Celebrating the Ensemble

Sunday, 16. June 2024 23:38 | Author:

Most theatre arts teachers easily remember their best students. These were the students who were the “stars,” the talented kids who played most of the leads. These are the students who continued to excel when they moved on, the ones who went on to work professionally in theatre. Some of them became famous, or at least well known in a given metropolitan area. And it is well to remember those students; they are the stuff on which reputations are built.

Who else should be remembered—and thanked—are the students who were not quite so talented, who did not get the majority of the leads, but who auditioned for every show, who took the lesser roles: the second supporting female, the friendly doctor, the maid, the unnamed party guest. We should remember and thank those who came back show after show, who took the roles they were given, and who acquitted themselves honorably, playing the role given to the best of their abilities, and coming back for more. Occasionally, one of these students would have the right qualities to be the unexpected lead in a show, but for the most part, they played all those non-leading parts that are absolutely necessary to the production. These are students who did not go on in professional theatre, but who loved theatre as much as any of the leading actors ever did.

Often this love of theatre will drive the student to become a part of a community theatre, wherever they happened to end up. Many would have long, satisfying careers as community players, still often taking roles considered less than the leads. They would enjoy being members of the chorus in the annual musical. They would seek out roles that seemed to suit who they had become, and often they would take roles for which they did not audition. Because they love theatre, they continue to perform whenever and wherever they get the chance. And again they come back for show after show, unencumbered by excessive ego or pride, happy to be able to have an opportunity to do the work.

Often these actors communicate their love of the theatre to their children, who exhibit many of the same characteristics in children’s theatre productions: happy to be on the stage, even if the part is small, happy to be part of a group that realizes a production in front of an audience in real time. Because, they understand there is no substitute for live theatre. Some of these children grow up be the leads and the stars of high school and college productions; some go on to become professionals. More do not; they continue to be those who perform for love; who happily take the lesser roles because by so doing they are allowed to continue to participate in the live theatre experience. And the cycle continues.

It’s time that we celebrate these theatre kids, those who make up the ensemble, those who come back show after show, knowing they will likely not get a lead, but who so much enjoy being part of the community and the process. It’s time to celebrate the ensemble, without whom we could do no shows at all.

Category:Education, Theatre | Comment (0)

Categorizing Art

Sunday, 2. June 2024 23:04 | Author:

In thinking and writing about art, one of the things I’ve noticed is that it is difficult to say anything meaningful about art in general. This became even more evident to me with the last post. Obviously it is difficult to discuss a collective that has parts that communicate so differently, as I attempted to do in that post. So, I came to question the wisdom of attempting to say anything about art in general.

It’s not that the arts don’t have anything in common; rather, it’s that what they have in common is so general as to be very vague. It would be better, I think, to divide that arts into categories, for purposes of discussion. But then the question arises as to how to break them down. The traditional way is to divide them into performing and visual arts: some add plastic arts as a separate category. Unfortunately, that leaves out a whole section of art: written art, which is neither performing nor visual. It exists more in the mind of the reader than anywhere else, guided by what is on the page.

So now we have three categories: performing art, visual art, and written art. Are there others or do we have the field of arts covered? A bit of research turns up nine “classic” arts: music, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, comic, theatre, cinema, and architecture. It is obvious that that prose could be included only by stretching the poetry category beyond recognition. And can sculpture be expanded to include ceramics? Interestingly, no reasons are given for this breakdown.

Perhaps another method of breaking down the arts is in order. Such a method is suggested by the last post. And that is by how the art in question communicates with its audience. So we have performing arts, which communicates over time, and includes music, dance, theatre, film, and all of the variants of these. Next, we have arts that communicate the moment they are perceived, although they certainly can be studied for longer periods. Art in this category are not dependent on exposure over a specific length of time to grasp the entire art work and is absorbed primarily through the eyes of the viewer. This category includes painting, sculpture, ceramics, and architecture. A third category is comprised of art which is absorbed by reading and so is not dependent upon either a specific amount of time or continuity to be appreciated by its audience. The audience can absorb the words and images primarily through the eyes over sometimes discontinuous time, with the primary communication taking place in the imagination of the reader. This applies to prose as well as poetry.

There are also crossover arts, such as audio books, which combine input through the ears, but, again, with the primary communication taking place in the imagination of the listener. One must note, however, that part of the interpretation of this art falls to the reader, thus influencing what is communicated.

This whole discussion brings up other questions: are these categories exhaustive? Do they cover all the arts? Are they sufficient, i.e. should we divide visual and plastic arts? Are these categories useful for talking about art or is this just a mental exercise? What do we call these categories? Are “performing arts,” “visual arts,” and “written arts” sufficient or do we need other names?

All of those questions are worth considering, and I certainly do not know the answers. But it does seem to me that by grouping arts into three categories gives us a more accurate way to talk about those arts than if we refer to all arts as one thing.

Category:Audience | Comment (0)

The Core of Art

Sunday, 19. May 2024 22:47 | Author:

A number of artists I know consider themselves story-tellers. They firmly believe that art is to be found only in stories. Some even say that if there is an artifact that is not story-based, the artist would do well to create a story to accompany the artifact in order to attract an audience, or, at the very least, incorporate a story about how the work came to be. That may or may not work.

There is, however, art that is not story-based: many still-life images, both painted and photographed, are not story-based, for example. A number of sculptures are not story-based, nor are many musical compositions and choreographic pieces. All of this raises the question, what is at the artistic core of a piece of art if not a story?

Let’s take as given that art works seek to engage the audience and communicate something. The next step is to determine how they do what they intend to do. In narrative forms, that seems to be story—at least in most cases. The story carries the audience along, keeping members engaged until the something is communicated. Sometimes this takes the entire length of the interaction, and sometimes it’s all just leading to a single moment.

Non-narrative forms, on the other hand, do it differently. Some of these forms present the whole of what they are and what they are attempting to say all at once. These are mostly photographs, paintings, and sculptures. Some of these may be story-based, but many are not, and present whatever they have to present on first viewing, although multiple viewings may be warranted. Other non-narrative forms, such as dance and music present their content through time, but in a non-narrative fashion. Unless stories are added to the presentation of such pieces, they rely solely on what is presented to carry their messages.

So are all arts just different in the ways that they communicate with their audiences? Of course they are. As we have seen, some rely on stories to carry the message while others rely on mere seeing. And, of course there are all the possibilities in between. If this is the case is there anything that the arts have in common? I believe that there is, and I think it is that the core of a piece of art relies on a moment of connection between the piece and the individual audience member. Sometimes, there are many such moments in a piece; sometimes there is only one. The number is immaterial. Also unimportant is whether there is a story or not, or the nature of that story if it does exist. The important thing is that there is at least one such a moment in an artistic piece, so the piece can speak to the audience member.

And those moments do not have to be profound. There are all sorts of levels of artistry, and some have very important things to say, while others are of lesser profundity. What is important is that there is a moment of connection, a moment when the piece speaks directly to the audience member, and the audience member recognizes that connection. It’s why we appreciate art.

Category:Audience | Comment (0)

Artists are Magpies

Sunday, 5. May 2024 21:58 | Author:

One of my most vivid memories from the first year of graduate school was when the department brought in a hot-shot British director to address the majors and graduate students. There are several things that I remember about that talk, although the director’s name is not one of them. The most important thing that I recall was when he was trying to describe what it is that a professional stage director actually does. He likened the stage director to the magpie. Evidently, magpies, which are remarkably intelligent creatures, are said to be fond of gathering things to decorate their nests. He went into a long, involved description about how a magpie might gather a shiny button from here, and a bit of colored cloth from there, and on and on until the nest was decorated to its satisfaction. He went on to say that the stage directors were similar in that they gathered an idea here, and a concept there and the brought them all back and put them together in making a stage play.

In remembering this talk, three things occurred to me: (1) all artists are magpies. We gather an idea from here, a concept from there, a musical figure from another place, an image from yet another place, a color combination from somewhere else and so forth. Then we combine some of these elements into our projects, whether they be stage plays, musical compositions, poems, novels, films, sculptures, or photographs. (2) Another thing that seems obvious to me is that we cannot use all that we gather on a single project. We need only those ideas and images that support the work we are currently doing. (3) The third thing that seems self-evident is that we must edit the bits that we retrieve; while many items are initially attractive, they may not be useful for our current project, or even out next project, so we must decide what to keep and use immediately, and what to store for later work. Some items we may never use at all, but I hesitate to advise anyone to throw anything out—at least any ideas or images. They may turn out to be very useful a year from now or in the project that we begin in six months.

Many artists are known to read a lot, to absorb images, both visual and literary, by the hundreds; they are known to see films, to listen to music, to listen to podcasts. There is no shortage of input; in fact, one could say that artists are assaulted with input almost all the time. So if we are to gather bits of this and that to use in our work, we must take the last point above first, i.e. we must learn to edit input, dividing it into bits that are likely to be useless and those that speak to us in some way. We must let the former go and discover a way to retain the latter for when they will be useful to us.

This brings up the second point: we cannot use everything that attracts us immediately, so we must find some way to store and/or catalogue the ideas and images that we collect. Each artist will have their own method. Some will make notes, some will rely on their memories. Others will make sketches or note bits of music or dance steps. But we all need some way to keep those useful items we discover in the work of others.

And lastly, the first point: we must acknowledge that we are indeed magpies; we gather ideas from everywhere and put them together. This is not to imply that we are merely recycling ideas and images or producing only derivative work. What makes our work unique is the way we use all that we collect. Even though we take bits from all over, we add original thought or an original juxtaposition or a completely new way of looking at the material and generate something entirely new, something that we can call our own. It’s how we make art.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0)

Making Art is Hard

Sunday, 21. April 2024 22:52 | Author:

We got into art for a variety of reasons. We found that we enjoyed it. We found that we had an aptitude for it. It came to us easily. We liked the other people involved in our art and felt at home working with them, perhaps for the first time. We had something to say, and our art provided a way for us to do that. Our art satisfied our need to create. There are probably other reasons, but these seem to be the ones that readily jump to mind. So we set out to make art.

Then we discovered that making art is intrinsically problematic. The further we go with our art, the more difficulties we run into. We search for the “right” words and the word order that will make the phrase what it needs to be. We labor over getting the lighting “just right, so that the photograph or painting will reflect the feeling that we are trying to convey. We spend a significant amount of time trying to create the exact color that we need for the picture. We spend hours perfecting dance steps and putting them into a sequence. We arrange and rearrange notes to create the musical phrase that says what we want it to. We try out different beginnings and endings to increase the impact of our work.

As we progress in our art-making, we inevitably must choose whether we will pursue art-making as a full-time vocation or whether we will keep our activity avocational. If we choose vocational art-making, we soon discover that accompanying that decision are numerous other problems. Since we chose the path of professional artist, we must find ways to monetize our art, which may be easier for some of us than for others; but, regardless of who we are, we will have to find ways to promote ourselves and our work. And we immediately encounter the dilemma of the self-employed artist: deciding how to split our time and energy between marketing and making art.

If we chose the other path—to pursue our art on a part-time basis, earning our living by some other method, we face another set of problems, the most significant of which is deciding how much time we can devote to our art, and how much we spend on other activities, including work. Additionally, if we want to make our art known, we face many of the same problems that the self-employed artist encounters, specifically how do we get our art out there and how much time and energy do we want to spend on that. We find that, while the problems do not impact our income significantly, they are just as real and vexing.

Some of us decide that the best path for us is to practice our art through an institution of some sort. For example, some visual artists work for advertising agencies. In such instances, one of the difficulties to be faced is how much, if any, time they get to spend on personal work instead of company work. Others of us go into academia, because it allows us to practice our art as well as teach about it, which is a perfect blend for some of us. Regardless of the type of institution that we work for, we will encounter some issues that do not bother the self-employed or part-time artist. We will be faced with the inevitable bureaucracy inherent to any institution. This may take many forms: materials may need to be justified and paperwork created before any purchase can be made. There may be committee assignments that have to be addressed. There may be company censorship of our work.  We may have to modify our work to meet the requirements of the job. We may have to work with people who are less talented, less intelligent, or are just difficult to work with. And we may be evaluated not only on our work but also our methodology and attitude.

Regardless of the path we choose, we find that making art is hard, for the reasons cited and dozens of others. There are, however, rewards. Each of the situations outlined here provide different kinds of rewards, but within each scenario is the reward of actually making our art. And that makes the difficulties worth it.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0)

“There’s No Accounting for Taste”

Sunday, 7. April 2024 22:28 | Author:

It’s an old saying, and it’s true. As we established in the last post, not everybody likes Bob Dylan. And the same holds true for every artist, every genre, every art medium, even art itself. Some people like rock and roll; others hate it; still others tolerate it. Some find abstract expressionism offensive; others think it is the advanced form of visual art that has ever been practiced. And it’s not just contemporary art: Some people believe Michelangelo’s David to be a masterpiece while others find it obscene. Some theatregoers love the work on Tennessee Williams, but eschew the work of Arthur Miller; some like Miller but not Williams; some like both playwrights; still others like neither.

The question is why is this the case? And the answer is that nobody knows, at least as far as I have been able to tell. Oh, the question of taste has been considered by various philosophers, but with very mixed results, most of which come down to “it’s in the eye of the beholder.” Hardly a sufficient answer, but it does seem to be a very individualized thing. Some art resonates with some audience members, but not with others. The question of why remains.

Some work resonates because it strikes a nostalgic chord in the audience member, perhaps from their childhood Sometimes this resonance can even be subconscious, but still it gets a positive response. Likewise the resonance can be trigger a certain memory which causes the individual to respond in a positive fashion. Some work can resonate because it satisfies the audience member’s sense of aesthetics. This sense of aesthetics can, in addition to arising naturally, be developed from the person’s education and experiences as well as their exposure to other art. It can be something that has been learned in school and incorporated into the person’s belief system to the point that when one encounters artifacts that satisfy their aesthetic criteria, they respond positively, and report that they “like” the artifact.

It turns out that having a work satisfy the whole of an audience member’s aesthetic is a very complicated business. As noted above, individuals construct their aesthetic in a number of ways, building from a number of sources, and the aesthetic may be organized in a complicated fashion. An audience member may like most of a piece, but be repelled by some smaller part of the work, or vice versa.

Unfortunately, this sense of aesthetic is so individualized, it is nearly impossible for an artist to appeal to a large segment of the potential audience without subscribing to a pre-existing philosophy of art or one of the existing artistic movements or creating in an already-established genre. This is why it is so difficult for an artist to have genuinely ground-breaking work accepted.

Given this, there are two takeaways for the artist working today: (1) stop trying to get everyone to like your work. It’s a fool’s errand; your work will not resonate with everyone, and you will not be able to make that happen no matter how hard you try. (2) Make what you like; make what satisfies you. Some people will like it and some people won’t. But whatever you make will be yours, and it will be authentic.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience | Comment (0)

Everybody Loves Bob Dylan

Sunday, 24. March 2024 22:19 | Author:

Actually…they don’t—not everybody. Admittedly, a great number of people love Bob Dylan, and an even larger number like him, but some only like one or two songs, and some don’t like him at all. And that’s the thing about art: most art does not resonate with everyone, and some art resonates with just a few people. This is what makes it so difficult for an artist to make a living doing their art—finding enough people who not only like the art, but like it well enough to spend money on it. It has been a problem from the very beginning of art until the present.

Even people who work in the art world, artists included, acknowledge that they don’t like all art. What they understand, however, is there is a great difference between liking a piece of art and understanding that it is good art, regardless of how well it is liked. Take Dylan for example. While not everyone likes his music, there is near universal agreement that he is “considered to be one of the greatest songwriters in history.” “Liking” something indicates that we have a personal resonance with the object; it speaks to us. Acknowledging the quality of something, on the other hand, indicates that we recognize that the art in question meets certain standards and has intrinsic value. Thus, while we may or may not like Dylan’s work, we must appreciate that the quality of it is such that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 for his song lyrics.

Such a distinction applies to all arts. Take, for example, professional wrestling. At first glance this activity may not seem to be an art, however, it is clearly defined as “a form of athletic theater that combines mock combat with drama, under the premise that the performers are competitive wrestlers,” and we can generally agree that theatre is an art form. Many, many people like professional wrestling— because it is highly entertaining. However, that does not mean that it is a highly-valued art form. In fact, it is difficult to assess the quality of professional wrestling at all, since much of it is loose improvisation. Some entertainers are certainly better than others and may be lauded for their performances. Still, the art form itself lacks the qualitative stature that is common to other theatre forms. Certainly, one does not expect a Nobel Prize to be given to professional wrestling. But that is not the point. The point is that there is a great difference between being liked and being considered “good.” Sometimes being liked is the desired goal.

So what are we as artists to do with this information? We need to decide whether we are trying to do work that is good or work that is liked. Ideally, we would do both, but often we cannot have that. We must decide what we are trying to do with our art. Are we trying to impact our immediate audience, or are we trying to create work that will speak to audiences in other times and places as well as our own? This is not to say that one choice is better than another; rather, it is to say that sometimes we must clarify what we are trying to do, so that we can better hone our craft and speak to whichever audience we choose.

Category:Audience | Comment (0)

Expose Yourself to Art

Sunday, 10. March 2024 22:42 | Author:

As I was thinking about this post, I remembered that in the greenroom of the theatre in which I used to work hung a poster by Mike Ryerson that showed a back-to-the-camera flasher facing a nude female statue over the caption “expose yourself to art.” Good advice I think.

The problem is that in twenty-first-century America, we are so busy that we forget to do that more often than not. We are too busy. We spend every minute being occupied with something:  working, family, politics, social media. And if we are not doing one of these things, we’re thinking about doing these things: worrying about something that has happened or trying to anticipate something coming up. And all of this is related to productivity. We believe that we must be productive all our waking hours. It leaves us little time to do anything else but sleep and eat.

Even those of us who work in the arts are productivity-driven. We need to write the next ten pages of our play; we need to plan our next class; we need to paint the next picture; we need to promote ourselves on social media; we need to respond to email, media posts, telephone calls. We need to stay busy, because productivity demands it. So we spend our time being just as busy as any stockbroker or business person.

Think about it. When was the last time that you sat down to just enjoy a film or a novel or a play or a painting or a poem for that matter—without analyzing it or mining it for ideas? My guess is that it has been a while.

And that is exactly what we need to do. In addition to all this busyness, we need to stop and take some time that is not occupied with productivity and expose ourselves to art. That is, we need to take some time to absorb some art of some kind. This does not include the art we are working on producing or art we are studying or art we are teaching. It only includes art that we experience for ourselves—for enjoyment. And we need to do this every day. Even if all we take is just a few minutes every day, we will soon discover that those few minutes matter. We will find that it rests and relaxes us. Moreover, we will discover that our world is better because of that exposure to art. Our brains will become involved with art on a different level than usual, and we will find that our thoughts are changing—for the better because we are spending a little time on ourselves. We are finally beginning to take care of ourselves, and that is worth doing.

So let me encourage you to take a little time out of every day and involve yourself in some aspect of art that is not productive, something you simply enjoy, something that enriches you. It can be at the beginning or end of the day, or at some convenient time in the middle, but take some time to enjoy art, not just produce it. Start today.

Category:Productivity | Comment (0)

Serendipity

Sunday, 25. February 2024 21:08 | Author:

The last post came about strictly by serendipity. A friend commented that it was getting so that all artists had to be their own publicists as well as knowing their craft and suggested that I might do a post on that subject. I made notes, understanding that it would take some time and a bit of research to make a coherent post about the topic. The very next day on Threads I had a multi-page thread on the same subject come across my “for you” feed. Within two days I accidentally discovered an internet article on the same subject. The universe seemed to be telling me that I should go ahead and create the post. So I did.

Serendipity seems to have “two variations: 1) looking for something and finding it in an unexpected way, and 2) looking for something and finding something entirely different and very useful.” Notice that the emphasis is on chance. Serendipity is not something that we do; it’s something that’s done for us—all we have to do is recognize it. Of course that recognition of the happy accident may require some wisdom to recognize the unexpected observation. We have to be able to identify the useful information or idea for what it is. As a matter of fact, “serendipity has played a prominent part in many scientific discoveries.”

While some say that serendipity is just a chance thing, a coincidence, others believe that one of the way’s the universe tells us things. Sometimes, the serendipity is so strong that it seems the universe is demanding that we deal with whatever the topic is. Admittedly, that is a somewhat mystical approach, but the mystical aspect does not make it invalid. Perhaps the universe was indeed telling me to write the blog post.

Most of the time, however, I think that we create our own serendipity. Take, for example, the blog post in question. Since it was mentioned to me the day before I saw the thread, the topic was on my mind to some extent, which may have caused me to pay attention to the thread when I saw it. Had I seen the same thread the day before, I might have missed its significance all together. Had those two things not happened I could have entirely overlooked the internet article when it came by. Perhaps having that topic in mind—even at the subconscious level—causes us to look at the world with a different lens, one which causes us to be more aware of other data that may be related to the topic at hand.  Thus we are more alert when serendipity strikes and are in a better position to utilize the coincidental information.

Whether serendipitous ideas are completely coincidental or are the result of our mindset, we must take advantage of them when they happen. There seems to be little doubt that having the topic in mind, no matter what level, makes us more open to useful information. So we would do well to keep our current projects in mind at all times, so that we up the possibilities of encountering the serendipitous.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0)

Self-Promotion: a Required Skill for 21st Century Artists

Sunday, 11. February 2024 22:02 | Author:

The traditional path to a career in the arts is no longer available. It used to be that the artist would spend time honing their craft, then produce a product. Using networked contacts, the artist would then locate a gatekeeper, and if the product were deemed worthy, it would be sent out into the world. With the exception of the contacts and an occasional interview, the artist was free to devote time to creating the next work.

Today the artist still has to produce a product and maintain a network of contacts, but also has to have a social media presence. Actually, the artist needs more than just a social media presence; the artist needs to become an influencer. So great is the need that some believe the profession of artist no longer exists—“only ‘influencer’ remains.” What this means is that the artist needs to establish a “personal brand,” learn the technology associated with a number of social platforms, decipher the algorithm that will push postings on each of those platforms, and—most importantly—post consistently. That means time away from making art and spending more time on self-promotion. Soon, the artist is spending more time working on their brand rather than on making art. As musician Ricky Montgomery says, “Next thing you know, it’s been three years and you’ve spent almost no time on your art. You’re getting worse at it, but you’re becoming a great marketer for a product which is less and less good.”

Some celebrate this phenomenon. It’s more democratic, they say. What they don’t say is that when the artist is self-promoting on social media, they are competing for attention with everybody else on social media, whether they are artists or entrepreneurs selling new and exciting life styles. They are, in fact, competing with the world. And, it’s not as democratic as it seems. The gatekeepers are still there, except now, they not only worry about how good the artist’s work might be, but how many followers the artist has on Instagram, TikTok, X, Threads, YouTube, or Facebook. Gatekeepers are now looking for a guaranteed audience. Not only are there stories about writers who do not have enough of a following to be published, but there are instances of actors who were not cast because their competition had a bigger following on Instagram. No one is immune; Rebecca Jennings, in her Vox article, “Everyone’s a sellout now,” notes the case of a 65-year-old accountant who is “being encouraged by her company to post on LinkedIn to ‘build [her] brand.’”

And if the artist is opposed to self-promotion for whatever reason? Too bad. This is the society we live in today. So, yes, an artist could produce a fantastic work of art, whether it be a book or painting or photograph or sculpture, and never have it see the light of day because of lack of self-promotion. Joan Westenberg says that “we have confused popularity with skill. The number of hearts, likes, and followers determine a writer’s worth—not the quality of their prose.” And that may be sad, but until something changes, that’s how it is, and any person who wants to survive as an artist had better add self-promotion to their list of required skills.

Category:Marketing | Comment (0)