A Body of Work
A Body of Work
One thing I’ve always been mildly obsessed with has been creating a body of work. It’s an odd thing for a theatre person — given that the art form is so deeply enmeshed in the present and is mostly ephemeral — but I’ve been concerned with it for as long as I can remember.
I think I only started to understand how unusual it was in recent years, while looking at other theatre company’s websites. They will often only feature their current show — with no information or photos or descriptions of shows past. This is usually what I’m interested in seeing so I notice its absence — but I think I may be alone in this interest in a theatre’s (or artist’s) history.
On my company’s website, I feature every show we’ve ever done. It feels like having a bookshelf of our works, somehow. But the website’s analytics tell me that people don’t tend to click around in there. As important as that body of work is to me — it’s not particularly important to the general public.
But I’m starting to understand why I do this and why I’m not going to stop. I listened to an episode of the Decoder Ring podcast about visual artist Ilona Granet. I kind of hated this episode and kind of loved it all at the same time. It’s about success and lack thereof. I was particularly struck by the part where Granet is talking about her moment of fame, when her work was recognized internationally and shown in places like the MOMA and the Whitney.
“If this would have ended earlier, I would have been happy with my life. I would have been happy where I would have been proud of what I’d done. I would have enjoyed I would have thought I did a, you know, a good enough job, you know, and I should count my lucky stars that I was fortunate. And now I don’t feel that way.”
Ilona Granet on Decoder Ring
And even though I’ve never even come close to achieving the kind of success Granet tasted, I completely understand what she’s talking about.
There have been several moments in my career that I was so proud of, so in my experience, so satisfied, I thought, “I could die now. This accomplishment is the top.” If it had ended there, I would have been satisfied. BUT I am supremely grateful it did not end at any of those points. I, like Granet, have a lot more to do.
I think about Jonathan Larson, who famously died before Rent could become the worldwide hit it became. He must have felt like he’d really achieved something after watching that first Off-Broadway preview performance and could be at peace. But imagine if he’d lived. Would he have created a dozen more hit musicals or would he have felt like he was always starting from the ground up? Or, even more cynically — would Rent have been the hit that it was if Larson hadn’t died and there hadn’t been the sad story full of irony to go alongside it? We’d like to think of shows succeeding off their own merit but I happen to know that that is not the world we live in.
But what does any of this have to do with this Body of Work business? Well, I think working toward having a body of work is how we keep going in this world where we’re only as successful as our current project.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how theatre folk are always starting over, always starting from square one. It is not like a normal profession where you start somewhere and work your way up and that experience leads to your next and you stay in one job for a while, unless you find a better one and it all just sort of builds on itself. I’ll give you an example. When I got my first acting job with a Shakespeare company, I thought I was set for life, even though it was only a six month contract. But I was very much surprised when I did not get another contract. And though I did return to that company a year later, not one of the people I worked with there ever got me another job somewhere else. We were collegial and some of them are very dear friends but that first job was one first job followed by another first job and then another and then another. None of those jobs ever led to another. Not one of them.
In theatre, or any gigging field probably, each time you start, you start anew. Your skills may grow and occasionally your relationships will follow you but it is almost always a new world, each time you do a show. There are a few people who manage to join rep companies and thereby have more consistent careers but most of us hop around like little migrant birds.
Starting over again over and over again can really do a number on your self esteem. And Granet’s experience sounds like a painful example of a similar relentless re-start. Her street signs were enormously successful. She went on to make Wedgewood-like pieces. They sound amazing — but apparently no one was interested in them and all the fame and success and credibility she’d gotten with her street signs just sort of dissipated. If a person were concerned only with the current project, it might be hard to go on. And this is where working toward a body of work really comes in to help — because a body of work doesn’t care about one project’s “failure” or “success.” It’s concerned with your work as a whole. It’s the long view of an arts career and for whatever reason, the long view has kept me going, even from the beginning.
Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen so many art shows that were retrospectives, that give the viewer a long view of an artist’s life. Maybe I’m always doing the curator’s job of showing the whole picture on the regular — but Granet’s career reminds me of my own concern with a body of work and creating a body of work can become its own reward in a culture of few rewards. Having a body of work I’m proud of is actually even more meaningful than a moment that I might have been happy to end on in the past.
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Originally published at http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com on August 21, 2021.