Monday, November 29, 2010

A dia-blog on success vs. merit

A blog post responding to a blog post.  How very meta.

My friend Brian Rosen (a like-spirit: driven and multi-talented as a performer and creator) picked up on my post-partum depression post on his blog ("Music vs. Theater", what a thought-provoking title) where he writes insightfully about the distinction between success and merit:

"I think the trick for the emerging creative is to keep a rock solid wall between the concepts of merit and success. You need to be able to look at your output and see its merit without the coloration of success (or lack thereof). It’s the internal voice that defines your creative output, not the external. .... That’s the voice that needs to look at your work and say, “'Yeah. This is good. I need to make more of this.'"

(please read the whole post, there was too much for me to quote here).

To separate "merit" from "success", ah, but what a challenge that is!  To recognize and believe in the merit of your own work irrespective of what the outside world has to say about it (as well as to see clearly when the merit is NOT there) -- is this a challenge unique to artists?  Certainly an athlete has measurable goals - you know how fast you are or how far you can throw compared to someone else.  Doctors know if they make patients feel better, business people know if they make a profit, carpenters know if the house stands on its own or not.  Is there any other field where there is so often so little direct connection between merit and success? (I'm open to being corrected on this by the way, it's an honest question).

And certainly one must look at what others say about your work, to some degree.  We've all known those artists/performers/writers who think they have this amazing talent, but they just... don't.  I can think my play is great, but if no one wants to hear it, or if when they do hear it, no one responds to it, then I don't think I can really call it great.  I do rely on what other people think - not to the exclusion of own instincts, but along with - because my goal is to create art that speaks to people, that touches people, that causes them to look at something in life a bit differently than they did before.  To me, my instinctual feeling that my work has merit can only be validated by achieving that goal.  Which I can't know unless I put it up in front of an audience and observe their response.  How do I get my piece in front of an audience without some degree of commercial success?  I can only do that so far as my  resources allow me to produce my own works, which is in a very limited fashion.

So while I believe my writing has merit -- and I'm actually very critical and picky about my own work and will futz over a single line for hours til my inner voice tells me it's right -- those instincts are only validated when the work is in front of an audience.  Most of the time my instincts are right, but sometimes they are wrong.  I need at least some outside voices to be in accordance with my inside voice.  For me, that's the rub.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Post-partum Depression

Forgive the silence - these weeks since the reading have been a bit challenging for me.  After such a long build-up -- almost 10 months of striving towards such a momentous goal -- I crashed and needed to step back from it for a bit.  I also needed to devote some time to my friends and boyfriend, whom I had by necessity neglected during the weeks leading up to the reading. 

I now find myself in a place that is all-too-frustratingly-familiar.  Everyone is asking me what’s next?  Have you heard anything?  Is anything happening?  To which the answers are I don’t know, no, and not yet.  I did such a good job of getting people excited and (literally) invested in my play, that they all want to know what’s happening.  It’s wonderful to have so much support and interest, but it is difficult to not be able to say, why, yes! I got a call from a Broadway producer yesterday and they will be mounting a production next fall!  To have no answer, and no real idea of where things are going to go from here, is very painful.  It is the reason why I stopped ever telling anyone about auditions I had as an opera singer, because it was just too painful to continually have to answer no when asked so have you heard anything yet?.  Perhaps painful isn’t the right word -- it feels more like shame.  I’m ashamed -- I feel like if I haven’t landed anything then it must not be that good.  Or at least that is what people must think, because the only way to know in the arts that something you have done has merit is if other people give it a stamp of approval.  Without the mark of commercial success on something, what you have created (or what talent you may possess) is all so much drivel.  At least that is how I feel.  I can say my play is good until I’m blue in the face, but without an external stamp of approval no one else has any reason to believe that.

Can I do this again?  Can I get my hopes up and strive for yet another creative career that very well may never happen?  Regardless of how good my play may or may not be, there are no guarantees that anything major will happen with it.  I used to believe (hope?) that if you are good enough, and work hard enough and stay in the game long enough, you will make it.  That the cream rises to the top.  But I know now that it is not that simple of an equation.  There are plenty of mediocre talents who somehow manage to rise to the top by their sheer dedication and the luck of what connections they have.  There are many great talents who don’t succeed because they don’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to fight the fight.  And then there are even people who have the talent and work their asses off and still don’t ever get the big break.  I felt like one of those people as an opera singer.  Am I prepared to risk being that person again as a playwright?

It is far too early to give up and I know that it is a long road for any work to get produced.  When I started this journey, I was fully prepared that my first play might very well suck -- I mean, who writes a great first play?  The fact that this actually seems to be good doesn’t change the fact that it will need more rewrites, that I will need to submit it to probably several dozen places and keep pitching it and slogging and working to get it out there.  And just because a producer didn’t walk up to me after the reading to hand me a check doesn’t mean my play won’t get produced someday.

So now begins the less-fun part.  The diaper changing, the late night feedings, the calming of the un-soothable infant.  All the un-fun stuff of parenting.  Do I have what it takes to see this through, to try to nurture this baby to grow up to its fullest potential?  I know I do; motivation and drive are never in short supply for me.  The real question for me is, do I want to.  I think in another month or so, when I have a little distance and can look at things a little more objectively, the answer will clearly be yes.  Because to let my play languish, to not even try, would be a bigger regret than trying and having nothing happen.

I just have to ask the world to be kind to me.  To not look down upon me as a failure if nothing major happens.  To tell me I’m still loved and respected for having tried, no matter what the outcome.  Or maybe I need to learn to tell myself that. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A note of thanks!

I wrote an entry earlier today summing up some of the post-partum depression I've been feeling lately, and was about to post it, but it somehow didn't feel right to be wallowing on this day of thanksgiving.  There is so much I have to be grateful for, and how much better is it to focus on that?  I will save the other post for another day.

In no particular order, I am grateful:
  • for the love and support of my family
  • to have been so warmly welcomed by my boyfriend's family
  • to have such a supportive, understanding, patient, and encouraging boyfriend
  • to be blessed not only with my actual family, but also with the most wonderful chosen family of friends
  • that my cat recently spontaneously decided to become a lap cat
  • that I have this incredible drive and need to be creative
  • for all the energy and motivation I have to get things done
  • for my studio full of talented and lovely voice students, and that it has grown enough for me to leave my office jo
  • for the new and improved version of me that emerged out of the darkest time of my life 
  • that I discovered a love - and apparent talent - for playwriting
  • to live in the greatest city in the world
  • that, as screwed up as our politics are, I live in a country where at least I can listen to the likes of Rachel Maddow and John Stewart
  • that, as difficult as my money situation has felt at times, I have had the luxury of choosing work that allowed me to pursue my creative endeavors
  • for this amazing and wonderful internet that allows me a forum for expressing myself and connecting with people
And more, there is always more.  What are you grateful for this year?

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I hardly know where to begin to tell you what happened on Tuesday - what it felt like to hear my play acted by six exquisite actors; to hear two full-house audiences laughing and sniffling in reaction to my words; to witness them riveted for two hours - no papers rustling, no shifting in their seats, no throat-clearing - as they watched the story of this family unfold. The most surreal moment of it all was the very beginning of each reading, as the actor reading the stage directions said "Breaking Pairs - by Natalie Wilson". Hearing my name as the author - I can scarcely wrap my head around that fact. My play isn't the only thing that was born on Tuesday: Natalie Wilson, playwright, was also born.

Something new and wonderful has happened to me through this journey - there is an authenticity that comes through in my writing that I always struggled to find in my singing. Randy, my last opera teacher and dear friend, told me he was very surprised by this play - surprised by its darkness and depth. He said he felt like he had been at a "major cultural event" (and this is a man who was part of some of the greatest operatic performances of the last century, so that means a lot, coming from him). He said he had no idea I had that in me - he had never seen it in my singing. I always knew it was there, ever since I was very young, and I have wanted nothing more than to find a way to share it with the world. But except for a few rare, exquisite moments, I felt like there was a wall between that part of me and the outside world that I couldn't break through. I finally have. In creating these other characters and telling their story, I have found me.

Everyone keeps asking me "what's next?". I don't know right now. (My director and I will be coming up with a game plan very soon). The response on Tuesday was overwhelmingly positive, both from my friends and from the industry people and producers who were present. I am fairly confident that someone is going to want to produce this, somehow or another. My director and I - and others - both feel it is worthy of a Broadway production with a star-studded cast, followed by an option for a film. That's what we're going to work towards. We'll see what happens.

In the meantime, this newly born playwright has to get back to actually writing - this play needs some siblings.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The night before

Tomorrow is the official birth of my play.  As of 9pm tomorrow night, my play will no longer just be my own -- it will be out in the world and beginning to take on a life of its own.  Some of that has already begun -- my director has already shaped the work for this reading, and even the actors have had input during rehearsals for some small line changes and tweaks.  Though I still maintain creative control, I am no longer the only influence over my play.  And this will only get more and more true, the further along in this process we go.

I am remarkably calm at the moment -- I finished my to-do list about a half hour ago, so my metaphorical bag for the hospital is packed.  To draw out this metaphor, I'll go into labor at 10:30am tomorrow, as the final rehearsals begin.  The first delivery will be at 4pm, then another at 7pm (so am I having twins?).  75 people have signed up to bear witness.  It will be a long, exhausting, exhilarating day -- which, unlike an actual birth, will be followed by a big party to celebrate. Thank god for that.

My emotions swing from excitement to anxiety, from hope to fear.  My fears and anxieties are not from wondering how it will go (I have utter confidence in the amazing talent assembled), or even if people will like it (I am confident enough that the play is good) -- but whether or not the big producers who said they will come will actually come, and whether or not anything will actually happen after tomorrow.  Will someone get excited about my play and join me and Steven in trying to get it produced?  I never expected to get this far -- never expected this reading would turn into what it has -- and thus the specter of hope has reared its head.  Hope never comes alone -- where there is hope, there is always the risk of disappointment.  I've tried to protect myself from that somewhat since I gave up my opera career, having suffered so many years of hopes being dashed.  Every time I thought something major might happen, it never did, and I grew weary of it.  Yet here I am again, daring to hope.  It's scary.

But it's also exciting.  And, as I tell my voice students all the time, the physiological response to fear is exactly the same as excitement -- your heart races, your breathing gets shallow, your arms and legs tingle.  When you feel that, it is up to you to decide whether you are about to get in a car accident, or if you are riding an exhilarating roller coaster. 

So, I choose the roller coaster.  Look out world, here comes my baby.  I can't wait for you all to meet her.