Editor’s note: We repost this article for all those artists about to embark on learning and working in the arts.
Five years and 241 articles ago, I took a bus downtown with a notebook in my back pocket. DC Theatre Scene had given me an assignment, and I was on my way to write my first professional theatre review. After four years of college on a nearby hilltop, I was ready to get to know ‘the real DC.’ Ready to begin.
I still have a lot to learn about the world. But I’m confident now that I’ve at least begun. In addition to making DC Theatre Scene my writerly home for the past five years, I’ve worked on scores of projects with dozens of area theatres as a playwright, performer, director, dramaturg, and administrator. I’ve been to shows where the audience dies, where the Simpsons come to life, and where Spider-Man fights crime right in front of your nose. I even got to write a review in rhyming verse. This town is full of surprises.
Next week, I move out of the area to start some new projects. But right now I’m thinking a lot about the past five years, and about what ‘the real dc’ came to mean to me. So I’m writing a note to that kid headed downtown on the bus in July 2008, who assumed that he already knew most of what he’d need to know.
Not even close, Little Hunter.
Now that you’re out of college and giving the DC arts scene a shot, here’s some advice for you:
Everything is useful.
Some of the projects you take up early on aren’t going to fall squarely in your wheelhouse. But now is not necessarily the time to concern yourself with whether a creative project will fit properly into the life and the career you think you’ll want as an artist. ‘Life’ is just the story you compile in hindsight about the ways in which the world has affected you. So if a project sounds interesting, you should probably do it.
I learned a lot very quickly, like we all do. That first show I reviewed played at 1409 Playbill Cafe, a venue whose closing three years later got me involved in many important conversations about the economics of arts spaces and transitioning neighborhoods. It also introduced me to the Capital Fringe Festival, which later produced two plays of mine (in 2010 and in 2013) and allowed me to direct three more.
Maybe that’s serendipity, but only in hindsight. So stay in the moment. Getting involved with arts projects based on hunches, whims, and random recommendations may feel formless at first, but in almost every case you’ll reap unexpected rewards and make important new friends. In this town, every ripple is felt.
But some ripples reach further than others. Which leads me to:
Match personal passion with public value.
You arrive into the professional world with a knowledge of your own passions, but not a whole lot of knowledge of what is valuable to others. Good art — at least in a socially-driven and civic-minded medium like theatre — embodies both personal passion and public value. And it takes a while to feel out that balance. You’ll want to make art that feels personally rewarding, but you also need to do work that excites and supports others.
I guarantee that in order to find this balance, you’ll get the equation slightly wrong a few times. You’ll end up doing a few projects that you care deeply about but that don’t find the right audience. And you’ll do some gigs that get the community really excited but that also kinda bore you.
Either way, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll get better at locating the projects, people, and ideas that both excite you and feel valuable to the larger community. When it’s truly great, you’re motivated and inspired on top of the support that others are showing up to give you. That can be pretty sublime.
Give your attention.
You don’t always have to give people hours out of your day. But you do have to give them your attention. You must talk to those people whom you don’t expect to ever see again. You must do some favors you know won’t return investment. And you must be someone who is known as a Good Listener.
My father’s a journalist and my mother’s a social worker. Both of them have built their careers around an ability to listen well, respond clearly, and assist generously when offered the stories of others. People are very exciting. So ask good questions.
Listening is a hundred times more important than speaking. Early 20th-century Indian guru Shirdi Sai Baba suggested that before speaking we ask ourselves: “Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? Does it improve upon the silence?” This isn’t just a lesson in etiquette. It’s a guiding principle in cultivating arts projects that have true value and clear purpose.
Mind the gap.
We’ve all been new at what we enjoy doing. Finding your style takes time. Ira Glass, the host of NPR’s “This American Life,” gave an interview with Current TV in 2009 that I often see quoted. And I can’t help but quote it again:
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good… But your taste [is] still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”
We all know that feeling. When we’re flirting with a personal passion but unsure of entertaining it, we sometimes take that disappointment as a signal to pack up and cut our losses. But Glass continues:
“We all go through this… You gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is a lot of work… It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions… You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
That’s something I’m still working at, for sure. Fortunately:
The work is all there is.
In other words, if you’re pondering it, you haven’t actually started. Brandon Stanton is the creator of the hugely successful photojournalism series Humans of New York. He gave an interview at TIME Magazine earlier this month in which he lays it out pretty frankly:
“It all comes down to work… Just work. Just work. Don’t wait. Everyone’s waiting until they have the perfect idea to start working. But even if you only have an inkling of what you want to do, start moving towards it. It’s gonna flesh itself out through the process of moving towards the goal. And by the time you get to where you’re gonna be, it’s not gonna look anything like it did when you sat on the couch thinking about it. If you wait until it’s perfect in your head, nothing’s ever gonna happen.”
But what if you get stuck in a rut, or lose your way? Well:
Talk to people on purpose. Get recommendations. Request coffee and lunch dates. Pick people’s brains. Try to locate people who have been able to make a version of the career you want to have out of the pieces you’re currently working with. How is it done? And how might you do it differently? Picasso didn’t start out by inventing Cubism — he started with perspective.
People love giving directions. And getting mentorship needn’t be a drawn-out affair. You’ll acquire some longer-term mentors along the way, but in general just keep talking to people. Ask questions of those who are doing work that’s particularly relevant to you. Be a reporter. And report back.
Do it because you love it.
Your less imaginative relatives were right when they said that you have to be a little crazy to want to work in the arts. An artist’s life churns with uncertainty. It’s not easy. I remember doing a 2012 interview with actress Kimberly Gilbert in which she said:
“We tend to think of success in this society as a kind of climbing ladder. In theatre that’s just not how it works. It’s more like a roller coaster. Actors have these long, difficult treks upwards with seemingly little gain, and then maybe there’s a rush of new projects. Then maybe there’s not… That’s the nature of things. You’ve got to ride the roller coaster. We didn’t get into theater for a steady nine-to-five. We got into it for the adrenaline, for the anticipation. You have to want to be doing it.”
So, don’t worry if you hit a ‘dry spell.’ You’ll be thankful for that rare opportunity to rest up once a new load of work arrives.
Encouraging others gives you meaning too.
It is your job to care for people. So reach out. That’s what Colin Hovde did in 2008 when he sat me and my classmate Seamus Sullivan down for sandwiches in Georgetown. At the time, Colin was directing Dream Sailors for Rorschach Theatre during that company’s summer residency on campus. But in picking our brains about what we wanted to do in the arts professionally — and, ultimately, in convincing us to try staying in DC for a spell — he turned a lunch date among early acquaintances into the beginning of a deeper friendship rooted in mutual support.
At the time, Colin was starting the workshop group Artists’ Bloc with Roy Gross. When I took over his role as Artistic Director of that organization a few years later, I tried to live up to Colin’s commitment to finding, encouraging, and caring for new creative work that might not come to fruition without active support from the DC community.
College kids need these sandwich meetings. So do all of the artists in this town brave enough to start a project they’re unsure about. Care for the newly-created — whether it’s yours or someone else’s — and do what you can to help those first steps be taken.
There is no ‘rest of your life’ — only a best next step.
I wish I could be more tactical and concrete in some of the advice in this article. But this isn’t a user’s manual. I don’t have a practical checklist for making the most of the arts scene in DC. All I know is: if you’re doing the right amount of listening and asking, the best you can hope for is a cumulative clarity brought on by a succession of smart next steps. If you move forward thoughtfully and check in with yourself as you go, you’ll be on top of your game.
Read the news!
DC’s theatre audiences are smart, and they’re very analytical. The best shows in DC are the ones that actively challenge and provoke people on a political level. By ‘political’ I don’t mean ‘partisan’ — I just mean ‘engaged in issues concerning the public good.’
So, know what’s happening. Follow the news, and get second sources. Listen carefully to how different individuals — and different channels — tell stories differently. For certain theatre pieces, specifics details and facts about current events come in handy. But following the news pays back in nuance as well. Juggle opinions. Trade them off. Listen to counter-arguments. Strive to empathize. And out of all that, locate the questions big enough to defy a full resolution. Make the art that asks crucial, unanswerable questions. It’ll put you one step closer to making great art — the kind that can serve, as writer George Saunders recently put it, as “a conduit to mystery.”
Got all that, Little Hunter?
It’s really hard. But optimism and generosity make it much, much easier. You’ll be fine.
I’m really going to miss the DC area.
I’m incredibly thankful to have come into my own in a city so emotionally charged,
culturally diverse, and artistically robust. I’ll be sure to be back whenever I can.
But drop me a line in the meantime if you have any questions, thoughts, or
simply want to keep in touch.
I’m always happy to have a new conversation.
Some photo highlights from Hunter’s life in DC. If you have a favorite photo of Hunter for his gallery, email it here along with a photo caption.