This Is My Job
An Interview With Caroline Rothstein
Published by Siena Oristaglio on October 26th
Caroline Rothstein calls me on her lunchbreak from the stairwell at her office space. At first, I'm worried that the public locale of our interview — as well as her travel disorientation from having just returned from a long tour — won't lend itself to an open and intimate discussion about the internet, audience, and money. I soon learn that none of these factors stand a chance against this artist's commitment to total presence and honesty in everything she does.
Siena Oristaglio: How would you introduce your work to someone who doesn't know what you do?
Caroline Rothstein: I describe myself as a writer and performer. I'm a spoken word poet — I tour internationally — a journalist, a nonfiction writer, an activist, and an educator. I see my activism and my art as totally intersected. My work as an educator comes into play in my artwork as well, so all the hats end up being mixed. My elevator pitch is determined by where I am and who I'm meeting.
SO: You've just returned from a very intense tour. Did that experience have any impact on how you introduce yourself as an artist?
CR: Yes, I was just on tour in South Africa for a few weeks. I was brought there by an organization called Limmud, which means "to learn" in Hebrew. There are Limmud conferences all over the world and the one in South Africa brings about a dozen international presenters to conferences in Johannesburg, Capetown, and Durban. I've done heavy college touring in my day, I've had 25-30 gigs in a semester, 60+ shows in a year, but this was 20 gigs in 13 days with two days off. There was a day on this tour when I had five gigs in one day: two full hour-long performances with unique set lists, two panels, and one writing workshop. The endurance and stamina I gained from being in a foreign country and having to keep myself held through all that was a life-altering experience.
After doing that many gigs in such a short amount of time, I'm still integrating how to describe myself as an artist. For the first time, I felt like I had the freedom to actually practice my art the way I want to practice it. My work happens both in private on the page and in uber-naked vulnerable public on the stage. If I'm on deadline for an article, I'm practicing my craft as a writer and a reporter. As a performer, I have to be on stage to practice. Being on stage that many times with completely different audiences allowed me to feel that at the core of my work as an artist is creating something unique every time I perform. Each time I'm on stage, I say to the audience, "This isn't just me on a microphone at you, this is us together in a shared experience." I felt that more than ever on this trip because I got to go to the canvas every day in a way that I don't get to even on my heaviest seasons of college touring. There was a day where I performed at a Jewish high school in the afternoon and an after-hours comedy club venue at night. There was a morning where I performed at two Jewish high schools in Johannesburg and I had to create two completely different shows for them because that's part of my praxis. I had no choice but to stay in the present if I was going to stick by my mission statement that every show I do is unique.
SO: There's no real substitute for that kind of experience.
CR: Yes. Words I would have tossed around haphazardly before this tour that I can now ground in my practice are "interactive" and "shared."
SO: It's great that this tour allowed you to get at the heart of what you do.
CR: Yes. It was an enjoyable, life-giving experience. It was also a taste of what I've always dreamed of being able to do and now I know that I have the endurance and stamina to do it. I know now that the muscle exists. My dream is to be able to tour the world the way comedians and musicians do where they're in concert venues constantly. There are very few spoken word poets in the world who do that. Many of us do it at the college level, and while I love the college and high school bracket, there's a freedom that happens in a performance venue that allows for a different kind of interaction. Growing up, I was a singer/actress/dancer as well as a writer. As a theater kid at heart, I love how being in a performance venue or a gallery puts you in conversation with a history of performance artists that include everything from Bette Midler to Adrian Piper to Marina Abramović to The Grateful Dead to Janet Jackson. That's a conversation I want to take part in, artistically speaking.
SO: You brought up a dream of touring internationally. I like to ask artists about their fantasies, both with respect to their artistic practice, but also with respect to where their income would be coming from. In your fantasy, what would that look like?
CR: This is a great question. I'm thinking about how, historically speaking, people wearing each of the hats that I wear make their money. For my performer hat, my vision is generating income through ticket sales, merchandise sales of books, and any other merchandise that is affiliated in a mindful and conscious way (not in a totally uncomfortable, commodified way) with the message of the artwork, as well as honorariums, speaking fees, and performance fees. That is a huge part of my income now so I'd like to allow maintain that and hopefully grow it over time. I also hope that my access to spaces can expand beyond the college, high school, and non-profit market to include larger venues, conferences, and maybe even corporate spaces. With respect to my writer hat, as a journalist I get paid for the articles I write and I've worked my way up to be in glossy magazines and longer-form online publications. The extension of that, which is part of my fantasy, is book sales of non-fiction books, poetry books, and merchandise. I'd love to have books for sale whenever I'm performing. With that could come CDs and other recordings.
For my educator hat, I already get paid to teach one-off classes, full-blown residencies, and faculty positions. I'm also sometimes commissioned to write curricula. Again, I hope to raise that to higher frequencies and pay-brackets that can continue to generate income. There are already some education gigs that I've been blessed to have once that can happen again, so I want to start to chart out what I can rely on annually that doesn't detract from the other things. It becomes a game of Tetris. While I am getting my income from those three categories now, my fantasy is to up the consistency and widen the pool. I'm also a cis-gender female with a womb who would like to have babies and partnership, so factoring that in is something I have to keep in mind. It would be unrealistic for me to be touring nine months of the year while wanting to partner and parent at some point. Luckily, I don't have to reinvent the wheel — I can look to other performers of all identities who parent and partner from the road. Maybe a childbearing year is a year that I'm working more heavily on a book and less on the road. I can't believe I said that out loud but I feel like it's an important thing that people don't talk about.
There's this idea that you're supposed to starve as an artist, which is unfair and untrue.
SO: It's crucial to consider how what you are going through in your life shifts the balance of where you put your energy, art-wise. How great that you are receiving your income from these areas your practice and are trying to build more sustainability. Is there anything that you wish you had known before you started your journey as an artist, educator, and activist?
CR: I do want to say that last year was the worst financial year of my life and I'm still climbing out of it. Sustainability is a challenging word because I feel like I would be lying if I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, everything's great and I'm totally sustainable." On paper and at face value, I'm in a really amazing place — people are flying me around the world to perform poetry and run writing workshops. Are you kidding me? People flew me to England and then they saw me in England and flew me to South Africa and now they're going to fly me to Australia. I'm there to do what I love and they're helping me to find other places to generate income to do my work in other countries? Holy bananas! AND, Cosmopolitan magazine came to me last year to write an article that became a cover story? AND, I'm writing a piece for a publication that put extra money behind it because of the success we've had in the past working together? Oh my god. AND I have faculty positions at places that want to bring me back that offer really good pay for artist-educators. I'm so lucky in those ways.
However, I've had more months than I have fingers where I didn't know how I was going to pay my rent. I have enough fingers for the last year, thank god, and I've also had a hard year. I'm still pulling myself out of it. I would be lying if I weren't up front about that. I sometimes sit with myself and say, "At what point in this journey do I share my finance account spreadsheets in a way that is of use to other artists?" Because, to answer your question, I wish that I knew this stuff a little bit better. I chart every single penny I make and every single penny I spend, personally and professionally. I have a personal expenses spreadsheet and a business expenses spreadsheet. I have a credit card spreadsheet and an income spreadsheet. Even with that, I still have times when it's not sustainable. I wish that I knew two things: first, that all that financial planning needed to be more heavily in place in the moments of abundance. I'm straight-edge, I don't drink, I don't do drugs, I don't shop a lot, I don't eat meat — so I really don't have a lot of expenses. I'm also not the most frugal human in the world and I live in New York City. My phone bill is really expensive because I'm on a solo plan and there's investing I do into my business — professional development things that add up over time. I do therapy that's not covered by my insurance. I have health insurance that I have to pay. I see a lot of Phish concerts, which I'm allowed to do with all the other things I don't do. The bills add up and I wish that I had, in moments of abundance, been able to better plan for times like these. The second thing I wish someone had told me, which nobody ever did so I'm telling myself, is that this isn't because I'm an artist. Anyone in any profession in any career can have a tough year or a tough few years. The problem is that there's this idea that you're supposed to starve as an artist, which is unfair and untrue. The fact that I'm having a tough time or have ever had a tough time financially gets blamed on the fact that I'm an artist. But shit can just be shitty sometimes.
"Fat Is Not a Feeling," written and performed by Caroline Rothstein; produced in collaboration with Hillary Levine and BuzzFeed Motion Pictures.
Content warning: the artist addresses rape, molestation, self-harm, death, and eating disorders.
SO: The idea that artists are supposed to starve is toxic for so many working bodies.
CR: I think I internalized it for many years. I grew up upper-middle class and came from a space of privilege. It's been very different the last ten years of my life and we don't need to get into that, but I do think I felt like I was supposed to struggle instead of giving myself permission to thrive and reacquire my own wealth doing what I love. For the record, I don't want wealth so that I can spend it on a fancy car. I want wealth so I can give it away, so that I can donate to the organizations that have made me who I am today, to the spaces and institutions and communities that have helped me and built me and pushed me. I want to give to the spaces that are doing work in the world to create a more just society. That's what I want wealth for. As well as to travel, and for education, and to build a family. I wish I could have told myself to not be afraid of wealth. I've had to do a lot of work around my shame of acquiring wealth and I think it's blocked me in many ways. I've made choices professionally that sabotaged my ability to generate income by spending time on non-income-generating projects over income-generating projects.
SO: Let's talk about community for a minute. You said that on this recent tour had this immense experience of connecting with many different audiences in a short period of time. How do you maintain connections with audience members?
CR: Right now, it's through social media — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and a quarterly newsletter that I send via email. I wish it could be more. The feedback I receive from friends and supporters is that my performances feel very intimate. When I hear you ask this question, part of me knows I could do a better job of maintaining that intimacy. I don't know if that's just continuing to share the way I share on social media or if there are other ways to do that.
SO: When you think of how you interact online, is there something that you feel hits the intersection of what you most like to share and what your audience also enjoys?
CR: I enjoy sharing off-the-cuff and from the heart. Some people seem to really enjoy that. I'm sure there are plenty who have unfollowed me or taken me out of their timeline. In the same breath, I'll have someone tell me that a post changed their day and inspired them deeply and another person tell me that they wish I didn't share it because it was "too much." I try to be mindful about the fact that there people on all ends of the spectrum, but I personally enjoy when I share an epiphany and it seems to connect with other people. That feels really special.
For an artist, making art is as important as conducting surgery is for a surgeon.
SO: You talked about two things that you wish you'd known earlier in your artistic journey. If you could imagine a crash course in something arts-business related that you could take right now, what would you want it to look like?
CR: I once saw Laurie Anderson speak as the commencement speaker at the School of Visual Arts graduation in 2012. At one point, she said, "Make your art and the rent will pay itself." The course would be called that and would really get at what she was saying, which I think is true. When I am making my art as a core priority of my life, that's when the paid opportunities start to roll in.
SO: So the course would be about how to make your artistic practice a priority in your daily life.
CR: Yes. I'm much better at time management than I used to be. I think it's also about demanding respect from other people. For an artist, making art is as important as conducting surgery is for a surgeon. It's our job. If I don't 100% focus on my craft, I'm no good. The result is a disaster. If it's not done with tremendous care and heart, it's fatal for myself and for anyone receiving it.
SO: I completely agree. Let me ask you about what it was like working on the Kids Documentary Kickstarter. Can you describe that project?
CR: I am one of the producers on a documentary called The Kids, which is the inside real story of the kids who inspired Larry Clark's cult classic film Kids. I got involved after I wrote the first-ever retrospective about what happened to the kids from Kids, which was published in Narratively in May of 2013. I interviewed some of the folks who were in Kids, one of whom, Hamilton Harris, was working on a documentary about their real lives. He invited me on board to be one of the producers. I had a little bit of documentary experience and I have a masters in journalism and digital media so I had enough of a sense of what was going on to get my feet wet. We built a team and worked on the project for some time and then we decided to run a Kickstarter campaign. We worked on it, prepped, planned, and launched it in mid-August of 2015. It ran until mid-September of 2015. We ultimately had a successful campaign — our goal was $81,000 and we raised $87,000. The experience overall was really challenging. [Laughs.]
SO: I know this because you called us in the middle of the campaign seeking advice. The input I remember giving you was, at that stage, to forget about the celebrity endorsements and to think about making the campaign very grassroots. You said, "Oh, so we should focus on getting people's grandmothers to support the project and not, like, James Franco." I said, "Yes, pretty much." That stuck with me.
CR: And you were right! It worked and in the eleventh hour, we made our goal with names that were familial. Not familial as in people's biological kin, I mean family of choice. The skateboarding community that was responsible for inspiring Kids in the first place is a large global network and they came through for us. That was what enabled us to succeed — it was "grandmothers"!
SO: All those skateboarding grandmas!
CR: [Laughs.] Exactly, the skateboarding grandmas. Really. It was the personal, grassroots approach. When people ask me for advice on doing campaigns now, I share that with them. It's all in the daily personal connection. That, at the end of the day, is what's going to ride it out. We were very, very, very, very blessed to have folks come though.
People expect me to work for free all the time. They don't understand that this is my job.
SO: In my experience working with artists that have run these kinds of campaigns, it feels good to have the people who supported the work to be the people who the work is for. Would there be any other advice that you'd give to someone who is just beginning to think about doing a crowdfunding campaign or fundraising for their artwork?
CR: Yes. Plan ahead. Plan ahead. Plan ahead. And if it's a crowdfunding campaign, let it be the priority for that month. Get comfortable with it being a priority for however long it's running for.
There's also something I want to say, though I don't know if it's appropriate to share. The irony is that one of the reasons that last year became one of the worst financial years of my life was because of working on this Kickstarter campaign. I spent 16-18 hour days on the Kickstarter for no money instead of focusing on my own art practice and generating income from my own work.
SO: I think it's crucial to share this. I often speak with artists who are struggling to determine whether they should work on a project that is beneficial on a personal level but may leave them in a financially precarious position.
CR: Yes. It's really challenging to balance your time when you are responsible for your own income. To take on something that will take up 150% of your time that is not income-generating when you have to be 150% responsible for generating your own income is really difficult. I care deeply about this project and I'm still involved and committed to it, and I wish I could have planned further in advance knowing that the Kickstarter campaign would take up the amount of time that it did. And/or, I wish I had managed my own internal stress level in a healthier way that didn't further damage my existential feelings about my self-worth or ability to thrive. One of the things that I really know about myself now is how much my holistic wellbeing relies on my practice as an artist. If I had planned a way to maintain that throughout the duration of supporting the campaign, it might have had a better outcome for me personally. It's hard to be honest about this without simultaneously being clear that I deeply love this project and I'm deeply grateful.
SO: I understand that. At least if an opportunity that you're deeply passionate about arises in the future, you will carry this knowledge into that.
CR: Exactly. I'm also carrying this knowledge with me as I continue to work on this project. I always go back to Tetris. Tetris was one of my favorite games in the world — I played a lot of it as a kid and I think of life as Tetris, really. After the campaign, in the predicament I found myself in last fall, the option of walking away from being a producer on the documentary was not an option for me because I really didn't want to. I had to play Tetris and I had to readjust my time and my priorities and also be clear with my collaborators. That's something that's really important as an artist — when you have your hand in multiple projects, you have to be honest with your collaborators. You have to say, "These are my limits and I'm committed to the project." That means when I'm able to dig my hands in, I go the extra mile and I do it immediately so that I'm there and I'm present and my heart's in it. I'm no good to anything if I'm lying to myself and saying I can manage more than I'm physically able to.
I'm an artist who shares the depths of my soul. My practice is sharing my traumas, my triumphs, my dreams, my hopes.
SO: I think this is one of the hardest lessons for anyone to learn, but especially those who are in charge of managing their own income from their creative work. This is something that comes up so frequently that it's already in our shortlist of courses to create. I think a course called "Time Tetris for Artists" would go over really well. You're not alone, is what I'm trying to say, and I hope that verbalizing this is helpful in some way.
CR: If you can't tell through the screen, I'm becoming emotional and starting to cry. I've had one 9-5 office job in my life — it was the first year I lived in New York City, nine and a half years ago, and I had to quit because my soul was hurting. I thought that after college I had to have a non-profit job as my base and I'd be a writer and performer on the side. Then I realized that in order to live with myself, I had to be an artist as my base and do non-profit work on the side. Now, I sit on the board of a non-profit organization and have for many years and I do plenty of volunteer work where I can, but it's not my base. I don't want to blame the world or society for not giving permission to things that I can give permission to myself, and also, I sometimes get really frustrated that I don't feel taken seriously in my career. People expect me to work for free all the time. People don't understand that this is my job.
I'm an artist who shares the depths of my soul. My practice is sharing my traumas, my triumphs, my dreams, my hopes — I have epiphanies on stage, I share things that I sometimes don't even share in therapy. I take a lot of risks to share my craft and I put every waking hour into what I do as an artist. Therapy is an investment not just so I can be a healthy person, it's an investment so that I can make good art. Everything I do is for that. I wish the world would take artists seriously. So much of the world is art that gets taken for granted or that people want for free. That was not the case for hundreds of years — people got well-paid to create their work because art mattered in many cultures, whereas it gets so taken advantage of in 2016 United States. My responsibility is to demand that I be taken seriously and to have conversations like this and to be vulnerable and to keep sharing my art and to say no to people that ask me to work for free. I can't afford to work for free. I put in my time. I have to pay my rent, I have to eat, and I've spent a lifetime preparing for this career — training and education and practice. I've invested my whole life and so much time and money into this the same way a lawyer or a doctor or a banker or a mental health professional does, and it gets taken for granted every single day.
SO: Thank you for being so articulate and honest. I'm grateful to be privy to the rawness of you processing your experiences.
CR: I'm grateful to you for giving me the time and space to do so. I can't thank you enough.
Caroline Rothstein is a New York City-based award-winning writer and performer. She has been performing spoken word poetry, public speaking, and facilitating workshops at colleges, schools, and performance venues worldwide for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, Narratively, The Forward, Williams Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a producer on the forthcoming documentary “The Kids," and sits as President Emeritus of the Board of Directors for Mental Fitness, Inc. Caroline was a member of the 2010 Nuyorican Poets Cafe slam team, which placed second at the 2010 National Poetry Slam, co-coached the 2013 Nuyorican slam team, which placed third, and is a youth Mentor at Urban Word NYC. She has a B.A. in classical studies from the University of Pennsylvania, and an M.S. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. For more, please visit www.carolinerothstein.com.