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Embrace the Artist Identity

Dani Solomon in a hood

I have had the excellent fortune to have worked with Dani Solomon on multiple projects over the last 18 months. Dani has a seemingly endless store of energy and creative force, working nonstop with a variety of collaborators while also furthering her own work. After only three years in Philadelphia she is variously accomplished: Dani is a graduate of Headlong Performance Institute, is a member of Medium Theatre Company and Thespionage Theatre Company, and has worked with Lightning Rod Special, Team Sunshine Performance Corporation, 14th Street, and the Institute for Pschyogeographic Adventure. Dani’s work as a theater maker, writer, and director has been produced at Colgate University, SoLow Festival, and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

No matter what work you find yourself in, explaining it to someone outside your field will always be tough. When art is that work, describing it becomes a special kind of challenge.

Outside our dynamic, ever-expanding art-making bubble, art is readily conflated with entertainment—a highly consumable, available product with standardized criteria for what’s “good” and “bad.” Entertainment is fueled by cash in a way that art tries not to be. The value of a physical theater piece, sound installation, or movement experiment is inherent in the experience of it, not in the dollars that flow in and out, but this process- and experience-based value system is hard to sell to someone who is more familiar with the economy of the entertainment world.

On top of overcoming entertainment and art’s sibling rivalry, there is the ubiquitous question (of debatable value in itself)…

– What do you do?
– – I’m a performer and creator in the Philadelphia theater scene.
– So, what do you actually DO?
– – . . . Marketing . . . for a software company.

This is a hard question for me to answer. Are they asking what I like to do? How I make money? What makes me tick? In the same breath that I want to explain my artistic interests, I feel the need to also justify why I make art in the first place, as if it is the elephant in the room. Whereas the value of entertainment is justifiable in a capitalist framework, the pragmatic value of art is difficult to explain in that same frame.

So, what do you do? What do I do? What do we do what do we do what do we do?

As a young artist who cannot afford to rely solely on an artistic practice for financial security, I find myself grappling with a doubleness of identity in both being an artist and having a day job. (Of course, there is more to who I am than my artistic work and my rent-food-and-Netflix job.)

For one thing, I’m still building the confidence to consistently identify myself as an artist, something triply challenging in less artistic spaces. That inner voice constantly prods: Am I really an artist? Is my art financially successful enough to claim that I’m an artist? Do enough other artists know my work for me to be an artist? Do I make art often enough to say I’m an artist?

I try to tell that incessant voice: Yes, I make art, so I’m an artist. But this voice finds fertilizer in environments like these:

– So now that you’re done with that show, does everyone have a break from theater for a while?
– – Uhh, it’s not a universal break no, like, not every theater artist has a break right now, but yes, I have some time between projects.
– Oh, that’s nice. Once I’m finished with this wedding stuff, I should find a hobby, I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands.

I could just hide it—pretend this art-making ailment doesn’t exist. Try to pass as a hobbyist. Sometimes I do, because it’s easier. I don’t have to explain that part of myself. I just float. But floating throws away an opportunity.

As a whole, we young artists need to be better at claiming our artistic identity because it is our obligation to communicate the importance of our practice in a society that otherwise will not hear it.

So, when questions like What did you do this weekend? Will I see you on Broadway one day? What do you do? come up, let’s not take the easy way out. Move that uncertainty aside to preserve the integrity and health of our field. Don’t separate yourself from the path you have chosen when it’s convenient. Creativity is not an otherness. Humans survived through our creativity and our resourcefulness. In our own small, humble way, we help move humanity forward while preserving its sanity, vulnerability, and openness.

Let’s tell people about our artistic work. Prepare a short version and a long version, a version for someone who’s last brush with theater was skimming Romeo and Juliet in high school and one for a Walnut season subscriber. Do not be ashamed of your work in all its weirdness, rawness, and contradiction. Peel back the curtain of your art-making and let people in. Let them in, damn it! Do not judge it for others, and do not apologize for what it is or what it is not. But use your judgment: there are times when discussing the difference between boundary-pushing theater and theater built for mass consumption will go on deaf ears.

We need to be the ambassadors of our artistic community because no one else will. Though our interests may be niche, we shouldn’t assume that no one else wants in. That elitist attitude won’t grow our audiences. If you believe in the worthiness of your work and that of your peers, then won’t your co-workers deserve to experience that art, as well? Maybe they’re the ones who need your work the most.

– Lot of housework this weekend. Put up some crown molding, planted some grass in the backyard, hung some towel rods. What about you?
– – I had a rehearsal for this piece I’m making about Mars. We’re interested in questions about our place in the universe, loneliness, and our collective interest in space . . . I’m a theater artist.
– Oh, that’s cool. Would I have seen any of your work? Are you part of a theater company?
– – Yeah, I’m part of Medium Theatre Company?
– Oh, neat.
– – . . . Yeah.
– Well, let me know next time you’re doing a skit.

Photo credit: Camilla Dely

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