September 30, 2016

Q&A: Webster alumna Calamity West on working in the arts

The first play Webster University Alumna Calamity West produced on stage started as an assignment for Webster English Professor Michael Erickson’s playwriting class over 10 years ago.

West’s playwriting talent has earned her a $25,000 grant from 3Arts, a Chicago non-profit for performing, teaching and visual arts. She was one of 10 awardees from a pool of over 100 nominations. The award enables West to apply to residency programs across the country.

“I literally wouldn’t be an artist without having graduated from Webster,” West told Global Thinking, Webster’s College of Arts and Sciences blog, in a recent interview.

The Journal caught up with West to discuss her recent award and her experiences working as an artist.

How will this grant affect your playwright career?

It’s affording me time, which is the best effect any artist can hope for. It’s been a true blessing.

Webster alumna Calamity West / photo contributed by Calamity West

Webster alumna Calamity West / photo contributed by Global Thinking

Do you think grants are necessary for an artist to succeed in today’s society?

No. Not at all. Helpful? Sure. But definitely not necessary. The only necessary thing in being an artist today, or any day for that matter, is your work. How you work? That’s totally up to you. No one can tell you the necessities. You have to inform that on your own—which is the most exciting part of being an artist.

Many people think students who major in creative writing or other arts won’t get jobs in their areas of study. What do you say to that?

I have four parts to the question:

  1. See above
  2. I’ve never had a job in “the arts,” whatever that actually means. I’m not sure anyone knows. But I learned pretty early on that I needed a very low-stress day job so that my full time job could be writing my plays.
  3. Don’t let your day job define you. Because it shouldn’t. Everyone else is going to make it define you, but that’s because they’re simpleminded and can’t accept a reality of life outside of their own head.
  4. Your art is your job. Your day job is a means to an end.

What was the best piece of advice you learned at Webster?

If you’re not intimidated by the work you’re developing, then it’s not worth developing.

How did you get started after you graduated?

I moved out to San Francisco two months after graduating from Webster—that was the place that got me going. I lived out there for three years while earning my MFA in playwriting, which you 100 percent shouldn’t do. Don’t go to grad school, babes. Just move to an exciting place and hunt for like and not-so-like minded artists and start working—furiously and passionately. It bears repeating: Don’t go to grad school.

Then I got hooked up with a residency with an art collective in Chicago (founded and run by Webster alums), and I haven’t left since. It’s my home.

What were the best opportunities for you in your first years as a playwright?

Swimming in the Pacific. Learning about whiskey. Befriending “ex” Black Panthers. Trying and failing at poetry. Saying yes to life and no to ego. Being introduced to hip-hop.

Who are your biggest influences? What inspires you?

GZA, Annie Baker, Jay-Z, Roberto Fellini, Werner Herzog, Sheila Callaghan, MCA, Quentin Tarantino, RZA, George Saunders, Charles Bukowski, Björk, Sergio Leone.

The photo on West's 3Arts page.

The photo on West’s 3Arts page.

For aspiring writers, criticism can often cripple their confidence. What is your method for dealing with bad reviews?

Don’t read reviews. Ever. Good, bad, whatever. They’re bad for your soul. So pretend they don’t exist.

Many creative writing majors at Webster talk about “making it” in the real world. What does “making it” mean to you?

I don’t know what “making it” means.

You should eradicate the concept of “making it” from your creative vernacular ASAP. It doesn’t mean anything. The concept of “making it” was created by simple-minded Americans who think there should be an endgame in all endeavors. But there isn’t an endgame as a writer. And if you’re looking for that—just stop now. Because it’s never going to happen. It’s about the work, nothing else.

Do you have any advice for Webster’s creative writing majors?

  1. Listen to your instructors. They’re smarter and have better taste than you. I promise.
  2. Read everything you’re assigned to read.
  3. Be active in your learning.
  4. Work, work, work.
  5. Webster is a magical, magical place. So enjoy it while you got it.

Calamity West graduated from Webster in 2004 with a BA in English and earned her MFA in playwriting at the California College of the Arts in 2007. Her recent productions include Ibsen is Dead, The Peacock, The Gacy Play and Common Hatred. She currently works in Chicago.

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