Thinking Like an Artist

Sunday, 13. July 2014 23:44 | Author:

For a number of years now, one of the least-well-known arts which I have practiced has been pyrotechnics, both the stage kind and the display kind. Some would say this is not an art at all, and in some cases, that is true enough. But some of us who shoot, know that there is indeed artistry involved. There are design choices in terms of product, color and size, patterns of shooting, and, of course, timing. So a pyrotechnician can make a show into a piece of ephemeral art—or not, depending on his/her skill, imagination, and temperament.

This July Fourth found me on the grounds of a country club working as part of a crew on a pretty sizable show, functioning as second shooter (it was a show requiring four hands firing), and mentoring the primary shooter. She was a young woman who had worked on several shows and who had been licensed for some time, but this was the first show of which she had been in charge. (Her day job is art teacher, which becomes important later.) The show was designed to be shot according to a firing track, which is a copy of the music being played for the audience with a voice telling the operator when to fire.

Most of the day had gone well, but as we started wiring the mortars to the control boxes, we became aware of serious weather headed our way, so our time was split between wiring and watching radar. (What did we do before smart phones?) To summarize: we slowed down because of the weather; then we let an unreasonable client push us into shooting before we had had an opportunity to fully check out everything. The primary shooter was nervous, and made more nervous by the situation.

About 30 seconds into an eighteen-minute show, it became apparent that we had some seriously defective equipment. On top of that, we were having unpredictable electrical problems, and it had begun to rain. It didn’t get to the point of unsafe, but it was certainly unsure. If you need help understanding the situation, this was the equivalent of being on stage in front of a full house with three other actors who have suddenly forgotten 30% of the show, but each a different 30%.

At 45 seconds, I realized that she had mentally thrown away the firing track. Later I learned that as soon as she had understood that the start times were mismatched (ours and the audience’s) and that there were equipment problems, she decided the track was worthless; a person less presence of mind would have followed instructions slavishly. Instead, she decided to wing it.

Somehow she managed with (we later determined) only two-thirds of the equipment working properly to keep the sky lit up for 18 minutes, 3 seconds with no significant lapses. The whoops and applause at the end of the finale said that she had succeeded.

In talking with her long after clean-up, she said that as soon as she pressed the first button, a calm overcame her and she lost all nervousness. I praised her ability to throw away the firing track and do a very respectable show of the proper length anyway, something even some seasoned pyrotechnicians would have trouble doing.

She said, “You know, people give you rules, and then you do what you have to, to do the job. That’s what artists do, right?” Right.

It was one of the clearest statements of the way an artist’s mind should work that I have heard, particularly coming from a person of her age and experience. The thought was very similar to one expressed by the far more experienced designer, typographer, and art director Neville Brody who said in an interview with Lee McCormack, “I started to realize quite clearly that…design rules were irrelevant….It led me to thinking that anything was fair game, anything was challengeable.”

We learn the rules, the techniques; we develop a knowledge of our medium. We absorb the principles. And using all of that in the background, as it were, we create. Sometimes that act of creation requires that we bend, break, or just ignore the rules. Rules don’t matter when you’re making art. Process matters; flow matters; artifact matters; performance matters. Sometimes—perhaps more often than not—that means that we have to color outside the lines.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0)

Art and Reality

Sunday, 29. June 2014 23:49 | Author:

Tim Crouch writing in The Guardian maintains that reality, any reality, kills theatre, particularly reality in the form of working clocks, running water, fire, and kisses, not to mention full nudity, children, and animals. He feels that those things, precisely because they are so real, break the illusion of the theatre and essentially stop the show.

He’s right of course. Reality can intrude on the narrative flow of a performance. But the causes of the stoppage can vary. In the King Lear example he cites, the cause of the stoppage was not, I suspect, the Edmund-Goneril kiss, but the young audience’s lack of maturity: they were unable to distinguish between the reality of the kiss and the fiction of the kiss. Experienced actors can pull off the fiction of a stage kiss, or nudity, for that matter, but they have to have an audience sophisticated enough to make the distinction.

In other instances, it certainly can be an acting or directing problem. One of my earliest lessons in theatre came in a notes session after a rehearsal of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. At one point in the play, the character Mick throws props about, wrecking the room. The director told the actor that he had to pull back because he was too real, and in being too real would threaten the audience. Once threatened, they would no longer be watching the play.

This incident contains the kernel of a principle I have used ever since: once the audience stops worrying about the character and starts worrying about the actor, or themselves, you’ve lost them. And often you don’t get them back. And if you are working before an audience that is not sufficiently mature to handle the material, then it is up to you, the actor or director, to adapt the work to your audience—if you want to keep them.

Where I think Crouch is not right is in his assumption that artists want to put more reality into art. To make his case, he quotes the beginning of Reality Hunger by David Shields: “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” A brief examination of the history of western art will demonstrate that this is not true, not to mention that in artistic traditions other than western there is often no attempt at reality.

What is true is that since the beginning of time artists have tried to put into their work more of what they think is true. Truth and reality are not the same thing. Artists who work in figurative styles, which, according to Crouch would be some older painters and theatre practitioners, usually aim for verisimilitude, not necessarily for reality, and most would agree that verisimilitude is very different from reality. A quick comparison between the movements of theatrical Realism and Naturalism make the point quite clearly.

Crouch notes that “the visual arts left this figurative dependency behind years ago.” And there is a reason for that. Visual artists learned that there were better ways to present their vision of truth. Some performing artists have attempted to abandon “figurative dependency” as well—with varying degrees of success. Embracing reality is but one of the ways that can happen; the result is, as Crouch suggests, performance art, not theatre.

At the bottom of it, we all know that Matisse was right. It is not a woman, it is a painting, or a photograph, or a narrative performance, or a ballet, or a musical composition. It is not reality; it is an artistic representation of truth.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Communication | Comment (0)

A New Take of Refreshing Creativity

Sunday, 15. June 2014 23:34 | Author:

Almost every expert on creativity will tell you that you have to take time off, probably on a regular basis, to keep your creative batteries recharged. Leisure is so important, at least according to Eric Ravenscraft writing on LIfehacker, that we should put it on our to-do lists rather than waiting until we “earn” it.

Whether it is the leisure itself that is important or the time away from work I cannot say, but every report I have seen stresses taking a break from work to refresh creativity and thus improve your art.

There are, of course, lots of choices of what to do with that break time. Some of us have tried just doing something different: getting up from the computer, easel, workbench and finding something else to fill our time for a while—maybe something as simple as taking a walk. Sometimes that works, but many times we find our minds wandering back to whatever creative problem we just left. Some of us have tried yoga or meditation, and we have discovered the same problem: our minds keep drifting and we have to constantly work on focusing them (although some would argue that focusing attention and concentration is a good skill to have).

A friend of mine who is a photographer and a writer claims that he has found the ultimate creativity-freeing technique. He did not initially set out to do this; rather, he decided that he wanted to learn to play the guitar, and to learn to read music as well. He not only took lessons, but worked with several self-teaching books. He said that while picking out a tune was not too difficult, reading music and associating the notes with the correct string and fret position required intense concentration, as did the scales that came later. Since this man is a bit obsessive, he was practicing at least an hour a day every day.

He says that after a week’s practice, new ideas for photography and writing began to appear. The longer he practiced the more ideas he had. Initially, he thought that it was one of those complimentary activity things: he was working on one art and it spilled over onto another one. Then he realized that with regard to the guitar, he was not making art; rather he was trying to develop a skill, and that what was making the real difference was that he was spending at least an hour a day concentrating on something that was not his not his main area of creativity, and that developing the necessary skill required complete involvement and the exclusion of all else.

Now he maintains that this study is responsible for his new flow of ideas. He is actively concentrating on developing a new skill that is difficult for him so his mind cannot not wander the way it might with other activities. He says the results are much the same as meditating for an hour a day. The complete occupation of his consciousness sixty minutes a day allows his subconscious to create new concepts.

So now his writing is coming more easily and his visual ideas keep flowing, and he is developing beginning guitar skills. He says that he may never “really play” in front of anyone, even friends, but intends to continue studying because he is enjoying the learning experience and really appreciates the ancillary benefits.

So, if you want to freshen you creativity, you may want to learn to play a musical instrument; there are plenty of teachers out there. Or you may want to consider some other skill-based activity, if not a musical instrument perhaps wood-carving, or furniture-making, or gourmet cooking or anything that requires complete concentration to learn the fundamental skills, and that same amount of concentration to master the activity.

My friend’s results have been so impressive that I may try this out myself. Maybe you should too.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0)

Gaming the System

Sunday, 1. June 2014 23:21 | Author:

A friend of mine, a photographer/sculptor, and I recently attended an annual international art show, a fairly prestigious one, that we have been to several times. One of the things we noticed was that there was a great similarity among a number of pieces in the show as well as among the pieces in this show and last year’s show—and the one before that.

Afterward, we were discussing the show and the noticeable (to us) similarity among the pieces being shown, and about how an artist could, if he/she really wanted to, could come to a couple of shows and figure out the recipe for securing a place in that show. Then the artist could make a piece to fit the show. If one’s skill were sufficient, having a piece in the show should be no real problem. The task would be even easier if the jurors or curators were the same from show to show or if the show were held at regular intervals.

He went even further, saying, “If you wanted to write a recipe book on how to make art that would fit the bill—for any show, that show could serve as your guide. Wonder what would happen if someone would do a book like that?”

My guess would be that such a book would be ignored, or at best marginalized. It’s something that no one wants to hear, but it’s something that anyone who has been involved with the art world for more than a year and is sufficiently analytical knows. It’s a system, and like any system, it can be played and rigged. Everybody knows it, and many capitalize on it. Much of what is produced is created exclusively to be shown and/or sold in particular places; it’s about success in the art world—and money, of course.

John Seed, writing on The Huffington Post said, “I sometimes feel like the art market is a ship that has been taken over by dollar-waving pirates: the same ones who brought us junk bonds and the mortgage meltdown.” There is no indication of which specific artists he thinks are catering to these dollar-wavers except that he is talking about Dan Colen and unnamed others.

My friend does name other artists: “That’s exactly what Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have done—game the system. They looked around, figured out how it worked, and made things that would fit the recipe.”

Seed acknowledges the motivation for such art production by quoting Colen: “It’s such a paradox. You come from this place where you want fame; you don’t want to be bourgeois, but you want to be successful. You want to be accepted, but you also want to be going against the grain. You want to be on the outside, but you want to be on the inside.”

Seed adds, “The way I understand Colen’s ‘success’ is that it is a social phenomenon, not an aesthetic one.” And there you have it. This approach, cynical as it is, is not about the artist’s message or philosophy; rather, it is about achieving success in the art market. And, as Seed points out, many critics (Jerry Saltz excpted), as well as others in the art market, support such efforts.

The question for the artist is then: if you can figure out what will allow you to show your work in this or that show or venue, what will allow you to sell, what will make you successful, why wouldn’t you do that? And there is no correct answer. You certainly can do that; others have and have bought houses in the country with the proceeds. Some have taken a different path, and produced the work that they wanted to, work that said what they wanted to say, work that they were able to pour themselves into, work that, to them, was necessary. Sometimes it sells, sometimes not.

Each artist has to decide for him/herself. Choose well.

Category:Marketing, Presentation | Comments (1)

Grading Creative Work

Sunday, 18. May 2014 18:40 | Author:

Because I teach theatre in an academic environment, at least twice a year I am faced with the problem of grading creative work. Some would question the efficacy of grades in an arts course at all. This is why many prefer to teach workshops, or non-academic arts courses where grades don’t exist. The teacher, or leader, or facilitator does a critique of the work, sometimes involving others, sometimes not, and that is all. No grades are assigned. It is likely that there is no permanent record of the evaluation of the work done. In some of these workshop situations, there is no evaluation at all; rather the leader offers guidance and suggestions about where to take the work and what explorations the artist might make.

So why do grades? Well, the academic system requires it. We must evaluate and record our students’ accomplishments and failures. It turns out, that although they may say otherwise, students require it as well (see below).

Unfortunately, unless one has developed an immensely sophisticated method of grading, those letters or numbers reflect only what was done on a particular assignment on a particular day. And while that may correspond with reality, the likelihood is very rare. No matter how hard we try, most grading systems do not take into account growth and development; nor can they fully represent real quality of the process involved to produce the work. And sometimes, because of work not done, the final grade bears no relation at all to the student’s ability to create artistically.

My undergraduate acting professor developed a way to get around these problems and keep his administration happy. At the beginning of the course, he offered the class a choice between the traditional five-letter grading system and the B/F system. If one did the work and made an honest attempt, no matter how ill or how well, one would make a B. If one did not, one would fail; there were no A, C, or D grades. Unanimity was required for implementation of the B/F system, and my class chose it without hesitation. The pressure to “make a grade” was instantly removed. And the system did not prevent those who wanted to do A work from doing so; it did, however, force them to seek excellence for itself, and not for some end-of-term reward. It was a great system so far as I was concerned. There was never any doubt about the quality of work that we were actually doing because of the critiques and guidance, but none of us were worried about grades.

Because I had such appreciation for the freedom that the B/F system offered, for the first several years that I taught acting, I offered the same choice to my classes. All rejected it, sometimes by huge margins.

And perhaps they were right; perhaps the B/F system belongs to a different, more idealistic world. The fact of the matter is that once the artist is working, whatever art he/she makes will be evaluated, sometimes not too kindly. So not evaluating creative work seems, to me, a disservice to the student. The student needs to know what others, particularly those who have training and experience in the field, think of his/her work. This is not to suggest that the student necessarily modify his/her work to satisfy the public. Rather it is to prepare the student for the kind of reception his/her work might garner in the arts marketplace; that is necessary survival intelligence and information that many students need. Some of the students who walk into my acting class having been told for years that they are great, only to discover in the crucible of the college classroom that they have been misled. Some may not have the talent they thought they had; some believe that because they have talent, work is not necessary; some have an inflated perception of the talent they do have. Others, because of insecurity and other issues, consistently underestimate their skills.

So, for any of a number of reasons, students in the arts must be evaluated. And in academia, these evaluations must be distilled into letter grades. It is better that these students go ahead and learn that constant evaluation is part of the working artist’s life. That whether it is from a critic, a peer, or the public, everyone who sees their work will have an opinion, and in some cases, those opinions can turn into jobs or commissions or not.

Category:Creativity, Education | Comment (0)

Give It Away

Monday, 5. May 2014 0:31 | Author:

Almost all artists come to the point in their artistic development when they feel that they should no longer work for free. Yes, it’s all about the process, but we begin to want a tangible return on our investment of time and materials. But then we have another issue: how to find a paying audience for our work. Since artists seldom have neither the training nor the inclination to be good salespersons, it becomes a problem.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, Austin Kleon in his new book Show Your Work, suggests that solution to getting our work out and ultimately selling it is not only to share it, but to do so freely and tell whoever will listen how we made it. His rationale is that if we can engage potential collectors through the story of how we create what we create and provide examples, there is a higher likelihood of selling it.

Hazel Dooney has said much the same thing. She publishes much of her work on the internet to generate conversation and, instead of copyrighting it, releasing it with a Creative Commons license. She too has written about the idea of giving work away. She will even go so far as to release high-res images of her work and agree to sign them if collectors will print them and send them to her (paying postage both ways, of course).

At the other end of the spectrum is an artist I know who will not even store his images on a cloud drive for fear that someone will steal them. He would not dream of establishing a web site showing his work. Because he has no media presence, very few people have ever heard of him, and, although his work is quite good, he sells very little—no one knows that he exists.

If we are concerned about the image itself or the idea, perhaps we don’t want to give it away. If, however, what we sell are original pieces, then sharing a copy may not be such a bad idea, particularly a low-res version. How else will potential collectors decide whether they want this or that piece? It’s not like anyone will be able to take that low-res internet image, blow it up to display size, and print it at a level of quality that could compete with our originals. And there are other advantages to sharing our work. We can create a tribe, a following, a group of people who like what we do an who are anxious to buy our next book, painting, original signed photograph, sculpture, those who will want to see our next movie or play or listen to our latest piece of music. That can’t happen unless they have a way to know about it in the first place.

And then there is this thing about sharing working procedures. Even the most secretive of us can have our work reverse-engineered. Once an idea escapes into the universe, anyone can give it a try. If we withhold process and procedure, it won’t stop those who want to copy; it will just slow them down a little. Why not explain what we’ve done and encourage others to try it out as well? Even using the same methodology, no one will be able to reproduce our work—simply because it’s our work and sprang from our brains. Even using our techniques, others will have to create what springs from their own brains. And knowing our secrets does not necessarily make the implementation easy. Some techniques, as we know, require years of practice before they can be mastered.

Perhaps the most difficult thing about sharing our work is overcoming our fear that our work will be “out there” and out of our control. There are ways that we can protect ourselves, but that is a topic for another time. The potential upside far outweighs the downside. Sure, someone might turn our art into a screensaver, but whoever then sees it may want an original for the living room or to give to a friend, and he/she would never have known about our art unless we had given a little of it away.

Category:Audience, Marketing, Social Media | Comments (1)

Artist or Entertainer?

Sunday, 20. April 2014 23:56 | Author:

In 1956 Studs Terkel wrote of Billie Holiday:

When she went into ‘Willow, Weep for Me,’ you wept. You looked about and saw that the few other customers were also crying in their beer and shot glasses. Nor were they that drunk. Something was still there, that something that distinguishes an artist from a performer: the revealing of the self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own.

Whether the difference between being an artist and being an entertainer is the willingness to reveal one’s self is open to discussion, but there certainly is an easily observable difference between the two.

In acting classes and workshops that I lead, it has become a topic of discussion. Seldom do you hear a young actor say “I want to create art.” More often, you hear, “I want to be a star,” or “I want to entertain people,” or sometimes, “I just want to do good work.” Whether the goal is to be an entertainer or an artist is not just an academic question. It is an important question that informs the choices that that actor makes during his career path.

While the basic skill set for the person who wants to create dramatic art and the person who is concerned with dramatic entertainment are much the same, the measurements of success and the rewards of the two goals are very, very different. Artists, taken as a group, probably can expect to make less money and will certainly make very different choices, and travel a path different from those who consider themselves primarily entertainers.

A recent Chicago Tribune article profiled Chicago actor Will Kiley who works in a storefront theatre for no pay for artistic reasons; he said, “I did some industrial voice-over stuff, and for two hours of work I got paid a couple thousand dollars…but that work felt artistically shallow and super-easy.” So in order to pursue his artistic needs, he works two day jobs to support himself, and at night he says he will “work my tail off on a storefront show, which is what I want to be doing, and get paid in, you know, beer.”

It’s the difference between Daniel Day Lewis and John Wayne or Gary Oldman and Sylvester Stallone or Bob Dylan and Gene Simmons. It’s not about audience appeal or fame; it’s a matter of the direction a performer wants to take.

And this choice of direction exists in arts beyond acting and music. This decision is one that every person in the arts must make at one time or the other. There are analogous paths in each of the arts. For writers there are choices besides novels and poems, and for visual artists there are numerous choices. Sometimes the choices intertwine and overlap; many times they do not.

One choice is not necessarily better than another, and certainly either choice or some combination is valid. And these choices are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, it seems to me that, realistically speaking, it is a choice that must be made because wherever an individual wants to go, it’s much easier to get there if the individual knows what direction he/she is going early on in the journey.

Category:Audience, Productivity | Comment (0)

The Problem with Comfort Zones

Monday, 7. April 2014 0:11 | Author:

We all have all have our comfort zones. Such zones can be physical, referring to space, time, environmental condition. They can be psychological, religious, philosophical, or even artistic. Many will debate the pros and cons of remaining a comfort zone in almost all of these areas—except artistic. If we are in an artistic comfort zone, we may soon find ourselves in artistic trouble.

Many of us have gone through several stages of development before finding ourselves in an artistic comfort zone. But once we’re there, we are inclined to stay put. Comfort zones are, by definition, nice places to be. We are without tension, stress, and particularly fear, all things that are said to hinder creativity.

And the absence of tension, stress, and fear is not the total benefit of such a place. In a comfort zone, we are not only lacking those negative things, we feel a positive contentment. What we do is “good enough” and may actually be good. Probably it is not great; probably it is not what it could be if we were to push a little. What it is is comfortable. The art we make there is satisfying in some—or perhaps many ways. It may even be fresh and new. It may be selling. It may not seem to be lacking in any way.

But it is. If we are producing good work and are comfortable with it, what’s wrong with that? Nothing—if that’s what we want to do. The problem is that when we are comfortable, we have a tendency to preserve the status quo because it feels so good. And that feeling good can lead to complacency, and complacency is a danger to any artist who wants to move forward, to say something, to impact his/her audience.

Complacency almost demands that we produce things that are not challenging to us. And if we do nothing challenging, we neither develop nor mature. As an unattributed quote that that I ran across last week says, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” And therein lies the potential trouble.

If we want to grow as artists, if we want to produce work that is better than good, work that is outstanding and amazing and ground-breaking, we will have to move out of that comfort zone.

The question then becomes how to break free of this comfortable prison and produce more meaningful work. The answer is that we force ourselves, and the easiest way to do that is to take on a project that involves risk.

Risk is, of course, the antithesis of comfort. When we risk, we must acknowledge the possibility that we may not succeed. People who are content with being comfortable do not risk, because of the potential of producing something that our audience may not like, and thus the possibility of failure.

Risk is required for growth, and the problem with a comfort zone is that it does not allow that. If we want to make better art, we would do better to invite the possibility of failure which comes with the potential of amazing success than to die the slow sure death of complacency in the comfort zone.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0)

“It Doesn’t Get Any Easier”

Sunday, 23. March 2014 23:03 | Author:

That’s a statement that my yoga instructor is fond of making—not during yoga class—but other times when we’re talking about yoga. Having been in the class for about three years, I am forced to agree with him. My experience (and I think that of others) is that every day is a new day and what was easy yesterday might not be today and vice versa.

The same is true for art, I think. Oh, we may learn to use our tools better so that the manipulation of the medium comes more easily. We master brush techniques, learn more about the potential of Photoshop, make a breakthrough in our voice lessons, refine our approach to characterization, Develop new strategies for storytelling. We hone our work habits in order to maximize creativity and output. So in that sense it does get easier.

And, some of the things that we do every time we make art are like things that yoga practitioners do every time they participate in a class. Sometimes they are not only similar, they are exactly the same: staying in the moment, maintaining concentration, focusing on the task at hand. And then come the things that are perhaps not exactly the same, but are very similar: the recognition that today will be different from yesterday and tomorrow, the knowledge that on some days we may not do as well as others, or we may do better. The understanding that today, we might peak in an entirely different place than we have done before. We recognize that our routine, though solidly made and tested over time, may not feel the same today or function exactly the way that it did yesterday.

Additionally, as artists we hopefully keep growing and developing, which means that there is always something new, something untried, something risky. In that sense, what we are doing today is just as hard or harder than it was yesterday, or last week, or last year. Once again we find ourselves going through the pain and insecurity of creating artistic “children” and pushing them out the door and into the world. Once again we try to be sure that the ideas we have are communicated in all of their complexity and nuance, shaping the artifact to be say exactly what we need to say and not just approximating our artistic vision.

The other thing that does not get easier is putting ourselves, our souls, on display in yet another work, exposing our obsessions for the universe to see and being unsure of how they might be received. That was never easy and still isn’t.

And, as in yoga, we are obligated to remind ourselves that we are not really competing—at least during the creative phase of our work, and that it is, in fact, about the journey rather than any specific destination.

What we must recognize is that it that art is hard and really doesn’t get any easier, no many how many times we assume the role of maker. It is a humbling realization. And then we realize that we have chosen or have been chosen to go on this journey and that we must approach today as a unique opportunity to once again test ourselves, our focus, our concentration, our creativity, much the same as if we had entered a yoga studio and unrolled our mats. There’s a reason that it’s called practice.

Category:Creativity, Productivity | Comments (1)

“It Always Comes Together”

Sunday, 9. March 2014 22:15 | Author:

That’s what a musician who has played every musical that I have directed for the past several years said that to me recently after a particularly brutal first-night-with-the-band rehearsal. It was in response to the look on my face as I was about to give notes. And, in all fairness, it (the play or the musical) does come together more often than not. But it doesn’t always, and it is decidedly not an assured outcome.

There are two reasons that someone would feel assurances such as his may be necessary: the first is that the week before opening (or before first previews if that is part of the production plan)—when all the pieces get put together—is particularly chaotic. Costumes are added. Makeup is applied. Rehearsal props are replaced with show props that don’t feel quite the same in the actors’ hands. In musicals, the band comes in and is louder and plays music that is far more complex than the rehearsal pianist played. Light cues happen, sometimes not quite correctly, then get refined. Sound cues happen and are modified. Microphones are added and adjusted on the fly. And during all this, the director wants the actors to not only adjust to all the new things, but to turn out better and better performances that are more energetic, funnier, sadder, more nuanced than the ones before. And that same director seems not satisfied with anything that happens on the stage and is not hesitant about informing the entire company. So it seems as if it may not happen at all.

The second reason that it seems that “it always comes together” is because, more often than not, it does. And it seems to be a bit of a miracle. It’s one of the things that movies and live theatre have in common. In fact, someone at this year’s Oscar™ ceremony said as much. From the outside—and sometimes from the inside as well—it certainly seems miraculous.

But it is not really a miracle, and that it will, in fact, come together cannot be taken for granted. Stage productions and movies, and probably all performances come together because the production staff never stops working and refining and tweaking and polishing and because they don’t let the performers ever stop doing exactly the same thing. They know that if they falter or let up, the performance will never reach its potential.

The problem of performance production is that all of the component pieces and the people who represent them have to fit together much like a gigantic multi-personalitied jigsaw puzzle. If they don’t fit, the production will suffer. And if the production suffers, then all the work, while not exactly wasted, will not fulfill the artistic vision of the production team. So sometimes the pieces have to be hammered into place, modified, replaced, shaved and reset, or sanded slick. People have to be persuaded, cajoled, convinced, coerced or manipulated into doing what is necessary to make the show happen.

But occasionally even the best of production teams, even those with great experience cannot bring the pieces together. And when that happens, even if the production does not fail, the play or musical or movie or concert is not what it could have been.

It’s really no different than the production of any artifact, except that it is a group effort—in some cases, a very large group—instead of the work of an individual artist. And we all know that no artist is immune to the occasional failure. And when that happens, those of us in performance do exactly what any painter, novelist, photographer, or sculptor would do in a similar circumstance: scrap what must be scrapped, salvage what is salvageable, and move on to the next project, because we know that there are no assurances that “it will always come together.”

Category:Creativity, Theatre | Comment (0)