Jim Strahs on Working
excerpt from: Open Call
Jim Strahs is a playwright and novelist living in New York City. His work has been performed by the Wooster Group (North Atlantic, Oil Rig) and Mabou Mines (Wrong Guys). He co-wrote Cowboys and Indians with Richard Maxwell, and his short plays (Jane Dorch, How to Act, Producers of Fiction) have been presented at Little Theater. How to Act has also been performed by Michael Stumm at various venues around the city. He has written the books Seed Journal and Queer and Alone.
Basic survival is the biggest problem most theater artists have to deal with. I asked one of my favorite playwrights, Jim Strahs (who is sixty), how he did it.
Young Jean Lee (Rail): How have you supported yourself as a theater artist over the years?
Jim Strahs: I got to New York in 1974 and began a series of jobs, but I was pretty unwilling. I wasn’t hot to work at first—I was hot to write and do theater. Then I realized that I had to work, and I made my peace with having to work, and it was good. I did short-order cook stuff, a lot of one-day jobs. I’ve worked as a helper on films. I drove an art-delivery truck for a long time, moving things between galleries and studios. I drove a taxicab for years, and then Emma [his daughter] was born and I kept driving the cab. I would have brief periods when I’d actually get hired to write—there were a couple of times when the Wooster Group would hire me. Then I worked at the Strand bookstore doing accounts receivable, and after about six months there I took over the payroll and learned ADP payroll software. Now I’m about to take over the payroll department of a company called Consortium for Worker Education after starting out there as a temp.
Rail: What about arts funding?
Strahs: I’m not good at getting grants. I got one grant, and it was because a woman who was a judge said to me, "Jim, apply for this grant" and I did. I filled out the paperwork and, lo and behold, I got the grant. It was back in ’76 I think, and pretty much after that I haven’t gotten any grants at all. And I’ve applied for them. I’m also not a good schmoozer. I’ve been in constant situations where someone says, "Oh, Blah-Blah-Blah is very important—let’s go see—we’re having dinner with her tonight" and you have dinner with her and that’s it, end of story. But some people are very good at it.
Rail: Do you think it would have affected your writing if you had been good at it?
Strahs: I think I would have lost my bearings. I’m sure I’ve had my share of little piqued moments where I said, "Why aren’t you giving me a grant, I want a grant!" but in the end I think it was a good thing that I didn’t get a lot of arts funding that lifted me above the crowd and made me a seemingly independent artist. If I had somehow accidentally gotten rave reviews and become the toast of the town when I was 25, I probably would have made a huge fool of myself. I would have believed I was the toast of the town. I think I owe a lot of my honesty to the grant people who looked at me and said, "You’re not the kind of person who we give a grant to," because I didn’t have to continually make that tacit promise you make when you accept a grant that you’re the kind of person who they would give a grant to. I’m very happy with the way things worked out, because I pursued my own interests and was never beholden to anyone for what I wrote.
Rail: Do you think it’s possible for artists to do the whole grants/schmoozing thing and still maintain their honesty?
Strahs: Sure. Anything’s possible.
Rail: Between working a full-time job and working at making theater, how do you keep from burning out?
Strahs: My writing isn’t really work—it’s my life. It’s my mind, it’s what I think. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to write, which also involves writing. I can spend years just writing down notes, experimenting with voices. When I do write I tend to do it very quickly, but it takes me a long time to get to the point where that can happen.
Rail: So it’s not work, work, work, produce a script.
Strahs: Gotta write that outline, gotta go write that scene between John and Nancy. No, it’s what I want to get out, put out, and I can take a lot of time with it. That’s one of the advantages to not having the contract. Good thing about a contract is that you get things done very quickly. Bad thing is you might not be ready to do that thing at that moment. Like North Atlantic I loved. It was done under extreme pressure under assignment, with the actors waiting hungrily for their lines, and it was fun. The demand was good. But other times demands were not good—"You’ve got to get a book to us in 6 months." I haven’t run into that situation in a long time.
Rail: How did you and Ellen [Emma’s mother] manage to raise a kid?
Strahs: People would try to scare us all the time—"Ooh, how are you gonna afford to have a kid?" In some ways it’s better to proceed, clueless. And we never found it that difficult. We were ensconced in a rent-stabilized apartment. Coming up with your own version of how to live poor, you can do a lot. We drove a 20-year-old car for about seven years when Emma was young and I would do the repairs on it myself. I always had the books I wanted. We are in America after all—compared to the rest of the world everyone in America is fairly wealthy. We ate full meals. I would bargain shop, use coupons, buy in bulk. We would cook all our own meals, we didn’t go out to eat, and we didn’t have things like insurance and a lot of things that middle-class life is built on.
Rail: You mentioned a while ago that you were thinking about retiring.
Strahs: I’m not going to pretend that I like to work, that it’s a noble thing. But it’s not bad to work and really do it and not be too removed or think you’re better than the people who are just working. I’ve learned a lot from that. But there’s also a steady drone of "I’d rather not be working." My latest plan is 20 months from now I’m going to try and stop working, eliminate the necessity of it. I can get early social security and the place where I’m working has a good retirement plan. One of my ideas is to sell my apartment. I want to go through my old work—all the stuff I wrote and didn’t publish. It’s boxes and boxes of stuff, and I don’t want to just leave it there, wondering what it is. And that will be the new job, and hopefully I’ll be able to do that. I don’t think I’ll be able to live in Manhattan, so maybe I’ll move way out in the boonies or something like that and reward myself by getting a car. But I do want to stop working. I’m ready to pack it in.
Rail: What has kept you doing theater these past 30 years?
Strahs: I really like theater. I’ve stayed in it because I really like it when everything comes together and it is like this wonderful accident where you write something and somebody gets interested. And you get that moment of people onstage and they’re doing this piece of art and it’s almost like I can’t remember writing it at the time but I know it’s something about me, I’m a piece of this, and it’s happening, and it’s good. That’s really good—that’s up there in terms of mental pleasures, that kind of bliss, and it’s such a serious pleasure that I keep plugging away at it. I can’t say I live in hope that it will happen again—it’s so tenuous that it’s ever going to really occur, that it will come together again. But I can’t think of anything I would rather see than this show that’s up and I don’t even recognize it—it’s so good I can’t even understand it. It just grows like a snowball—you made it and it was this big and suddenly it’s a huge avalanche and I go, "Oh, it’s so much fun, like sledding or something, I gotta do that again, that’s really good." And I think that’s what’s kept me in. And you have to do the hard slogging artistic work in order to really feel good about it and to make sure that you continue. Because if you’re just making up the postcards and planning and writing the bio and making sure you look good in the publicity photo, that’s not going to sustain you.
Jim Strahs will teach a Pataphysics playwriting workshop at The Flea Theater in the upcoming year. Go to www.theflea.org for further information. You can download some of his plays at http://homepage.mac.com/jstrahs/
Young Jean Lee will direct a staged reading of her play The Appeal in November as part of Soho Rep’s Phase 2 Program.
by James Strahs
CLAUDETTE: Who are you? What are you doing? I ask, what are you about? No….
You are theatricals. You’re not real people. You’re just pretending, never more than when you’re most sincere. You play, no! No, you play.
STAN: I think we’re sitting in the cat bird seat now, that’s what I’m thinking.
CLAUDETTE: Real people give, their lives are sacred to them. They consider the feelings of the people around them.
No! No you play, you play at life itself. And rain down destructive negativity on the heads of all you meet, never more perniciously than when you are your most charming, your most convincing, your personal best, the role you really are.
STAN: I think I got an idea for a show…
CLAUDETTE: When you meet people older than yourselves you seduce them. But all you think to do is gull them and leave them feeling bad about their wasted lives….
No! The espoused conceive faithlessness in your company; the young, besotted by you, begin to imagine a freedom that is pure delusion. You materialize a license they will never exercise as you elaborate some imaginary alternate reality. Most cruel, most obtuse.
Get back, you bastards. You are shallow. Nobody deserves to live.
CLAUDETTE: This situation is so bad.
PAMELA: I just have to have a fantasy. I’ve found this a very useful tool in my life. Try it, it works! Everything stands still, conveniently. Lately life has been proceeding in a miasma of fear.
You know the kind of people who will undermine your confidence with their silence. You fuck them and you end up feeling just godawful lonely. And after a while it doesn’t go away anymore. And it is so rich you get addicted to the richness of the lonely. That lonely, and who can really give it to you, give it to you good. That’s what those noises coming out of girls mean, when you hear them.
Children notice, even there, where you are, some of the children have noticed. Children know everything in that childish way, like it’s real, you see pain and suffering, all you see, all you feel, forget that. That way we all do it. Asthma, how grim it is. But who can afford the lux of bringing all of it to mind? Who wants to see themselves? It’s like playing post office. I’m like deep deep into the city of the soul, it seems so big, so big to ignore, so big to fail.
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: email@example.com
ContributorYoung Jean Lee