Flash Points

Art Under the Influence

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "The Opening Scene," video still.  Courtesy the artist.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "The Opening Scene," video still. Courtesy the artist.

After reading Flash Points Editor Rachel Craft‘s initial post (“Flash Points: What Influences Art?”) regarding William Kentridge’s love of the stage, I thought it would be appropriate to continue that line of thinking and share my anecdotes as a child actor. For almost ten years, I performed the same choreography in New Jersey Ballet’s The Nutcracker at Paper Mill Playhouse every Christmas season. During those years, I was also a local jobber for the theatre, where I performed alongside great performers like Betty Buckley in Gypsy and Stephanie Mills in Children of Eden. Though, my personal claim to fame was performing in South Pacific with Tina Fabrique – the original voice of the Reading Rainbow theme song. This repetitive phenomenological experience with performance and celebrity at a young age undoubtedly made me the flamboyant artist I am today.

I recently wrote a paper for one of my graduate classes at San Francisco Art Institute about musical theatre being the source of trauma that led to my identity as an artist and the works of art I create. I shared my love of song and dance, the relationship between an actor and casting director, and how these elements are at play within my work. What I didn’t cover in that paper was the cliché of the-child-actor-turned-adult – the former kid in the spotlight who loses self and takes a turn for the worse down a path of drug abuse and suicide.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "narcotics (T-1 through T-6 & serving tray)."  Courtesy the artist.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "narcotics (T-1 through T-6 & serving tray)." Courtesy the artist.

I’m not sure why the stereotype of the artist as someone who’s alcoholic-and-drug-ridden emerged, but my personal guess is that those excessive behaviors, which were looked at as abnormal by society, were coupled with the other stereotype of the artist – the malcontent bohemian tucked away in a secluded studio. Feel free to leave your reasons in the comments below.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "Beer Pong," live performance. Courtesy the artist.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "Beer Pong," live performance. Courtesy the artist.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "Beer Pong," live performance. Courtesy the artist.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "Beer Pong," live performance. Courtesy the artist.

So take me as a case study in clichés. For some theorists, artists are simply representing their own realities – their everydays. I never had a normal childhood. I missed a lot of school so I could sing here or dance there. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom with my door closed, watching television. I was a troubled kid who knew how to act normal thanks to the theatre and television. I wasn’t a medicated youth like other kids I knew, but by the time I enrolled in art school at Carnegie Mellon University, I discovered ways to alleviate my social anxiety.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "posters." Courtesy the artist.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "posters." Courtesy the artist.

In her one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, Elaine shared her story with alcoholism and mentioned that in her younger years, she would take a shot of vodka so she wouldn’t feel alone on stage. There’s something beautifully poetic and sadly ironic about that idea. The protocol for anyone “struggling” with substance abuse is obviously to get “help” and “quit.” But what about looking at it the other way? What if an artist pushed for his influence to become yours? If it makes him the creative producer that he is, then why not see what all the fuss is about?


  1. I have written and spoken about my own addictive tendencies involving drugs, alcohol and high-danger activities many times, as well as my own mental and physical child abuse.

    One speculation I have had with friends is that severe experiences when a child somehow “crack the reality” that we are supposed to believe in; seeing obvious hypocrisies or outright lies (“we are a wonderful, normal family”)starts the path of questioning appearances and “truth”.

    For me, substances were a way to get “outside” of myself; to escape the constrictures of mind and body that were entombing me. I cannot say that this was conscious action most of the time. I am also well-aware that there are many, many people who have a relationship to substances that never produce any artwork.

    Those substances and experiences were just… part of my life; and in my work I talk about parts of my life.

    As far as “if it makes her the creative producer that she is…” Ken Kesey had it nailed: “Coleridge was Coleridge before he smoked opium.” From experience, I don’t say that drugs or alcohol “inspired” me; too many times they supported self-indulgent and sloppy work. They were merely part and parcel of a person trying to break free of their own head.

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