Alan Berks is a local playwright and director, and creator of Alan Berks & Company. He also co-founded Minnesota Playlist– an online resource for local theatre artists- with his wife, Leah Cooper. It’s worth noting that Alan makes a mean experimental cocktail. Here he talks about making Playlist, the challenges of being an artist, and ways of making it easier for yourself.
L: How long have you lived in the Twin Cities?
A: Since July 2003.
L: What brought you here?
A: I got a fellowship at the Playwright’s Center, actually- one of those Jerome Fellowships, where you have to live here for a full year. And, once a month, for a weekend, I would drive back to Chicago. But my car broke down in late November or early december, so I was carless and stuck in Minneapolis. So, I couldn’t get back to Chicago…and I had started dating Leah [Cooper]. It’s a great place to live, too.
L: Why did you stay?
A: I liked Minnesota as soon as i got here. I had moved around a lot, and I was tired of it. Someone was giving me money to be a playwright, and in certain circles having a Jerome Fellowship was very impressive. So it was great. People were giving me money, and I got to do what I wanted to do. It was a really nice combination of things. And then the Jerome Fellowship ended. I got a job as an Assistant Professor at St. Cloud State. I had been doing a lot of freelance teaching for years- adjunct stuff where you piece 3 or 4 classes together and you make 20,000 a year. And it just happened that I was someone who could teach business writing and playwriting, which not a lot of people could do. And I remember saying, “I’m not going to do this for less than 30,000 a year.” That’s how naive i was. And the starting salary was 45,000. I was shocked that people were going to pay me that much to teach classes that I already knew how to teach. So that was perfect for a while. But I got sick of the drive to St. Cloud, and I didn’t want to be a professor. Afterwards, I freelanced for a while, and Leah and I traveled, and then I freelanced some more and made Minnesota Playlist. Then I took my current job as Communications Director at Pillsbury House.
L: Why Minnesota Playlist? What made you want to make it?
A: Leah and I like having ideas. And a lot of time we sit around thinking “what if.” Leah doesn’t like to sit around and talk too much without just deciding to do something. We both thought it would be cool, because it didn’t exist. And we also thought it would be financially viable, because somebody had to play for classifieds on the site. And we thought that money could justify the amount of time that we put into it, and that maybe it would be a good part time gig that would help us then do the art that we wanted to do. Which all happened to be true…we just needed to be making more money with it than we were. It was much harder to make Playlist for Leah, because she had to do computer programming, which she had done before, and she underestimated how much she despised it. It was much more work than she anticipated.
L: Playlist cultivates a community of artists, and published performer profiles and classifieds for local theaters. There’s a lot of conversation and writing about topics relevant to artists. Can you talk about creating the community aspect?
A: With Playlist, I thought we’d talk about topics relevant to artists and making work, and then change would happen. And I still think it’s valuable to talk, and that it’s had a pretty positive effect on people- to be exposed to different ideas. But, I think it depends where you are in your journey. I’ve realized that some people really want to listen to other people, and a certain number of people are constantly going to say shit all the time. And there are a good amount of people in the arts community, and maybe all communities, who are like that. And I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like- WOW! You really actually love to complain, you’re not about the solution. And that’s just a fact. And, the general sense of community doesn’t move the ball very much. At some point, you just have to stop talking and do the work. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m at a point right now where I say let’s not talk about the work, at least when it comes to generally speaking about art. You get to a place where you either do it, or you don’t.
L: Something I’ve struggled with is trying to find stability as an artist– a balance while juggling life and money-making and projects. How do you do this?
A: If you want a stable life, don’t be an artist. The moment you say you care about something, and that you want to actually do it well and you want to devote yourself to doing it well whatever it is, whether it’s starting a website or being good in your marriage or anything…it’s hard fucking work. You can achieve a certain stability. For instance, I can find places to produce my work relatively easily because people will not ask me for rent, they’ll just split a ticket price with me. And I can get grants. In this town, grants are like rain, you just have to know how to fill out the thing. And I’ve developed a group of people that I collaborate with, and know how to set clear boundaries with them. I’m pretty sure that none of this would have ever happened if I hadn’t spent the last 8 years in one place doing stuff. Making something sustainable and stable…it’s just hard. It doesn’t feel like that’s what you’re doing while you’re doing it. When we built Minnesota Playlist, the first year and a half was so rough, that we doubted that it would work. And, it wasn’t making enough money- and we weren’t sure if it was eventually going to. Should I be a choreographer, or should I be a yoga instructor? Every single one of these things, in order to be any good at it, if you have any standards whatsoever, is absurdly difficult at the beginning. You’re just going to work your ass off in order to get it right- in order to create the potential to have a stable life. You can’t know what’s going to work out. People make lives in the arts here. So, if you really want to be an artist, you might as well do that. And if you don’t, you should do something else. Because no matter what you do, it’s hard as fuck.
[At which point, Ben joins the conversation.]
B: Sticking around [the Twin Cities] seems to be a really great way to excel.
A: Yes. Because other people quit. At a certain point, you’re the only one left. But still, you’re still doing it because you’re good at it, and because you get some joy from it.
L: You said to do the work. Can you talk about that? What’s challenging about that for you?
A: I’m not good enough. That’s what’s hard about it. The work’s not good enough. And I don’t have enough time to make it better. That’s the crime. It would be better if I had more time. So I used to get angry with trust fund kids, or people will connections to money or fame, which really helps. And it’s not that these people aren’t talented- they are. But, having the time that money buys you is really important. I work a job right now, and apparently I’m good at it, but it takes every moment. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. So, I wish I had the time to dig into artistic things. The more time you spend doing it, the better you get at it.
L: Why did you start Alan Berks & Company?
A: I like to do certain things in a certain way. I think you might as well put your name on it, and put it out there, and let people smack you around, because they’re going to smack you around regardless. It’s possible that I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve gained some kind of credibility with the people who come to see my work. So, saying Alan Berks & Company makes sense, without seeming too arrogant. I just want to do some work that is mine, that I think is good, and I want to make it clear that it’s about company, whether that means it’s ensemble based, or work for actors, or collaborating with another designer. Collaboration is my thing. It’s a branding things, too- showing people where they can see my work.
L: What do you want to do next?
A: The particular experience of doing How To Cheat [recently produced at the Gremlin Theatre] and the response that it’s gotten as been really positive. We’re selling tickets, people like it, and I love the collaborations I’ve established. I’m definitely going to do something next year under this name, because I want to continue to build something over time. I was listening to an interview with Doomtree, and they were talking about how they’ve been making music and collaborating for 10 years, and for the first while there were just 5 people at the show…then 10…and now they sell out shows at First Ave. So, I’m working on that idea. I want to do Six Characters In Search of An Author. Set in a reality tv show.