I wrote the following as an “open-ish” letter to the cast of a high-school show I music-directed back in 2014, and originally shared it with them as a post to the cast Facebook group, on the day of the “Apollo Awards,” a local fundraiser event that mimics the Tony Awards, but for high-school musicals. Seems like every year at this time (and sometimes at other times) I feel an urge to revisit these words. So, to anyone who’s found a calling in “show biz”:
Well, folks, today’s the day. By the time you call it a night tonight you’ll know whether our work together is officially “Apollo-Award-winning,” or… or not.
It would be an overstatement of my noble indifference for me to say I don’t care about tonight’s results. I do care, though not by much, and not because I hope we “win.” The “not by much” part is a symptom of the wisdom that experience brings: I’ve “won” awards and competitions with work I was dissatisfied with, and some of my best work has “lost” recognition I felt sure it deserved. (And I have a feeling I’m not alone in that.) The “I do care” part is because I know how tempting it is—not “especially,” but certainly at your age—to base your sense of self-worth on the opinions others express. And I’ve known people whose artistic souls have been crushed by others’ failure to appreciate their gifts.
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with looking to others for affirmation. A big part of growing up is deciding whose opinion should matter to you, and whose shouldn’t. (And the most important part of that process, IMHO, is realizing how much smaller that first group is than the second.) We define those groups—and re-define them—slowly and carefully and often painfully, as we realize that seeking “this” person’s approval has tended to bring us exhaustion or frustration or even pain, and that “that” person has continued to offer us affirmation and encouragement and loving challenge even when their opinions felt irrelevant or outdated or unwanted. Defining those groups is something you never ever finish with, and it’s a task only you can do for yourself. So it might seem like only an arrogant jerk would offer someone else advice on that process.
But I, as you know, am just exactly that kind of arrogant jerk, so here’s my take on it:
The “Apollos” judges don’t belong in that first group.
If we take home “best in” every category tonight, it doesn’t mean our show was better than we thought it was. It doesn’t mean we told the story better than we thought we had. And it doesn’t mean we didn’t make the mistakes we thought we made, or that we couldn’t have done better.
And if our show isn’t named for a single award, it won’t mean that our pride in our work was misplaced. It won’t mean that we didn’t overcome the challenges of cancelled rehearsals and condensed timelines. And it won’t mean that there weren’t moments—I saw them on your faces—when you couldn’t believe art that powerful could come out of your bodies and voices and souls.
So here’s my challenge to you: decide NOW whether our production was worth the time and heart you put into it. Decide NOW whether you’re proud of the work you and your teammates did. Decide NOW whether we did good work together. And then, before the judges even open their mouths, decide who else on the planet has a right to try to change your mind about any of that.
When you get the hang of that, you’ll be an artist.
Which is really just another word for a whole human being.
Let it fly, my friends.
With gratitude and respect,