Paying to be Judged

like Middle School, but costlier....

Greetings denizens of my table in the high school cafeteria,

Paying for the opportunity to be judged is ridiculous, and yet, it’s everywhere.

I have not auditioned for a show in more than ten years. (For those who haven’t known me that long, I started my NYC life as a professional actress; SAG & AFTRA & Equity, the works). I recently came across an invitation to audition for some regional theater and was staggered to see a $20 audition fee.

Let’s say 30 people showed up for that audition. 29 of them paid $20 so that some stranger could tell them they are taller than the male lead, or that the director was leaning towards a different ensemble “look,” or they choked on their monologue because of allergies or because the judge was eating pistachios while on a cellphone. Or because they looked like this one cousin the director really doesn’t like to be reminded about.

Writers have long embraced reading fees—though I still recall the uproar when Narrative Magazine first started to charge $20 per submission (particularly when it was revealed in industry gossip that “big name” writers didn’t have to pay). Visual artists have application fees; award consideration nearly always has steep fees; so why shouldn’t actors embrace audition fees? After all—small theaters can’t possibly survive on patronage alone. This is the reasoning of the decision makers in the US that are eager to charge the artist for the privilege of placing their head on the chopping block.

In the UK it is illegal to charge money to people looking for work (that includes auditions!) When you look at artist submission fees that way it does seem…embarrassing.

(How do you feel about this, fellow Americans? should theater patrons pay more per ticket or should emerging artists cover the difference? should literary magazines fold if they don’t have more readers than contributors? should we embrace the Arts as a necessity and have our taxes fund art?should we decide that art is not a career at all and make artists work without funds or under patronage only—that’s what Patreon encourages)

(Should artists become entrepreneurs? There’s a book by Jeff Goins called Real Artists Don’t Starve - Jeff claims that becoming a dad was what threw him into turning his art into a money-making thing. The link goes to a YouTube video interview with him.)

When capitalism is the only supporter of art, only outrageously popular shows make money—and judging from the most popular restaurants (McDonald’s, anyone?) and most popular foods (go Cheetos) these are not the highest quality, but the most easily accessed, easily consumed, and reliably ‘satisfying’ items.

No one is looking for a Cheeto to give sustainable health, just salt and flavor. At this, it tends to succeed (the MSG helps). Just like a movie featuring fast cars: tends to satisfy urge for adrenaline-fueled chases. Hallmark novels? Main character finally gets the right partner, you put your book down and order another poolside piña colada. Happy.

Art doesn’t generally give that kind of easy pleasure. It aims for something that’s probably unattainable—like that Kuro Burger up there. Who knows what they were trying for, but yikes. And writing can also attempt the unattainable - you have a grandiose idea and try it. Some writers succeed. Many more fail, or come close, who knows. I went on an art walk last week and wrote about the “nearly there” experience. (The immersive art experience, called Current, is sponsored by Brookfield—it’s worth your time, though I’m still unsure whether it was inherently art, or whether the fact that you committed to an hour of focused attention was what MADE it into art.)

I, for one, gain pleasure that someone is trying. I appreciate the attempt.

Apparently many people do.

According to a count done by Poets & Writers magazine, there are 158 full-residency writing programs in the USA and 64 low-residency programs, churning out 3000-4000 new writers per year - can you imagine? I graduated from Columbia in 2001. Even lowball, there are now SIXTY THOUSAND more writers competing for agents, short story placements, and publishing. Many of them have written more than one novel manuscript. You wonder why it is hard to publish these days? These are just the writers who went to graduate school. Plus there are those writers who just write and publish, without much editorial work in between (kinda like this newsletter).

Recently, a mom from Tennessee let me know her 14-yr old daughter is self-publishing her second book soon. If she continues to produce two books per year, she’ll have a dozen published novels before she turns 21.

I am not complaining—after all, we devour escapist entertainment. We all want to veg out in front of (pick your poison) — 1) a sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster 2) a beach romance book 3) an airport spy novel 4) a trashy TV serial and/or 5) a YouTuber narrating his excited disbelief that the car he pushed off a 60 foot platform bounced twice on a trampoline before falling on to the ground. And people gladly pay for this stuff. Just like people are always willing to pay for alcohol, or weed, or gym memberships. We need our endorphins.

But art… it is beyond mere entertainment. I have spent an inordinate amount of time this week thinking about what makes art art. And what makes that weird stuff so valuable to me. It struck me how personal it is—similar art is experienced in vastly different ways by similar people. I’ll probably write more about this another time.

For now I will tell you, I’m working on new work. And I hope you have a fantastic week coming up.

Maybe I’ll go make some art.

Here is what else I did this week:

Andrew Cotto interviewed me for Bookish about my first-prize winning book about writing while parenting. He was so nice, I just wanted to hang out with him all day. 60 minute interview.

ALSO, I found out my recent little fairy tale “Big Bad” was selected to be included in the forthcoming The Best of the Red Penguin Collection anthology!

Don’t forget to read the article on Medium about the art walk I took.

Speaking of judging…I came across this sentence on a young woman’s blog: “I can’t really picture myself being a mother because I’m not as selfless as I should be.” And I realized that all of us secretly want dream-mothers who are 100% selfless (even those of us that are already mothers and know that this is actually a path to disastrous mental illness—you can rationally talk yourself out of this desire but the child-side of you still wants it). But why?

And then the follow up: should fathers also be selfless? What about other loving relationships: husbands? Should wives? (irrespective of gender of other spouse)

Why do we believe “selflessness” is some kind of equivalent of true love?

Who wrote that rule book?

Hope your Father’s Day is full of love and self-fulfillment.