepted someplace, I’m a tiny bit shocked. Like I want to look over my shoulder to find who they really meant to wave in.

ROLAND TEC is a writer, director and producer of both theater and feature films, He currently serves as Membership Director for the Dramatists Guild of America and is hard at work on his next feature film, THUNDER EVERY DAY. More info at www.pinkplot.com.

HILARY BETTIS:  Having been selected for and been a reader for several major fellowships and residencies, I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate the artist’s statement from both sides of the fence. Here is what I think makes a strong and memorable artist’s statement:

1.) It should be well-structured, grammatically correct, and show that you have a command of the written language. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate your level of craft and versatility. This seems like common sense, but I’ve read quite a few applications with such poorly written statements it becomes difficult to take that person seriously as a writer. And, for writers like me who write messy plays that strive to break as many rules as possible, a well-crafted artist’s statement is a way to demonstrate a knowledge of the rules before bashing them openly in my plays.

2.)  It  It should demonstrate your ability to constructively and honestly evaluate your work. You want to show the reader you know how to be effective in the room, you know how to talk about the work. If you’re applying for development opportunities with raw plays, you want to show the reader you know what is working, what isn’t, and what you are ultimately striving for with the piece.

3.)  Most importantly, a good artist’s statement should be genuine. It should be a conversation. People are looking for good plays, but they are also equally looking for people they WANT to work with. People they WANT to cultivate life-long relationships with. And, in most cases, readers are your fellow theatermakers. They are actors, writers, directors, literary mangers, ADs, dramaturgs, and producers. They are people who are just as passionate about theater as you are. They WANT to fall in love with you and your work.

HILARY BETTIS is a playwright and screenwriter. She is a graduate of the Juilliard Lila Acheson Wallace Fellow, and New York Theatre Workshop Fellow. Projects in development include THE LOST COYOTE (feature film) and DAKOTA ATOLL (full-length play).

MATT HOVERMAN:  Ah, the Artist Statement.  I have written many, some of which have been successful.  And, since I've taught over 65 solo show classes since 2001, I've helped dozens of my actor/writer students successfully apply to festivals, schools, grants, etc.

In starting a new one, I always reread my previous efforts -  a practice I find both educational and humbling.  Over time, I've noticed certain tendencies in my (and my students' ) approach that I now try to avoid.  So here they are:  My top 3 Artist Statements to resist.  (Disclaimer: My opinion only.) 

    The Origin Story:  Don't start with, "I wrote my first play in 3rd grade…" or "I saw my first play and fell in love with the magic of theatre…"  Why?  Because we all have that story to tell, and I imagine we've all told it in our Artists Statements, boring to tears those who have to read them.  Talk about who you are today, as a mature, professional playwright with experience and goals.  And do it with originality.

    The Apology:  Don't explain why I'm not Tony Kushner, as in "…this has put me at odds with the theatre establishment…" or "… after a college production of one of my plays, my family said they wanted to beat me up, so I stopped writing and became an actor for 7 years…" (True story, sigh.)  The biz is hard for everyone.  You don't have to justify anything.  This is your opportunity to sell yourself.  Be proud of what you've done.  Celebrate it. I don't think I'm alone when I say applying to programs brings up my issues with authority.  But I've learned that none of these judges has the time, information, history or inclination to critique my past with the merciless eye I do at 2am.

    The Pretentious Pander:  This has also been a way I've "justified" myself.  In trying to give the powers-that-be what I imagine they want (which, I fear, is something greater, smarter or more socially relevant than my actual work), I've hidden behind important-sounding and completely heady concepts to impress, rather than to communicate or connect.  I've since learned to come from the heart.  To me, the most important thing is to be authentic - simple, direct and smart without going overboard.  If my friends who aren't in the theatre can't understand it, I believe I'm off base.  The times I've been most successful are the times I've had a true connection with the program or residency, and I've honestly and clearly expressed that in my Statement.  For example, in applying to the Edward Albee Foundation (a one-month residency in Montauk), I wrote with feeling  about how I've always found walking by great bodies of water to be incredibly inspirational.  It's true and I got in.  We'd all love to get into all the most prestigious programs, but I've learned it's much more likely (and ultimately satisfying) that I'll wind up in the programs with whom I truly resonate.

My last bit of advice is gleaned from the SECRETS IN MARKETING YOUR SHOW IN ANY FESTIVAL, an online class I co-created with marketing pro Robin Gelfenbien.  In discussing the 40-word blurb that goes on the back of show postcards, Robin advises to avoid using descriptors like "hilarious" or "touching".  Those assessments are for reviewers to assign to your work.  Rather, let the tone of the blurb convey the tone of your show.  If the show is funny, the blurb should make a potential audience member laugh out loud.  If it's a thriller, it should make a chill go down their spine.  In the same way, I believe the tone of your Artist Statement should match the tone of your work.  I write irreverent comedies with heart.  I now make sure my Artist Statements include a few jokes, instead of reading like an academic essay on the themes of patriarchal oppression in A DOLL'S HOUSE.

So, in summation: be confident, be enthusiastic, be direct, be idiosyncratic - and sure, connect your work with larger social/political themes and the mission of whatever organization to which you're applying, but do so in a simple, heartfelt way.  In short, be you.  Then let go.  And trust that the opportunities you're meant to get are coming to you.

MATT HOVERMAN is a playwright, screen and TV writer and teacher of solo performance. He curently writes for Disney.  Websites: Playwriting:  MattHoverman.com, Teaching:  CreateYourOwnSoloShow.com

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