Updated: Feb 11
When I lived in Los Angeles, I had a friend who had a friend who made a living by getting hit by cars. As I understood it, she would wait for someone to back up and then throw herself against the trunk. "Older people are best," she said, "because they can't turn their heads to check their blind spots." She also prided herself on only targeting expensive vehicles, which she assumed belonged to affluent people with money to spare.
"Aren't you afraid of sustaining an actual injury?" I asked.
"Oh," she explained, "I've broken plenty of bones. But it's worth it in the end. After all, I have to pay my rent and if I'm lucky, I only have to do it once a year." She confessed this to a room full of people, none of whom blinked an eye. It was as though, as occupations go, this was as good as any. Like she was just a stunt woman with time on her hands practicing her craft. Back home my boyfriend told me that Ms. Litigious was actually a really a great writer who just couldn’t sell a screenplay.
“Maybe she just needs some encouragement,” I said.
“Oh, she has plenty of that. Just no luck.”
This coming from a guy whose parents paid for his condo. Only in L.A. I thought to myself.
When you are young and want to pursue a life in the arts, the first reaction from your parents is, “How will you make a living?” They can see what you, at 17, cannot. They know that talent may not be enough, but telling you this won’t do a bit of good. Becoming an artist is an act of faith which flies in the face of reason.We all find out, soon enough, what it costs to have talent.
In the movie, Jesus of Montreal, A therapist questions a Canadian actor--
Therapist: Are you…sorry you were born here?
Daniel: How so?
Therapist: If you'd been born in Santa Barbara, California, you could work in Hollywood. Or if you'd been born in New York or London...In Stockholm you might have met Bergman. I mean, there's so little here.
Daniel: It is an inconvenience. But I can't do much about it. And I could've been born in Burkina Faso.
That pretty much sums it up.
Back when I auditioned for roles in plays, the most common advice I'd hear was, "Try not to look desperate." But it's difficult not to get on your knees and beg for a part when rent is due, and all that you have in your cupboard is a box of stale crackers. Doing the math in your head, you realize that even if you get the job, it won't be enough to pull you out of debt, but at least it's a start. When the ensemble in A Chorus Line sings, "God, I hope I get it. I hope I get it." It isn't about their egos being satisfied. It's their stomachs.
When I was growing up, money was sparse. We never bought anything that wasn’t necessary and we never wasted food. I was so aware of the value of a dollar that once, I refused to throw up some bad oysters I'd eaten for fear that it would mean my date had wasted his money. This was the second week of school in New York, and the meal had cost Mr. Romantic a fortune. My stomach rumbling, my breathing shallow, he insisted on driving me around Manhattan on what I'm sure he thought was a perfect evening of sight-seeing. He pointed out one landmark after another, completely oblivious to the beads of cold sweat pearling on my forehead; my hand gripping the door handle in the event that at a stop sign, I'd have to jump out and puke.
"Shall we go to the top of the Empire State Building?" my date asked.
“Only if I can jump off," I thought to myself through clenched teeth as I dug my nails into my palms to keep from throwing up. At my front door, Mr. Romantic tried to kiss me goodnight, and I literally threw him aside, rushed indoors and barricaded myself in the bathroom. When he asked me out on a second date, I declined on the basis that, if on our first date he hadn’t been aware of my condition, he wasn't the guy for me. Besides, that date literally made me sick.
Being broke in New York was way worse than being broke anywhere else because you were always coming face to face with the life you wanted but couldn't have. Every day I walked from East 54th to West 85th past Bergdorf’s, past Tiffany’s, past Louis Vuitton. Store windows taunted you with things like, 'This dress would look so good on you if only you could afford it.' Followed by the secondary thought of, ‘Even if you could afford it, where on earth would you wear it?' The school was divided into two groups…those who could afford to be there, and those who could not. I was a member of the second group. We drank black coffee and never went out after class to the bars. We wore second-hand clothes, read second-hand books, and watched the second acts of plays.
"One day,” we said wistfully, "we'll look back on this and laugh. Besides, we’re starving artists. Isn’t that romantic?”
In Toronto, at theatre school, I frequently felt like I was on the verge of extinction, greeted by empty refrigerators and mounting bills. When college and university students went on strike to protest the hike in tuition, we were told that attendance was still mandatory, confirming our suspicions that we weren't students but prisoners. I collected pennies and rolled them at least twice weekly for subway fare. Once, I carried a substantial bag of change to the bank before heading off to class. Inside there was one teller on duty who just so happened to be serving a well-known Canadian actor. I waited anxiously as they exchanged pleasantries.
"What was the name of that movie you did?" The teller asked. “I just love you in everything.”
The actor, delighted to be recognized, began regaling her with stories from his illustrious career.
“How kind of you to say. You know, when I made that…”
'Come on,' I thought to myself, 'What is taking so long?'
Tick. Tick. Tick.
'We don't all have parts in a television series." I mumbled under my breath.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
I calculated that I had just enough time to cash in my change, run to the subway, and get to class on time - if I had the energy to run.
“Are you working on anything now?” The teller inquired followed by more laughter and pleasantries. Finally, it was my turn. I pulled out my change and as I handed it to her the bank rolls slipped from my mittens and dropped with a thud to the floor. The paper split and two hundred pennies flew in every direction. I scooped as many of them up as I could, crawling on my hands and knees under counters and chairs. The well-known actor with the role in a television series, by the way, did not acquiesce to help. He merely stared at me groveling about on all fours and left the bank.
I'm going to confess something here and say that, as an artist, I've frequently not been paid on time for my work. I've had a regional theatre forget to put me on the payroll and then ask me if I wouldn't mind waiting a week. I've been paid late, been shorted, and once I was even robbed. I was told by a well-known producer that I hadn’t done enough that week to justify my salary, which, if you know me is practically impossible.
When I was an assistant director, I was asked to split a hefty restaurant bill with a team of creatives when I had nothing but twenty dollars in my pocket and had only eaten an appetizer. They had three courses, alcohol and a per diem. And whenever I yelled or complained about my pay, as was my right, I was told to calm down and stop being hysterical or worse to simply accept that I didn’t deserve it. In essence, I was punished for asking and then demanding what was rightly mine.
When I was a member of the Lincoln Center Director's Lab, one of the guest speakers was Jim Simpson, best known for being the husband of Sigourney Weaver. Mr. Simpson started giving us the "You need to suffer as artists speech" when one of the women in our group, a black director from Chicago, stood up and said, "That's bullshit.
With all due respect Mr. Simpson, you are rich, so who the hell are you to tell us that we should struggle? That's some fairy tale shit, and I'm not buying into it.” In a single brilliant sentence, she dispelled a myth I had been clinging to for my entire artistic life.
In Philip Pullman's book of essays entitled Daemon Voices, he says: "…we should all insist that we're properly paid for what we do. We should sell our work for as much as we can decently get for it, and we shouldn't be embarrassed about it.”
Amen. Amen. Amen.
I think I will tape that to my wall, so I don't have to jump onto the trunks of cars pulling out of parking spots to make my rent.