Your Brain on Grants

Fox Actor Journal: Bill Barclay

(Posted in TCG Circle, the blog of Theater Communications Group)

Post image for Fox Actor Journal: Bill BarclayIn the world of arts grants, there seem to me to be three different kinds. There are the specific project-oriented ones, the ones that reward great ideas of a finite nature. Yes you can devise this play and bring it to Austria. Sure we’ll let you build puppets for your sprawling desert art piece based on The Brothers Karamazov (sounds great to us!). Then there are the large, splashy, unrestricted ones. ‘Genius’ grants. Here you go, take six figures as a reward for being both exceptionally talented and famous in your field. We trust you to blow it on a vacation or a car elevator or a Münch painting if that’s really what you feel you need to do at this stage in your luminous career. In spite of my cheek, I see nothing wrong with either of these approaches.But in the middle there are the rare organizations who challenge you to summon the courage to truly excavate your wildest dreams as an artist, however extensive, irrational, or sprawling; to literally pluck them out of the earth or the air and manifest them on paper in a mix of logistics and budgets on the one hand and imagination, yearnings and prose on the other. They want the very act of articulating some of your most sacred secrets to be not only inspiring but specific. And then they want you to execute exactly what you have defined. And when you’re finished, they want the world to directly benefit from it. Who in the world are these people?Welcome to Theatre Communications Group.

I admit to actually wasting an embarrassing amount of time on my application trying to impress these impressive people. I thought, I had to present myself as something that already exists out there in the world so they would understand me, as if somehow this panel of adjudicators were a bunch of casting directors. I resisted discussing the many wants I have in life because I felt it would come across as unfocused. I left out my abilities other than acting because I didn’t want to sound cocky. In short, I tried to create an application-friendly version of myself that would stand the best shot of getting the grant. In shortest, I was lying.

I threw it all out. My dominating impulse at the time was, ‘if I’m going to feel good about getting this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I have to be me. But not just me, unapologetically me. Thoroughly, unabashedly me.’ And so I started to articulate how all of my creative life, I have concurrently been a musician and an actor. I collect plays and I collect musical instruments. I have bands, I compose chamber music and devise new plays. I gobble up books on ethnomusicology and would have a poster of Martin McDonough in my apartment (as a straight man, mind you), if only they would make one. My two favorite artists are Shakespeare and Beethoven. I am, however much I like it or not, an interdisciplinarian. A polymath. I think most people are, actually. I love how interdisciplinarian doesn’t pass muster on my spellcheck by the way. Probably not a word. Good sign?

Now that we’re being really honest, let me just say that this “split” focus creates opportunities and conflicts in seemingly equal measure. It drives me nuts and it drives my career. And what I wanted to do most with a Fox Foundation Fellowship was study my two loves with people for whom music and theatre were fused at the spine – down in the sacrum perhaps – a place that’s pre-joint and pre-specialization, because my intuition tells me that both these arts are really different manifestations of the same ancient impulse. I discovered I had a full-blown crush on anthropology.

I sought to go to Bali where music, theatre, mask, religion, and dance were all different sides of one multi-dimensional metaphysical coin. I contacted Rinde Eckert, the performance artist/actor/librettist/composer/director/multi-instrumentalist to see if we could work together. I planned to devise a new piece in England with The Mercury Theatre company where I played a composer and conducted a choir onstage in character. I made heaps of other plans as well. Fast forward a couple years – I got the grant and I actually did these things. I still can’t believe it. It took me two incredible years, and I want to tell you where I am now as a result.

As often happens in life, a tragedy occurred that was actually an enormous opportunity. One of my Fellowship legs was to assist Irina Brook (daughter of Peter) in making a new play in Paris with her company at Les Bouffes du Nord. But in the lag between my final application and actually going there, Irina dissolved her company. I was despondent. I tried desperately to replace it with something, anything exciting, and for two years I came up empty.

As I say, being a great Shakespeare lover and practitioner (my host theatre company was Shakespeare & Company), I finally summoned the courage to contact Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. My Mecca. I auditioned for their International Actors Fellowship thinking I’d use my remaining Fox funding to get some more actor training in London. I was accepted but advised I shouldn’t come, strangely enough. How would I like to actually work there? Suddenly I’m assistant composing Much Ado About Nothing and working with Stephen Warbeck who won the Oscar for Shakespeare In Love. They invite me back the following year to compose music for Hamlet, which has just opened and is now on an international tour. And during it all, they asked me to stay on as Director of Music, the head of the music department – a role perfectly suited for an actor/musician/Shakespeare nerd. No shit.

I now live in London. I work for my favorite theatre in the world. I go to work every day as an actor living an actualized dream. Not a cookie cutter dream – certainly not your typical career dream. Definitely not a dream tailored for a panel of judges. But, quite specifically, a bonafide manifestation of an honest-to-god dream. I thank my stars each and every day they led me here. But more than their roundabout guidance, I thank TCG, who had the boldness and vision to demand I extract my messy, arrogant, raw and unpolished aspirations from the deepest well of my imagination, summon the courage to give it life and breath, and use it to propel me beyond where I’d ever thought I’d be. In short, to let my dream dream me.

Bill Barclay is the Director of Music at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, the first American to join the Theatre Staff in its 17 year history. He has been a composer and actor for Shakespeare & Company for 10 years and the Actors’ Shakespeare Project for 9. He is a past winner of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and is reading the whole Shakespeare canon, out loud, in order and in public, on his website

The William & Eva Fox Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation, is committed to the artistic development of theatre actors as a strategy to strengthen live theatre. Through its prestigious Fox Fellowships the Foundation has provided more than $3 million to underwrite periods of intensive study, research and training by actors recognized as having a serious commitment to the theatre. In 2004 the Foundation awarded fellowships totaling $150,000 to ten distinguished actors. The Foundation is the largest grantmaker solely dedicated to the artistic and professional development of theatre actors, and one of very few that provides direct support to individual actors.

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