Grant Writing 101
I recently purchased a copy of Grant Writing for Dummies because I'm an idiot when it comes to applications. Full disclosure, I've never received any government funding except for a few recommender grants, mostly from one source who believed in me at the exclusion of ALL the others who did not. I've written five musicals (one optioned in NYC and short-listed for the Tom Hendry Award), four plays, seven chapters of a novel and 25 essays (26 if you count this). I won't even go into all the journals and poetry.
I'm reminded of the eight years in a row that I applied for the Shaw Festival Director's project. I was the Susan Lucci of applicants. I had the stink of failure on me, even though I had directed hit shows in Toronto, co-founded a theatre company which I believe was most likely owned by the Serbian mob, and turned a floundering summer stock theatre into a successful venture. Still, every year I'd get the: We Regret to Inform You letter.
In theatre, familiarity can breed contempt. When I was starting out, I would always lament the fact that nobody knew me. At some point, that all changed to, I wish people didn't know who I was. I know this to be a fact because once at an audition, as I was being introduced to a director, he interrupted to say, “Ah yes, the notorious Lezlie Wade." At an audition this has the same effect as being invited to a party so people can talk about you afterwards. The fact that we had never met, seemed beside the point. My reputation proceeded me.
I'll never forget my first professional theatre gig. I ran from work during my lunch hour to the offices of the now-defunct Theatre Ontario to audition for the ensemble of a summer-stock company. Hot and sweaty, I watched the clock, hoping they weren't too far behind so I wouldn't get fired, and then sang my little heart out to the two men sitting behind the table. It occurs to me now that up until recently, my entire career depended upon the approval of men. This was a bit disheartening if, like me, you were not empirically beautiful. Never mind, I was happy playing the milkmaid as long as I was on stage.
"I got the job!" I told my boyfriend at the time, and three weeks later, he dropped me off up north with a duffle bag full of dreams. Somehow or other, my acting debut turned into menial labour. I put up posters, varnished seats, and painted walls. My co-hort, Ruth, asked me, "Aren't we on some kind of government grant?"
"Fuck this," she said, "I'm going shopping." And she never came back. Ten days later, I was now doing the job of two.
"Ah, excuse me," I asked the Artistic Director, "But when do I find out what part I'm playing in Oklahoma? I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do."
A week later, he invited me to breakfast. "At last," I thought to myself.
The restaurant was crowded with happy customers.
"Order anything you want." He said to me, as we exchanged pleasantries.
The air was filled with the distinct sound of laughter and cutlery. Then, as I was digging into my pancakes, he fired me. I assume he thought breaking the news in a crowded public restaurant would keep me from making a scene, but he had not anticipated the effect his words would have on a young actress at the brink of her career. I cried. I might have wailed. There was definitely gnashing of teeth and some discarded cutlery.
"I don't understand," I shouted, "Weren't YOU given a grant to hire ME for the summer?"
"You just don't have any talent," he explained. "We think you should consider another career."
The moral of this story is if someone invites you for breakfast and tells you to order anything you want, chances are you're about to be fired.
Back came my boyfriend with the car that carried my devastated ego home.
"I'm ruined!" I cried. "I'll never work again."
Bernie had just finished studying playwrighting at Juilliard. "I don't really think this will have any effect on your career at all," he said. And he was right. Twenty years later, I was running that same company.
When I work with students, I try to remember this experience. "Tenacity," I tell them, "Is an important thing to have in this business. Don't give up if you want something badly enough." Perhaps, Ruth Gordon said it best, "Luck changes, or you die."
I'd forgotten this bit of advice in 2007 when, having been steam-rollered by the world's worst board for three years straight, I up and quit.
"I'm done," I told a friend. "The theatre has kicked my proverbial ass."
"I'm not so sure," She said. "It's like getting pregnant. The minute you give up, that's when you conceive."
I'd given up all right. I was working at the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. Seven months had come and gone, and I still had no idea what my job was. Mostly I'd sit in my cubicle and write. Occasionally I'd Xerox something or be sent for a sandwich. It didn't help that my boss had a sister-in-law in the arts.
"Do you know so-and-so? He'd ask. Then rattle off all the amazing, wonderful things she was accomplishing. "That Canada Council Grant to study at le Coq really made a difference."
It just so happened that I did know So-and-so. We'd once had lunch together, during which time she'd put the chicken bones she'd been gnawing on my plate without so much as a thought.
"I have to get a life!" I said to myself after throwing up in the toilet.
So, when the e-mail "Congratulations, you have been selected…" finally came from Shaw, I doubted its authenticity. Surely after eight years, this was a reasonable response.
Back to Grant Writing for Dummies:
Chapter 11 (no pun intended) Words that Win Funds.
Play up the Bad Stuff
Deft use of the gloom-and-doom type words like those in the following list can really bring in the bucks.
Agonize, blatant, consequence, damage, environment, essential
I agonize daily over the blatant close-minded regard some people have for the arts, the consequences of which are damaging when trying to foster an environment that is essential for the growth and development of society.
The following strong action words carry with them the definite flavour of emotion. Use them to create strong sentences that say, "I really need this funding."
Fearful, futile, grim, grapple, global, hasten ignorance, intent, impede
All artists are fearful of the grim realities they must grapple with when ignorance blocks intent and creates less than ideal prospects that seem futile in the face of global opportunity; such things hasten to impede success.
Simply writing the way you normally talk doesn't work in creating a winning grant. You need to start collecting new words like these for your treasure chest of terms.
Short-sighted, significant, turbulent, ultimate, unacceptable, vision, zero
To play a significant role during these turbulent times, one must have a strong vision that is neither short-sighted nor unacceptable; otherwise, zero attention will be paid.
I have no idea what I've just said, but I suspect it would impress a room of jurors.
Once, I was asked to sit on an arts panel and adjudicate applications. I think it's safe to say that all artists need money, so the question is, who needs it most? For two days, I sat in a room with well-intentioned pontificators. I was invited to the table because of my musical theatre writing experience, and thank God.
"Every song in a musical should advance the plot," one woman said, "Not doing so shows a lack of understanding for form."
"But what about the charm song?" I asked
"The charm song whose function is to do the exact opposite. Its job is to give the audience a chance to catch up. Take the song "Officer Krupke" in West Side Story. The song doesn't advance the plot. Are you suggesting that Sondheim doesn't know what he's doing?"
No one has ever invited me back since.
For me, the most agonizing part of the Grant application has to be describing my artistic process.I have absolutely no idea how to answer this question. Madeleine L'Engle (She authored A Wrinkle in Time which, by the way, was rejected 26 times) said that she never heard an artist say anything intelligent about what they had done. Beethoven had the right idea: he played one of his sonatas for someone, and when he had finished, the person said, "That's very nice, but what does it mean?" And Beethoven sat down and played the whole thing again.
Dmitri Mitropoulos was asked if he could explain the extraordinary effect his conducting had on orchestra and audience alike, and he answered that he wouldn't even try to explain it, for fear that he might become like the centipede who was asked by a humble little bug which of his hundred legs moved first when he walked. Responding to the admiration with immense pride, the centipede began to analyze the question and has not walked since.
So much of our lives as artists is about being accepted, but with that comes being judged. I think it would be nice if we could write the way we talk and say in our own words the passionate reasons why a grant would be helpful to us and others. It's difficult not to take the superficial opinions of others too seriously. But one must remember that they are, after all, only opinions.
When I get my next rejection (ironically two as I am typing this), I’ll let it ruin my breakfast but not my lunch reminding myself that it’s probably got nothing to do with talent. Then I’ll go back to the desk in my office and continue to write.