Why trees? Part 1

The project I’m developing now is called The Arbor Fellowship. There are a few reasons for that name, which I’ll get to in Part 2. 

First: What it will do. 

I’ll be working with fine and performing arts students at Christian colleges and universities, to help give them the business and life tools they need to have sustainable, thriving careers in the arts. 

Why is that important? Artists make culture, culture shapes people, and people create the future. I care about the future.

From my own 30+ years, post-education, working professionally in the arts, there are a few things I strongly believe:

  • Artists need time to grow into creative maturity and cultural influence. 
  • Artists won’t get that time if they are having to work for free*, squeeze their creative work around demanding full-time day jobs, redirect their work entirely toward commercial uses, etc., over long periods of time in order to pay their bills.
  • To create the “margin” needed to make enough work to grow in maturity and influence, they have to get paid. 
  • To get paid, artists need to think of themselves as, and work like, business owners and entrepreneurs.
  • We didn’t learn how to do that in our art/music/drama/film/dance schools (with a few new and notable exceptions, as these realizations are slowly starting to spread through academia). 

Why do I believe this? It’s the last 30 years of my life. And of hundreds of artists’ lives I’ve observed during those years. 

I want to be the person I didn’t have.

When I graduated from college, then again from grad school, no one told me what to expect and how things worked in the arts marketplace. All I had observed were my parents and friends’ parents who worked full-time day jobs or were full-time homemakers. I spent the next decade after grad school mostly working low-paying administrative day jobs and directing plays for free at night.

I did start a theatre company. Mind you, I had absolutely no idea how to start a theatre company. But I wouldn’t have begun to know that it was even an option without (what I now realize was) my only professional role model and mentor, Chris Coleman. It wasn’t his intention to mentor me, God help him, and I was perhaps the most arrogant and ungrateful mentee who ever lived. But I learned by watching him. And I (naively) thought, if Chris can do it, I can do it. 

Chris and I had gone to undergrad at Baylor together, and he went on to get a bigger, better MFA than I did. Then he spent a few years in NYC before returning to Atlanta (where we both grew up) to start a non-profit theatre, Actor’s Express, which is still operating. I also returned to Atlanta after finishing my grad program and Chris put me to work at Actor’s Express. If he hadn’t, I might not have ever directed another play. Because I wouldn’t have known where to start, even though I was entrepreneurially inclined (read the “Red Riding Hood” story on the About page) and a research geek with a well-worn library card (we were still five years from an internet). 

Even with that great starting-out opportunity, in 2/3 of the next 30 years I wasn’t directing at all. I’ve never been paid more than a “stipend” (i.e. nothing close to its actual time-for-$ value) for directing, even when I was paying myself, and I’ve worked 20+ full- and part-time day jobs, most of them unrelated to the arts and only one of them related to theatre.

Chris went on to become the Artistic Director at Portland Center Stage (OR) then of the theatre company at Denver Center for the Performing Arts (CO). The difference between us wasn’t just talent, although I will be the first person to say that Chris is a brilliant director and I’m at best slightly-above-average. But as we know, the most talented don’t necessarily win the big prizes in the game of life.

I don’t know what the difference was; if Chris had the mindset that he could do it and the charismatic personality to make it happen to go along with the talent, or if Chris was actually taught by someone, step-by-step, what to do and what to expect, and helped along the way. 

I should ask him.

So maybe you’re wondering why I’m telling you this sob story and maybe you’re thinking I haven’t paid for quuiiite enough therapy yet. Fair enough. All I can say is that the thing I can get most excited about spending the next twenty or so years doing is being there for young artists as they start their careers; sharing what I know, connecting them with who I know, encouraging them, and keeping their eyes on the real value in what we do. 

Maybe God never planned for me to be a more-than-occasional, amateur (“for the love of it,” i.e. self-funding, see “Art is not free” below) theatre director. Maybe the plan all along was for me to use what I learned as a director in what I’m doing now. I love directing plays and I hope I get to do it again someday. But right now I’m trying to save the world in other ways. 

Next time I’ll tell you why the project is called The Arbor Fellowship.

*”Work for free” is a misnomer. Art is not free, so if the artist isn’t being paid, they’re paying. More on that another time.


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