And I found all of this amazing, and maddening, and it made me think about my own creative life as an actress, about what (if anything) I could do for my own cohort.
I had observed, as my friends and I had entered our thirties, that the men I knew in the theater were hitting their stride: they were getting good roles in theaters we all respected, or writing for television, or winning awards, or otherwise finding recognition in an especially competitive field. But the women I knew – wonderful, interesting, skilled and experienced actresses – were not finding the same degree of success or even employment.
A lot of interesting theater-makers I knew had won grants, so I briefly thought, maybe auditions are not the only way. But I quickly saw that applying for a grant as a performer is a misuse of the grant-world’s capabilities, like using a teapot to make coffee. Making lengthy searches on the TCG and NYFA websites, I found two (two!) grants geared for performers, and exactly zero if you weren’t already affiliated with a theater. I recognize that some people don’t consider performing to be “creative” because it isn’t a generative medium (to which I say: ok, writer-director-choreographer: go execute your own material in space and time! But I digress…). But the refusal on the part of the grant-world to regard performing as a medium worthy of financial support to make creative research means that actresses are relying on a theater, a director, a choreographer, or a writer to invite them into a creative space – effectively “sharing” their grant money or residency time with performers by hiring them. But why shouldn’t an actress generate a project? Why wait for a writer with an idea? Only a performer knows exactly what she is capable of…
The more time I spent as an actress, the clearer it became to me that, either by writing my own material or by self-producing, it was going to be up to me to create interesting artistic opportunities to perform.
But let’s be frank: self-producing takes a lot of energy. And writing and self-producing create no haven from bias. For women, sometimes the deck is unintentionally stacked: female artistic directors, it turns out, can be even more biased against female writers than male artistic directors, according to this landmark study conducted by Emily Glassberg Sands in 2009. Ms. Sands also found that women writers didn’t submit their work as often as men did. Are we shy? Defeatist? Perfectionist? Maybe all of the above.
Beyond that, it can be thorny out there for an actress: the fact that performer-produced pieces are also often regarded, by peers and press alike, as “vanity projects,” only discourages many actresses even further from initiating their own work.
But if a director or a writer chooses a project because it speaks to them, why shouldn’t a performer have the same agency to choose? Performers, especially actresses, are trained to contribute their creative energy to other people’s initiatives. But I think it is so important for an actress to have a sense of creative mission – and it’s not only good for her own sake, but for the sake of the artistic community around her. This is not about making a piece in order to showcase yourself for casting directors. Nor is it about “vanity,” a term with really pejorative overtones; it is about having a creative impulse, about exploring which stories you need to tell, about having something to say and experimenting with ways to say it. Women are a vital creative force in New York City, and they are neither supported nor celebrated nearly enough.
I feel tremendous respect for women performers, and think more of us can and should devote ourselves to initiating our own projects. And I also think it’s important that we, as actresses, ask the writers, directors, and producers in our community – our colleagues – to rise to meet us in some way. I think we need to insist on support for our creative vision. The Muse Project is one beautiful attempt to give women performers the opportunity to explore their creative agency. This blog will do its part by giving them space to talk about what inspires them, where they came from, and what they want to create.
SO: We are interviewing actresses. Watch this space.
Kyra Miller is an accomplished actor, singer, teacher, & writer.