A Role Model: Pete Seeger

I just watched a very inspiring DVD, “The Power of Song,” about the life and work of Pete Seeger.  He’s a very important figure in the folk music revival of the 20th century in the U.S., and a voice that permeated my childhood. It was a treat to revisit his work as an adult.

What I came away with most potently, is a reminder to not get caught up in the money and administrative side of my art-making–to keep coming back to my core love of making performance and sharing it with others.

Of course, in films, we have to remember that we’re not seeing every side of a person’s life, so I’m sure there were obstacles he faced and continues to face that I’m not aware of. But on the whole, he seems to have committed to his art and activism with a deep sense of joy and truth.

He was willing to pass up commercial, money-making opportunities, that would have made his material life easier. He was willing to stand up for what he believed in, and the truth as he saw it, over and over. And he brings this infectious sense of celebration, even in the face of great difficulty, to everything he does. His voice seems to be a clear, open channel connecting his soul to the world around him. And his art is never about him being any different than he is. His art is inseparable from his “human-ness,” and so it asks us to realize ours.

I find this particularly important right now, as so many of us struggling artists and arts organizations are feeling the added effect of our country’s economic crisis, on top of our usual struggles to stay afloat financially that just come with the territory. I’ve found myself, and many of my colleagues, especially obsessed with fundraising, with coming up with new strategies to get donations, with figuring out how we’re going to pay for everything we want to do.

And while I believe artists should get paid well for our work, I’m also reminded that the important thing is our work. And yes, we need to take care of our basic material needs in order to have the resources to make art. However, I find that I often get bogged down in a sense of entitlement.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how artists should be supported more in our country, and how hard it is to be an artist, and how I want to pay all our performers much more than the usual amount we pay them (and definitely more than the “nothing” we are able to pay them right now.) And how those artists, and those disciplines “over there” are getting the funding that I want to have. And how it often feels unfair and even insulting. And while some of  these are worthwhile causes to put some energy into, they also can take over my psyche and hold me hostage.

I can easily stagnate for hours on end in the muck of “not enoughness.” When actually, I have this amazing ensemble that I work with, that is willing to keep going with our intensive creation and performance work, even without pay. I have a partner, and a job, and a family that all are in favor of the creative work that I do, and provide many of the resources that allow it to happen.

And even when I get rejection letter after rejection letter from funders, and things are canceled, and I’m tired, and people can’t come to certain rehearsals, etc., I have the opportunity to continue making art.

And while I want to eventually pay myself and the artists I work with at top-of-the-market pay rates, I also have to accept that this might never happen. In a talk that I heard recently by founders of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, we were cautioned that “There’s never enough money to fully realize your visions.” No matter how much we get, the imagination can always stretch further. And that’s a good thing. It puts our creativity into action in a real and practical, rather than “What if” kind of way.  Counting on money as a source of security is always unstable.

The important thing for me to come back to, and what I’d rather devote a majority of my head space to, is the art at hand. What am I wrestling with in my own life, and how can I bring that into my art? What are the things that are important to my ensemble members, our collaborators, our audiences? How can we make art that addresses all of this, and also elevates it, so challenges can be seen from a larger, deeper, stranger, more lovely perspective? In the words of one of my ensemble members, Mantra Plonsey, how can I, “Show up and Tell the Truth” every time?

The money, the resources, the praise, the successes, will come and go. These things aren’t the core support of what I do. The core is much vaster, more mysterious, and much more powerful. How can I keep myself oriented towards bringing forth truth, in all its wild manifestations? How can I keep coming back to the simple in the midst of such complexity that we find ourselves in? How can I re-focus to just this much, just this next step, just this small, but ever so crucial creative moment?

It’s so helpful for me to have role models. To have reminders of what is possible. In Buddhism, the Buddha is often talked about as essentially a role model, a demonstration of what is possible for each of us, rather than some supernatural being. Throughout my journey, role models have been key to my development. Many of them are people I’ve never met, but rather observed from afar. And some I’ve been lucky enough to interact with intimately. 

Pete Seeger reminds me of integrity, perseverance, joy, simplicity, and inclusion. I thank him for his reminder, and for the loving, yet fierce challenge to bring forth these aspects of myself.

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