James T Lane: Why Am I An Artist?
James T Lane
I’ve been thinking a bit about being an artist and having a dream, but I don’t know if this post will go where you think it might.
When you look around at almost everything made by people, you see their name or a brand name on it. Like Nike or Starbucks, the 100-dollar-bill with Ben Franklin’s face on it, even NASA was someone’s dream at one point. Even the names we assign to insects and diseases were named by or for people.
These are all people’s dreams. Their visions, the very real evidence of something they’ve made or discovered or figured out in some amazing way, or even stole, let’s be honest; it’s their passport to eternity, or more appropriately: legacy. Simply lasting past the present moment.
I wonder what that must be like to have something I created last past the two and a half hours of a show? What it must feel like to have your bottle of wine known all around the world, or to be Johnson & Johnson or Ebony Magazine sitting in every waiting room and supermarket across the U.S.
How do I outlast the moment?
I know I have power but does it last?
I know as artists we are powerful. We are alive in hearts and minds and nurture new ways of thinking for people when they leave the theatre.
But what I pass over the footlights is no longer mine anymore. It’s yours, to interpret in your own way. To keep and change and transform for your own experience on this globe. It’s not really mine once it leaves my lips or twinkles out of my toes.
I guess one could argue about the different disciplines we get to play in. Because of television, film, the Lincoln Center Archives, the Tony Awards: it lasts forever so be on your leg, kids! If you’re lucky enough to be in a hit TV show and syndicated, you can last forever in reruns.
In my case, I endlessly watch “Clue” and “Airplane” nightly before I fall asleep. There’s something in the combination of the actors’ talent, the writing, and the time that soothes my little soul and instantly puts me to sleep. Familiarity, maybe? These actors last to me. Is that what I want? For folks to be familiar with my work? To soothe and lull them to sleep nightly. Am I seeking a “Seinfeld” syndication legacy? The check would be cute, but I think I’m asking a deeper question.
Why am I called to be an artist?
Why am I comfortable living on the edge night after night and having no real guarantee of job or salary or even if people will like what I do?
Why am I okay with it lasting for a moment when all the rest of the world’s visions and dream-grabbing folks have their names or their brands plastered across their product for all time and I am absolutely unashamedly throwing myself into the void nightly with no net when the clock strikes 8:05 pm or 7:35 pm depending on the day of the week or location of the theatre?
Why do I do it?
It’s because I don’t have a choice.
I am built for the moment. That’s where God is, by the way. I have been uniquely built to throw myself headfirst into the fray. I always raise my hand to be first and jump in even when I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. That’s what an artist does. We get to the other side of the night and crash into bed, and at the start of the day begin to plot our next high wire act. I’m in the shower at 8 am warming up for an 8 pm show.
We do it with loads of others doing the same act and we trust and we learn and we cry and we live. We live and we live.
Artists are under attack because we are brave and living in the moment when we are doing what we do. And the evidence of what we do is gone after two-and-a-half hours. It’s scary to people, the bravery we have, and the safe spaces where we can be who we are. A lot of us have no idea how powerful that is. We are built for the present moment. Most people are not built like that. But we are. It’s our strength. Our superpower.
So in a world where all around us the dreams of Ben Franklin and Jeff Bezos of Amazon abound, and a lasting legacy seems the only way to secure success, please remember that you are an artist and the present moment is where your power is. How brave it is to live that dream when you know it’s over in two-and-a-half hours. And you have poured years and years into this moment. That’s pretty miraculous if you ask me, and pretty brave.
Also by The Ensemblist:
Published in collaboration with The Ensemblist