Ask Not About Amanda Palmer and the Yale School of Drama

Amanda Palmer (second from right) with her Grand Theft Orchestra: Jherek Bischoff (far left) and Yale School of Drama grads Michael McQuilken (in Mohawk) and Chad Raines (with Palmer’s finger in his mouth).

The Art of Asking, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

By Amanda Palmer

(Grand Central Publishing, 2014)

I tore through Amanda Palmer’s self-help memoir about creativity and crowdfunding, searching for references to a couple of guys in her backing band The Grand Theft Orchestra. I’d seen numerous shows by Michael McQuilken and Chad Raines when they attended the Yale School of Drama a few years ago. McQuilken was studying directing, and did an impressive original rock musical, JIB, as his thesis project. Raines was in the Sound Design program, but that didn’t stop him acting in or directing projects at the Yale Cabaret. For the Yale Summer Cabaret, Raines starred in a lean, mean production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Even before attending YSD, Raines and his band The Simple Pleasure performed in a student production of Baal.

McQuilken and Raines (second from left and far right in the photo above) graduated from the School of Drama in 2011 and immediately went on a world tour with Amanda Palmer, the erstwhile Dresden Doll who was then becoming a poster child for Kickstarter-funded music production. The bandmates get only passing mentions in her book The Art of Asking, which chronicles the singer/songwriter/online-friend-to-all’s attempts to maintain her fanbase through online interactions and raise money to make her album Theatre is Evil. (How did she arrive at the “-re” spelling of theatre? Her Twitter pals convinced her.)

Here’s the main mention, and it’s worth it for McQuilken/Raines fans:

I gradually lined up a great band of musicians to help me make my next record: Jherek Bischoff, a bassist and composer/arranger who had toured with Jason Webley; Michael McQuilken, a drummer and theater director who had toured with Jason Webley; and Chad Raines, who’d never heard of Jason Webley—he was [a] sound designer, and a keyboard/guitar-playing friend of Michael’s for the Yale School of Drama. (We briefly considered calling the new lineup Amanda Palmer and the Yale School of Drama, while toying around with possible band names one night, but then someone on Twitter suggested Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra. It seemed fitting, given the crowdsourcing and everything. We took it.)

McQuilken’s also mentioned as a collaborator on visual images for the Theatre is Evil tour.

The band used a YSD studio to record a cover of Nirvana’s “Polly” for a Nevermind tribute project organized by SPIN Magazine, but that’s not mentioned. Not a whole lot is said about the actual making of Theatre of Evil or its live shows. The Art of Asking is generally more personal than that. It’s mainly about Amanda Palmer learned how to open up to people and to be unashamed when asking for help furthering her art. The anecdotes here are not of the fame-and-fortune variety. They concern communing with fans and finding time for friends in need.

The book also details the friendship, courtship and marriage of Amanda Palmer to the renowned novelist Neil Gaiman. Palmer could doubtless write a kick-ass book about what it’s like to be a rock star on the road, but her heart is elsewhere.

Too much of the book sadly if necessarily is spent correcting misunderstandings involving the nature of crowdfunding. Palmer endured endless misguided criticism from those who didn’t realize that all the money—over a million dollars—which she raked in for the Theatre is Evil project was essentially for services-to-be-rendered: advance album sales, private concerts, etc. She is still out there explaining itself, including in this instructive piece she wrote for The Guardian last week. She makes a convincing case that, in instances of online fundraising, trust and sincerity and openness are more important to an artist than any carefully itemized business plan.

Not that The Art of Asking lacks artistry. Lyrics from Theatre is Evil and earlier (non-Grand Theft Orchestra) Amanda Palmer albums are sprinkled throughout the book—complete songs, which in some cases can take up several pages. But The Art of Asking is more about creative development than it is about looking back at completed artworks with satisfaction.

In the more personal passages of the book, Palmer keeps returning to a performance project she did before she ever had a band. She dressed as a tall spectral women in bridal garb and stood silently on street corners, passing out flowers to passersby who’d give her spare change. The bride becomes a potent metaphor for Palmer coming out of her shell as an artist and learning to communicate with others. The bride stars in a central episode in the Palmer/Gaiman love story.

Amanda Palmer’s got profound theatrical instincts. She came up through performance art. She attended Wesleyan University, a mecca for multidisciplinary young artists. The band that brought her into national consciousness, Dresden Dolls, owed some of its style to German Cabaret. At live shows, Palmer’s been known to strip naked and have fans draw on her body with markers or paint. Theatre is Evil, a truly terrific blast of modernized glam rock, is a demonstrative, clearly enunciated presentational performance (none of that trendy indie isolation and self-immersion here), and even includes an intermission.

The Art of Asking is a book about finding oneself, and about finding oneself onstage. It should be required reading for artists maneuvering the new models of project funding and crowdsourcing. But it’s also an unusually self-aware coming-of-age story about a former struggling artist who is still, charmingly, struggling with some fascinating and dramatic demons.